Coming out of the birthplace I looked across the street, trying to imagine stepping across the threshold to see a row of late medieval or Tudor houses and workshops. It’s not too difficult: England is full of such survivals, after all. But of course it’s futile to try to dredge much meaning from the attempt, and we can never recapture a moment when such buildings were fresh-made.
Two shepherds, John Cox and John Davies, lived opposite the Shakespeares. Cox was close enough to the Hathaway family to remember a widow and two children in his will; the site of his house approximates to that of a shop dedicated to Christmas decorations. Most of Shakespeare’s neighbours were artisans or tradesmen: a tinker, a blacksmith, a baker, a mercer, another glover like John Shakespeare himself, a tailor, a wool dealer, and so on.
Three, at least, were Catholic; one, George Badger, Shakespeare’s neighbour to the west went to prison for his faith. To the east, lived the tailor and bigamist William Wedgewood. Having been banished from Warwick by the Earl of Warwick, Wedgewood left his wife there, settled in Henley Street and remarried. He was, it was said, ‘very contencious prowde & slaunderous oft busieng himself with noughty matters & quarelling with his honest neighbours’, the Shakespeares no doubt among them. However, Wedgewood was eventually forced out of Stratford. Shakespeare probably remembered him: next door to Wedgewood was Thomas Hornby’s blacksmith’s forge. Fripp suggests that the two are recalled in King John:
I saw a smith stand with his hammer, thus,
The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,
With open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news;
Who, with his shears and measure in his hand,
Standing on slippers, — which his nimble haste
Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet
No doubt tailors and blacksmiths might have lived in close proximity in London, too, but the coincidence is a striking one. Hornby’s house is now the birthplace shop.
I’m always surprised at how wide Henley Street is; the municipal library-like high red-brick façade of the birthplace exhibition fails to impose itself, and even today the sense of a larger town beyond is minimal. Somewhere in my head, I suppose, I have an image – archetypal and evidently false – of medieval and pre-modern streets always being dark, narrow and constricted: alley-ways in all but name; claustrophobic, lightless places.
But of course any road liable to have livestock move along it needs a certain width, and Henley Street must always have felt expansive, open; more so when behind it to the east were orchards and barns and then – beyond the Gild Pits, as the poorly maintained high road north, which bypassed the town, was known – open country towards Ingon and the low-wooded hills at Welcombe. More than anything, in fact, Henley Street and other old town roads like it – the High Street in Henley-in-Arden is another – remind me of the strip towns – long, but only a block or two deep – that line the US highways, clinging to the blacktop as if hedged against the wilderness beyond.
Perhaps every path is a kind of choice; but if so then Shakespeare’s early choices were constrained. Some things, says Jaques in As You Like It, are ‘as plain as way to parish church’ and there’s little question that Shakespeare’s most consistent and familiar journey would have taken him across the brook which bisected Henley Street to the south – Meer Street marks its line today – and ultimately ended at Holy Trinity Church, half a mile or so south of Henley Street by the soft banks of the Avon; he may never have lived further from a church than he did at Henley Street. In some ways, the route offers a neat prospectus of Shakespeare’s Stratford life.
The roundabout at the junction of Bridge Street and the High Street, marks the site, more or less, of the High Cross where John Shakespeare set out his goods on Thursday’s market-day. Everyone had their station: the braziers and pewterers were at the top of Wood Street, the coopers a little further east; ironmongers and nailers took their stalls to Bridge Street, beside those of the collarmakers and ropemakers; the country butchers were down on Chapel Street.
There was another cross, too, up on Rother Street, where raw hides were sold, although all tanned goods had to be brought through the crowds to the market house for inspection. There too, beside John Shakespeare and his fellow glovers, the mayor or his officials weighed any cheese brought to market since ‘great store of cheese is usually brought to the faires … and … great deceipt is used both in the weighinge and the weight [of it]’.
The market house is gone now, demolished in 1831, but drawings still survive of a square building, built over the much older stone cross itself, at the north end of the High Street, four squat pillars supporting the market house on the upper floor, the base of which forms a ledge that projects out beyond the building’s footprint by several feet. No doubt it helped keep a glover’s fine goods – no less than the cheese – dry beneath the arches.
A pitched roof above supported a small tower, itself holding the town clock, and a weathervane. You can’t tell from the sketch but one of the hands of the clock was gilded. Stratford’s whipping post was positioned here, too: another treat for the market-day crowds. Perhaps Grumio recalls it in The Taming of the Shrew when he says that he would as likely take a dowry for Katherina as ask ‘to be whipped at the high cross in the morning’.
Across the way, where a shop called The Trading Post stands, was the house known as ‘The Cage’, once the site of a prison; it was where Shakespeare’s younger daughter Judith would live with her husband Thomas Quiney, son of the Richard I quoted here. It’s easy to imagine, looking south down the High Street at the many monochrome or sepia timber-framed facades that we are looking at the same buildings, at least, as the young Shakespeare. In some cases, this is true; but in reality these are architectural records of change as much as permanence.
Harvard House, the first you come to on the right, with its carved beams and corbels, dates from 1596; Shakespeare may well first have seen it when he returned to Stratford for his son’s funeral. The same is true of the Garrick Inn next door, with its unstained auburn beams shaped into circles, like links in a chain, which dates from around the same time. Shakespeare, however, probably knew it as the ‘Reindeer’; it did not become an inn until the early 1700s.
The Tudor House, meanwhile, on the corner of Ely Street, which now houses Pizza Hut and a baguette bar, was new-built shortly before Shakespeare was born. Over the way, only half of the Shakespeare Hotel was extant under Elizabeth; the rest is 17th century.
But if these buildings convey a misleading continuity, the effect is broken by the blunt honest absence of New Place, where Chapel Street, which is what the High Street becomes beyond Ely Street, meets what’s now called Chapel Lane. The space is empty, bar a few bare stumps of brickwork to mark what’s left of the foundations; but it was the second-best house in Stratford and, in Shakespeare’s youth, owned by a lawyer named William Underhill. It would be Shakespeare’s own come 1597; he would die there, too.
It’s ironic that, in distinction from the normal course of events, the house might survive were the interest in Shakespeare less intense. It was demolished in 1759 by its then owner, the Rev Francis Gastrell, reportedly in a fit of pique, being greatly irked by the growing number of tourists, even then, seeking Shakespearean shrines in the town.
Stratford today has to make do with the house next door, Nash’s House, which belonged to the husband of Shakespeare’s grand-daughter Elizabeth. The connection is a little tenuous: she was eight when he died and ten years away from marriage.
If Shakespeare looked east down Chapel Lane, on his left as he passed New Place, his eye would have followed the line of the gutter stream as it wound past orchards, elm-packed gardens and wide thatched barns – workhouses and hovels behind – towards a huddle of cottages and beyond a riverside mill now buried somewhere beneath the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Barns were a Stratford feature – there were 70 barns and malthouses in the town in 1582 – and tall English elms, one thousand of them, trunks gloved in ivy, peopled the near horizon.
Over the road from New Place the route to the church took him past the Guild Chapel, where memory of the medieval catholic murals on the walls, however tenacious, was no doubt already fading. Shakespeare never saw them; they were whitewashed the year before he was born as part of the protestant church’s campaign to erase England’s catholic past. It seems unlikely he did not at least hear talk of them, however, and how they covered the now blank walls: the murder of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury; the Vision of the Emperor Constantine at York; or Saxon saints like Edmund and Modwenna.
They were only rediscovered in 1804 during the course of renovations, but many did not survive the work that year and few are still visible, their once bright palates reduced to pale ochres, olives and taupes. I can’t make out much more of Modwenna’s features than her lips; a few sad lines seem to him hint at the shape of her face but they are so faint that I half wonder if I am imagining them.
The most vivid survival is probably the Doom, above the chancel arch. It’s ghostly still, as if seen through a thick veil, but its power is undimmed: Christ at the apex, equidistant between the heavenly city and the pits of hell, sitting in final judgement on those before him, the newly resurrected, bursting joyously forth from their graves, and the eternally damned. Standing on the chapel floor, looking up at the arch, you feel subject to his judgement, too. John Shakespeare was the guild chamberlain the year the work was done; the accounts he signed off called it an act of ‘defacing’. The word is peculiarly apt: not just the implied vandalism but also a kind of cruelty, the defeat of an intimate, personal faith, a thing of interaction and community, by an austere and unforgiving introversion.
When Shakespeare himself uses the word, it is cognate with ruin and reproach.
Turning left at the end of Chapel Street, then as now, you pass Hall’s Croft, the home that Shakespeare’s first and apparently favourite daughter Susanna shared with her husband, Dr John Hall. Finally you reach the church gate and the avenue across the churchyard to the north porch. Lime trees line the path today, as they have for centuries. It was late afternoon when I visited the church, the limes’ dark polished leaves catching the soft May sunlight as they rippled and swelled in the breeze. A life in half-a-mile, I thought, looking back at the town’s houses behind me; it is probably a journey Shakespeare rarely made alone.
How often Shakespeare went to church at all is a moot point, in fact, particularly given the debate with regard to his, and his father’s, possible Catholicism. William, however, was never cited for recusancy – that is, avoiding church services, a punishable offence – as his father would be in the autumn of 1591.
But Shakespeare certainly walked down to Holy Trinity on 4 April 1579; he came to see his sister buried. Anne had been born in Henley Street in 1571. She died there, too, aged a shade over seven-and-a-half. William, her eldest brother was 14. Gilbert was 12 and Richard five; it was a few days before Joan’s tenth birthday. Two other children had died in infancy before William was born, but it’s reasonable to infer that the loss of Anne was felt more keenly by his parents: John and Mary paid an extra 8d to have the church bell rung and a pall spread over her small coffin before she was lain to rest in the cool earth of the churchyard, heavy with spring rain.
As Anne was lowered into the ground, the vicar, Henry Haycroft, later to baptise William’s first daughter Susanna, sang ‘Man that is borne of a woman hathe but a shorte tyme to lyve, and is full of miserye: he commeth up, and is cut doune lyke a floure, he flyeth as it were a shadow…’ It had been five years since the birth of John and Mary’s last child; Mary would be pregnant again within four months. The following year, John Shakespeare would complete what has become known as his Spiritual Testament, a statement of Catholic faith which lay hidden in the rafters of Henley Street until April 1757. In it, he speaks of craving the sacrament of extreme unction, the catholic rites of death:
I protest that, at my death, I will receive the sacraments of penance, and confession… accusing myself of all my sins committed in thought, words and work, as well against God as against myself and my neighbours, whereof I do repent me with infinite sorrow, and desire time of penance, bitterly to bewail the same…
The wording is formulaic, but the spiritual passion need not be. Anne, you assume, had received no such sacraments. You wonder then, reading the testament, at the spur for John’s conversion.
Standing in the church looking up at Shakespeare’s own uninspiring monument it is difficult, in a place of worship, not to be discomforted by the veneration accorded Shakespeare in Stratford today. Schoenbaum describes the tourists as pilgrims; it’s a hard judgement to refute. The truth is that if we want to find Shakespeare the writer, I suspect Stratford is the last place we should look. Or, to put that another way, the road that gave William Shakespeare of Henley Street his identity was the road out of Stratford.
It is one that Shakespeare himself eventually took, some time after 1585: it was to head east, over the bridge above the Avon and out across England, heading for we don’t know where. In some respects it is fitting that that one moment, the young man leaving his home town to become ‘Shakespeare’, remains obscure and unrecorded, because that was how the man himself was then: unknown.
In the continuing absence of such data, even the bridge itself has been scoured for meaning and adduced to support arguments and positions. In 1935, for example, Caroline Spurgeon, in her still fascinating book Shakespeare’s Imagery, an attempt to recreate something of Shakespeare’s sensibility through the kinds and classes of image that he uses (it is the only critical work I know that has pull-out bar charts at the back) tells how she met the Stratford bookseller and bibliographer Captain William Jaggard who was – or believed himself to be – descended from the William Jaggard who printed the First Folio. (There are still Jaggards in Stratford today: I’ve seen them in the phone book.)
Jaggard described to Spurgeon how, when the Avon flooded, the current under the last arch before the London road was so strong that it would hit an outcrop of the riverbank and double back on itself, returning upstream under the same arch. Spurgeon reports that what Jaggard said ‘gave me a most curious thrill and start, as if it were a voice from the dead’; she immediately thought of the lines from Lucrece which describe just such a quirk:
As through an arch the violent roaring tide
Outruns the eye that doth behold his haste,
Yet in the eddy boundeth in his pride
Back to the strait that forc’d him on so fast
Robert Nye used the point – closely paraphrasing Spurgeon and Jaggard, down to the mention of sticks and straws caught in the eddy – in his 1998 novel The Late Mr Shakespeare. Jonathan Bate, author of The Genius of Shakespeare and editor of the RSC Collected Works, picked up on this and wove it into an argument in the so-called authorship controversy. Bate made the reasonable point that no other putative author – Oxford, Bacon, Derby, Marlowe, et al – would have seen such a unique phenomena. ‘Sometimes it takes a creative eye to identify the fingerprint,’ he muses, thinking of Nye, unaware that the observation has its root in a conversation in a bookshop 70-odd years before.
It seems symptomatic of the way that Shakespeariana accretes over time, small incidental facts, insights, ideas silting up the thin stream of clear information which is the sum of all we know of Shakespeare’s life.
Before I left Stratford, I stood on the bridge again above the last arch beside the eastern bank and looked down into smooth dark waters. I could identify neither the anomalous current running against the river’s true course nor the tongue of earth that might inspire it. The Avon’s edge is blocked in stone now; perhaps the effect – almost the very definition of transient and ephemeral – no longer exists, having outlasted many more substantial things. I reflected that most of the things I might look for in following Shakespeare’s footsteps are ephemeral: less the step itself than the earth in which that step is printed.
After all, there are facts to be adduced about Shakespeare’s life, but many are of only passing interest and new ones are rare. What survives of him really is the torrent of words, little more. What survives of his world is another question, and I hope by exploring one a little more light may fall on both. There may not be much more to discover about the things Shakespeare made, but in asking what made him possible – what magic of culture and history and language and landscape – we may come closer to seeing those things as they might have been seen new-made; and in asking what has survived of the wider world – always also a story of loss, transformation and change – we may sharpen just a little our sense of the world that he knew.
But for now, one question remains: when you step off the bridge today on the far side of the river: which way to turn?
NOTE: If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in my other posts on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theatre.