Stratford Upon Avon

Shakespeare’s birthplace

I’ve never really liked Stratford Upon Avon.

We’ve now read Richard II and Othello back to back, and I’ve prepped both plays from scratch, reading and annotating them and drawing up my class plans before looking back at notes I’ve made for other classes. The florid language in Richard II is among the most beautiful Shakespeare ever wrote; the character and plotting of Othello deft and nuanced, opening issues of identity that still seem startlingly modern. I walked into town with a head and heart full of Shakespeare.

But Stratford itself often feels to me very distant from the plays, despite the fact that pull quotes appear all over the place, and there are stores with names like “Much a Shoe About Nothing.” In fact it seems to me that the Shakespeare Industrial Complex in Stratford—centered on the much-reconstructed house where he was born—stands at two removes from the real vitality and energy of the plays.

The first remove is the one between the town and the author. Shakespeare went to London to write his plays. Maybe he worked on some in Stratford at some point. But if he and his plays hadn’t gone to London, we wouldn’t ever know that he or they existed. It seems appropriate that the grand statue on Henley Street is facing away from Shakespeare’s birthplace and off into the busy world.

The second remove is between the author and the text. I had already preached against bardolatry (i.e., the worship of Shakespeare) in class. Even the label “the Bard” is a misleading nineteenth-century misconstruing of what a bard is and does. The Romantics and Victorians imagined a bard as a lone genius, high atop some lofty crag with nothing but eagles and God speaking into his ear. 

John Martin, The Bard, 1817

The word “bard” was originally used, however, to denote a much more human figure: someone who would sit in the middle of a clan and serve as the communal memory, reciting stories he had heard from other bards—stories that expressed not his own genius but the questions, values, and identity of the culture in which he lived and served.

Shakespeare was actually more of a bard in this original sense: an extremely communal storyteller passing on (and, admittedly, improving a great deal) culturally important stories he had received from others. The best texts are his theatrical scripts, and a script is probably the most collaborative kind of text a person could write. He was influenced by his actors and his audience, and his texts were obviously tweaked to suit the needs of performances in various kinds of space. 

We don’t have any of Shakespeare’s plays in his own handwriting, and there is zero evidence—none—that he had any concern or involvement in the printing of his plays. I showed students pictures of Renaissance printing presses, wherein the text would literally pass through the hands of the anonymous compositors, who would assemble each line letter by letter (backward and upside down) to prepare a page for print. Shakespeare was nowhere to be seen, at this point, and the resulting pages are the only texts of Shakespeare that we have. He was completely content to let his words live entirely through the mouths, bodies, and finally hands of other people.

Jan van der Strate, Impression Librorum, ca.1590

So those texts seem a long way from their author, who was himself a long way from Stratford when he wrote them. It always seems as if it ought to be easy to meet Shakespeare in this town, but I always struggle to find him here. 

In effect, the character of Shakespeare himself has now become a literary creation, the projection of a meager bit of biographical evidence through several centuries of admiration and imagination. The bard one meets in Stratford is usually the nineteenth-century Bard (capital B), the great universal literary genius high above all others. 

Text: Henry V 1.1.30-31, describing Prince Hal’s transformation to Henry V.

There is an irony in this: the Shakespeare worshipped at his birthplace is a nearly-divine figure who seems to transcend time and space. It would seem that the physical birthplace of such a being would be largely irrelevant to his greatness. 

To put this irony in other terms, John Keats coined the phrase “negative capability” to denote Shakespeare’s genius: his personal power, his singular gift, was to create characters who are not at all like himself. Shakespeare’s unique identity as an author involves his ability to conceal his unique identity in his writing. 

It does make sense to celebrate that kind of literary achievement. It’s a little ironic to celebrate it at a site so closely connected to the literal identity that Shakespeare consistently managed to erase or evade.

In addition to seeing the house where Shakespeare was born, we visited the original guildhall where Shakespeare’s father served and the upstairs schoolroom where Shakespeare himself learned Latin and literature. For reasons I cannot fully explain, this place seemed to me more strongly connected to young William than any other place in town. We did enter through a small gift shop; we were subjected to a short bardolatrous film; and one of our tour guides apparently expected us to be awed by the fact that the bum of young Will Shakespeare could plausibly have graced the large money box in the guildhall. (“If I were a boy visiting my father here,” me mused, “I would have sat on that. I can’t prove it. But I’m sure he did.”)

But one of the reasons why Shakespeare’s presence in the guildhall seem so palpable to me is that it was kept so plausibly small. A boy on the box. Yes, okay: I could picture that. My son William would have sat there, too. And after the film, most of the tour didn’t really mention Shakespeare at all: it involved examining the numbered wooden beams cut from the forest of Arden and—most intriguing—the discovery of pre-Reformation paintings in the hall that had been whitewashed in the reign of Henry VIII. Shakespeare was, at best, a minor character in these stories. Which helped to keep him realistic.

Upstairs, in the schoolroom, we ourselves sat on wooden boxes (called “forms”) that had been blessed by the bum of the Bard, but of course it was what his head did in this room that is most important. A very plausible impersonator played the part of of a Tudor tutor, explaining the rules of the schoolroom, leading us through some Latin conjugations, and finally dropping the act just a bit to answer basic questions.

In this room, Shakespeare first learned the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Here, too, I was persuaded by understatement. The tutor did not quote Shakespearean speeches. He made no mention of Shakespeare’s genius. (When a woman on our tour asked what kind of student he was, the tutor shrugged, “Oh, average, I would imagine.) He simply pointed out a few obvious places in the plays that contained material also found in the grammar textbooks of the time. A single framed picture of Shakespeare—a sepia facsimile of the First Folio engraving—hung unobtrusively in a corner.

“If it weren’t for the education he received in this room,” said the tutor simply, “Shakespeare would have become a glover like his father. He was the oldest son. A Latin education gave him knowledge, but it also gave him access.”

And of course he’s right. Our group of students was joined by a small family, a mom and a dad and their two school-age boys. The tutor drily observed the cruelty of the parents in taking advantage of the boys’ school break to take them to… another schoolroom. But I got talking to the dad at one point, and he explained—with some earnestness—that Shakespeare would be on his sons’ assessments. They’d need an advantage. This was just sightseeing; he was trying to give his sons the same edge that John Shakespeare had wanted to give his.

What I found most remarkable about the schoolroom itself was the lack of paper. Boys (no girls) ranged in age from 7-14 in Shakespeare’s class, and they sat facing one another on the benches, working the lessons together out loud. “Of course,” I thought. “The best way to understand Shakespeare is either to read him out loud or hear someone else reading him.” It makes sense why seven years of intensive training in language as an oral medium would well prepare one to write for the stage. I could see how someone taught in this way might be more likely to write Richard II.

In the next room over, however, the school did have several desks with quills and ink and parchment—along with a small selection of dress-up clothes. Our group is considerably older than Shakespeare would have been in this school, but after the tour of the guildhall in the basement and the lesson from the tutor in the schoolroom, they were ready to play. Which they did, first by trying their hand at the quills, then moving to the costume rack: basically following Shakespeare’s own trajectory from daddy’s boy to schoolboy to writer and actor.

The narrative of the guildhall and the schoolroom is the barest start along that trajectory. To get a better sense of it we would need to follow it not only out into the world but out into the Globe. Which we will.

But here, at least, was a glimmer of the plays to come.

Alas, the plague

The real place to go to meet the Shakespeare in Stratford is of course down by the river, in the theater of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Even a mediocre performance of a Shakespeare play always contains more energy and wonder than anything else in town.

Sadly, this year, we did not have the chance to see a play. In Shakespeare’s own day, the theaters would often close during times when a plague was raging through London, so it is perhaps appropriate that this was the excursion most affected by the coronavirus.

Ordinarily, I would choose the plays on the syllabus by looking at the RSC website, assigning whichever one(s) we could see performed. Because of the pandemic, however, the company did not announce its season until too late—and even, I was reluctant to buy group tickets: if another lockdown was imposed, a theatrical performance would be the very first to be cancelled.

The day before we left, one of our group announced that she had tested positive for Covid. She had traveled to Ireland earlier in the week with a small subset of our class. I wanted to play it very safe, so I cancelled our three-hour class that night and asked everyone to take a test before getting on the bus to Stratford the next day. Two more of those tests came back positive. 

At this writing, those three are fine, in relatively good health and relatively good spirits.

I stood by the bus door the next morning and greeted most of the twelve remaining students with the same cheery question (“Feeling negative today?”), but I this is a fairly close group, and I think everyone felt the absence of the three who stayed behind. I know I did. Our group, like Shakespeare himself, was represented well enough in Stratford, simply not as present as one might have liked.

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Happy husband since 2001, proud dad since 2010, diligent English professor since 1995. "And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."