Tuesday 28 June 2016
Senate House Library
Part of the 'Shakespeare: Metamorphosis' season
Review by Jamie Weisz, MA Early Modern Studies
Although Shakespeare died four hundred years ago, he lives on to this day through the countless adaptations of his original plays. But what of the man himself? What aspects of his life changed, and what impact did those events have on his work? This summer, Senate House Library are devoting their commemorative efforts to emphasise the metamorphosis of Shakespeare. In this particular talk, Paul Edmondson of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust provided fascinating insight into New Place, the house Shakespeare bought in 1597.
On the corner of Chapel Lane and Chapel Street in Stratford-upon-Avon is an empty plot of land which has remained that way for 250 years. That was where New Place stood. Following in the footsteps of James Halliwell-Phillipps who had done the same in the nineteenth-century, the SBT, along with Staffordshire University, excavated the site in March 2010. The aim was to learn more about the relationship that Shakespeare had with the town of his birth and burial. After sporadic digs across five years, numerous treasures were unearthed: foreign coins, gaming paraphernalia, and the remains of an oven, all of which provide ways of imagining Shakespeare’s social life.
What also transpired, unsurprisingly, was that Shakespeare was a very wealthy man when he purchased New Place. It was the only house in Stratford with a courtyard, and few other houses in the borough could possibly rival the 52ft “Long Gallery”, used by Shakespeare as a gallery and entertainment space. Moreover, there were ten hearths in New Place, which provides evidence for as many as thirty rooms - Shakespeare’s extended family could comfortably have lived here all at once. The purchase of New Place was an audacious statement from
Shakespeare, both in monetary and social terms. New Place was within close proximity to the market cross, the old grammar school, and the guildhall in Stratford, making it a significant focal point in the fabric of Stratford civic life. Shakespeare, if people had not known already, was a big deal.
Perhaps, ironically, New Place provided stability for Shakespeare during what must have been a very busy time of his life. Edmondson convincingly argued that Shakespeare had more or less used New Place as his writing HQ. We know that there the building housed a study, and the folios that Shakespeare used as sources were not easily portable. Judicious use of documentary and visual evidence – notably the nineteenth-century sketches of George Virtue – demonstrate how Shakespeare adapted his home to suit his needs and emphasise his status, adding to the theory that there was a sense of permanence to New Place for Shakespeare.
Edmondson was highly understandably enthusiastic about New Place, with the recent discoveries there providing exciting opportunities to contribute further to Shakespeare’s biography. Those wanting to learn more about New Place should look out for Edmondson’s forthcoming Finding Shakespeare’s New Place which is due for release next month. What’s more, New Place will be reopening this summer to the public, allowing visitors to walk in the footsteps of the great man himself.