Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Shakespeare Houses, Part III: The Birthplace
(and More Thoughts on Hawthorne)

“After wandering through two or three streets, I found my way to Shakespeare’s birthplace, which is almost a smaller and humbler house than any description can prepare the visitor to expect; so inevitably does an august inhabitant make his abode palatial to our imaginations, receiving his guests, indeed, in a castle in the air, until we unwisely insist on meeting him among the sordid lanes and alleys of lower earth...I should consider it unfair to quit Shakespeare’s house without the frank acknowledgment that I was conscious of not the slightest emotion while viewing it, nor any quickening of the imagination. This has often happened to me in my visits to memorable places.”
—Nathaniel Hawthorne

Was Shakespeare born in the Birthplace? Probably. Was he born in the room known as the Birthroom? It's impossible to know. The Birthroom is identified as such in a tradition that goes back only to the eighteenth century, which was the beginning of a boom in visits to the Birthplace. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams visited together in 1786; Hawthorne visited in 1855; Mark Twain visited in 1873. Millions of others from around the world, famous and unknown, have visited since the eighteenth century. It's easy to imagine a series of garrulous old ladies, tenants and tour guides of the house on Henley Street, eager to impress their paying visitors by showing them the exact room in which Shakespeare was born or the exact chair in which young Shakespeare sat. For a little extra, she would even take out her handy knife and whittle off a bit of the chair for you too take home as a souvenir.

As I walked through the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church on my way to the Birthplace, I noticed a tall cedar of Lebanon with a sign that identified it as a tree brought back from Gethsemane by a former vicar of the Stratford church in the late nineteenth century. After the experience of Madame Tussauds, I was full of thoughts about the need to feel a physical connection with the past, the sacred, or the celebrated. P.T. Barnum felt that need so strongly—or rather, felt its profitability so strongly—that he made a bid to buy Shakespeare's Birthplace and transport it to his museum in New York. Why do we need to touch something, walk through something, own something? Does walking through the Birthplace bring us closer to Shakespeare? Does it add anything to his plays?

For Hawthorne, the answer was no. One of my favorite Hawthorne stories, "The Virtuoso's Collection," is about a visit to a museum which brings together such improbable items as the dove from Noah's Ark and Puss in Boots (both in the large collection of taxidermy), the tortoise that fell from the sky and killed Aristotle, the hatchet that George Washington used to cut down the cherry tree, and hundreds of other objects from myth, history, and literature. Again, Hawthorne explores the obsession with physical objects, and wonders in what sense those objects are more "real" than the stories that animate them and give them meaning.

Hawthorne’s most famous work, The Scarlet Letter, begins with the discovery of an artifact—the scarlet letter itself, discovered in the attic of the Custom House. The discovery of the scarlet letter prompts the telling of a story in which the letter is originally intended to sum up the entire physical and spiritual life of Hester Prynne for the society in which she lives: she is an adulteress. The artifact is at the center of two stories: the story that Hawthorne tells to his readers, and the story that the letter itself tells the people of Boston about Hester Prynne. The scarlet letter allows the people of Boston to objectify Hester, and its discovery allows the writer to tell a story which redeems her from that simple objectification.

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