“The ‘Arden’ of the play is Ardennes of northern France, rather than a forest which once existed in Warwickshire, which may or may not have adjoined the cottage in which Anne Hathaway, who may or may not have married Shakespeare, may or may not have lived. But bardolatry trades in certainty, not in the slippery elusiveness of documentary fact: the buildings have acted as objects of pilgrimages and shrines of worship for generations, and that in itself is an assurance of their value.” Bardolatry: or The Cultural Materialist’s Guide to Stratford-upon-Avon, by Graham Holderness
The Daily Mail reported(http://bit.ly/UsDyPL) last Thursday that “a tempest is brewing around the 16th Century thatched farmhouse” where Anne Hathaway was courted by her lover William Shakespeare,” that a developer has just received the go-ahead to build a housing development just 238 English Yards from the sacred home. All around the world, the faithful watch in fear and trembling. And with good reason.
In 1995, when I paid my first visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon, which was, remarkably, my first trip to the UK, I was definitely a believer. I was a faithful bardolator, an adherent to the Shakespeare Myth. I still am. No matter how much evidence I see that Shakespeare wasn’t any of the things we believed him to be, I remain steadfast. He is the one True Bard, the creator of the most significant Words in the English language.
Consequently, the first time I arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon, I experienced a moment of great disappointment.
In all fairness, the letdown had begun in Birmingham, where my plane landed. Bardolatry, especially for Americans is often accompanied by a hefty serving of Anglophilia, and walking across town to the train, I was fervently hoping for a Dickensian array of shops and homes. To my dismay, I’d found Birmingham surprisingly modern, clean, hip and prosperous. Not what I’d expected at all. Then, as my train lurched into Stratford-Upon-Avon, and my heart began to race with the excitement of being in Shakespeare’s hometown, a huge Safeway Supermarket came into view, and at that moment the conductor announced we’d arrived. I was crestfallen.
I had earned a summer in Stratford-Upon-Avon, and I had expected to be whisked directly into the world of the Bard, to be swept into the late 16th Century, to immerse myself into that lyrical, romantic world that had engendered the richest poetry, the most fabulous drama in the English language, and here I was face-to-face with a 20th Century American icon, where hordes of cars (there was a petrol station there as well) and shopping carts conglomerated among bustling locals. I shook my head and followed my directions from the train station into Albany Street, where I was to be billeted for the duration.
In Albany Street, I began to regain my equilibrium. While I hadn’t found the Avon I had sought, I was, at least, surrounded by 19th C houses, a street straight from the pages of an illustrated Dickens, where the Old Curiosity Shoppe must surely stand.
Vicki, the woman who owned the house that was to be my home met me at the door with a great wave of excitement. “I love these workshop summers!” She enthused. “I get to meet so many wonderful, interesting people who come here because I live in this magical place, and I get to make a profit from it too!”
She had bought her house, a Victorian construction, the year before and had put considerable effort and money into restoring it. It was a brilliant little house, and those of us lucky enough to live there got to know both Vicki and her charming 5-year-old Eve. She was a single mother with two grown children as well as her little one, and all three of the adults had learned to fend for themselves with the aid of their fortuitous placement in the land of Shakespeare. Vicki took in boarders, her older daughter cooked at an inn near the Royal Shakespeare, and her son lived on a river barge and drew pen and inks of Union Canal and River Avon scenes for the visiting school marms and aspiring actors who flocked to his floating studio.
They were typical Stratford-upon-Avon-ites, this family, inextricably linked to the notion that there was a guy named William Shakespeare, who did write the comedies, tragedies, histories and sonnets that bear his name.
So, to create a large industrial, 800-home community replete with new schools, businesses, shops and a health center, will necessarily affect the cultural materialism that has supported the people of this town since the 18th Century, when entrepreneurial actor/producer/playwright David Garrick organized the first Stratford Jubilee in 1769.
As soon as I was settled into my room at Vicki’s that first day, I wandered into the High Street, and I found myself breathless with wonder. Slope-roofed, unevenly constructed Tudor homes, including the birthplace of John Harvard, lined the way, and on the Avon, as along the Union Canal, boats meandered lazily as though they were still mired in some magical, mystical long ago. Over the course of that summer, I took classes in The Edward VI Grammar School, where Shakespeare learned his English, Latin, Greek, and numbers; I attended performances at every theater in the Royal Shakespeare enclave, and I drank my pints at the Dirty Duck. I existed in the blissful fairy tale belief that I was living a life touched by my hero’s. I was transformed, imbued with the healing power of my bardalotry, and because I was surrounded by the physical manifestations of the life he must have led, I could assure myself that the experience was authentic.
Many of the lecturers who came to speak to us that summer were among the blasphemers, but, as James Joyce would have said, blasphemy is closer to faith than blind, indifferent adherence to a creed, and I embraced their suggestions that Shakespeare was at least a collaborator and at worst a plagiarist, working with or stealing from the likes of Thomas Middleton, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and others. They only served to make my love grow stronger.
After all, here I was, among the houses and churches and shops and trees and bushes and flowers that were living proof that a man named Shakespeare, or something, lived her in this town, or hereabouts, and he wrote great works of everlasting glory that I could not read without weeping at the beauty of the words. Did any of the naysaying matter? Not a twit. So long as the physical accouterments of the place called Stratford-Upon-Avon bore witness to the achievement of the canon, the sun was in its heaven, and all’s right with the world.
Avaunt, black towers of middleclass evil. Find another bit of land on which to establish the realm of your 21st Century business. Leave quaint the streets of Stratford-Upon-Avon, and leave chaste the hearts of all bardolators.