Shakespeare's Shrine: The Bard's Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon

August 9, 2012

Earlier this year, Times Higher Education reported on a visit to Japan by Dominic Shellard, who went accompanied by a Shakespeare First Folio. The volume had been borrowed from the British Library at the behest of Jamie Andrews, a governor of De Montfort University, of which Shellard is vice-chancellor. Imagine having chums so influential that they can arrange the loan of a multimillion-pound book. But what could have been so easily mistaken for a piece of cultural diplomacy "to promote the UK ahead of the London 2012 Olympics" is revealed to be a ferocious recruitment drive for Asian students. "You have to maximise your exposure to international markets," as Shellard put it. What is remarkable is not the vice-chancellor's ambition to drum up business - he is handsomely paid to do just that and indeed, in these straitened times, one would expect nothing less. What is notable is the immediate recourse to Brand Shakespeare and the manner in which a marketing exercise is valorised by the phantasmal presence of Stratford's famous son - there's no business like Bard business.

In Shakespeare's Shrine: The Bard's Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon, Julia Thomas describes the origins, the fashioning and the influences of the house on Henley Street, and along the way, the often uneasy tension between a desire for archaeological and historical veracity and its frustration by more pressing commercial concerns. Given that the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre did not open until 1879, early Victorian Stratford was not a theatre-going destination. One contemporary commentator asked cruelly: "What must be the inevitable fate of a theatre at a place to which it will not only be necessary to send actors to play but audiences to see them playing?" Pre-theatre Stratford boasted only the playwright's birthplace and Holy Trinity Church (where he was baptised and buried) and, as a consequence, "tourism to Stratford remained an elitist activity". The famed 18th-century actor-manager David Garrick's unfortunately phallic ardour for Shakespeare as "Avonian Willy" typifies this idolatry, and those who visited Stratford before the days of the railway (the station opened in 1859) were animated by religious zeal rather than a day-tripper's curiosity.

The key date in the shift in Stratford's fortunes is 1847, the year that the house was purchased for the nation under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Club, chaired by Prince Albert and numbering Dickens among its members. As Thomas insists: "the Shakespeare industry that we recognize today, the economy that has transformed Stratford into a tourist mecca (a description that was frequently used by the Victorians), was a direct result of the auction of 1847". In spite of the apathy of the good folk of Warwickshire - the local press reported that the sale "does not appear to excite much interest in the County which has the honour of claiming his birth-place" - the house was extensively remodelled, both architecturally and ideologically, to become a half-timbered, quasi-religious pilgrimage destination. Neighbouring buildings were demolished with the effect of gentrifying the birthplace so that Shakespeare moved "from the ranks of the working class into those of the affluent middle class".

But as well as the religious overtones of the "shrine", the house also took on a range of Victorian secular values, including the centrality of the family (so we have pictures of Shakespeare reading to his adoring children) and the importance of domesticity - the inglenook fireplace was imaged as a place of comfort and security. The birthroom itself functioned, according to Thomas, as "the epicentre of the empire, and England, in the form of Stratford, is the 'mother country' to which other countries submit".

The nationalistic significance of the birthplace is evident in a good deal of anti-Americanism. The threat of the house being exported by George Jones and Phineas T. Barnum was significant in galvanising its purchase in the first place but, as late as 1903, the popular novelist and Stratford resident Marie Corelli was issuing prohibitions against transatlantic tourists: "Don't go grumbling about the prices of the hotels...It is worth five guineas to any American to stand for five minutes on the Stratford soil. It's a thing he can't do in his own country."

In the same issue of THE as the story of Shellard's Asian-Shakespearean excursion, US scholar Dale Salwak writes of his own sentimental pilgrimages: "I want to see the beds the writers slept in, the tables where they ate, the desks they wrote at." While this kind of literary fetishism is ostensibly miles away from Shellard's brazen business sense, Thomas' fascinating account of Stratfordian cultural tourism shows how fundamentally one may depend upon the other.

Shakespeare's Shrine: The Bard's Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon

By Julia Thomas. University of Pennsylvania Press 256pp, £23.00. ISBN 9780812244236. Published 1 July 2012

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