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AN ICONOCLAST IN STRATFORD

 

BY E. NESBIT

 

From The New Witness, April 29
(Nationalist and Chestertonian Weekly)

 

Among the crowds who throng the streets of Stratford and lay wreaths on the grave of Shakespeare, gaze awed upon birthplace and relics, and make pilgrimages to the Grammar School and Anne Hathaway's cottage, how many can give any reason for the faith that is in them? Your true bigot will say that it is not for the faithful to sift evidence—'Who am I, the worm, to argue with my Pope?'—but to accept all these things on the authority of … well, of the recognized Authorities. Yet it is at least interesting to examine the bases on which the authority rests.

The birthplace, now—the house where Shakespeare was born, revered spot hallowed by the most sacred associations: who can climb its narrow stairs and tread its uneven boards, unmoved? Well, I can, for one. Because I cannot find the slightest shadow of evidence that Shakespeare was born in this house. True, John Shakespeare, William's father, had a house in Henley Street, but it was a copyhold house, and the house shown as the birthplace is freehold. John bought two freehold houses, but he bought them eleven years after William's birth. Besides, when Garrick arranged his famous Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769 several houses were at once pointed out as the house. Controversy raged, and the matter remained in dispute till the beginning of last century, when one of the houses retired from the contest by falling down, and the advocates of the Henley Street house managed to silence the advocates of the third birthplace. So here we are.

At a meeting held at Stratford in 1847 an appeal was made for funds to purchase for the nation the probable birthplace of Shakespeare. But a thoughtful speaker pointed out that no one would subscribe to buy a probable birthplace, so that tell-tale word was struck out. At the sale of the premises in September, 1847, the auctioneer denounced all doubts on the subject as 'sacrilegious,' which shows that there were doubts.

So with Anne Hathaway's cottage. In 1709 Rowe says she was the daughter of a yeoman in the neighborhood of Stratford. In 1750, Mr. Greer says she was ‘probably of a place called Luddington.’ Later on she lived ‘probably at Shotteriche.' Mr. Greer then points out the very house at Shotteriche where probably she lived, but it was not the same house that is pointed out now! It was left for Ireland, the father of the notorious forger of Shakespearean documents, to fix on the cottage which is now the object of pilgrimage. And there we are again.

The Grammar School, too. There is not a shred of evidence that Shakespeare was ever at school at all (if you except the internal evidence of his mighty works), and no shadow of a reason for believing that he ever entered the door of Stratford Grammar School. The desk which is shown as his is a comparatively modern desk, and resembles those used in the eighteenth century by ushers, but never by school-boys.

And this brings us to the relics, enshrined in the birthplace. Shakespeare's chair, sold to a Russian lady, and removed to Russia, left such a blank that another Shakespeare's chair had to be found—and was found. Shakespeare's tobacco-box—is that still among the relics? And his sword that he wore when he played Hamlet? Is that still there? And his ring, his own gold ring with W. S. on it as large as life, and as good as new. A woman found it near the church in 1810. It was lying on the ground—just like that—and she picked it up. No one else had noticed it, though it must have been lying there since William dropped it nearly two hundred years before. But the Stratford people are not observant. I cannot find a single authentic relic in the whole museum, except the poet's printed works, but the worshipers worship there just the same.

Note now the facts from which Henry James elaborated his wonderful story 'The Birthplace.'

Mr. Joseph Skipsey, who was for a long time custodian of the 'birthplace' and the 'relics,' highly esteemed and placed there on the recommendation of Mr. John Morley, suddenly resigned his position and left Stratford. He gave no reasons, but he wrote his reasons in a letter which he gave to a friend, not to be made public until after his death. He died in 1903, and the contents of his letter was printed in the Times. He resigned, in effect, because he was disgusted with the innumerable frauds to which he found himself committed in the discharge of his duties at Stratford. As to the 'relics,' he said they had become, on investigation, 'a stench in his nostrils.'

The history of the so-called portraits of Shakespeare is full of surprise and charm, the most engaging incident being that of the 'undoubtedly authentic portrait of the bard,' which, on being reverently cleaned, yielded to the soap and water and disclosed beneath the later paint the portrait of an elderly lady in blue Victorian cap and ribbons!

Why, you may ask, in the face of all this are the birthplace and the cottage and the relics and the rest of it still used to fool the tourists? For just that reason—that they do fool the tourist and make him spend his money in Stratford. Stratford lives on the open-mouthed credulity of its visitors. And you can't expect the Stratford trade-people and those who gain a reflected glory by living near Shakespeare's grave to examine too curiously into facts. Great is Diana of the Ephesians!

And yet it seems a pity that so much honest enthusiasm should be wasted on frauds and fakes. And, after all, what do the true believers want with this false be-tinselled shrine? Is there not Shakespeare's true shrine, his glorious works, which, as he himself foresaw, 'marble and the gilded monument of princes' shall not outlive?

About the authenticity of such relics as Hamlet and Lear there is no doubt; they bear in them the signet-stamp of immortal genius. Can we not honor the man who wrote them, without wasting enthusiasm on rings that he never wore and snuff boxes he never touched? And if we must have some material object for our devotion there is always the gravestone in the chancel of Stratford church under which lies Shakespeare's last secret.

We can at least lay our garlands there with clean hands and with honest hearts.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1924, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.