Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Shakespeare Houses, Part I

Exactly 443 years ago tomorrow (April 26, 1564), John and Mary Shakespeare presented their eldest son, William, for baptism at this font in the thirteenth-century chancel of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. William had been born a few days earlier, on the 22nd or 23rd, in John Shakespeare's house on Henley Street, where John also had a glovemaker's shop.

William grew up in Stratford, where his father was a prominent citizen, serving variously as alderman, high bailiff, and in other important civic offices. In 1563, John was town chamberlain, and as such he was ordered by the Protestant town authorities to whitewash over the medieval religious murals inside the Guild Chapel. The chapel is pictured here. Past the chapel to the right is the King Edward VI School, where young Will may have attended school and learned his little bit of Latin and less Greek. In the foreground you can see the signs for the Chaucer's Head Bookshop (founded in Birmingham in 1830 and later moved to Stratford) and for Nash's House (about which more later). At the bookshop, I bought a Virago Modern Classics paperback of Elizabeth Taylor's 1957 novel Angel, about the career of a romance writer loosely based on former Stratford resident Marie Corelli, whose old home now houses the Shakespeare Institute. Taylor's novel is sometimes included on lists of greatest novels of the 20th century; for an appreciation, click here.

William was still a teenager when he started walking out to the village of Shottery, about a mile west of Stratford, to woo Anne Hathaway. He did more than woo, since when eighteen-year old Will married twenty-six year old Anne in November 1582, she was already pregnant with their first child, a girl named Susanna (b. 1583). Anne Hathaway's cottage in Shottery is an icon of rural Englishness, with its lovely garden, half-timbering, and thatched roof. Unfortunately, when I visited today the picturesqueness of the cottage was marred by blue scaffolding (just visible to the left in this photograph). The grounds of the cottage include a tree garden planted with species of trees mentioned in Shakespeare's works.

In 1607, Shakespeare's daughter Susanna married a prominent local physician, Dr. John Hall. In about 1613, Dr. Hall built himself a large house, known as Hall's Croft, where he and Susanna lived for only about three years. When Susanna's father died in 1616, she and her husband moved to his old house, known as New Place. Hall's Croft is still standing (pictured at left), but Shakespeare's New Place was demolished in 1702; only a bit of the medieval foundations of the house remain. Next door to the site of New Place is the house which once belonged to Thomas Nash and his wife Elizabeth, née Hall, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Hall. Elizabeth Nash was William Shakespeare's last surviving direct descendant.

When New Place was demolished in 1702, a new house was built on the site. In the 1750s, this was owned by a Rev. Gastrell, who quarreled with the town council about his property taxes, and eventually decided to demolish the house rather than pay his taxes. In the house's garden was a large mulberry tree, supposedly planted by Shakespeare, which Rev. Gastrell cut down because he was annoyed by all of the tourists who came to look at it. An enterprising local man bought up most of the wood from the tree and used it to carve little Shakespeare-related souvenirs, some of which are on display in Nash's House. The house also has a good display of early editions of Shakespeare's plays. At left are the gorgeous wisteria vines growing up the side of Nash's House, seen from across the site of New Place.

For £14, I bought a ticket to all five houses owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Today, I visited three of them: Anne Hathaway's Cottage, Hall's Croft, and Nash's House. On another occasion, I'll go back and walk out to Mary Arden's House in Wilmcote, and visit the Birthplace itself. Meanwhile, tomorrow night we're going to see a Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. Above is the new Courtyard Theatre, the RSC's wonderful temporary space (being used while the main theatre is being renovated), where we saw the three parts of Henry VI, and where in June we will see Sir Ian McKellen in both King Lear and Chekov's The Seagull. Both productions are coming to The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in October (October 5-14), with the expensive tickets ($30-$90) going on sale on July 22.

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