Last month I finally got the chance to do something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time: visit Stratford-upon-Avon, or, as I like to call it, Shakespeare Disney. Although it was a great experience to see the RSC do a show in their ‘spiritual home’ and they have the best theatre restaurant in the history of ever, my main reason for visiting was that I wanted to walk around the place where William Shakespeare grew up and see what it’s like.
But why? Why are so many people, myself included, fascinated by this idea and by Stratford? What are we looking for? Are we hoping to get some sort of clue as to where all that creative genius came from? Do we want to walk on the same ground and breathe the same air (I’m taking a bit of poetic licence here) in the hopes that some brilliance might rub off on us? Because, let’s be honest: it’s a bit weird. Stratford is a lovely town, but it’s not the one Will (I’ve known him for ages so I like to think we’re on first name terms) lived in. Sure, you can visit still the places that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has lovingly taken care of, but the connection is, at times, a bit tenuous. There’s the house on Henley Street where Will was born and grew up in, but then the Trust also maintains attractions like Nash’s House, which once was home to Will’s eldest daughter Susanna’s daughter Elizabeth’s second husband. Then there’s the trifling matter that, although there’s no way to be sure, it’s not very likely that Will did an awful lot of writing in Stratford. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there was nothing there that influenced him, but Stratford simply isn’t as important as London when it comes to his work and the theatre.
While I recognised the silliness of my own wish to see Stratford long before I actually made it there, this obviously didn’t stop me from wanting to go. I think for myself, and probably for many others as well, in the end it’s still about wanting to come a bit closer to the man behind the words, even if that’s more of a closeness in feeling rather than in fact. In today’s world, where it would probably take me about five minutes to find out Emma Watson’s favourite pizza topping should I be that way inclined, it’s seems pretty incredible sometimes that, factually, there’s very little known about Mr William Shakespeare. The shelves full of books written about him each year would suggest otherwise, but then again, a lot of that is speculation (or fan fiction if you will), some bits of the story more fundamentally sound and reasonable than others. And especially in the past, research into the life and times of Will Shakespeare wasn’t always about simply finding out the fact. Some of the undisputable traces that have been dug up over time didn’t gel with the romantic notion of the sensitive, artistic soul that certain people deemed to be the only appropriate picture of the world’s greatest playwright. How could the man responsible for the most beautiful love poetry and the most tragically tortured souls only leave behind legal documents? Where were the diaries, the love letters to Anne? Instead of romance, they found a business man who engaged in money lending and all sorts of other entrepreneurial activities deemed most unsuitable for ‘The Bard’.
The solution to this problem was easy: Shakespeare the man from Stratford and Shakespeare the playwright had to be two different people. Looking for more sophisticated, educated and altogether more appealing candidates scholars came up with a wide range of possibilities, from Francis Bacon to Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, to Christopher Marlowe. To be fair, in the present day the people who question Shakespeare’s identity are a small minority. Nevertheless, the debate still continues, and both sides of the authorship camp provide ‘proof’ to strengthen their case by close reading the only substantial evidence for his life Will has left behind: his works. In a way it’s the literary equivalent of what all those visitors to Stratford do. You pretend to be Sherlock Holmes, look at what’s there in front of you and try and piece together thoughts, motivations and weather conditions at the time of writing. The urge is understandable, but you have to wonder how realistic it is to assume that we, entrenched in our twenty-first century mind set as we are, could even begin to fathom how an early modern Englishman would have thought and acted in certain circumstances. Most of us are frequently confused by the behaviours our closest friends, our family members and even we ourselves display on a daily basis, let alone that we should be able to intimately understand a stranger who was born 450 years ago. There are so many ways to explain what’s on the page, and so many ways to make them fit the story of your own choosing. Was Hamlet written while Will was mourning the loss of his father John, or is the prince of Denmark actually an alter ego of another nobleman who lost his father at a young age, say, Edward de Vere? Does the fact that Will left his second-best bed to his wife Anne Hathaway mean that they had an awful marriage, or was it actually their marital bed and therefore meant as a romantic gesture?
Sad as it is, it’s extremely unlikely we’re ever going to know much more than we do now. Scholars can try all they like to argue that a Warwickshire country boy could never have written these detailed portraits of life at court. Or that during the so-called ‘lost years’, a period from Will’s life that we still know literally nothing about, he must have worked as a lawyer, because he flings around so many legal terms. In the end, I think the real question is not so much what’s true but rather why we think that matters. Because when we seek to piece together Will’s life, or to prove or disprove his identity, based on what we read in his words, we’re really arguing about something else entirely: whether or not we attach value to imagination. If we put too much stock in these arguments, we forget what a powerful tool creative imagination really is. That, combined with a bit of research and a lot of empathy, it allows you to dream up people you don’t know, countries you haven’t been to and situations you haven’t experienced. The notion that Shakespeare’s plays can only be as great as they are because he lived through every single experience he wrote about, that the words have to be decoded rather than enjoyed, is downright depressing. So, I’m going to stick with the country boy from Stratford and maybe I’ll try and catch some of those writing skills next time I’m there. I do have a Shakespeare Disney year pass after all.