Wednesday, 4 September 2013

William Shakespeare - birthplace and grave

I have just returned from a much overdue, 4 day, World tour of England, seeing friends and looking at things, drinking cups of tea and the occasional beer and generally enjoying the weather, though perhaps not when I was stuck in a traffic jam on the M6 at Birmingham. This blog though not the first stop of the trip is first I present. 

It's Stratford upon Avon and the house you see below, was owned in 1564 by local glove maker, John Shakespeare. I don't suppose he could have guessed that when, in that year, his wife, Mary, gave birth to their third child, William, in the house (the exact date isn't known but he was baptised on the 26th of April), that he had just become the father of the most celebrated (and I'm sure in many classrooms, cursed) playwright of all time.

I was impressed not to see any signage or adornment on the house, not even a blue plaque and the only unusual thing on the front of the building is a small panel where you can see the composition of the filling in the half timbering. The house and gardens are entered from a specially built centre a few yards down the street.

It doesn't seem cheap to get in at first glance, £14.95, but you do get rather a lot for your money. The price included the birthplace and grave and two other houses in the town. For those with more time, which I didn't, £22 will get this and Anne Hathaway's Cottage and Mary Arden's farm. I certainly felt that by the end of it, I'd had a good deal and if I had been living locally, the ticket is valid for a whole year. (the website for all the destinations is here)

Just before entering this intriguing ring is on display. Shakespeare is known to have worn a seal ring and lost it. It was obviously valuable enough for him to have mentioned it's loss in his last will and testiment. This gold, Elizabethan, seal ring was found just outside Holy Trinity Curch, where he is buried, nearly 200 years after his death. There is nothing to say that this is Shakespeare's but how many people with the initials W.S. would have lived in Stratford, been wealthy enough to buy a chunky, gold ring and provided some evidence that they had lost one. It's hard not to imagine that it graced the Bard's finger.

Before entering the gardens and house, there is a short, but informative video presentation in a number of rooms each containing models and artifacts pertaining to that part of the video.

Some effective lighting on a model of London.

It wasn't made terribly clear at the time, though it was hinted at, that this was a First Folio of Shakespeare's plays.

It's not unlikely that the above book is a First Folio, for the museum owns three. The one below certainly is. It was on display in an exhibition I visited in the building a little later on. Published in 1623, a few years after Shakespeare's death, it collected together most of his plays and is widely credited as being the reason we have so many of them today. When published it cost £1 bound (or 15 shillings unbound). Quite a sum considering that a  school teacher in Stratford at the time would have made around £20 a year. It is thought that around 750 were printed and about 230 still exist today. Only about 40 of the 230 existing copies are complete, and one came up for sale in Sotherby's in 2006 where it fetched a price of £2,500,000.

This is the only letter Shakespeare received that is still known to exist.

Not only is it difficult to read but rather unromantic, one Richard Quiney asking for a loan of 30 quid. Here's what he wrote in type somewhat more amenable to the modern eye.

Here's the house itself from the back. Entry is through a door on the right of the house in this picture. The first room you enter was actually the next door neighbour's house in John Shakespeare's day, but you soon find yourself in the house proper.

This is the living room. It contains a bed, the best bed, which would be reserved for guests. Costing about £10, if you can afford a spare bed, you're certainly going to have it out on display where people can see how well you're doing. Shakespeare famously left his wife his second best bed in his will - not as insulting as it might originally have seemed as the second best bed would have been the marital bed. (much of the pieces of furniture in the house are replicas for display purposes)

The dining room.

Upstairs in one of the rooms there is a window displayed that used to be in the the birthroom (I'm sure John and Mary called it their bedroom but their number one son's beginning seems to have endowed it with a more important title). In the early 19th century, visitors took to scratching their names on it. I'm quite sure you'd get thrown out for that now. Here is some of it.

Apparently Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle wrote their names on the window. I couldn't find them. The only name they pointed out was that of Henry Irving (I hadn't heard of him before either). Sir Henry's little piece of vandalism is to be found diagonally at the very top left of this pane - naughty boy!

The Shakespeare children would have had one bed to share - well the boys anyway (the girls would have had their pick of the floor).

This is the birthroom (they are of course not 100% sure of this but it seems more than likely)

Not an unpleasant bedroom if I may say so - you could pick worse places to start you life. It now comes complete with a vandalism free window and well informed guide in period costume.

Leaving the birthroom you enter part of the house that William had built after he inherited it from his father. He was doing well as a playwright at this time and had a house in London where he would mostly have dwelt (when he returned to Stratford to live he had another house which will be mentioned in a later blog). Part of the extension was this kitchen area. He ran the house as an inn after his fathers death and downstairs would have been the pub.

In the garden four actors (one was an actress (as you can see)) performed pieces of the plays and recited sonnets. They took requests, putting the audience's favourite bits of Shakespeare into little playlettes. A mighty headful of lines they must have had which they delivered well. They were pretty chatty inbetween and seemed to be having a wonderful time themselves. I was impressed and returned for a second dose with a cup of tea later on. (a special Shakespeare brew, unique to the centre - Earl Greyish and very nice too) 

Even a wee song.

Macbeth being perturbed by a dagger.

A final bow.

If you're going to be born there is only one thing certain in this life. William Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil in 1616 and was buried rather grandly in front of the high altar in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.

He is buried under the following lines -

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebeare
To digg the dust enclosed heare;
 Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones

Next to him is the grave of his wife, Anne.

Also alongside William is the grave of Thomas Nash (the Husband of Elizabeth, William's granddaughter), John Hall (Elizabeth's father and husband of William's daughter Susanna), and Susanna herself.

Only a few feet away is the font that Shakespeare was baptised in - it's seen better days.

I'll leave you with this painting of William Shakespeare by Gerard Soest which was hanging in the birthplace exhibition.


Poppy (aka Val) said...

Brilliant blog Sandy! I went to Anne Hathaway's cottage many years ago, but would really love to visit this house! Your photos are great as always, I love the way historic houses/ castles etc have been furnished in the appropriate way, so much more interesting than visiting an empty shell. The font was interesting too, just a shame it is on such a modern stand, thanks for sharing :)

Sandy's witterings said...

Thanks Val. Up here in the Northland our historic houses tend to fall into two categories. The Scottish National Trust tend to furnish (often from a central stock of period stuff they have when houses are not so full) and Historic Scotland (English Heritage is your equivalent) don't, though often their buildings are little more than ruins. I like to see them furnished appropriately, it helps bring them to life.

The Glebe Blog said...

A couple of day visits to Stratford in the 70's never improved my understanding of the Bard of Avon. Enjoyed the boat trips though.
The only thing at school was the need to learn the lines that went "Is this a dagger", for a school play.
Very entertaining post Sandy.

Sandy's witterings said...

Jim, School never seemed to give me a dislike of Shakespeare - I'm sure that's a failing from the English Department at Langholm Academy.
This if from the time travelling episode of Blackadder.

The Glebe Blog said...

Love the Blackadder clip Sandy, I'd forgotten Colin Firth's appearance.