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Shakespeare's England

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This chapter is concerned not with the England of Shakespeare's day, but with the still existing scenes which are identifiable with the life and work of Shakespeare.

No one can read Shakespeare diligently without seeing that his interests were almost as wide as England itself. There are many hints of local knowledge, scattered here and there, but of course all begins with the Warwickshire milieu and returns there at the last.

William Shakespeare was born at Stratford-on-Avon on April 22 or 23, 1564. His father, John Shakespeare, a not too prosperous trader, came from Snitterfield, a village lying between Stratford and Warwick. Snitterfield is a typical Warwickshire village, with a fine church, fine trees, and a fine view of surrounding country; and it has later poetic associations with the pleasant eighteenth-century parson and poet Jago. Richard Shakespeare, the poet's grandfather, bequeathed his property to his son John. There was not much to make of it, and he soon ceased the attempt, for, while his brother Henry lived and died there as a small farmer, John had left Snitterfield about 1551, nine years before his father's death, and settled at Stratford, then a town of between two and three thousand inhabitants, prosperous in dealings with malt and wood. But the prosperity did not long endure, and John Shakespeare's prosperity sank with it. In 1590 it was stated that the town "had fallen much into decay for want of such trade as there had been clothing and making of yarn," as is cited by Lee in his "Life of Shakespeare."

The poet's mother was Mary Arden of Wilmcote, also of a farming family, but one of older pedigree than her husband's and probably of higher social standing.

Wilmcote, north-west of Stratford, is quite near both Stratford and Snitterfield, and there is still a house there which is pointed out as that in which Mary Arden was born. It may be that- though there are two other claimants to the honour, farther away-that Wilmcote (which we certainly pronounce Wincot nowadays) was the very village where Mother Hacket kept a tavern and Christopher Sly got drunk.

Of the married life of Shakespeare's father and mother we have no record, or of how either influenced their son. John Shakespeare rose to local honours and sank to poverty and debt. He won a coat-of-arms, some suppose in order to satisfy his ambitious son. He seems to have resembled the father of Charles Dickens in being a sort of Micawber. But all that is said of Shakespeare's parents is merely to explain his associations with different parts of England. Warwickshire is the centre of all, as it is of England. Shakespeare's associations were central as he himself was "a central man." Stratford, then, with the villages of Wilmcote and Snitterfield, belongs to his early years. Everyone must see at Stratford the church in which he was christened (April 26, 1564) and where (April 25, 1616) he was buried; they must see the school where certainly he learnt the " little Latin and less Greek " that his friends said he acquired; they must see the garden of New Place which he laid out and the foundations of the house where, as a rich man, he lived and died.

Most of all must they see the house in Henley Street, which is called " the Birthplace," and is stored with (mostly genuine) relics. This was bought by his father, it seems, in 1575, and a part of it possibly nineteen years earlier. The authorities of the Birthplace tell us that the poet was born in the large room on the upper floor of the western part of the house. Be that as it may, it is certain that the house was at one time his father's, that it became his own and passed to his daughter, and remained in the hands of his kinsfolk till at least the middle of the eighteenth century. The curious, after visiting the garden so beautifully and the house so religiously tended, may be glad to be reminded that at the beginning of the nineteenth century a board was hung outside bearing these words: "William Shakespeare was born in this house. N.B.-A horse and taxed cart to let."

These places belong to the childhood and the later life of the poet: the church and the school and Guildhall adjoining and several houses of friends and contemporaries, notably those which are called Tudor House and Harvard House. And besides these there are the inns: two certainly ancient and visited by Shakespeare. The Falcon, opposite to the Guild Chapel, is a comely but transfigured dwelling. It is said that Shakespeare caroused there. In the Guild Chapel there were once some very interesting wall paintings which he must often have seen. In the White Swan Inn at the end of Rother Street, opposite a pretentious American fountain, there were discovered in 1927 some highly exciting frescoes, illustrating the story of Tobit (with the fish as large as life), the characters wearing most excellent Elizabethan dresses of the very period when Shakespeare was a child. These contemporary paintings, the most vivid presentment of men and women as Shakespeare saw them that the town possesses, were covered with panels some thirty years after they were executed, so that all that is left of them is well preserved. No one who wishes to recall the life of country folk in the days of Elizabeth should fail to see them.

But no one would imagine that young Shakespeare was one of those lads (who still exist in Warwickshire) who never go more than a mile or so from their homes. Love certainly, and possibly poaching, with maybe the sort of feeling which we call "Bank Holiday" nowadays, brought him forth.

Across the fields westwards from Stratford-there are two ways, one wholly by field-paths, the other by road-is the house at Shottery village where lived Richard Hathaway, whose daughter became the wife of William Shakespeare. There is no reason to doubt that in this charming cottage, now most beautifully kept by the Birthday Trust and containing not a few relics of the Hathaways, the poet came and paid his court: not often perhaps, for there was something secret and hurried about the marriage.

Where did the marriage take place? The licence for it exists still in the Bishop's Registry at Worcester (some are sceptical as to the identity of the persons), but Shakespeare did not necessarily go thither to obtain it, and it gives no clue to the place where the ceremony should take place. Luddington, a trivial village south of Stratford and Shottery, has been suggested-why, I know not. We must be content to visit many beautiful churches near the town and think that the wedding may have been in any one of them. But his mother's wedding was in the delightful church of Acton Cantlow. We would gladly know in which village he (if old Beeston is to be believed) taught in school.

After marriage there were doubtless other diversions, and tradition ("Rumour painted full of tongues" and most untrustworthy) suggests several escapades connected with more or less imaginary amusements. Poaching is one, and we are told that the young man was brought up, for deer stealing, before a pompous local magistrate, Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote. The rude punning reference to the Lucy arms in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at least suggests that Shakespeare had no pleasant associations with that family. So the church, where the said Sir Thomas rests, though without an epitaph, must be visited and, if possible, the noble hall, an almost perfect survival of the mansion of a country gentleman of Shakespeare's day. Young men have always looked leniently on poaching: some of them on conviviality likewise. There is an old quatrain which pretends to commemorate the village where Shakespeare had had a horn or more of ale:

Piping Pebworth, dancing Marston,
Haunted Hillborough, hungry Gratton,
Dodging Exhall, Papist Wixford,
Beggarly Broom and drunken Bidford.

All these can be seen very quickly from Stratford, and each may be more rapidly described.

Bidford is a very excellent village, on the Avon, with a fine bridge across, the very place to spend "a day on the river," as Shakespeare must surely have spent it, ending up with a visit to the Falcon of Shakespeare's time (but it is an inn no longer) and to the White Lion, where you may obtain decent refreshment for man and beast.

Some of the other villages are quite near together; Long Marston, so called because the street is long, is across the Gloucestershire border. South-west of that, by devious ways, is Pebworth, where they say folk still pipe. North thence, by Bidford, you come to Broom, Wixford and Exhall, each a pretty little place, Wixford very little indeed, and papistry has certainly decayed there; Broom, all refurbished since Shakespeare's day, has got rid of itsbeggarliness. Exhall remains, with some prettiness. But we do not forget the extremely picturesque village of Grafton, with a new church and a very ancient church. It is in the old church that many like to think that Shakespeare and Ann Hathaway were married, and the licence gives some dim countenance to this. The village is "hungry" because of the poor soil. Hillborough, which lies between Bidford and Broom, is still said to be haunted. But that is said of many places.

Though the doggerel lines were doubtless apocryphal in their connexion with a supposed drinking bout, slept off under a tree which perhaps you may find on the road between Stratford and Binton, all these pleasant villages are connected with Shakespeare, if only because they are typical of the lovely district in which they exist. Warwickshire ways, and Gloucestershire ways only less so, are full of fine trees, sometimes scorched by the sun, which on occasion shines very hotly in Warwickshire, fragrant with flowers in spring, and never gloomy, even when the roads are often turned into watercourses. No one who knows Warwickshire can doubt that the writer of the plays was not a London citizen, but a Warwickshire lane lover. The birds and beasts, the horses, the ploughs and the weedy streams are there to call up echoes from the plays.

But there is no need to restrain the poet's country lore to his own shire. There is every reason to suppose that he knew at least the fringe of Cotswold (Cotsall, where Justice Shallow's greyhound was outrun). "William Visor of Wimcot and Clement Perkes of the Hill " are almost certainly the names of real persons belonging to real Cotswold scenes. Wincot is Woodmancote, where Visors or Vizards have lived for nearly five hundred years, and in Shakespeare's day Perkes lived on Stinchcombe Hill. A tour in the Cotswolds will multiply allusions to the men and scenes whom Shakespeare knew.

But the poet whose fame was to be world-wide was certainly not restricted in experience or record to the Midlands. London had already in his day become the centre of most rising men's lives. And to London he went at least by 1586, and there he lived till very few years before his death. And on the way thither he would pass two places which certainly he came to know well, Oxford and Windsor. The association with the former is close enough to warrant a careful study.

Shakespeare's friends the Davenants kept the Crown Tavern. This is now No. 3 Cornmarket, a clothier's shop, where the cellars are old enough to have been visited - and surely they would have been - by the poet. Aubrey, the best and among the most accurate of gossips, says, within half a century or so of Shakespeare's death, that during his sojourn in London he "was wont to go into Warwickshire once a year, and did commonly in his going lie at this house in Oxon, where he was exceedingly respected." On March 6, 1606, in St. Martin's Church (no longer existing) the innkeeper's son William, afterwards knight and poet, was baptized, in a font now in All Saints' Church. Shakespeare was godfather, and it is likely, from the itinerary of the theatrical company in which he was a player, that he stood in person. It is quite possible that he was present when St. John's

College, with which he had a connexion through the Davenants, received King James I on August 27, 1605, when a pageant shown before him undoubtedly had very strong hints of points developed in "Macbeth." Oxford is certainly to be studied by those who wish to follow in the poet's tracks. Most of the Colleges his eye must undoubtedly have looked on. New College was the owner of the Crown Tavern. Christ Church owed not a little of its magnificence to Wolsey, whose splendid generosity is commemorated in "Henry VIII," in lines which may have been of his writing, though perhaps more probably of his fellow-playwright John Fletcher.

Oxford it is not a long journey to Windsor, and the local details of that royal town are vividly recorded in "The Merry Wives of Windsor." The plays must often have been acted there before the Queen, and it is an accepted tradition that " The Merry Wives of Windsor " was written at Elizabeth's command to show the fat knight in love. Such love as he was capable of took him to Datchet mead and a foul ditch, into the Great Park and Herne's Oak, while above there towered the noble castle which had its respectful eulogy from the poet. If Windsor was an introduction to the great world, Shakespeare knew it already. It is not likely that, when in 1603 Shakespeare's Company was summoned to Wilton to p]ay before the King, the splendid house was seen for the first time by the poet, who knew the Herberts well, as other poets did. And Mr. " W. H.," the " onlie begetter " of the sonnets, is still, in many good judges' opinion, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. We may trace, then, on the tours of the travelling company many a visit of Shakespeare's, were it only for a few days. But to London he went to live, and to London he returned again and again till the end. "Shakepeare's London" is a subject in itself, which discoveries among records are again and again enlarging.

In London we have to consider where Shakespeare lived, and where did he act or see his plays acted? When first he came to town he resided as a householder in the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, and apparently in a good-sized house, for his assessment was larger than that of his friend and fellow actor Richard Burbage, who lived hard by. Near, too, was "The Theatre" in Shoreditch, where his company acted. It appears that he moved from Shore-ditch in 1596, southwards and across the water to the Bankside in Southwark. Malone at the end of the eighteenth century wrote: "From a paper now before me, which formerly belonged to Edward Alleyn, the player, our poet seems to have lived in Southwark, near the Bear Garden, in 1596."

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