Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012
Some of the most influential and entertaining recent scholarship on Victorian culture has worked to redress the automatic image of our forebears as stuffy, thin-lipped prudes. Matthew Sweet‚Äôs Inventing The Victorians (2001) scrutinised (in every sense) the sexuality of a nation and reported back with relish. John Mackenzie‚Äôs The Victorian Vision: Inventing New Britain¬†(2003) embodied the vitality and volition of the era‚Äôs new technologies. Last year, Judith Flanders‚Äôs The Invention of Murder held the gas-lamp up to Victorian fascination with violent death, wading knee-deep through gore from Mary Anne Cotton to the Ripper. Importantly, though, while Sweet and Flanders strive to show us that the Victorians weren‚Äôt boring, none of these worthwhile scholars have ever suggested that the Victorians weren‚Äôt bonkers.
Researching Victorian oddity, you‚Äôre never short of an anecdote, whether it‚Äôs Oscar Wilde‚Äôs half-sister bursting into flames from her crinoline; Stuart Headlam, the ballet-obsessed Fabian priest; the Christmas pantomimes that lasted seven hours; or the mechanical innovations that included Madame Fontaine‚Äôs Bosom Beautifier. One focus of that collective cultural lunacy was Shakespeare: a devotion so strong it became ‚ÄúBardolatry‚Äù. In 1840, Carlyle called Shakespeare the ‚ÄúProphet‚Äù of¬† ‚Äúa true Catholicism, the Universal Church‚Äù whose creed‚Äîso it seemed‚Äîfitted ideally with Victorian values. For the writer Mary Cowden Clarke, Shakespeare was misguided women‚Äôs ‚Äúgreat poet-teacher‚Äù, his heroines exemplifying ‚Äúwomenkind‚Äôs innate purity and devotion‚Äù. Ruskin argued that the tendency of Shakespeare‚Äôs heavily-flawed heroes to require salvation from his kinder, better women illustrated Victorian wives‚Äô primary destiny as their husbands‚Äô emotional lifebuoys. Shakespeare was the subject of innumerable reviews, essays, books, poems, and works of art. In the century that gave us “The Angel in the House”, it was perhaps inevitable that one object of all this Bardolatrous intensity would be the house in which William Shakespeare was (probably) born.
Happily, as far as eccentric and amusing details go, Jane Thomas‚Äôs Shakespeare‚Äôs Shrine¬†fails to disappoint. Shakespeare‚Äôs fervent fans clamour to sleep in the Birthroom (master bedroom, in which the playwright was probably born), scrawl endlessly on walls and windows, purchase competing, scabrous tourist guides‚ÄîMarie Corelli‚Äôs 1903 offering included a list of specific injunctions for American tourists‚Äîscramble for souvenirs, kiss floors and otherwise emote, alongside such celebrity pilgrims as Dickens, Henry James and Washington Irving. But the underlying problem with Thomas‚Äôs contribution to what might, given Sweet, Mackenzie and Flanders‚Äôs earlier titles, be called ‚ÄúInvention Studies‚Äù is that¬†Shakespeare‚Äôs Shrine¬†isn‚Äôt quite inventive enough.
At this point, I should declare a vested interest: in 2011, I worked as a guide at the Birthplace. No photographs survive of me in costume; if they did, Google Image would probably save them under such search terms as ‚ÄúViking‚Äù, ‚Äúdwarfish‚Äù and ‚Äúown mother stood behind tour group, laughing‚Äù. I spent one season in the house (which receives up to 3,000 visitors per day in the summer) and enjoyed extra-curricular reading about the house‚Äôs fabric and contents. I was not the most knowledgeable or experienced guide, but much of Shakespeare‚Äôs Shrine¬†was very familiar ground. Rather than offering consistent new insight, the book provides a relatively well-traced narrative of how Shakespeare‚Äôs Birthplace was purchased, restored, and marketed as a quintessentially Victorian attraction. For the general reader, it‚Äôs a satisfying introduction to how the house‚Äîtwo houses, in fact, incorporating a butcher‚Äôs shop and successful pub‚Äîwere stripped of their Regency brick fa√ßade and rebranded as a detached eight-room pile by the simple expedient of flattening the rest of the terrace. Scholarly readers and recent visitors to the Birthplace may be disappointed.
Structurally,¬†Shakespeare‚Äôs Shrine¬†suffers from several chapters with overlapping, even recursive chronology. The best material appears late in the book: the fourth chapter, with its discussion of photographing the Birthplace, and the fifth, which takes the form of a Victorian guide book synthesising nineteenth-century advice on visitors‚Äô travel, accommodation, and itineraries around Stratford. This material, with its entertaining extracts from Victorian texts, and Thomas‚Äôs insightful commentary, is the heart of Shakespeare‚Äôs Shrine and should appear much sooner. Similarly, Thomas places the book‚Äôs justification in its conclusion, infusing the narrative with sudden, argumentative purpose just as it‚Äôs almost over. Given the subtitle, The Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon, the book might also have benefitted from a more holistic look at the five ‚ÄúShakespeare properties‚Äù (the Birthplace, Anne Hathaway‚Äôs cottage, Mary Arden‚Äôs house, Hall‚Äôs Croft, and New Place) and their changing presence in the tourist consciousness. The homes of Shakespeare‚Äôs wife and mother are mentioned, but only briefly: if the others were totally unknown, I‚Äôd like to know why.
It was disappointing not to hear more about Thomas‚Äôs personal engagement with the house, which (when touched on) was endearing: the enraptured eleven-year-old, enthralled by Shakespeare‚Äôs house, who cringes in embarrassment when her father loudly announces there‚Äôs ‚Äúprobably nothing ‚Äòoriginal‚Äô there‚Äù. As a tour guide, I remember such parent-child combinations being common; what‚Äôs unusual and refreshing is that Thomas carried her fascination, which ‚Äúwould not go away‚Äù, into an academic work. Academia constantly encourages scholars to disguise their emotional ties to the subjects of their work and to disclaim all affective response‚Äîeven though our hearts contribute to our scholarly obsessions just as much as our heads.
How did the Victorian rebranding influence the twenty-first century presentation of the house and what were the consequences of these Victorian decisions and assumptions for our experience as contemporary tourists? Thomas doesn’t say. She does rightly highlight the pedagogical purpose of the modern Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which now has a formidable infrastructure of in-house and freelance practitioners, working with groups from around the world. If anything, though, she underestimates the pedagogical purpose that the house has always possessed; surprising, given her apt and memorable depiction of the house‚Äôs imperial potential as the ‚Äúepicentre of empire‚Äù.
Instead, Thomas homogenises Shakespeare and his representation into a more nostalgic domestic myth. This works least well in her discussion of the Gower Memorial, a large bronze sculpture now situated in Stratford‚Äôs Bancroft Gardens, which depicts Shakespeare surrounded by Hamlet, Falstaff, Lady Macbeth, and Prince Hal. Far from contributing to a gentle, homely mythos of a truly English playwright, the memorial was sculpted from French nudes in Lord Gower‚Äôs Parisian studio, where he and his Italian assistant Luca Madrassi were visited by Sarah Bernhardt (who suggested the drapes on Lady Macbeth‚Äôs dress). When the memorial was finally unveiled in 1888, Gower‚Äôs friend (and probable lover) Oscar Wilde hailed it as an important work of avant-garde sculpture, praising the ‚Äúgreen-gold bronzes‚Äù to the Birmingham press. Wilde himself used Shakespeare to transgressive effect, notably in The Portrait of Mr W.H. (1889, a year after the sculpture), which emphasised the Sonnets‚Äô homoeroticism through the myth of a beautiful young actor; perhaps one resembling Gower‚Äôs epicene Prince Hal. Rather than dismantling critical assumptions about Shakespeare‚Äôs conservatism, Thomas uses the Gower interlude to reiterate a Victorian Shakespeare that upheld the status quo.
Dubiously, Thomas also argues for a Victorian perception of Shakespeare‚Äôs plays primarily as reading material, rather than theatrical fodder. The assertion is questionable. The preference for read, rather than staged, Shakespeare was firmly rooted in the Romantic era, epitomised by Charles Lamb‚Äôs belief that staging Shakespeare‚Äôs tragedies debased them. Through the Victorian era, Shakespeare remained the cultural constant in the nation‚Äôs theatrical repertory and Britain‚Äôs most privileged form of performance. Although mass literacy created new reading publics for the nineteenth-century proliferation of Shakespearean editions, many of these were published by actors including William Macready, Henry Irving and Lillie Langtry, whose illustrated Antony and Cleopatra¬†(1890) is more a souvenir of scenery and costume than a reading edition. Even scholarly, heavily-annotated editions such as Charles Kean‚Äôs publications, seen in the library of the Garrick Club, have an inescapable theatrical life.
The final pages of Shakespeare‚Äôs Shrine cram in much interesting material on the authorship debate. James Shapiro‚Äôs Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?¬†(2010) is, for now, the definitive account of the zombie of Shakespeare studies and Thomas sheds little new light on Delia Bacon and the other nineteenth-century crackpots, forgers, and snobs who made up the majority of Victorian doubters. Thomas‚Äôs most valuable insight is to illustrate how objections to William Shakespeare as the plays‚Äô author extended to Stratford as the class, geographical, and even symbolic origins of Hamlet and King Lear. The ‚Äúanti-Stratfordians‚Äù, Thomas explains, were precisely that. Still, there‚Äôs a sense that Thomas was rushed; although Shakespeare‚Äôs Shrine introduces us to some of the house‚Äôs Victorian authenticators, we‚Äôre given little sense of their methodology.
Thomas‚Äôs version of the Birthplace is a Victorian invention as much as the postage stamp, the bicycle, and the jelly baby. Convoluted structure aside, she argues her case with conviction and in detail. My impression;¬†however, is that there‚Äôs a more interesting story lurking around the edges. Regarding the time between Shakespeare‚Äôs childhood and the Victorian era, Thomas briefly mentions Garrick and the odd early sightseer; but what else happened to the house during that time? When Shakespeare died in 1616, Joan Hart, Shakespeare‚Äôs only surviving sibling, lived next door in the two-room structure now named for her; her family owned and intermittently inhabited the Birthplace for the next two hundred years. Was it the Hart family who first showed theatre fans into the Birthroom? The Victorians may have invented one kind of Shakespeare tradition, but they were also its inheritors. If, as seems likely, the start of Shakespeare tourism was a family affair, that might be the most fascinating Birthplace tale of all.
Sophie Duncan is a DPhil candidate at Brasenose College, Oxford, and also teaches drama for the university.