Articles

Will Shakespeare slept here

MARJORIE EARL October 15 1952
Articles

Will Shakespeare slept here

MARJORIE EARL October 15 1952

Will Shakespeare slept here

MARJORIE EARL

Age cannot wither, nor custom

stale the infinite variety of

Stratford-on-Avon whose only

industry is The Bard. They’ve also

got his bust on the petrol pumps

ONE DAY last July, when tourists were rolling by the thousands into Stratfordon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. one of the town councilors telephoned a London theatrical agency. He wanted some actors. Immediately he was offered a selection of experienced Lears. Hamlets and Romeos. But they weren't suitable. He didn't want Shakespearean actors, he said sheepishly, he wanted "a soubrette, a conjuror and a genteel comedian.” Tired of an uninterrupted diet of Shakespeare the citizens of Stratford wanted a vaudeville show.

But. whether they like it or not, the Swan of Avon—as Shakespeare is often called—has a firm grip on the lives of the fifteen thousand people who inhabit his home town, now the greatest, richest and most remarkable literary shrine on earth.

For nearly eight months of the year Stratford runs London a close second as Britain's principal tourist attraction. The devout descend upon it at the rate of one hundred thousand a month, among them an estimated annual total of seven thousand Canadians. With the Americans thev make Stratford nearly as substantial a dollar earner as Scotch whisky.

They spend an average of fifteen dollars a day each and depart after three days with an anecdote or two for their friends back home, a handbagful of gewgaws from a Hamlet cigarette case to a Shylock nutcracker and ~ feeling of uplift which comes from contact with something that may have been touched, gazed upon or created by William Shakespeare. And a high proportion of Stratford's population is engaged, one way or another, in giving them satisfaction for their money.

Stratford today is a tidy little market town twenty-four miles from Birmingham and one hundred and three miles from London. Its principal sources of revenue, apart from The Bard, are agriculture and brewing. In the past. Nathaniel Hawthorne found it "tame and unpicturesque. full of shabby, old houses.” Today it is neither tame nor shabby. Buicks. bicycles and buses mingle with the crowds on foot and the half-timbered Elizabethan buildings have been partiallv restored by removing the stucco and cement fronts of later and less worshipful centuries.

The shady personal historv of the town’s principal salesman has also been dressed up and romanticized. In Anne Hathaway's cottage, one of the shrine's most popular sights, is a settle where Shakespeare supposedly courted his wife. The hasty beginnings of this unhappy union thev were married six months before the birth of thendaughter are never mentioned. One of the fastestmoving items in the shops is a postcard which shows a shv Anne, looking vounger than her twentv-six vears. blushing prettily over a posy at her eighteenvear-old suitor.

For a town of its size Stratford should have two inns with thirty to forty rooms each. Instead it has eight major hotels some with a hundred rooms . twenty-one minor ones, sixtv-eight guest houses, thirty restaurants with a total seating capacity of over two thousand, and two hundred shops. The chief hotel, by a singularlv unremarkable coincidence, is named The Shakespeare. Its hundred-odd rooms, ranging in price from fourfiftv to eight dollars a night, are usuallv filled with Americans and Canadians. One of its principal attractions, in addition to the fact that it is a fine old Tudor relic and provides excellent service, is that all its rooms have Shakespearean names. The dining room is As You Like It. The cocktail bar, one of the few places in England where the

Canadian visitor can order a Tom Collins or a Zombie is called Measure For Measure.

This whimsey poses certain problems for Emile Sachs, who took over management of the hotel four vears ago. ”1 have to be careful of people's feelings.” he said. “It wouldn’t do to put a maiden lady into the Love’s Labour Lost room.”

There are Shakespeare restaurants, Hathaway tearooms and Shakespeare gift shops. The latter do a steady business in door knockers, bottle openers, bookmarks, wallets, spoons, dishes, postcards. prints and other items commemorating the great poet's works and outlining the scanty events known of his life in bronze, brass, china, wood, leather and plastic. The Midland Bank has Shakespeare's head over its door and his face is embossed on its cheques. There are Shakespeare garages and one man found that business improved when he mounted busts of The Bard over his petrol pumps.

Stratford offers little to the tripper except Shakespeare. There are no mountains to climb, no beaches. The Avon, which Hawthorne described as "lazy, loitering past Stratford Church as if it had been considering which wav to go ever since Shakespeare used to paddle in it” is too choked with weeds for swimming. Besides rubbernecking, the only entertainment not available in equal quantities at Stoke-Poges or Blackpool is the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre where, under the hand of ambitious and successful manager-actor Anthony Quayle. opulent and excellent Shakespearean productions attract full houses to every performance.

The majority of the twelve hundred who fill the theatre for every performance are tourists. Only one local resident in ten attends the Memorial Theatre. Quite a lot of people are tired of being with the spirit of Shakespeare dav and night. "I'm sick to death of him. that I am.” said one female rooter for vaudeville. "Him and his prithees!”

Opponents of the establishment of a variety theatre are the more squeamish element of the local citizenry who resent anv hint that Shakespeare isn't popular and are embarrassed bv references to the town as the world's principal purveyor of poetry for a profit.

Last summer radio star Wilfred Pickles interviewed Stratford residents on a nation-wide hookup: some admitted that thev had never been inside the Memorial Theatre it is twenty years old and more than half confessed that Shakespeare bored Continued on page 45

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 24

them and they didn’t know what he was getting at.

“It was definitely not a cross section of the population.” disclaimed John Wheatley, information officer of the Stratford Council. “The majority of people here are very proud of Shakespeare."

So incensed were some Stratford folk that it took an apology from Sir William Haley, director-general of the BBC. to mollify them.

“It’s a question of As You Like It and they didn’t like it,” Pickles retorted.

Levi Fox. a bespectacled serious young scholar, pales with wrath when anybody talks about Stratford as an Avonside goldmine. He is director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, a non-profit organization responsible for the upkeep of all the genuine Shakespeare relics and buildings.

"I don’t think much of people who refer to Stratford as the home of the Shakespeare industry,” he says sternly. “There was a Stratford here before Shakespeare and there would probably have been one without him.”

In November, Fox points out, the buses, the crowds and the confusion are gone and the town settles back unimpeded into its historic role of selling cattle and gTain and brewing world-renowned ale, which is made with water from deep artesian wells and not from the sacred Avon, as is popularly supposed.

During the long festival season, which lasts from March until the first of November. Stratford should, Fox says, be thought of not as a tourist paradise but as the literary Mecca of the world and a memorial to its greatest poet. So far this year worshippers have come from eighty-five different countries, including ten from Russia. A great many are students in whom the trust takes a special interest.

Its remarkable library is available for study and two years ago Birmingham University established a branch of its Shakespeare Institute in Strat ford for graduate and scholarship students. The British Council, which exists mainly outside the British Isles for assistance to foreign scholars, has established one of its two home branches in Stratford.

But. in spite of these manifestations of culture. Shakespeare is a business and such a good one that it’s almost a monopoly. To make sure that nothing deters the tourists the Warwickshire County Council has carefully discouraged the development of postwar industry anywhere near Shakespeare’s Avon. One factory employing seven hundred people is moving as a result of a semi-official invitation to do so. “There has been a long period of non co-operation by the council and we are forced to move to a more productionminded area,” said one of its directors. Another firm has been negotiating with Stratford Council for two years for permission to build a factory on land purchased some time ago. But so far its owners haven’t got .. building

In addition to the Birthplace, the trust maintains four properties: the museum at New Place, site of the house to which Shakespeare retired in 1597 after his theatrical triumphs in London; Anne Hathaway’s cottage, where he may or may not have courted his wife; the cottage believed to have been occupied by Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, and Hall's Croft, home of his daughter and son-in-law, which

now houses a festival social and recreational club used principally by visiting students.

Of these properties the Birthplace is much the most popular. Last year 164,157 paid an entrance fee of oneand-sixpence for a guided tour around, an increase of sixpence over last year’s

But some tourists don’t go for the conventional sightseeing at all. Mr. and Mrs. Donald Deacon, of Unionville. Ont., visited Stratford on their recent vacation in Britain simply to attend the theatre. Mrs. Deacon, who

had worked in England during the war for the Canadian government, said the only other thing that interested them was the church. (Stratford parish church where Shakespeare is buried ) The theatre, incorporated as a separate trust, is the only one in Britain, and quite possibly in the world, which can balance its books without much local custom. Enthusiasts order tickets as much as a year in advance and there is always a queue at the box office hoping for cancellations. In 1950 the theatre made a profit of seventy-five thousand dollars.

Last year it showed a slight loss because profits went to amortize the cost of extensive renovation.

Immediately after Shakespeare's death the citizens of Stratford opposed his plays - but not because they wanted vaudeville. They were Puritans and they didn't want any kind of frivolity. In 1622, when his old theatrical colleagues, the King's Men. came to play in his home town, the city fathers made up a purse of six shillings each to bribe them not to perform.

The first record of Shakespearean sightseeing in Stratford was in 1634

when a lieutenant of the army paid a visit there and duly observed a "neat monument to the famous English poet Mr. Wm. Shakespeare who was borne heere." But it really took over a century and a half for Shakespeare, Unlimited, to get into its stride.

In the early years of the eighteenth century, biographers and writers were beginning to make a good living peddling spurious anecdotes about him. A man named Ireland even “discovered"’ two new plays. They were booed off the stage when he tried to present them at DruryLane Theatre and Ireland was imprisoned.

By the middle of the centuryit had become plain to Stratfordians that relics and reminiscences of a mere poet were better business than grain and cows. In 17-58 an improvident Stratford parson named Francis Gastrell made the biggest mistake of his life. It earned him immortal infamy and it started the local industrial bail rolling. Five years earlier he had moved into New Place. Shakespeare's house. In the yard was a mulberry tree supposedly planted bythe poet's own hands. By this time so many people were coming to stare at it and to carve their initials in its sturdy trunk that, in a rage, the reckless cleric chopped it down. Shortly thereafter he burned the house down.

Now, because of Gastrell. ail tourists can see of New Place is an exquisite garden planted with flowers which are mentioned in the plays and a museum exemplifying the Shakespearean way of life.

Biographical fragments about Gastrell indicate that he was a meanspirited money-grubbing man. But he evidentlydidn't recognize a good thing when he saw it.

A commercially astute neighbor named Sharpe did. He snapped up

the dismembered mulberryfor a song and stretched it into enough toys and souvenirs to account for a whole forest. He did such a business that the tree eventuallybecame a laughing stock and „ scandal, but not before a crab tree, under which Shakespeare is supposed to have slept off a hangover, had become another asset in this flourishing trade.

About this time, the house where Shakespeare was bom was tenanted bya widow named Mary Hornbywho quicklyrealized its commercial possibilities. The previous occupant had placed a card in the window which said: "William Shakespeare was bom in this house. N.B. A horse and taxed cart to let." The redoubtable widow collected a fund of stories, an original "Shakespeare" chair, which she was continuouslyselling and mysteriouslyreplacing. and other genuine relics. Business became so good that her landlady, another widow, jealouslyput her out.

The widow Hornby parceled up her chairs and her relics and took another house down the street and for a time there were two rival birthplaces in Stratford. But before she went she applied a spiteful coat of whitewash to the Birthplace walls, obliterating the signatures of the Duke of Wellington, the German poet Schiller, Sir Walter Scott and the other great who had left evidence of their pilgrimages.

Today, just as many famous people go to the Birthplace (one guide had Harpo Marx and Jean Simmons in the same party) but there are no spurious relics and few apocryphal stories. Bought by the nation in 1847, the Birthplace became t trust byspecial act of parliament, incorporating the other buildings associated with Shakespeare. The furniture, it is carefully pointed out, is definitelyElizabethan

but it is not necessarily a legacy of tbe Shakespeare family.

In 1950, when King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret visited the Birthplace—the first time a reigning monarch had ever done so—His Majesty was interested by an Elizabethan baby minder. This contraption consists of an adjustable leather band attached to a rotating pole and when fastened around the baby’s waist is supposed to teach it to walk. “That,” said the King, “is just what we need for Charles.”

For those who must see one there is still a Shakespeare chair. It comes from the Falcon Inn, another of Stratford’s principal hotels, and is the seat in which the poet is said to have sat when he met with his friends there. There are als > two documents which offer positive proof that John Shakespeare owned the building. And above all there is THE Letter.

Written three hundred and fifty-four years ago by an impecunious gentleman named Richard Quynev, it asks his “lovinge frende and countryman Wm. Shakespeere” for a loan of thirty pounds. It is the only document in the museum, except the will, known to have been touched by the poet s

The Shakespeare mystery has occupied scholars for centuries. Apart from the plays, all that is positively known of his life could be summed up on two sides of a postcard. Although many “portraits” of Shakespeare exist it is almost impossible to be certain what he looked like.

He was born at Stratford and after his marriage left wife and three children to go to London. There he became a prosperous shareholder in theatrical enterprises and a moderately successful actor and dramatist. He retired to Stratford and, as a local propertyowner, appears to have turned his hand to moneylending. He died at fifty-two.

There is a gap of about seven years in his life. Lawyers insist he spent it as an articled clerk in a law office because he knew so much about their profession. Soldiers say he spent it in the army because he knew so much about theirs. Some scholars say he was a secret-service agent. Early last August Dr. Franco Colafelice. an Italian Shakespearean, claimed to have discovered that Shakespeare was on business for the crown in \ erona in 1591, where he picked up background material for Romeo and Juliet. The Taming of the Shrew and Two Gentlemen of Verona.

When, a few weeks ago. a night lecturer for the London County Council claimed Shakespeare had been a spy for Walsingham, right-hand man of Queen Elizabeth 1. the Russians saw a chance to get in a few hot licks in the propaganda war. Actor-director Ruben Simonov exploded in Pravda:

This is a monstrous insult to the poet's light-giving personality Arrant initiators of this dirty defamation are thinking of using Shakespeare's name to whitewash British diplomacy in the monstrous conspnacy against peace and inteinational security inspired by American aggressors. The pygmies have raised a ratlike cry around the pedestal of a great man It is disgusting

Although the Russians haven't yet claimed they invented Shakespeare there are some people who sav that the small-time actor from Stratford wasn’t Shakespeare at all. Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford is the real Shakespeare, says one group. Another group claims he was a company of authors like the men who collaborated on the King James version of the Bible.

The most vocal of the Shakespeare iconoclasts, however, are the Baconians, who since 1805 have been trying to convince the world that the right way to spell Will Shakespeare is Francis Bacon. Two years ago, with a resurgence of their prewar energy, the Baconians reopened their attack with publication of a rare book, written in 1626 and translated from the Latin, which describes Bacon as the world’s greatest poet.

“The book does a lot to shake the faith of the supporters of Shakespeare,” says Valentine Smith, secretary of the

Francis Bacon Society. "It calls Bacon, among other things, 'the precious gem of concealed literature.’ ”

Just before the Shakespeare season starts in the spring the Baconians naturally feel obliged to advise the world not to throw money away on that illiterate Will Shagspur when they ought to be worshipping at Bacon’s tomb at St Alban’s.

-Some Bacon supporters even resort to violence. Two years ago at the British theatre exhibition in Birmingham a fanatic smashed a case containing some Shakespeare relics and pinned

this note on the wreckage: “Surely by now everyone should realize that an attempt to ascribe these plays to a half literate man is bogus. What is the point of this nonsense?”

About the same time the memorial clock at Stratford was defaced and the word Bacon splashed in red paint over its four dials. The statue of Shakespeare near the entrance to the town was similarly decorated.

Stratford-on-Avon looks down with lofty scorn on all these capers, secure in tradition and bolstered by the irrefutable logic of finance. ★