Sunday, June 28, 2009

Shakespeare's Houses

In 1759, Reverend Francis Gastrell, the final owner/occupier of Shakespeare’s retirement home, New Place, was so incensed by the constant stream of tourists pitching up at his house and invading his lawn that he knocked out all the windows and chopped down the mulberry tree that had reputedly been planted in the garden by the bard. Then when the local council demanded Land Taxes, he furiously demolished the house itself, its ruins still rotting as he was run out of town by his bloodthirsty compatriots and banished from returning to Stratford for the rest of his life. Now, all that remains of the place where Shakespeare died are the stone foundations and a rather nice lawn, accessible from his son-in-laws property next door (see above).

Lord knows what Gastrell would make of the tourism which exists in his town now; it’s apparently the second biggest destination in the country behind London, its population of 23,000 probably doubling (tripling?) during the peak season. It’s not something the Shakespeare Trust shy away from; throughout their properties there’s a twin story, not just of his life and period but also of the people who’ve paid homage to him since; in places they highlight the other great thinkers who’ve also taken the same steps you have around the houses – in the birthplace they’ve even preserved one of the bay windows in which visitors famous and not so have left their mark or autograph. Which meant that though I was travelling alone, I didn’t often feel it, since I was part of a tradition stretching back centuries.

This wasn’t the first time I’d visited the birthplace; the last time was in the early nineties when I was studying the plays at school and it seemed the thing to do. Then, I’d characterised the experience as ‘disappointing’ (for reason I forget). Not so now. Having spent the intervening years becoming a proper fan of Shakespeare and discovering the plays and his life it was quite overwhelming to be standing in that place again, even if as the demonstrator described the method of his birth, her words were being translated into Japanese for some of the other visitors, the surprise of one half of the room to the news that the phrase ‘Night night, sleep tight’ referred to the way that Elizabethan babies were tucked in at night on a rope frame underneath the marital bed, repeated minutes later by the other half.

So I was rarely alone in these places, especially on Monday and Tuesday when the town was saturated by delegates from the 100th International Rotary Conference in Birmingham, all wearing a little white badge with their first name and country of origin on them. But just now and then, within a lull, by taking things slowly against the crowd, I’d find myself in an empty room and could briefly imagine what it must have been like to live that superficially simpler life. All five houses are to some extent frozen in time or recreations of a period in their history selected because of the association with Shakespeare, attempts to provide a context for students of history and literature and they work best when you can hesitate at a kitchen utensil or piece of furniture and think about how different the person using them must have been and whether you’re much of an improvement.

The demonstrators are the key element which brings these places alive. Some are simply tour guides offering a bit of background to the house and why it’s an important part of the story. Others, dressed in period costume, balance precariously between that and full blown improvisation. At Arden’s Farm, a group of roleplayers prepare a meal across the day and then sit and eat it to show what the process of living in the house was somewhat like. I spent ages in that kitchen talking to the cook about everything from the health awarness of Elizabethans to the preparation of nettles and why we don’t eat them as much these days, the information flowing from her lips as she shimmered in and out of character by the pronoun, like a Doctor Who actor appearing on Blue Peter being asked to break character by Simon Groom.

Just as interesting, at the birthplace, in the gardens at the back and the street in front, actor work through extracts from the plays, girly arguments from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Nurses advise to Juliet and according to the poster Hamlet soliloquy’s, all of them completely in character as though we’re witnessing the fraction of a production. Fighting to be heard against tourists chatting about cameras and children poking fun at their costume, they’re absolutely fearless and a rather more visceral way of reminding the visitor why they’re taking the time to walk about this house in particular than the introductory display in which a voiceover from Juliet Stevenson and Patrick Stewart tell us that we’re looking at the actually desk that Shakespeare may have learnt the classics from or the actual book, or actual etc.

My favourite was probably Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. It’s the most complete dwelling, the only one in which all of the rooms are given over to showing living rooms (all of the others including an exhibition space of one sort or another breaking the illusion), and the most romantic since it’s presumed to be the place were young William wooed his future wife, perhaps inspiring dozens of similar romances in his plays. Without a car or coach, the only approach seems to be a walk from the parish centre through a series of alleyways cutting across suburbia then a field and into the village of Shottery of which it is but one of a multitude of thatched buildings (which did mean I misidentified the odd building before finally happening upon what was obviously the tourist attraction). One of the moments of perfect calm I experienced during the week was sitting in the garden outside the house, listening to the birds and looking up past the roof towards a deep blue sky. I need to have more of those.

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