"Each has his own tree of ancestors, but at the top of all sits Probably Arboreal." - Robert Louis Stevenson

Monday, 20 February 2012

On Shakespeare

This year’s Valentine’s Day surprise from my lovely boyfriend was a mystery daytrip – to Stratford upon Avon. He knows how to keep me happy! Despite the freezing wind, it was a really lovely day. The highlight for me was seeing Shakespeare’s grave and baptism and burial records in Holy Trinity church.
I always think that people seem much more real when I can see a grave. It’s as if they were just a paper trail before that, and then suddenly they leap out of the pages and become a physical being. It probably sounds odd to many of you, and even more so in reference to a legend like Shakespeare, whose works surely bring him to life anyway, but that’s just the way I react.
It costs £2 per adult to see the graves (of Shakespeare and his family), but the staff in the church were very friendly and they positively encourage you to take photographs, which is quite refreshing. And to be honest, if they hadn’t asked me to pay I would have made a donation anyway, being conscious of the need to preserve our historical buildings.
Shakespeare’s grave has obviously been touched so many times, before it was cordoned off, that the inscription has all but completely worn away, though there is a sign bearing the verse. He lies with his wife to his right and children and family members to his left. On the wall above is the bust of Shakespeare, one of the very few ‘portraits’ (two or three, I believe) we have of the playwright, although it is not known how accurate it is, particularly as it has been repainted in the intervening years. In a glass case nearby, the parish records are written in faded and barely legible Latin that I was quite impressed I could make out – clearly the years of squinting at censuses have paid off!
There were also some brilliant displays, which clearly explained the role of the church in Shakespeare’s life – baptism, marriage and death. These focused on what we know about Shakespeare’s connection with the church and the records, and what we can deduce from what we know about life at the time, and some useful comparisons with modern traditions. They were written so that they could be easily understood with people whose knowledge of this kind of history was basic – I imagine even older children or those who didn’t speak a lot of English could have grasped most of it. And yet, the information itself was interesting enough that I was able to take something away from it. Very impressive and well worth a visit in my opinion!
Of course, I bought a book; I always do on these visits – Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare. I’ve only just got started and I’m already finding it fascinating, despite having read much on Shakespeare’s life before. I would particularly recommend Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: the world as a stage – if you’re at all familiar with Bryson’s writing I’m sure you can imagine what he brings to this topic!
The thing that always impresses me about Shakespeare research is in fact how much info there is out there about him; how detailed a picture the people who write these books are able to build up. He was born nearly 450 years ago. That they are able to tell us where and when he was born, the names of his parents and grandparents, and so much about his life, is quite impressive. We’re well beyond the 1837 pale here, after all!
I edited that last sentence – initially I went for ‘surprising’ rather than ‘impressive’ – because actually it doesn’t surprise me at all. Increasingly I understand the methodology used, and given how many others are digging around for info on him, is it any wonder there’s plenty uncovered? If only there were this many people around the world who wanted to help me find out about my ancestors!
In fact, I do have one particular ancestor who is quite well known in his field ­– more so than all the millhands and ag. labs, at any rate! The result: there is more material than there might otherwise be, and more people are interested in it. On the other hand, I wonder whether there isn’t this much info out there for all of our ancestors, if only we knew exactly what we were looking for and where to find it...
L x

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