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William Shakespeare's Home Town
By Cyril Clemens
( Article orginally published July 1959 )
William Shakespeare didn't make much money in his hometown during his lifetime, but the old hometown for the last century or two has made millions out of him.
Three hundred and ninety-five years after his birth, he remains the community's biggest business. It gets bigger every year.
From all over the world visitors pour into this place to swoop upon the scraps of mingled fact and hazy legend connected with the life of perhaps the greatest writer in history.
They jam the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. They pack the hotels. They mob the restaurants. They clutter up the narrow streets, cram the souvenir shops and make the sale of corn plasters for aching feet a highly profitable business.
"We sell more corn plasters than we do razor blades, tooth brushes or aspirin," declares A. R. Tulley, one of the local druggists. "Swotting up on Shakespeare is easy on the head, but hard on the feet."
Yet, so little is really known about the poet and playwright that authorities aren't even sure how he spelled his name.
For that matter, Shakespeare does not seem to have been sure himself. Palaeographers agree that generally he wrote it Shakspeare. But there are cases of his having scribbled it Shaxpere and even Schackspere and Shakespeare.
A few still claim that one Francis Bacon penned the noble poetry and plays ascribed to the Bard of Avon.
Stratford-on-Avon, however, is one place where you'd better not say that. The telephone directory doesn't list a single Bacon.
Wilfrid J, Osborne, chief guide at Anne Hathaway's cottage is most forceful on the subject. Anne, of course, was Shakespeare's wife.
In the foreword of a pamphlet that sells for a shilling (fourteen cents) he thunders:
"It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the testimony of his contemporaries and the other documentary evidence brought to life by more than two hundred years of patient research establish beyond all doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratfard-on-Avon was the author of the poems, the sonnets, and the greater number of plays now attributed to him.
"Any other assumption about the authorship of these works show a wanton and reclcles, disregard of unimpeachable evidence."
Stratford-on-Avon now has a population of 14,980. It covers an area of over ten square miles, a fact that makes it hard on tourists' feet.
All the Shakespearean shrines, except one, are so close to one another that walking seems the obvious method of reaching them. The exception is Anne Hathaway's cottage in the nearby village of Shottery. Still, thousands walk this four mile route every year.
It is called "a cottage" but it contains twelve rooms, the most interesting of which is the hall. This contains a love seat, or courting settle, on which young Shakespeare is supposed to have made love to Ann Hathaway.
History doesn't say that William Shakespeare did his wooing on the straight-backed settle, but a Mrs. Baker, a descendant of the Hathaway who died in 1899, thought so.
She told many people that the very bench was well established in the Hathaway family as the love bench.
"After all," explains a pretty blonde guide, "they had to go some place to court, and as this stood by the fireplace, it seems a very natural place."
Late in 1582-when -Shakespeare was eighteen, a marriage license was issued in his and Anne Hathaway's name. However, over all the years nobody has turned up a record of the marriage.
Nor is there a record of Shakespeare's birth. There's a record of his baptism on April 26, 1564, and historians assume that the birth preceded it by a few days.
How they hit on April 23rd as his birth date is clouded in mist of time. April 23 is St. George's day. Records show it's the day on which the poet died in 1616.
Some in Stratford think it too much of a coincidence that he would have died on the same day of the same month on which he was born.
Again no record that he ever attended a school or college. As his father was a town councillor, young Shakespeare would have been entitled to a free education at the Stratford grammar school.
There is other interesting documentary evidence about the Shakespeares. There's a record of his father having been fined for depositing rubbish on the street outside his house. The father was also struck off the rolls of city aldermen for neglecting the business of the municipality.
The dramatist himself is recorded as once being in arrears in taxes. But as his plays succeeded in London, he earned money and even bought property in Stratford-probably for investment.
The Stratford authorities admit that a rumor still persists that young William really left Stratford in 1587 to escape the wrath of a local mogul named Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote.
The gossip had it that Shakespeare was poaching game on Sir Thomas' lush acres. "There's nothing to the story," said a guide at the Shakespeare home, "but it's still whispered about."
The house in which the Bard was born is one of the prettiest in the town. The upstairs bedroom and the bed in which he is supposed to have been born attract more tourists than any other place.
Nowadays visitors stand at the foot of the bed, remove their hats in reverence and speak in hushed voices. Not always, though. The walls bear many signatures, among them such illustrious writing names as Walter Scott, Dickens and Thackeray.
The Shakespeare home started out in 1800 with just a thousand visitors. By 1880, 10,000 were visiting it annually. In 1956, a total of 220,000 paid admission.
"This year," said a guide, "from the way things are going, we may have 300,000."
British visitors, of course, are the most numerous. Then come the Americans.
"Just over 50 per cent of the entire total of foreigners are Americans," said the guide. "Americans adore Shakespeare and the place where he was born." Every year some visitor from the United States tries to buy Shakespeare's bed.
"We just say it isn't for sale," said the guide.
But interesting to note the current problem has nothing to do with Shakespeare.
"It's the swans on the Avon," said a town official. "They are becoming so numerous they're blocking traffic on the river."
Asked what measures were being taken to deal with this graceful and fairytale-like menace, he replied:
"Nothing. They're almost as sacred as Shakespeare. And they're free. You don't have to pay to see the swans."
For nearly everything else, the visitors do pay.