“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet
All my life, my name has preceded me. “What a lovely name”, people say, and sometimes I feel like replying: but would you really want to be called Shakespeare? Sometimes, it feels a bit like having a disfigurement. You can’t escape such a surname. Everyone’s curious about you, anonymity becomes impossible, you don’t get forgotten. It makes a big difference to your everyday encounters to be the namesake of the most famous writer who ever lived.
Being a Shakespeare does create unexpected openings. When Sam Wanamaker asked my father to sit on the Board of the Globe Theatre project, of course it was not just my father’s contacts and charm which he hoped to exploit, but mainly his name. I hope that when I was appointed to the Arts Council in 2004, being a Shakespeare was irrelevant. We all want to be wanted for ourselves, don’t we? Could anyone feel comfortable, progressing in life because of what they were called, or who their parents are, or because they tick a box on a form? I’m not sure whether it would be worse to be the token disabled person, or the token Shakespeare.
Being a Shakespeare adds lustre to life, but can also be a liability. You gain recognition, but how can you live up to that name? It’s always there as an implicit comparison. When my grandfather made political speeches, more than once his rhetoric was described as Shakespearean. A 1936 Sunday Times profile described him as “a lean, sharp-featured youngish man of 43 who looks like Iago but laughs like Falstaff”. Later in life he turned his hand to writing plays. Plays! I can’t even begin to think what nerve it would take for someone called Shakespeare to write plays. Talk about setting yourself up for failure. Think of the audience reaction as they file out: “you’d have expected better, from a Shakespeare”. No wonder my cousin Nicholas, the most successful of my many writer relatives, sticks to novels. His grandfather – another William Shakespeare – was a published poet, his slim volumes containing rather fine war poetry in the Georgian style. Did they write because of some inner urge, or because if you bear the name, it seems unavoidable?
When you’re called Shakespeare, that’s the first thing people ask you about, often because they don’t know how to spell it. I’m always amazed that anyone could not know, but perhaps I’m underestimating the general public. They probably know full well that there are 4000 possible variant spellings. The poet’s father John was an alderman in Stratford, and his name appears in the records on 66 different occasions, in a total of sixteen different versions, of which the most common was Shaxpeare.
Most people have a relentless curiosity to know whether I can trace my family back to the poet. It’s the question that arises at some point in every conversation with a stranger: “are you related?” It gives you a celebrity which is entirely undeserved. And that’s just having the surname. But as far back as we can trace it, there have been William Shakespeares in our family. Since the seventeenth century, seven generations out of nine have included a William. Parents can’t seem to resist putting that burden on their child.
Do people called Shelley or Dickens or Hardy get asked? Probably not, because few namesakes are as conspicuous as mine, although I’ve met a Michael Jackson and a Paul McCartney who must get bored of the jokes. As a child, I remember the day a medical researcher came to take samples for a study of restricted growth: William Shakespeare and Tom Shakespeare and James Shakespeare rolled up their sleeves as Dr Wordsworth collected their blood, but no photographer was on hand to register the coincidence.
And only Shakespeare, perhaps, guarantees international recognition. Although of course legions of Americans and Japanese make pilgrimages to Haworth and Near Sawrey, as well as to Stratford. In San Francisco once I went to have my washing done, and the Chinese lady filling out the form asked for my surname.
“Shakespeare”, I said. She barked impatiently:
“Shakespeare”, I repeated. She looked blank.
I remembered that my granny had brought me back a jade chop from Hong Kong, on which my surname was translated into Chinese, and tried again:
“Sha Se Pay Ah”
“Ohh!” – because admiration is the same tone in any language – “Sha Se Pay Ah!”
At least the laundry came back safely. When my grandfather was in the United States visiting his sister Mary in Chicago in the 1950s, he sent some shirts to be washed. Several days later, a girl from the laundry phoned:
“Is that you, Mr. Shakespeare? I ain’t returning your collars. I never seen one marked Shakespeare before. They are going in my collection.”
By calling his firstborn William Shakespeare, my grandfather made it even harder for this rather introspective disabled person to remain anonymous. When my father was still a young man, he drove his car into a telegraph pole, was thrown out of the sun roof, and landed unconscious in the ditch. He was rescued by a passing cyclist who called the ambulance. When the ambulance driver got to Bedford Hospital, he told the nurses:
“This poor chap is off his head. He must be badly concussed. He keeps telling me his name is William Shakespeare”.
But my father obviously relished the attention his name caused, judging from the timing of his engagement announcement.
Calling his son William and turning his hand to drama shows that my grandfather Geoffrey was never bashful about the purported connection. When I was a child, I remember being impressed with a leather-bound book at my grandfather’s house. It was large and red, like the one which Eamon Andrews carried on “This is your life”. The gold letters embossed on the cover read “The Shakespeare Pedigree”. We’d just got a King Charles Spaniel at the time, so this was a bit confusing to me. Dogs had pedigrees, which explained why ours was rather highly strung and aristocratic, not to say daft. But, I discovered, humans have pedigrees too (that word, pedigree by the way, comes from the Latin ped for foot, and grus for crane, referring to the way that the connecting lines make the shape of a bird’s claws).
Geoffrey had always been proud of his surname, and after the war, when his political career came to an end, he had commissioned the College of Arms to compile the family tree. Undoubtedly, he hoped to prove, once and for all, a connection to the playwright. There are hundreds of Shakespeares in the Pedigree: about the vast majority, nothing is known. The same names recur through the centuries: William, Humphrey, Benjamin, Thomas, John, Ursula, Judith…. When I was a child, I felt rather privileged, having so many ancestors.
Genealogy, and no pun is intended here, has a long history. The family tree was devised in medieval times, with the Biblical lineage of Jesus’ descent from King David one of the first examples. It is a potent image, even though the way it is usually pictured – ancestors in the upper branches, heir as the trunk – is nonsensical, given that trees grow from the trunk upwards. For centuries, genealogy was the preserve of the aristocracy, but in the modern era, it gradually became democratised. In 1915, Reverend Frederic W.Bailey patented his Family Ancestral Album, allowing the owner to record both paternal and maternal forebears, the ingenious design of the cutaway pages creating an early form of hypertext. As Bailey said at the time, “Every man living has many fathers and mothers great and grand, and he ought to keep a personal record of them and not trust it all to memory or to someone else to keep it for him.”
Unlike my grandfather, most people these days do their genealogical research themselves. You don’t need to have a famous or a distinguished lineage anymore. The great leap forward for family history came with the advent of the internet. There are now an estimated 250,000 amateur historians in the UK, and tracing your origins is a major leisure activity. It is as if Britain was suffering a national identity crisis. Genealogy is the second commonest search term on the Internet, after sex. Digital technology is enabling a new generation of local historians and family detectives to trace their roots or become reunited with school friends or long lost relatives. When the 1901 Census was put online in January 2002, the site crashed after 1 million hits in the first three hours, and there were 150 million hits in the first week.
A market has sprung up to service the demand: magazines, evening classes, and the BBC offering us “Who Do You Think You Are”, cleverly linking our obsession with celebrities to our fascination with our roots. Genealogy has become for many a good way to fill the long years of their retirement, which may be why the journey of discovery has become as important as the destination itself. There is literally no end to the avenues down which genealogical research can go. Some people follow one surname, others diversify into the families of the women who have married into the line. It becomes, for many people, an obsession. North Americans and Antipodeans trace their ancestors back to Ireland or Scotland or England, returning to get a sense of where they came from, often dismayed to find the locals are far less interested in the past than they are.
To my grandfather’s disappointment, the pedigree research conducted for him in the 1940s was inconclusive. We certainly can’t be direct descendents, because Shakespeare’s last surviving relative, Elizabeth Shakespeare, died in 1670. We might, according to the professional genealogists, be very distant cousins. It all depends whether the Humphrey who is our ancestor and had a daughter called Ursula was related to another Humphrey who had a daughter called Ursula who was almost certainly part of the poet’s extended family. Back in the early 1500s, records are incomplete, the picture murky. We are certainly the only family called Shakespeare who can trace their origins back to the sixteenth century. That loose, unproven connection was good enough for my grandfather, and it was good enough for the College of Arms, who granted him the same coat of arms which had been given to Shakespeare in 1596
“Gold, on a bend sable a spear of the first, the point steeled proper; and for his crest or cognizance a falcon, his wings displayed, argent, standing on a wreath of his colours, supporting a spear gold, steeled as aforesaid, set upon a helmet with mantel and tassels, as hath been accustomed.”
But, as Geoffrey Shakespeare wasn’t a verified descendent, to his shield was added a portcullis, symbol of his time in Parliament, and an anchor, because he had been Parliamentary Lord of the Admiralty. The motto remained non sans droict – not without reason – surely ironic given the doubts about our origins.
Because, no matter how many times as a child I painstakingly copied and coloured in the heraldic emblems, as I grew up, it never seemed convincing to me, as if simply by bearing the name Shakespeare I was some sort of charlatan. When people asked about the family connection, I did not know how to answer. They wanted certainty, and I couldn’t give it. There was no definite relationship. But there might have been. We didn’t know. It was a mystery.
So I decided to go back to Stratford, because one thing was certain. Our ancestors definitely came from Warwickshire. All Shakespeares come from the West Midlands. There were earlier Shakespeares in Gloucestershire from 1285, but that line seems to have died out. In the 1881 census, there were 1669 Shakespeares in Britain, of whom 680 lived in Warwickshire. In 1851, there had only been 300 Shakespeares in Warwickshire, which shows how the English population was increasing during this period. The College of Arms research proved that our own branch of the family lived in the county until about 1850 when my great great grandfather Benjamin Shakespeare moved to Kilham, Yorkshire to serve as its Baptist minister.
Of course, I’d been to Stratford before. We’d had a family outing during my childhood. I remember my father giving his name at Holy Trinity Church, and all four us being waved through to see the grave without having to pay. I thought it was the least they could do really. And later, when I was at boarding school near Oxford, our English class had attended RSC productions several times. But I had not returned to the ancestral home for more than 20 years. It was time to discover the truth. Time to reclaim the inheritance. Time to find out why Shakespeare was so important anyway.
In preparation for the trip I thought I should read some books about Shakespeare’s life and work. I was disturbed to find that the Newcastle University library listed 2,466 titles, which would surely take me ten years to read, assuming I did nothing else. The Amazon online bookshop claims that there are 21, 612 books by or about William Shakespeare in print, which would consume most of a lifetime. And then of course the articles and conference papers on Shakespeare would run into hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. Even deciding which biography to read isn’t a simple task. It may feel like there has been a rich crop published recently, particularly Peter Ackroyd’s biography, and James Shapiro’s 2005 book covering just one of Shakespeare’s 53 years. But I discovered that since Nicholas Rowe wrote the first biographical sketch of Shakespeare in 1709, a daunting stream of authors have attempted to sum up the man. A quick search revealed Nathan Drake (1817) Augustine Skottowe (1824) Halliwell-Phillips (1848), Thomas Kenny (1864) Richard Grant White (1866) Edward Dowden (1875), Henry Norman-Hudson (1882), Federick Gard Fleay (1886) William Leighton (1879) Karl Elze (1888) Daniel Webster Wilder (1893) Sydney Lee (1898), John Masefield (1911) JQ Adams (1923) EK Chambers (1930) Peter Alexander (1939) Hazelton Spencer (1940) Hesketh Pearson (1949) Giles Dawson (1958) Frank Halliday (1961) Al Rowse (1963), Peter Levi (1988) Dennis Kay (1992), Park Honan (1998), Michael Wood (2003). When I got to fifty biographies, I stopped listing them – and I fear that there are dozens more out there, lurking in the libraries and second hand bookshops. Writing a life of Shakespeare appears to be a rite of passage for a man of letters, a kind of irresistible literary Haj for the self-respecting critic or historian. There are so many books about Shakespeare’s life that there’s even a book about books about Shakespeare’s life, entitled, unimaginatively, Shakespeare’s Lives [i]
And all of this about a man whose 53 years are almost entirely shrouded in mystery. When it comes to the details of who he was, what he was like, where he went and how and why he managed to write those 37 plays, 154 sonnets and four long poems, we know pretty much nothing. There’s even a debate as to what he actually looked like and which, if any, of the portraits or busts might possibly offer an accurate representation.
It’s lack of knowledge of Shakespeare which makes it both possible and tempting for so many people to add their own interpretations to the mix. The extraordinary status of Shakespeare both nationally and internationally, the constant production and reproduction of his plays and the ubiquity of his image – even on bank notes and credit cards – has become an industry, a self-perpetuating bandwagon of forest-destroying proportions (although that might also be a metaphor of which no true descendent of Shakespeare could possibly be proud). Graham Holderness has labelled this the Shakespeare myth, and detects sinister consequences arising from our bardolatory:
“Shakespeare, it has always been claimed, can make us wise, and good, and free. On the contrary, ‘Shakespeare’ can, radical criticism is beginning to suggest, operate to delude, to corrupt and to enslave.” (1988, 5).
Thankfully, this warning about the political dangers of ‘Shakespeare’ – the idealised English past, the cult of personality, the individualism of his drama – has not prevented Professor Holderness himself contributing more than 20 books to the pile of Shakespeare criticism
Marxist criticism now seems more dated that the plays themselves, although when I realised that Amazon also lists 62 sports and leisure items relating to Shakespeare, and such household goods as the William Shakespeare money clip, William Shakespeare cufflinks, William Shakespeare stainless steel hipflasks and a pewter William Shakespeare bottle stopper, I felt that perhaps the commodification of my putative ancestor might have gone a bit too far. I also realised that my house is thankfully and remarkably devoid of Shakespeariana. Aside from the Collected Works, I have unaccountably failed to stock up on Bard bric-a-brac over the last forty years. Perhaps this journey to the motherlode would give me the chance to remedy my omission. Or alternatively, if taken by a critical mood, I could lambaste the naked commercialism of the Shakespeare industry, which apparently brings the town of Stratford an annual revenue of £240 million. Although, come to think of it, claiming my share of that inheritance might be more rewarding.
I had plotted my week-long road trip through the heart of England carefully. I usually prefer to take the train than to drive long distances. I worry about breaking down, there’s my terrible sense of direction to worry about, and I try to avoid anything that might provoke one of my regular episodes of lower back pain. However, this time the car made sense. I had speaking engagements in Huddersfield, Warwick and Northampton, then an Arts Council meeting in Stratford, and in between, I planned to stay with my brother and my mother. Only the wettest summer on record stood between me and my origins. But apart from a long and scenic detour via the Peak District in order to avoid the temporarily submersible city of Sheffield, to my relief the journey began smoothly. After giving a sixth form lecture and enjoying the hospitality of Warwick School, which dates from the tenth century and claims to be the oldest school in England, I set off for Henley-in-Arden, after a frustrating hour spent going round in circles in Warwick town centre. I planned to save Stratford itself until later, because first I wanted to visit the places where my known relatives had lived and died.
Eventually, I reached the birthplace of William Shakespeare (the one who was my great great great grandfather, baptized in 1778). I knew Henley would be a lovely place, as soon as I drove through the tunnel of trees at the eastern entrance to the town. People said hello when you passed them on the street, and there was a useful Heritage Centre which explained that a wealthy American had become the local benefactor, after purchasing the right to call himself Lord of the Manor. I told the old ladies at the counter that my ancestors had once lived in Henley, and they seemed surprised to hear that we had ever decided to leave.
The Church of St John the Baptist was locked, but I discovered behind it the little Guildhall garden. It seemed to be a suitably historic oasis in which to eat my sandwiches. There were hanging baskets of fuchsias, washing hung out to dry and a very friendly chocolate Labrador which sat six inches from me staring hungrily at my lunch. I had the uncomfortable feeling I might be trespassing on private property, but when the householder returned he seemed unperturbed to see me there, and explained that I could always visit the other local church at Beaudesert. In times past, it had been divided from Henley by a river, making it a separate parish.
If you have information about where your family originate, and it’s the sort of thing which interests you, perhaps it’s obvious that you’d go back to your roots. But when you drive up to the place, what do you do? Get out and walk around, imagining what it might have been like, without the four by fours and the executive homes, the telephone boxes and the Spar shop? Rural English villages have gone up in the world. Where once were uneducated yeomen, now are spendthrift commuters. So you go to the church, the one fixed place, the building of which at least some parts – according to Pevsner – date back from the days when your forebears worked the fields. You stand in the churchyard, where you know for certain your ancestors came most Sundays, and try to imagine a lineage into being.
Other cultures have a stronger connection to their past, as I’ve found out on my speaking tours. In Japan, you don’t have to be alive to be counted as a family member. The job of the living is to ensure the ancestral line continues; the role of the dead is to provide spiritual guidance. The welfare of the living depends on the well-being of the dead, which is why every home has its shrine. In Iceland, it is the custom to visit the graves of your ancestors at Christmas Eve and New Year, and also at their birthdays. At the holidays, there is a traffic jam outside the main cemetery, as people drive up to put candles, Christmas wreathes, and three electric lights by each grave. It can take an hour to make the short journey, according to my friend Rannveig. In her view, Icelanders take more strength from their ancestors than they do from God. This most prosperous of European nations resembles native Americans or Australian aboriginal culture in the way that it venerates ancestors, lives close to nature, and has a strong sense of the closeness of the spirit world.
But then I visited St Nicholas’, Beaudesert, a place where I know my ancestors once lived. I went down the lane in Henley, across a neat bridge over a river which was now much smaller than it must once have been. As named by the Normans, Beaudesert had literally been a wildness, somewhere to go for good hunting. It now seems to be a good place to go for smart new housing developments with ornamental iron gates and intercoms, more des res than desert.
The church has a late Norman door with characteristic semi circle of chevrons. But in the graveyard, almost all the stones are twentieth century. My first reaction was scorn at the gradual decline of taste in funerary ornamentation and corresponding increase in sentimentality over the twentieth century. Then I noticed how every grave has become a tiny garden. Families have planted flowers, mostly rather blowsy, the yellows, pink, oranges and purples clashing horribly. Watering cans and trowels were secreted behind each headstone. As I wandered the churchyard, hoping for an ancient gravestone marking the presence of my own long lost relatives, I passed a mobility scooter parked on the path. An old man tended what I assumed was the grave of his wife. Work done, he sat on the nearby bench, his hands clasped. I imagined he was telling her about his week. In Britain, we may not have quite the same rituals, but for many the dead still live on, as they do in the spontaneous floral tributes that sprout at the site of roadside accidents.
From Henley, where my people had been living in the late eighteen century, I drove on to Feckenham, just over the border in Worcestershire, where my earliest proven ancestor Humphrey Shakespeare died in 1689. It was another lovely English village, with little to jarr the first impression of deep age and permanence. The Queen Anne houses each had a well kept garden and a BMW outside. The church was once again the best place to look for my connections. It was next to the cricket pitch, with its neat white picket fence and boundary of trees. It was a sturdy building, with chancel arches dating from the mid thirteenth century, but repainted in strong medieval patterns around 1900. I found nothing Shakespearean, but as I signed the visitors book, I noticed that I was not the first to make the journey back. A few weeks previously, George P had visited from Queensland, tracing the descendents of the blacksmiths of Feckenham in the early 1800s. Mona H had returned because it was where her father’s family originated. Rebecca P was looking for clues about the Laights, her local ancestors. Someone else wanted to know about the Leigntons. Other visitors had come to see the grave of their father or their grandfather. One party had visited on a pilgrimage to the grave of their great grandfather, George Brown.
This was very pleasing to me. I thought that knowing where you came from is a knowledge we had lost, but now it has been resurrected by the internet age. Increasingly we go in search of our origins: people copy out registers and photograph graves, creating an international web of names and dates and connections. Does anyone find what they are looking for? What are they looking for, anyway? Perhaps a better sense of who they are, a more secure lodging in a world that moves fast and changes daily. People move homes, marry and remarry, do different jobs… whereas our peasant ancestors stayed put, working the same fields, scarcely changing from century to century. They knew little of the next county, let alone London or Europe.
Feckenham churchyard was well looked after, and the retro Victorian iron street lamps now all had low energy light bulbs. Although there were many seventeenth and eighteenth century gravestones, most were encrusted with moss and algae and so worn by age that the inscriptions were indecipherable. I was disappointed not to find Shakespeares, but cheered up by the fine monument to Phoebe Lee, Queen of the Gypsies. Apparently, when she died in 1861 there was a big gypsy gathering at which her caravan was ceremonially burned. As I climbed into my car to leave, I noticed the battered telephone directory in the call box, and got out to check. There are 31 Shakespeares in the Worcester telephone directory, but none now live in Feckenham.
Earlier, standing in the Beaudesert churchyard, my mobile phone had rung. It was Steve, my mysterious genealogy connection. A few years previously he had emailed me out of the blue. He now confirmed that where I really wanted was Preston Bagot, so I went there next. It’s a tiny hamlet off the road to Stratford. I drove past a clutch of very smart houses and up a lane so narrow that when a Range Rover came towards me, I had to reverse back several hundred yards. Despite the cross on the Ordinance Survey map, there was no evidence of a church. As I sat there, stuck, a solitary walker passed by with her dog. She pointed through the trees. I was in the right place.
All Saints, Preston Baggott is a small and charming Norman church, with an unusual wooden steeple topped by a weather cock instead of a tower, but I found it locked. By the porch there was a Cotinus, and then a rosemary bush – for remembrance – and then, success! I spotted the gravestones for John Shakespeare, who died January 13 1840 at the age of 80, and his wife Hannah who died the following year aged 70. Here, at last was material evidence of someone from my own family tree. John and Hannah were the uncle and aunt of the Henley-in-Arden William Shakespeare. Which made them, as far as I can work out, my great great great great uncle and aunt. The churchyard was the loveliest I had visited, full of plain and simple graves, with roses and views of rural Warwickshire. Their grave would have to stand for the dozens of my other relatives who had lived and died in Preston Bagot, in Ipsley, in Henley in Arden and in other villages around. Not for the first time on my travels, I wished I had brought flowers.
Now I was almost done with rural churches, but as I turned towards Stratford I made one final detour, to Snittersfield. It was here that Richard Shakespeare had been a tenant farmer of the Arden family around 1525-1560. It was his son John who had moved to Stratford in 1581, married Mary Arden, and whose son William had later written all those plays. As I was passing anyway, I thought I should pop in, on the off-chance. As I stood there in the cold church, noticing the scallop shells to connote that the patron saint of the church was St James the pilgrim, my own journey suddenly felt rather stupid.
What was the point of visiting places where people who may or may not have been my ancestors may or may not have lived? I was not exactly going to get a sense of the lives they lived. Anyway, what possible difference could it make if I did prove to be related to Shakespeare? In genetic terms, if we shared a common ancestor but no other subsequent intermarriage, we would share one thirty two thousandth of our DNA. In other words, I would be about as biologically close to the poet as I was to most of the other white inhabitants of the West Midlands.
But I’d come a long way, and I was still determined to experience the Shakespeare industry at first hand, and so ten minutes later I finally entered Stratford itself, hoping anxiously that my new sat nav would direct me towards my B+B. It did, and having parked up, I was free to investigate a town which turned out to be easy to explore on foot, even for someone who finds it difficult to walk any distance. Nor was the place overrun by tourists and spoiled by the heritage industry. It was still, as a sixteenth century map-maker wrote, emporium non inelegans.
Within ten minutes, I found myself opposite the Birthplace, the epicentre of the global Shakespeare conspiracy. I noted that Stanley Wells, chairman of the Birthplace Trust and noted Shakespeare scholar, was giving a talk that evening on myths about Shakespeare. In the attached bookshop, I could see his book, Is It True What They Say About Shakespeare?, nestling alongside titles such as Shakespeare’s Cats and Easy Reading Shakespeare (the Bard in bite-sized pieces) but it seemed better to hear the Professor in person, so I bought my ticket.
If you ignore Shakespearience, “a new multi-sensory attraction that presents the life and legacy of William Shakespeare in a spectacular and exciting way never seen before” – and I certainly did – the town today is remarkably free of tacky Bardolatory. The As You Like It Café and Sandwich Bar may be competing with the Food of Love Café, but this seems fairly mild, given that half a million visitors now throng to Stratford every year. In most other ways, Stratford is a typical English town, albeit overstocked with roaming Japanese and hordes of visiting American teenagers. Walking down Bridge Street, where according to Steve P my ancestor Thomas the Shoemaker once lived, I spotted Marks and Spencers nestling next to Next, Laura Ashley, Boots the Chemist, Woolworth and Clinton Cards, but sadly there was no longer a shoe shop, let alone a medieval building.
On my stroll to the Birthplace, I hadn’t seen anywhere serving food, but the kind lady who sold me my ticket had several suggestions. As I walked down the High Street, The Garrick Inn seemed most appropriate. With blackened beams and boasting three resident ghosts, it is the oldest pub in Stratford and would surely have been known to my ancestors. The menu promised Traditional English Fayre, but Traditional Lasagne or Gammon and Pineapple or Thai Red Prawn Curry hardly seemed authentic, so I opted for the Beef and Ruddles Pie, the basic principle of which would have been familiar to your average Tudor diner, and very nice it was too, washed down with a pint of IPA. In the fourteenth century, the pub had been called the Reindeer, and then the Greyhound and then the New Inn, but it was renamed The Garrick in 1769 to celebrate actor David Garrick’s famous Shakespeare celebration, the event which Professor Graeme Holderness has described as “the great formal inauguration of bardolatory as a national religion” (xi),
England’s obsession with our national poet took time to develop. When he died in 1616, William Shakespeare was buried in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, not in Westminster Abbey like his contemporary Ben Jonson. In his lifetime, it was his poems rather than his plays which were published, and during most of the seventeenth century he was just one of a number of Tudor and Jacobean playwrights who had gone out of fashion.
Although Shakespeare’s plays began to be revived and appreciated again in the early 18th century, it was Garrick’s abortive Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769 which kickstarted the Shakespeare cult. Anticipating making a killing on the spectacle, the locals hiked prices for accommodation and labour. The opening ceremony was a success, with David Garrick presenting a statue and portrait, and in return being elected Honorary Burgess, before performing his Ode to Shakespeare. However, a subsequent deluge of rain prevented the grand pageant of Shakespearean characters, ruined the fireworks display, and flooded Shottery Meadows where a steeplechase was to have been held. The locals muttered about divine punishment for idolatory, but in retrospect it may have been unwise to have scheduled an outdoor spectacle in early September. Garrick returned to London in high dudgeon, having lost considerable sums of money. He promptly recouped the debt by writing and performing a satirical play lampooning both the Jubilee and the people of Stratford, and never returned to the town.
A steady stream of visitors followed Garrick to Stratford, although the festival he inaugurated died out after six years. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, later to become the second and third Presidents of the United States of America, visited in 1786. By 1793, a Mrs Mary Hornby was acting as unofficial custodian of the Shakespeare “relics”, as well as producing extemporary verses extolling the virtues of the poet, which sadly failed to match his poetic standards. A more appropriate heir was John Keats, who made his pilgrimage in 1817, and was strongly influenced by Shakespeare. His letters are full of quotations and references to the plays, and his copy of the Collected Works is heavily annotated.
There would already have been souvenirs to buy, had Keats been that way inclined. According to legend, Shakespeare himself planted the mulberry tree in the garden behind the house, New Place, where he lived from 1610 until his death in 1616. It was probably one of the young mulberry trees which a Frenchman named Veron had distributed throughout the Midlands in 1609, after King James I had decided that the area should become the centre of England’s silk industry. So many visitors liked to take a sprig from the tree that when Rev Francis Gaswell bought the house in 1756 he promptly chopped it down. Gaswell claimed that the tree made the house damp and gloomy, but quite clearly his real motivation was to discourage sightseers. Thomas Sharpe, an entrepreneurial local craftsman, then bought the lumber and proceeded to make mementos including boxes, goblets, pastry cutters, tobacco jar stoppers and the ubiquitous Shakespeare bust, anticipating Amazon bookshop by several centuries. Tourists still like to have a peek at where Shakespeare would have lived, except that the house that Shakespeare bought back in 1597 was demolished and rebuilt in 1702, so it’s not clear how authentic the previous house was anyway, had it been there, which unfortunately it isn’t. Francis Gaswell’s impressive iconoclasm continued in 1759, when he destroyed the house itself, apparently in a quarrel over a tax bill.
All that remains is a very large hole in the ground, surrounded by some rather nice flowers, but it’s well worth a look if you’re in the area.
Such caveats attend almost all the sites associated with Shakespeare and his family.
For example, Shakespeare’s birthplace in Henley Street is two houses, subsequently knocked into one. A room in the western end is shown off as the bedroom where Shakespeare was born, although there is no evidence that his father John owned that building before 1575, and in any case only the cellar of the building remains as it was at the date of William’s birth. These unfortunate facts have not stopped it becoming a place of pilgrimage. The supposed window of the supposed bedroom in which William Shakespeare was supposedly born bears the scratched names of writers including Carlyle, Scott, Dickens, Tennyson, Longfellow, Hardy and Mark Twain and others that are likely to be forgeries. It seems that visitors to Stratford have been as likely to leave their mark, as to want to take something of the place away with them. PT Barnum was impressed enough to try and buy the window for his travelling exhibition. Commercial exploitation came to an end in 1847 when after a public subscription the Birthplace and associated relics were bought for the nation for £3000, with Charles Dickens taking a leading role in the fundraising efforts by giving public readings. As a result of all the publicity, by 1850, 2,500 visitors were visiting the Birthplace each year.
Stratford is place of supposition and guesswork, because Shakespeare himself is such a shadowy figure. The ring discovered in Holy Trinity Churchyard with the initials WS may have been his – but then it’s just as likely to have belonged to someone else because “such an attribution cannot be proved”. As the displays carefully say, he may have attended the grammar school. He might have taken this route to London, but then again, he might have taken another route entirely. Nor can anybody prove what he did during his “lost years” between 1585 – 1592. He might have been sailing the high seas, poaching deer, becoming a Catholic or turning into Francis Bacon for all we know. What the Birthplace Trust now describe as Mary Arden’s farm may or may not have been where his mother originated. But none of this bothers me. The wonderful aspect of Stratford’s association with Shakespeare is that dozens of Tudor houses have been preserved, thanks to the hard work of the Birthplace Trust. It’s like the medieval house of John Knox on Edinburgh High Street. The Calvinist reformer may never have lived there, but the apocryphal link has ensured the survival of a marvellous building. All the Shakespeare properties are beautiful houses with peaceful gardens, lovingly preserved. Whatever the truth of their provenance, their mythical associations have guaranteed the survival of a vital slice of history, which in other English towns has been obliterated by short-sighted planners, architects and developers
The next morning, before I completed my viewing of the Shakespearean properties, I had an important family reunion, with Steve the genealogist. He had promised to drive over from Birmingham to explain what he had found out after his thirty years of family history research. We agreed to meet outside the Birthplace, but when I arrived at the appointed time, he was nowhere to be seen. I looked with interest at every passer-by in case they were my mysterious informant. Forty five minutes later, he turned up, spectacles askew and out of breath, with a mysterious teenage girl in tow. He had got lost in the one way system. We clearly shared the same propensity for losing our way, if not the same reliance on satellite navigation.
As we sat in a nearby tea shop, Steve told me about his quest while his monosyllabic teenage daughter, sent one text after another into the ether. Steve was a seasoned researcher, who become interested in genealogy as a teenager, before Alex Haley’s Roots, before the internet, even before microfilm. His grandmother had been a Shakespeare, and after he had traced his father’s ancestors around Dudley, he started out on the other side of the family, searching in the local archives in Dudley, Worcester, Stafford, Litchfield, as well as the Public Records Office in London. He was now in touch with more than 50 Shakespeare genealogists world wide.
As he began to take papers, charts and notes out of his carrier bag, I began to realise that it was unusual for Steve to find a listener who was actually keen to hear about his research, and part of me began to wish I had never asked. He was a man with a passion, or more accurately, an obsession. He knew far more about my origins than I did myself, far more perhaps than was healthy. He told me about the Leicester Shakespeares. He explained that he’d met a woman called Shakespeare from Henley in Arden who knew about that branch – our branch – being Baptists and selling Bibles. He told me about long lost American cousins, and a Thomas Shakespeare who had died in South America. He told me about the piles of Shakespearean genealogical records which were sitting in a library in Philadelphia, and I agreed that if I ever went back to America, I would go and photocopy them for him.
As he talked, I wondered to myself why someone would spend decades of their life tracing their roots: hours searching through records of births and deaths, looking at gravestones. I have great admiration for genealogists, who must have to have patience, dedication, ingenuity and a very high boredom threshhold to get anywhere, but I wonder why they do it: how is life improved by knowing about all your ancestors since the sixteenth century? But then I realised that I am on exactly the same journey, exploring how inheritance has shaped me in different ways. It’s about seeing yourself in historical context, and understanding how you came to be the way you are. Like most of us, I lack the patience to take the genealogical route. I felt relieved that there are people like Steve to do the hard work, so that the rest of us don’t have to.
After giving his overview, Steve began to outline his theory. According to him, almost all the surviving Shakespeares were related. The key was a man called Thomas of Balsall, who was the son of Adam Shakespeare, who appropriately enough was the ancestor of us all, back in 1389. Later I was to read confirmation in a book of surname history that everyone called Shakespeare was probably descended from the same man. Whatever the finer details, this sounded like good news to me. Next time someone asked, I could say with confidence that I was definitely related to Shakespeare. Distantly. Very, very, very, distantly.
Steve’s radical move came next. The supposition made by most writers on Shakespeare was that he was the son of the John Shakespeare who was the son of Richard Shakespeare of Snittersfield. But Steve believed he had discovered the will of that John Shakespeare, who had died in a village called Clifford Chambers and therefore could not have been the father of the poet. I need not have bothered with my side trip to Snittersfield after all.
The famous William Shakespeare must therefore have been the son of another John Shakespeare. According to Steve, this John was the grandson of Thomas of Balsall. As John Aubrey said, he was a butcher (not a glover like the “wrong” John Shakespeare). This theory also explained the existence of William Shakespeare’s cousin, Thomas Green, who otherwise is hard to connect to the poet’s family tree. John’s brother was Thomas of Warwick, whose grandson Humphrey was the possible father or grandfather of my own ancestor, Humphrey Shakespeare of Feckenham. In other words, if all Steve’s ifs and buts and suppositions were right, the poet Shakespeare’s grandfather Thomas would be my direct ancestor, and he and I would be… well, cousins, albeit very many times removed.
I liked what I was hearing. I could see that Steve was no fantasist. For a non-professional, he was certainly scrupulous. He had worked it all out by logical deduction, and if a connection was suspected, rather than proven, he was willing to acknowledge that. And if I concentrated very hard, I could just about understand it all, despite the Ursulas and Hezekiahs and Humphreys and ale tasters and shoemakers and butchers who were buzzing around my head. I suggested to him that he should write a book. He said that’s exactly what he was doing, only his day job as a nurse in an old people’s home got in the way, and he was better at researching than writing.
By now, Steve’s daughter was looking very bored indeed. I felt I couldn’t keep her there listening to us talk genealogy any longer. In any case, I had more Shakespeare properties to visit. And although Steve’s investigations suggested that the three of us were very very distant cousins, once we had exhausted the possibilities of our relationship to the poet there was little more for us to discuss. So we parted on cordial terms. I really did feel very grateful to Steve for spending all that time in libraries and archives to work everything out, on behalf of me and all the other scattered Shakespeares of the world. A few hours later, I saw Steve and Emma walking past the site of New Place, map in hand. I only hope they found where he’d parked the car eventually.
By the end of the day, I’d visited Shakespeare’s birthplace; the site of the house where he lived out his final years; his wife Anne Hathaway’s childhood home; his son-in-law’s house; and the church where he was buried, looking at them all with the eyes of someone who now felt confident calling himself a distant cousin a few dozen times removed. I learned that an estimated sixteen million people had visited Anne Hathaway’s Cottage since it was first opened to the public. At times, I felt like a slightly disgruntled former proprietor. On a bright sunny day in May, walking through one of these low ceiling half-timbered buildings with its leaded windows and creaking wooden floors was like entering a painting by Vermeer. In the brief intervals before the arrival of another crocodile of noisy school children, the gardens of the houses were beautifully peaceful, filled with larkspur and sweet peas and marigolds and roses.
That evening, sated with Shakespeariana, I sat in the meeting room of the Birthplace Trust and listened as Professor Stanley Wells, doyen of Shakespeare scholars and chair of the Trust, set out to dispel the many myths that have attached themselves to the Bard. Was he gay, was he Catholic, was he a heavy drinker, was he in fact someone else entirely, whether Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford or one of the sixty or so other alternative candidates? On this final point, I was glad to hear that Shakespeare was, according to Wells at least, most definitely Shakespeare. The last thing I wanted, having only just established that I had a reasonable claim to call myself a relative of the great man, was to find him dispossessed of his literary oeuvre. When I put up my hand, the question I wanted answered was: why so many myths? Why does Shakespeare attract cranks and conspiracy theories? Professor Wells suggested that the authorship controversies were motivated by snobbery: how could an untravelled, scantily educated provincial actor generate works of such brilliance? He suspected other factors such as ignorance, self-promotion, and the desire to cut a great man down to size had also played a part.
For me, the question of Shakespeare’s stature and achievement was the last and greatest mystery, and one which I was least qualified to answer. During the week that followed my visit to Stratford, I saw three productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I listened to Michael Boyd, the artistic director, talk about his plans for the company, and toured the RSC theatres which are the spiritual heart of Stratford. And after all this, the question that continued to buzz around my head was not about my own relationship to the playwright, but rather, the question of why Shakespeare, above any others, is the most renowned of all writers, English or foreign. It may be a shaming confession, but I have often sat through performances of Shakespeare – including the annual visits of the RSC to Newcastle – and questioned why, half a millennium on, we are still struggling to understand opaque iambic pentameters, why we should care about the bizarre decisions of misguided rulers, and whether these stories truly have anything to say to us now.
But then, to see it done really well, to hear the lines declaimed not in actorly pomp, but in heart-touching emotion, to watch Lear falling apart again, or to be surprised by laughter at a four hundred year old joke, proves that there’s something which connects to audiences still, something which is not about heritage, but about shared humanity. You could think of Shakespeare in the same way as you think about genealogy. Genealogy can be a conservative and culturally defensive approach to history, a matter of boosting one’s own importance, promoting racial purity or reviving the hierarchies of an imagined past. Or genealogy can be far more open, dynamic and fluid, showing how everything and everyone interconnects, how many people are ethnically hybrid, how families rise and fall and change.
Some scholars suggest that Shakespeare’s work has survived better than that of his contemporaries because he was concerned not with the details of Elizabethan society or morality, but with broader questions of identity, politics and relationships. As Coleridge pointed out, his plays are often set in distant times and places, which would have been as unfamiliar to his audience as they are to us. These features ensure that eternal human issues become the heart of the drama. As Ben Jonson said in his preface to the First Folio, “he was not of an age, but for all time”. Shakespeare’s relevance to modern audiences is proof, perhaps, of how little humans have changed over five centuries. If so, this is a point in favour of those who argue for a genetic basis to human nature. It suggests that people still behave in very much the same ways, although the context in which we live and make choices is very different. Because, cliché though it may sound, it’s not just me who has William Shakespeare as an ancestor, but all of us.
* * * * *
A few months ago, I was looking for my Wishlist, that convenient page on the Amazon online bookstore where you store the titles that you can’t bring yourself to buy right now, those ones which you hope your friend or lover might notice and buy for you. So there I was, typing “Shakespeare” into the search box, only to be taken aback, stopped right in my tracks, when the search engine came up with 178 separate wishlists. They were none of them family, although if Steve is right, maybe they’re all family. 178 different Shakespeares! So many namesakes, even in this little backwater of the internet. On Facebook, I even found another Tom Shakespeare. For people with a commoner name, it’s no surprise to find someone else has got there first. For a Shakespeare, it’s a rare experience. But perhaps I needed to be cut down to size. Because how important is this Shakespeare name anyway? Here I am making such a fuss about it, claiming that it’s had an impact on my life, but my own children don’t seem bothered. They don’t even want to be called Shakespeare.
Because I was never married either to Ivy’s mother or Robert’s mother, neither of my offspring bear my surname. Ivy is a Broadhead, a good Yorkshire name, and Robert is a Brown. From time to time, when they’re changing school, I have gently raised the question of whether they might not prefer a more distinctive surname… like Shakespeare. So far, they have resisted, and I can’t see that changing. A name is part of your image of yourself. Unless it’s utterly stigmatising or humiliating, you stick with what you’re given. I have passed on my genes to my children, who have inherited my disability and maybe other echoes of my personality, but I am where this line of Shakespeares ends.