Last Saturday the large mulberry tree planted in 1965 by Dame Peggy Ashcroft, in the garden at the back of the site of Shakespeare’s house at New Place split in half, under the weight of the heavy rains. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust were quick to erect a sign in front of the mournful wound in Stratford-Upon-Avon saying that it would be strapped back, in an attempt to save what flowered from a cutting of the larger mulberry tree, in its stone wall bedding in the same garden. That tree itself is said to be bred from an offshoot of Shakespeare’s original tree, or an offshoot of an offshoot, currently plump with the juicy blood red berries too. A tree which Germaine Greer in her book Shakespeare’s Wife suggests may have been planted by Anne Hathaway four hundred years ago, to begin the cultivation of valuable silk worms. It proves something has always been about money and survival, and certainly was in Shakespeare’s day, whether in Stratford or London. Meanwhile another mulberry tree in the front garden has caused a bit of bother in impeding the small archaeological dig underway for four years now, that has unearthed a small neolithic pit on the site of New Place, but little else, except shards of uninteresting pottery. In 2012 the Trust applied to remove the tree to get to the Tudor foundations.
The archaeologists cannot dig around or under it though, let alone fell the thing, not because trees are lovely and mulberries taste sweet, and stain your hands very theatrically too, but because it is the subject of a TPO, a Town Preservation Order. One archaeologist, perhaps echoing the sensitivities of what sometimes strikes you as a siege mentality from the Birthplace, was quick to point out that at least it will preserve whatever lies beneath for future generations of archaeologists. Everything is perhaps a vogue, and Time Team did much to bring in today’s spades, a series which should never have been axed. Yet as WH Auden said of discoveries about the facts of Shakespeare’s life being irrelevant to the living importance of the sonnets, for instance, whether involving real dark ladies or homoerotic affairs, I am not entirely sure the bits and pieces even matter that much to Shakespeare, or rather they are, like ‘real life’, always somehow a world apart.
For those in love with Shakespeare, not easy Bardolatry or heritage Britain either, Stratford-Upon-Avon can be a rather depressing place, at times, once the thrill of imagined proximity wears off, and you get stung by the LPA, the privatised Local Parking Authority, that has got into the Press for making such noxious profits. Much that is peddled to the tourists by the Trust too, if not exactly bogus, is also questionable to scholarship, or in getting you back to any kind of linguistic and social source matter. So even to dub the house on Henley Street with its awful concrete chimney stack ‘The Birthplace’, on that original wide market way, and now crowded with anything from The Food of Love cafe opposite, to a Harry Potter emporium, sometimes seems so pompous and makes Stratford a kind of over-sanctified Bethlehem-on-Avon, exploiting the mewling secular God of literature in a way the Bard would surely have laughed or despaired at. Perhaps the Victorians were to blame.
Shakespeare saw so much that it might just have been a knowing shrug, because it has been going on for rather a long time, as that window in Henley Street proves, scratched with some rather famous pilgrim signatures. All this is of course an annex to that behind the stage set work of the Trust’s important archive, which apparently the RSC for one has a very good relationship with, according to the dedicated archivists, the fruits of which are impossible to know until they crop. With a four hundredth anniversary peg approaching in 1616 though, and The Trust assessing the future, perhaps it’s time for a little plain speaking, without fear that it might result in new Midland Riots, or offend Prince Charles and Kate Middleton, now we’re all commoners really. Time to engage in some of Germaine Greer’s loudly flaunted heresies too then, that makes her book on Shakespeare, Anne and the role of Elizabethan women so refreshing and stimulating. Although for all Greer’s bristling attacks on other scholars and their mostly male assumptions, not necessarily less valid than female ones, Germaine is a little too keen to sell her own feminist line on Anne, Shakespeare, and womanhood, and makes some glaring mistakes too. In the same pages then that assure us that all the three un-wed brothers were back in Stratford in June, 1607, for Susanna Shakespeare’s wedding to John Hall, she overlooks the fact that Shakespeare’s youngest brother Edmund’s unknown lady was heavily pregnant at the time in London, in a poor part of the city too, and within weeks would give birth to a boy child, Edward, who died within the month. Four months later Shakespeare’s youngest brother, himself a player, at least in records, would be dead too, on Bankside, at only 27. If that underscores something of a dysfunctional Shakespeare family, or the problems of all families making new ones and their own way in the fighting world, it is in line with so much being written nowadays about the Bard and the times, with a grittier reality than Bardolatry has allowed and as important as getting back to the complexity and passion of the plays and poems.
Meanwhile people flock to Holy Trinity Church too, some to take in the signs assuring us Shakespeare was an active Christian, others to find their own meanings, inspirations and theories in Shakespeare’s grave. Hall’s Croft though, a building in fact dubbed a croft in the discovery of all things Scottish, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, naturally as bogus as BraveHeart, now has absurd and tasteless cut-outs upstairs peddling fun to the family and the kid’s market, in the Horrible Histories vein that seems to swamp everything. Also quite ignoring the rather fascinating story of who lived in that home and how the place itself becomes part of the mythos, that could make its own interesting exhibition. Like the actor Anthony Quayle or the two goodly ladies who owned Hall’s place and spent so much time in India with their Guru. Meanwhile, down the pub in Wilmcote, they mutter that Mary Arden’s house and farm was neither in the original building first claimed for it, in the Wilmcote complex, nor in smaller house down by the wall, today claimed as her house, but in the modest ruins over the road, by the field and overspill car park. Ho hum.
The Henley Street home, being ye holy Birthplace, Thomas’s Nashe’s house on the site of New Place, Mary Arden’s farm and the Hathaway Cottage, with the grave in the Church somewhat appended, are the five jewels in the crown of Shakespeareana for the Trust, at £22 a ticket for the grand tour (not including the £2 the Church asks for a donation, rather too officiously). For me only one of them really starts to touch a time though and that is the more off-the-beaten track working farm recreation down Mary Arden’s manor, whichever building it really was. Perhaps it is about getting away from the queuing crowds too, but there little living displays of archery, falconry, an apothecaries table and a fully served and eaten meal at dinner time, being lunch and the main meal, with real, smelly farm animals too, bring something back to life, and offer a lot of fun. I especially enjoyed learning from a jobbing actor about boys taught archery at the age of six, and the enormous strength needed to fire a Long Bow with a drawing power of a hundred and twenty pounds. The one I shot rather badly only has a drawer of forty.
What is good is not only some authenticity but the engagement of the folk putting on the show, usually not actors provided with lines, but mostly volunteers who are highly engaged and really know their stuff. I’m sure much of this is silly to scholars, when touching the texts of history, but it is important to smell some of the ‘simples’, or the delicious food we could not try because of tedious Health and Safety, to hear men and women call each other Master and Mistress, even to know that women wore no underwear, if Germaine will forgive the ‘Greer’ observation. It should be a new adjective, in talking about Shakespeare and women. But there are rumblings of uncertainty at the moment, not helped by today’s endless need for consultations, and if everyone has a gripe, perhaps its true what one local said, that at the Birthplace Trust at the moment there are “too many chiefs and not enough Indians“. If they are all fired for it, then perhaps we should restart the battle that was waged in Stratford over enclosures.
As for reality, nothing is quite true of history, perhaps, or there are always exceptions that could re-dub Henry VIII with the alternative title All is True. Time moves on too, until it becomes seized into those ‘Heritage’ sales that are sometimes so sad, but our world all over. Although that farm does give you a taste of a world that Shakespeare so often describes and feeds on in living detail, with the memories of his own childhood such a well spring of the magic and miracle that was to come. For me that is one key to a time, and to Shakespeare, that people forget, the mystery and effectively liberation of not any complete knowledge, but the very lack of knowledge, in a specific age before records made it all about death and taxes, or the Tourist shops. With the Reformation, printing and theatres, Shakespeare’s consciousness and delight in words and their making then exploded into the living language like never before. There are other good modern ideas that pop up too though, like the singing tree in the garden at the Hathaway cottage, even the recreation of John’s glover’s shop, although as clean and sterilised as the atrocious low-budget sets for the recent series The White Queen.
The Birthplace makes a mistake in not making more of true ‘scholarship’ too, which is about competing theories, and the fact the Henley Street home was quickly given over in part to a working tavern called The Maidenhead, but I suppose it would be foolish to bring back middens, hanging and quartering, or the Black Death, to get to authenticity and some flow of reality and time, and nor should Stratford be The London Dungeon. Talking of sets, what of course divides Stratford is also the presence of the RSC, The Royal Shakespeare Company, in that weird and rather ugly building by the river, if with those wonderful theatres inside. It is an institution that some of the folk working at the Trust say is a law unto itself and not at all engaged in what jobs and sales mean they have to peddle themselves, willing or not. Then snootiness can be everywhere in Stratford, from folk defensive of the truths they think they enshrine, to actors and artists far above the ‘awful’ tourism, to often rather patronising attitudes to tourists too, who they seem to blame for exactly what they are being sold. Don’t dumb down then, wise up and inspire, and people will always thank you for the ambition and still buy the books and trinkets.
Since everyone loves a play, and the garden of Henley Street came alive when some merry actors appeared, and drew in the visitors, perhaps the RSC might think of donating more of its energies, or some at least, to bringing to life some of the underused spaces at the Trust, like the generous gardens where those mulberry trees lie, split or not, in some spirit of creative frolic. After all, the production of Titus Andronicus is much about the currents of popular cultural success. Lynn Beddoe, head of Birthplace marketing, and it should certainly not all be about marketing, says that a rethink is underway for the 2016 anniversary, while other sources suggest that it will be in union with the local Stratford council, whether wanted or not. I bet many wish they did not have to walk on egg shells, even if a Trust somehow holds Shakespeare in Trust for us all, as suggested by a summer press release entitled SHAKESPEARE BIRTHPLACE TRUST HOLDS CONSULTATION ON PROPOSALS FOR A NEW LOOK AT NEW PLACE – SHAKESPEARE’S FINAL HOME IN STRATFORD-UPON-AVON.
Perhaps the Trust, that surely hardly needed to break a sweat over silly films like Anonymous, although patron Prince Charles was suddenly put up on-line as being on the side of a ‘Stratford Shakespeare’, not any other candidate for authorship, as if a future King was any better an authority than a player or a scholar, might drop their guard a little more and admit we all know Shakespeare was Shakespeare, of Stratford and London, just as his brother Edmund was a London player too, further evidence in the matter. But that marketing and the steady accretion of the bogus beyond that, or indeed the over defensive, does not tell us what the source of genius is, and sometimes simply fuels the silly and distracting counter theories, that also ache to get to harder truths of the times, like the fact of Edward Devere being dead by 1604 and anyone but The Earl of Oxford and a minor contemporary scribbler. (No, we’re am not going to engage again, but you can read some of the arguments here.)
That defensiveness can be a problem with the loftiness or certainty of scholarship too, that Greer takes such a pot shot at, and is often as much about jobs, arrogance, and hoped for gold in them there hills too, as any chauvinism. I don’t say it of the likes of Paul Edmonson, Stanley Wells or the legendary Bob Bearman at the Trust, whose books incidentally are all over the Shop, being the Birthplace Shop, simply because my own attempts to engage with them on Edmund Shakespeare failed, but admittedly on a visit in the middle of people’s hols. Though despite the excellent help of Amy Hurst it was a little odd to receive an answer to a member of the public’s enquiries that said it connected up with “The Shakespeare Circle” [Stanley and Paul’s next book], as though a warning off. If these people had just discovered Edmund or William were still alive and living in Graceland surely as servants of the Trust they would have a duty to divulge the fact if someone asked!
I have seen it elsewhere though, especially when a door shut so quickly from the US front, among a group linked to James Shapiro, as I tried to break new ground doing research in London and to share what is or is not known about Edmund and the players. Perhaps I’m at fault in not quite respecting a claim to ‘moral copyright’ there, but I had begun my search on Edmund Shakespeare quite independently, starting with fiction, and you thankfully cannot have copyright in hard facts, which aren’t ever quite as hard as you might think. The academic ground that really needs breaking then, or the earth turning and airing, is a little more openness, humility and fun about Shakespeare too, from many who could not write a line of poetry, and about the vital magic of art itself, against the questionable validity of biography too, or it being especially valuable or not in getting to the root of genius and inspiration. Indeed we need to ask what people are really trying to get at or defend in worrying about Shakespeare the man at all.
There are two main vogues nowadays. One is that growing attempt to prove Shakespeare a Catholic, led by the likes of the generally inspiring Michael Wood, who Greer also rightly challenges, although it depends what you mean by a Catholic, in those labels so recreated by Reformation, and the other a kind of revisionist history that suggests Shakespeare was either a villan, ‘tight’ with money, ‘ungentle’, a dastardly philanderer, or a man who may have been the most articulate ever, but who openly humiliated and effectively abandoned his own sterling wife, Anne, as Greer spikely suggests. Perhaps you should never meet the author, although with Will I imagine people are willing to forgive a great deal, while it is hardly sacrilege to suggest, as Peter Ackroyd does, that Shakespeare might have got a little fat later in life, or worried about money. Greer is simply wrong though to assume all men have thought women somehow the villains of the piece, or Shakespeare spotless either, and not to articulate more how the age itself, and a playwright who could produce Rosalind and so many other astonishing women, is so precious to that understanding of love, good and bad, or trying to understand what it’s all about. Oddly Greer seems something of the Puritan, when perhaps it was a Protestant Reformation that inhibited female liberation by hundreds of years, or time goes back and forward.
What Shakespeare’s Wife is so right to underline though is how the centuries of attempts to blacken Anne in order to justify or liberate Shakespeare are both nasty and puerile, when, for adults at least, life is surely more textured, rich and problematic too, whatever the meaning of that ‘Second best’ bed bequest in his Will. At times hers is perhaps the oddest book of all then, for the marvelous and valuable detail, since it simultaneously has Shakespeare in love with and dependent on Anne, betraying and neglecting, avoiding London stewes, or contracting syphilis there, and either not there in his own family’s life or there a great deal. So we are told Anne read the sonnets in 1609 to discover Will was homosexual, though also told the label did not exist and it is not possible to pin the sonnets to the cliché of a starting obsession with a man and then a Dark Lady. She neglects the legend about Sir William Davenant too, and a son born in 1606 to another woman, so Shakespeare as more free form about sex or love, but not necessarily in the darker or more sordid quarters of a London cess pit, so associated with players. What it does highlight is the power and importance of looking at Shakespeare through someone else’s perspective, someone so close and important, the same reason for my looking at Edmund and the family.
To be a little less churlish there are many ways of enjoying Stratford too, and one is not to be too obsessed with the points of famous focus, or rather enjoy them near closing time and towards evening too. Make a special pilgrimage to Charlcote too, and that wonderful house and grounds where Shakespeare was rumoured to have been caught poaching deer, wend about the town, to the old Guild Chapel, the Edward VI grammar school, and find your own nooks and crannies in some wonderful buildings. Walk by the river too, feed the swans and take in the singular and usually gentle magic of the Warwickshire Countryside. Then there’s always a play.
Finally to even graver matters though, that tombstone and monument in the Church, which has caused such problems and speculations, first because of that odd three-foot gravestone on the floor, and secondly because of that rather uninspiring monument and bust on the wall. With such concerns about disturbing a mulberry tree today, TPO or not, or local politics that the Trust cannot be blamed for, we’re very far indeed from the patrician days then when Edmund Malone could march into Stratford and instruct the wardens to paint the bust white. A good thing when you consider how many Shakespeare experts have been rather questionable themselves, from even Malone taking cuttings from Henslowe’s and Alleyn’s dairies, to Halliwell-Phillips stealing books, to John Payne Collier forging entries to prove his often convincing theories. Naughty men all, and not the strange Ms Bacon who came up with the Sir Francis Bacon authorship theory. A mulberry by any other name would taste as sweet!
As Bill Bryson points out though, the oddest were the American couple, the Wallaces, who ploughed through five million documents at the National Archives, to be rewarded by turning up the Bellot-Mountjoy case and much else besides. Mr Wallace became convinced that he was being spied on by the Brit establishment though, not exactly impossible considering Prism and Tempura nowdays, and returned to Texas to discover an oil well in Wichita Falls, that made them enormously rich and rather unhappy too. A very Shakespearean turn in the weather. The Trust though needs to somehow temper their over easily digestible tourist trap, with a sense of less marketable purposes, like the significance of the archive, and also realise that too much tourism gets tawdry. Also that you can neither be all things to all people – only Shakespeare can be that, and probably always will be – nor do anything really creative without taking some risks, and injecting new blood, including risking offending someone, somewhere. Does that mean being tough on one mulberry tree to reach other kinds of roots again? If the experience in 1756 of the curate Francis Gaskill is anything to go by they should be careful, since his growing tired with visitors saw him taking an axe to the original tree, and resulted in the town taking revenge by smashing his windows. Or perhaps this storm induced split will remind everyone ‘the rain it raineth everyday’ and that none of the trees are original anyway.
In terms of the grave I must admit that my own nosy, blood hound instinct is to allow someone to drill a small exploratory hole in the monument, not for oil like the Wallaces, but to see if there’s anything inside, whether ashes or almost impossibly manuscripts, if only to put treasure hunting to rest for good and help everyone get back to what really matters, the works. Which could hardly offend historical or religious sensibilities, by leaving in peace the gravestone below it, with that famous curse not to disturb Shakespeare’s bones. There again Greer makes some stimulating speculations and one is that it might be there because herbalist John Hall knew that to disturb any bones would expose a skeleton showing the marks of syphilis. Although to me it is something both about the tendency to move graves and perhaps not to rake over the agonising battles of the Reformation itself, that Shakespeare so fought out, inside and out, indeed the secrets of people’s private lives, that Shakespeare was also masterful at drawing a veil over too, in contrast to our all invasive age and ‘the right’ to know. It is the journey from the pornography of Titus Andronicus to the magical sensitivities of his dance of theatre towards marriage and real union, his understanding of the unseen too, and his strange, eventful histories, to reach the most creative truths of people and lives.
Actually what is so striking about the grave is not just Shakespeare’s stone, but the row of tombs there, right at the edge of the chancel, and thus in one sense at the forefront of the whole town to come, including Shakespeare and his wife, Nashe, Hall and Susanna. It seems that the defense and creation of the mythos then, that in one way culminated in today’s tea shops and T-shirts, had begun as soon as Shakespeare died, like that search for a coat of arms and status as gentleman, in the often grim survival stakes. At times it is as false though to the hard, tender and fascinating truths of life, as that monument erected at the end of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, obscuring all the betraying and messy bits, or a man doomed to jungle madness, fated to read the complete works of Dickens to a lunatic. Perhaps we should all be allowed to dance around a mulberry tree then, with the lads and lasses at the RSC, or go off to The Windmill tavern nearby and quote some Shakespeare, as we drown our sorrows: “The Wine cup is a little silver bell, where truth, if truth there be, doth ever dwell.”
David Clement-Davies is finishing a book on Edmund Shakespeare called Shakespeare’s Brother.
The picture shows the public domain sketch of New Place in 1737 by George Vertue.