Hiding in plain sight
A recent visit to Stratford-upon-Avon revealed a few new angles I’d not fully appreciated before. Shakespeare’s final home, New Place, has in recent years been subjected to extensive archaeological exploration and refashioning for the modern age. Previously you had to enter through Nash’s House (next door) named after the Thomas Nash who married Shakespeare’s grand-daughter, Elizabeth Hall. Now you enter through a beautifully crafted wooden door in the same position as the original gatehouse.
Commuting to London
Germaine Greer’s superb Shakespeare’s Wife produced a brilliant account of the social history of Elizabethan and Jacobean domestic life in the Midlands. One of her central ideas demonstrates how many men in the Midlands would commute to London but live in smaller market towns like Stratford, especially in the winter. 375 years of traditional Shakespearean biographies have claimed that Shakespeare left Stratford for London and never went back until he retired. The evidence suggests otherwise. There is no reason to think Shakespeare was any different to other commuters. He only ever rented temporary lodgings in London.
Roots in Stratford
In his will Shakespeare named 25 beneficiaries. Of those, 21 were connected to his life in Stratford. He bought 107 acres of Stratford land for £302 in 1602 and three years later paid £480 for a share in the Stratford tithes, an annual tax from which he made £60 a year. These are not the actions of someone who didn’t feel he belonged to Warwickshire. Both his daughters married in Stratford and Greer’s biography of Anne Shakespeare (née Hathaway) (and the new archaeology at New Place) persuade me that Anne was a successful brewer and New Place was a thriving and productive hive of (potentially commercial) industry.
The biggest evidence that Shakespeare belonged to Stratford is of course New Place itself. It was the biggest house in the centre of town, built by the Clopton family in 1483. By the time Shakespeare bought it (for £120 – a schoolmaster’s annual salary was £20), the building had 10 fireplaces and a much greater number of rooms. The latest archaeology has been able to identify the house’s footprint and revealed it had three sides around a courtyard with a freshwater well. Facing the street was the gatehouse side with a long gallery above it; along Chapel Lane was the service block with a kitchen, laundry and brewery; and the main living block, including a Great Hall, angled slightly inwards, protected from the main street and with views over the gardens.
Warm at home, secure and safe
You’d think after at least 30 years of being a Shakespeare fanboy there’d be few surprises left for me. And yet…. if you put two and two together and realise that Shakespeare owned New Place for 19 years of his life (between 1597 and 1616 when he died) and for a good part of the year he lived there, it is inevitable that he would have done some of his writing there. I know this sounds obvious, but the prevailing impression has been that Shakespeare only wrote in garrets in London. Over half Shakespeare’s work was completed during the period he owned New Place. Writers write anywhere and everywhere. It’s inconceivable that his imagination didn’t soar and pour out at New Place.