In 2011, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao paid a visit to a long, timber-framed Tudor house on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon. The site? Shakespeare’s birthplace and the house where the playwright grew up. Wen was so touched by the tour that he made a speech quoting Goethe on Shakespeare and stayed on to chat with local guests. The house was also on the itinerary of Michael D Higgins, the president of Ireland, during last week’s historic state visit to the UK.
Last year, 400,000 visitors descended on the restored house known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace, and in the run-up to the celebrations surrounding the 450th anniversary of the playwright’s birth on April 23, the site is the focus of increased attention. But does it offer any clues to Shakespeare’s life?
The two-storey, three-bedroom house has been fitted with Tudor furniture and hand-painted wall coverings. There are some fascinating features. In the downstairs parlour is a period bed that typically would have been reserved for guests. With its prime spot next to the fireplace, does this “best bed” for visitors explain Shakespeare’s puzzling will in which he left his wife his “second-best bed”?
Some speculate that after a shotgun wedding to a pregnant, 26-year-old Anne Hathaway, the 18-year old Shakespeare got stuck at home with his wife and parents until he appeared in London a decade later: the first London reference to him is in 1592.
The stones on the parlour floor are original, from the nearby Wilmcote quarry, which belonged to the landowning Ardens, Shakespeare’s mother’s family. “We get visitors today who take their shoes and socks off so they can stand on the same floor where Shakespeare walked,” says Paul Taylor, collections manager for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the charity set up in 1891 by an act of parliament.
One of the most intriguing rooms is the ground-floor workshop where Shakespeare’s father, John, is thought to have sold his wares – gloves and pouches that, in the absence of pockets, were a necessity – from out of the window. “Shakespeare’s plays mention different kinds of leather, reflecting his knowledge as a glover’s son,” says Paul Edmondson, the trust’s head of research. Gloves were status symbols: “a gentleman would have had gloves for riding and gloves for the pub,” a tour guide adds.
Despite lowly beginnings as a tenant of his in-laws, the Ardens, Shakespeare’s father built up such a successful business that he rose from town alderman to mayor of Stratford, a role that came with a number of perks, including places at the local grammar school for his sons.
Still, for all its charm, the Birthplace is an architectural restoration; the real evidence is kept in the trust’s archive. Rare objects include First Folios and quartos of Shakespeare’s plays – along with documents and even a gold signet ring with the initials WS, which was found in a field in 1810. Shakespeare’s own will is missing the seal from his ring (did he lose it on a walk?) but a deed, signed by Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna Hall, with wax seals still attached, lists the Birthplace as Shakespeare family property.
Back at the house, with its oversized front door, big enough to fit a horse and cart loaded with pelts, visitors search for clues to illuminate Shakespeare’s works.
When Shakespeare was a teenager, his father had a series of mysterious career setbacks: he stopped going to council meetings, he was removed as alderman, he stopped attending church and his application for a high-status coat of arms was denied. Some suggest he ran an illegal side-wool trade or moneylending operation and accumulated huge debts. In 1578, John Shakespeare, who owned the house on Henley Street, was reduced to mortgaging his wife’s estate; he was later sued for nonpayment. So did his father’s humiliating fall fuel Shakespeare’s ambitious rise?
By 1597, William, a theatre shareholder, had become so successful that he snapped up New Place, a large Stratford property that experts estimate had at least 20 rooms. Stratford residents even approached him for a loan: the archive has the only surviving letter addressed to Shakespeare, from townsman Richard Quiney, asking for 30 pounds (£30,000 today). Shakespeare reapplied for a family coat of arms, securing the coveted “gentleman’s” title for his father.
When his father died in 1601, Shakespeare moved his sister, Joan Hart, into a connected cottage on the west wing and turned the main house into a pub.
A surviving document lists the town residents licensed to sell ale. “One of those people is a chap called Lewis Hiccox, who is recorded as inhabiting the property on Henley Street,” says Taylor. A second deed lists the pub’s name, the Maidenhead, among Shakespeare’s properties.
Recently, a team of experts at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford discussed Shakespeare’s possible role in remodelling the pub’s extension. “It looks like Shakespeare oversaw the refurbishment,” says Edmondson. “He owned the house.”
Now with the trust preparing to launch a year-long celebration to mark the 450th anniversary, including a summer tour of 14 US and Canadian Shakespeare festivals, the biggest hurdle for fans may be accepting that the world’s greatest playwright was also a savvy investor. As Edmondson points out: “He was a playwright and an entrepreneur.”
Annie Maccoby Berglof is a trustee of Harvard House, which is leased to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
The world’s first great literary commuter?
Frustrated commuters take note: you may be in excellent – even exalted – company. According to Stanley Wells, editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, the conventional view that Shakespeare “retired” to Stratford to crank out The Tempest may be wrong: “Most people say he retired to Stratford in the last three years of his life. My contention is that he never left.”
Wells cites Shakespeare’s “big Stratford investments” as evidence that he divided his time between London and home. “He bought New Place; a lot of land in 1604; a share in the church tithes, an investment that brought him a lot of money; a cottage in Cottage Lane. For much of his life, he was investing in property,” says Wells.
New Place, knocked down in 1759 by an owner fed up with Shakespeare tourists, was recently the site of an archeological dig. “It was the second largest house in Stratford. It had five gables,” says Wells, who points to more evidence backing the commuting theory: a London property portfolio. “He lived in lodgings. He didn’t buy a house in London until 1613, the Blackfriars gatehouse. [He also bought a property in Acton.] There is no evidence he lived there. It was an investment.”
And the commute itself? “It would have taken two or three days by horse,” says Wells. “Shakespeare was the world’s first great literary commuter.”
This article has been subject to a correction