Reflections on Shakespeare’s birthplace, Tudor aesthetics of scent and the invention of identity

Shakespeare’s birthplace

Shakespeare’s birthplace is a wonderful Tudor survival and we are, of course, lucky to have it. But I can’t help but wonder if the emphasis on Shakespeare’s birth itself is taken a little too far in Henley Street – at the expense of other aspects of his life here.

Clearly it’s significant and interesting that he was born in this house, although the precise location of the birth-room is no more than tradition. But what is almost erased from the building as it currently presents itself is that Henley Street was Shakespeare’s Stratford home until a month after his 33rd birthday: much of his life happened here, and certainly much more than is conveyed by those first few choking cries of breath in April 1564. William brought Anne Hathaway back here in the last weeks of 1582 after their marriage; Anne was already three months pregnant with their first child Susanna. All three of his own children were born here; his only son, Hamnet, died here, aged 11 years and six months, in August 1596.

The Stratford antequarian Edgar Fripp – in his other life a vicar who roared through the sleepy Warwickshire lanes of the 1920s and ’30s on a motorbike, vestments flapping – had, in his 1928 Shakespeare’s Stratford, a plausible answer to the question – largely ignored by the birthplace – of where in the property the young married couple lived: the back of the house. ‘To this day [the back] makes an independent little residence. It has its separate kitchen, its separate staircase, and its private entrance; and from its upper story winds a small supplementary stairway into the ‘solar’ of the front house, affording space there for a additional bed-chamber.’ Fripp’s is a conjecture; Pevsner dismisses this part of the building with a single word: ‘over-restored’.

But then, today’s birth-room is a conjecture too.

In any event, with two families in the house, it must have been – well – lively. William’s youngest brother Edmond, later an actor himself, was only a few days past his third birthday when he became uncle to Susanna. With Shakespeare’s twins Hamnet and Judith being born in February 1585, there would have been four children aged under five in the house, plus a ten-year-old and two teenagers. Whatever else it was, it was a house full of life; Shakespeare would never have known it without pre-teen children, and almost always with at least two under-tens. There were two exceptions: the thirteen months between the death of his youngest sister Anne and the birth of Edmund, and again after the death of Hamnet.

Perhaps it is coincidence, but the family moved within a year of the latter.

Shuffling through the birthplace myself, then, what strikes me most is what’s absent. This is the home of a modestly prosperous family some 450 years past; unike the excellent exhibition next door, it seems disconnected from its subject. It is not like the great houses – the Blenheims, the Penshursts, the Wiltons, et al –  which were always public spaces as much as private ones, places of community, social authority and display. The intimidation and awe you often feel when you visit those is wholly fitting: that is what you were meant to feel.

Henley Street, on the other hand, was always domestic and familial, a point emphasised by the recreation of the birth room, for example, complete with child’s crib. What’s absent is what should bind the space together: intimacy, a sense of the inconsequential daily stuff of life, the fleeting tempers and delights, the sorrows and dreams, the childhood toys, the food on the table, the froth of talk. It’s a foolish hope, no doubt.

And yet whenever  I think of Shakespeare’s childhood, I think of a passage from The Terrors of the Night, Thomas Nashe’s strange disturbed ‘discourse of apparitions’, written in 1593. Nashe, born on the cold bleak Suffolk coast at Lowestoft in November 1567,  pauses in his argument to remember how:

I have heard aged mumping beldams as they say warming their knees over a coal scratch over the argument very curiously, and they would bid young folks beware on what day they pared their nails, tell what luck everyone should have by the day of the week he was born on; show how many years a man should live by the number of wrinkles on his forehead, and stand descanting not a little of the difference in fortune when they are turned upward and when they are bent downward; ‘him that had a wart on his chin’, they would confidently ascertain he should ‘have no need of any of his kin’; marry, they would likewise distinguish between the standing of the wart on the right side and on the left. When I was a little child, I was a great auditor of theirs, and had all their witchcraft at my fingers’ ends, as perfect as good morrow and good-even.

Such autobiography is rare in the Elizabethans, particularly where childhood is concerned; but even now you can sense how the vivid force of the memory pressed itself on Nashe here as he wrote. What private wisdoms, what songs and tales, you wonder – like those Lucrece imagines a nurse might one day tell of Tarquin to still a crying child – did Shakespeare hear and absorb, as children do, unthinkingly before the family hearth at Henley Street, or out among his extended family at Wilmcote, Snitterfield, Ingon and elsewhere?

Outside in the trim, well-tended garden, amid ankle high beds of hyssop, thyme, marjoram and sage, I think about this again, and discover something about this project that I had failed to realise, or to recognise in myself, before. I want to unpick the neat, tidy idea of Shakespeare’s England, effortlessly balanced between Stratford and Bankside, to upset its calm homogeneity. I want to recover something of the messy, jolting reality of daily experience, its comforts and surprises, to unearth a little more of the forgotten hobby-horses and fallen giants, the things of obvious, everyday life – which were, however, being changed beyond all measure over the course of Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Some of these, of course, are things of the senses. Which is why,  perhaps, I’m more beguiled by the garden itself  than the house. Clearly this is the wrong response; the garden is easily the most artificial part of the birthplace: a more authentic recreation would probably have to make room for dung-heaps and a pig-sty, for instance.

But elsewhere in Stratford you’re struck by the irony that a man of supreme verbal gifts should have his experiences of childhood, youth and young maturity re-imagined for adoration solely through visual signifiers. Here, at least, it’s not just sight of the five senses that’s privileged: the scents of the herbs and flowers in the cool, faint damp air of morning, howsoever faint themselves and ill-defined, have an almost visceral, sub-rational reality.

The garden reminds me how different the Elizabethan experience of life was, even in something as basic and human as smell, compared to our own. Our sense of it is dominated by notions of cleanliness and purity, of odorlessness as an ideal, behind which I suppose lies the antiseptic smart of puritan morality. Even the word ‘smell’ is often, perhaps usually, pejorative; it is the poor relation of the senses. When we think of smells in Tudor towns and cities we tend to do so with distaste, focusing with almost a superior, near-pleasurable disgust on the open sewers, the blood and offal of the shambles and the street butchers. It seems appropriate that the first record of Shakespeare’s father John in Henley Street is a 1552 fine for building and maintaining a midden outside his house.

But our focus means that we often overlook the inverse truth: the olfactory assault that Elizabethans endured was partnered by an exquisite sense of its potential delights. This is Francis Bacon setting out a hierarchy of scents in an ideal garden: roses ‘are fast flowers of their smells’, he writes, likewises bays, rosemary and sweet marjoram, but

that which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet, especially the white double violet, which comes twice a year, about the middle of April and about Bartholomew-tide. Next to that is the musk-rose; then the strawberry leaves dying, with the most excellent cordial smell. Then the flower of the vines… Then sweetbriar; then wall-flowers, which are very delightful to be set under a parlour or lower chamber window. Then pinks and gilliflowers, especially the matted pink and clove gilliflowers. Then the flowers of the lime tree. Then the honeysuckles, so they are somewhat far off… those which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but being trodden upon and crushed, are three – that is burnet, wild thyme, and water-mints.

It is a whole area of experience, perhaps even an aesthetic, we have mostly lost.

Then there were the flowers and plants – ‘whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green’ says the London antequarian John Stow – brought inside to perfume the chambers and other living spaces throughout the year, and not just for pleasure. ‘[H]ave in your windowes good store of rwe and herbe of grace’ a worried Edward Alleyn, on tour with Lord Strange’s players and writing from Shrewsbury, advised his wife back in plague-ridden London on 1 August 1592, ‘hoping in god thought the siknes beround about you yett by his mercy itt may escape your house’.

Even the flooring, reeds gathered from water-meadows and river sides in early autumn, offered up scents and other, more elusive, sensations. Shakespeare doesn’t say what a roomful of fresh-cut rushes might have smelled like; he seems more concerned with the texture underfoot, the hushed step. A couple of times he associates rush-strewn floors with wantonness: ‘She bids you on the wanton rushes lay you down / And rest your gentle head upon her lap’, reports Glendower to Mortimer in 1 Henry IV; ‘let wantons light of heart / Tickle the senseless rushes with their heels’ says Romeo. I suspect the underlying idea is unruliness, the overlapping chaos of loose flooring kicked, scuffed and scraped all day, but there is a suggestion of the sensuality of the experience, too, the softness.

It wasn’t just rushes that carpeted the floors, either: roses and violets were cut and strewn, too, especially on the holy days of spring and summer. Nosegays scented the corners; sprays of herbs were dried to deck the rooms in winter. Weddings in particular brought armfuls of flowers into the house, wrote Drayton: scents of lemon and apple with the white-flowered balm and the chamomile; mint and musk and maudlin,  a delightful name for what is most likely sweet yarrow; germander, burnet and ‘cool’ fennel; ‘clear’ hyssop and costmary, sometimes used, like hops, to flavour ale; thyme and meadow-wort and the tansey’s tart pungent ferny leaves.

But not all uses were so pleasant. I’ve just been reading Middleton’s Hengist, King of Kent, or the Mayor of Queenborough, one of the handful of plays of the period to feature travelling players. The eponymous mayor, expecting the arrival of Hengist, and regretting the state of his house, asks a servant to ‘burn a little juniper in the hall-chimney:/Like a beast as I was I pissed out the fire last night’. It’s a small, vivid moment and, of course, a joke; but it tells you things about the past far more acutely than mere furniture.

In the garden now I scuff along the gravel path where, according to Schoenbaum, the base stone of the town’s original market cross was once set, unmarked, in the ground. A young mother sits stiffly on a bench bottle-feeding her baby, back straight, all poise and tension, trying to work the teat into her child’s open but indifferent mouth at just the right angle to engage its suck reflex. The boy – I think it’s a boy – is horizontal, sated, milk dribbling down his cheek onto a crumpled white muslin clasped in the same hand his mother’s using to support his head. He’s relaxed as only babies can be, unswaddled and arms outstretched as if floating away on the warm surface of a lake. Behind me, I hear an elderly American man tell his companion, ‘My mother used to say: small kids, small problems; big kids, big problems’. The baby doesn’t seem like a problem to me, but perhaps they’re talking of something else. The companion seems non-committal. I glance back. She’s absorbed in the herb garden, adjusting her wide-rimmed glasses and bending slowly to get a closer look, saying, more or less to herself, ‘Now, I ought to know what hyssop is’.

That’s the problem with Stratford, and perhaps the birthplace in particular: the clutter of assumptions that we carry with us in our minds comes up against all the things we don’t know. It’s not just the intimacies of everyday life that are absent, but also the context for the things that are there. Of course, there is no solution to the problem: if we are disappointed it’s because we expect too much. There are few real clues to Shakespeare’s identity here, and, for all its authenticity, Stratford feels ahistorical, abstracted from reality.

But then, the search for identity itself is ahistorical: the modern idea of identity didn’t fully emerge until the early-to-mid 17th century. The OED’s first citation for identity meaning ‘the sameness of a person’ is 1638; for individual, meaning a single human being, 1626. Personality surfaces in 1425 but clearly didn’t take root, since the OED can’t find another text to cite until 1655. Character, in the modern sense as it relates to an individual, isn’t cited until 1647, although it existed as a word with various shades of meaning before that, centred around signs, marks and kinds of writing. Shakespeare himself provides the OED with six cited texts, using the word 31 times throughout his work. Most of his usages fall within the earlier sense, as when the soldier comes upon Timon’s grave in the last act of Timon of Athens and says, ‘What’s on this tomb/I cannot read. The character I’ll take with wax.’

The modern, figurative sense of character, meaning not the outward sign of something but the thing itself, seems to hang over many of Shakespeare’s usages. The Duke, speaking to Angelo at the beginning of Measure for Measure, tells him that ‘There is a kind of character in thy life/That to th’observer doth thy history/Fully unfold’. And, although the sense of a character as something acted in a play doesn’t arrive until the Restoration, there is still an emerging sense of dislocation here: you cannot trust the character of things any more, that is, how they appear: the external character can now be a cipher for the ‘true’ internal one. ‘Thou hast a mind that suits/With this thy fair and outward character’ Viola says, perhaps with surprise, to the captain in Twelfth Night. It seems appropriate that in the very next breath she asks him to help disguise her.

The Shakespeare we construct out of the externals of his world, at Stratford and elsewhere, cannot necessarily be trusted either.


NOTE: If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in my other posts on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theatre.

One thought on “Reflections on Shakespeare’s birthplace, Tudor aesthetics of scent and the invention of identity

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  1. Thanks for this post. I’ve always thought what a pity it is that we think only in terms of Shakespeare being born in the house. He spent his formative years there and also lived there as a young adult with his wife and children. Surely this is where he must have written his first poetry and perhaps plays: it would be nice to get some sense of that. As you acknowledge, it’s a very small house, and difficult to make it work for the large number of visitors it gets. In The Shakespeare blog, among other things, I try to make connections between his work and life where possible.

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