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Finding Shakespeare’s New Place: An archaeological biography

COLLS, Kevin, Edmondson, Paul and MITCHELL, William (2016) Finding Shakespeare’s New Place: An archaeological biography. n/a . Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK. ISBN ISBN 978 1 5261 0649 0

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Foreword by Michael Wood
It is a scarcely believable chance that so many buildings connected with Shakespeare’s life survive in and around Stratford-upon-Avon: Henley Street, the Hathaway cottage in Shottery, Hall’s Cro6, and Nash’s House. Robert Arden’s homestead is almost intact in Wilmcote; there is even what looks like part of grandfather Richard’s farm on the corner of Bell Lane in Snitterfield. To have all this is astonishingly good fortune.
Of all the houses he lived in, the one we would most like to know today is New Place. Bought by Shakespeare in 1597 a6er the death of his only son, this was his home till his own death in 1616. Heavily reconstructed in 1702, the house, however, was demolished in 1759. For the last 250 years its presence has been marked only by a gap in the street frontage at the junction of Church Street and Chapel Lane.
That gap has almost seemed a metaphor for the man: so famous as an artist yet seemingly unknowable as a person. Yet now, unbelievably, that unpromising space has revealed more about the man than we could ever have thought possible.
The circumstances of Shakespeare’s purchase have long been known, but what has remained uncertain is whether he actually lived in it until his supposed retire- ment in around 1611. But this chronology, though still widely accepted, is based on 7awed assumptions. In this book a compelling case is made that from Shakespeare’s mid-thirties New Place was always his primary residence – that this is where he lived with his family, and where he did much of his writing: a well-o:, middle-class land- owner who never lost touch with his roots.
But now the excavations have revealed something altogether more fascinating. The house had been built by the Clopton family at the end of the Wars of the Roses: a late medieval town house, the largest in Stratford-upon-Avon. As we know from an eighteenth-century sketch it was a five-bayed house, with a courtyard, hall, barns and garden. But it had fallen into disrepair when William bought it. In his 1733 edition of

xviii Foreword

the plays, Lewis Theobald reported a family tradition from John Clopton (who had rebuilt New Place in 1702) that Shakespeare had ‘repair’d and modell’d it to his own mind’. This fascinating hint suggests that the house was not just renovated but rebuilt as a personal project. Coming on the heels of the fires and famines of the 1590s, with anti-theatre puritans in ascendency on the borough council, it is hard not to see that restoration in brick and timber as something more, as in some sense a psychological project, to put the world together again. Now the archaeology tantalisingly suggests this was so. Indeed, it may not be going too far to say that here for first time we have evidence of a project, beyond his work as a poet and dramatist, on which Shakespeare focused his creative imagination.
The remaking of the front block of the house created a first-7oor gallery, 15 m in length, facing Church Street. As fashionable in interior design in the late Elizabethan period, the gallery, it is conjectured, would have been for the display of statuary, paintings and emblems (over the front door he was also entitled to display the coat of arms he had bought in 1596). Then, across a small green courtyard – the heart of the house – was a hall that the archaeologists think Shakespeare retained as a status symbol in the medieval fashion of the late Tudor world, as backward-looking as an accession-day tilt. Any reader of Shakespeare can see his nostalgia for the lost world of his grandparents’ time, his parents’ childhood: his obsession with history; the old kings and good friars; even his interest in shields, coats of arms, emblems and impre- sas. May we perhaps link this to his own ancestors, and to the ‘antecessor’ who, he claimed to the Heralds in 1596, had done Henry VII ‘valiant service’ (at Bosworth?)? Perhaps this was Thomas Shakespeare of Balsall, who was admitted to the Guild Book of Knowle with his wife, Alicia, the year a6er Bosworth in 1486. To this the authors add further fascinating speculations. Whether, as they suggest, the gallery had a row of portraits of kings is of course beyond proof, though Henry VII would be particu- larly apposite, as he was claimed as a patron by both the Shakespeares and the Ardens.
Through all this we sense the working of family memory: the poet’s inheritance from the older world that made him. New Place, as we imagine it now, thanks to the archaeologists, becomes a kind of memory room for the heirless branch of the Shakespeare clan.
The archaeologists have given us is a rich harvest, and many connections to the sources of the poet’s life. The house stood as a riposte to the sneers of Francis Beaumont, who, in his 1606 play The Woman Hater, referred to a glover’s son who hoped ‘shortly to be honourable’ – that is, to become a knight. If the Freudians are right that the house one dreams embodies oneself, then the archaeology of New Place may have uncovered an important clue to William. ‘Modelled to his own mind’, this, in a sense, is him.
Michael Wood

Item Type: Book / Proceeding
Uncontrolled Keywords: INCL
Faculty: Previous Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Sciences > Sciences
Depositing User: Kevin COLLS
Date Deposited: 27 Oct 2016 10:30
Last Modified: 24 Feb 2023 13:45

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