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’s Inventing The Victorians (2001) scrutinised (in every sense) the sexuality of a nation and reported back with relish. John Mackenzie’s The Victorian Vision: Inventing New Britain (2003) embodied the vitality and volition of the era’s new technologies. Last year, Judith Flanders’s 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’t boring, none of these worthwhile scholars have ever suggested that the Victorians weren’t bonkers.
Researching Victorian oddity, you’re never short of an anecdote, whether it’s Oscar Wilde’s 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’s Bosom Beautifier. One focus of that collective cultural lunacy was Shakespeare: a devotion so strong it became “Bardolatry”. In 1840, Carlyle called Shakespeare the “Prophet” of “a true Catholicism, the Universal Church” whose creed—so it seemed—fitted ideally with Victorian values. For the writer Mary Cowden Clarke, Shakespeare was misguided women’s “great poet-teacher”, his heroines exemplifying “womenkind’s innate purity and devotion”. Ruskin argued that the tendency of Shakespeare’s heavily-flawed heroes to require salvation from his kinder, better women illustrated Victorian wives’ primary destiny as their husbands’ 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’s Shakespeare’s Shrine fails to disappoint. Shakespeare’s 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—Marie Corelli’s 1903 offering included a list of specific injunctions for American tourists—scramble for souvenirs, kiss floors and otherwise emote, alongside such celebrity pilgrims as Dickens, Henry James and Washington Irving. But the underlying problem with Thomas’s contribution to what might, given Sweet, Mackenzie and Flanders’s earlier titles, be called “Invention Studies” is that Shakespeare’s Shrine isn’t 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 “Viking”, “dwarfish” and “own mother stood behind tour group, laughing”. 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’s fabric and contents. I was not the most knowledgeable or experienced guide, but much of Shakespeare’s Shrine was very familiar ground. Rather than offering consistent new insight, the book provides a relatively well-traced narrative of how Shakespeare’s Birthplace was purchased, restored, and marketed as a quintessentially Victorian attraction. For the general reader, it’s a satisfying introduction to how the house—two houses, in fact, incorporating a butcher’s shop and successful pub—were stripped of their Regency brick façade 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’s 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’ travel, accommodation, and itineraries around Stratford. This material, with its entertaining extracts from Victorian texts, and Thomas’s insightful commentary, is the heart of Shakespeare’s Shrine and should appear much sooner. Similarly, Thomas places the book’s justification in its conclusion, infusing the narrative with sudden, argumentative purpose just as it’s 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 “Shakespeare properties” (the Birthplace, Anne Hathaway’s cottage, Mary Arden’s house, Hall’s Croft, and New Place) and their changing presence in the tourist consciousness. The homes of Shakespeare’s wife and mother are mentioned, but only briefly: if the others were totally unknown, I’d like to know why.
It was disappointing not to hear more about Thomas’s personal engagement with the house, which (when touched on) was endearing: the enraptured eleven-year-old, enthralled by Shakespeare’s house, who cringes in embarrassment when her father loudly announces there’s “probably nothing ‘original’ there”. As a tour guide, I remember such parent-child combinations being common; what’s unusual and refreshing is that Thomas carried her fascination, which “would not go away”, 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—even 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’s imperial potential as the “epicentre of empire”.
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’s 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’s Parisian studio, where he and his Italian assistant Luca Madrassi were visited by Sarah Bernhardt (who suggested the drapes on Lady Macbeth’s dress). When the memorial was finally unveiled in 1888, Gower’s friend (and probable lover) Oscar Wilde hailed it as an important work of avant-garde sculpture, praising the “green-gold bronzes” 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’ homoeroticism through the myth of a beautiful young actor; perhaps one resembling Gower’s epicene Prince Hal. Rather than dismantling critical assumptions about Shakespeare’s 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’s 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’s belief that staging Shakespeare’s tragedies debased them. Through the Victorian era, Shakespeare remained the cultural constant in the nation’s theatrical repertory and Britain’s 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’s publications, seen in the library of the Garrick Club, have an inescapable theatrical life.
The final pages of Shakespeare’s Shrine cram in much interesting material on the authorship debate. James Shapiro’s 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’s most valuable insight is to illustrate how objections to William Shakespeare as the plays’ author extended to Stratford as the class, geographical, and even symbolic origins of Hamlet and King Lear. The “anti-Stratfordians”, Thomas explains, were precisely that. Still, there’s a sense that Thomas was rushed; although Shakespeare’s Shrine introduces us to some of the house’s Victorian authenticators, we’re given little sense of their methodology.
Thomas’s 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’s a more interesting story lurking around the edges. Regarding the time between Shakespeare’s 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’s 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.