Summer’s Breath, Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Stratford-upon-Avon

Sonnet LIV

William Shakespeare

O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give.
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour, which doth in it live.
The canker blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer's breath their masked buds discloses:
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo'd, and unrespected fade;
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made:
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall vade, my verse distills your truth.

I arrived at Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon on a sultry, storm-threatened August afternoon. Not so many were visiting the house and I gleefully roamed the garden which was packed with roses in full bloom, some past their peak, a few falling into decay. This sonnet seemed to be the right choice.

Sense of Place

William Shakespeare was born on 23 April 1564 (or thereabouts) in what was then the largest house in Henley Street. He would have been washed and swaddled by the midwife and taken down a ladder to the lower floor to be presented to his father, before being returned to lie with his mother in the warmth and darkness of the birth chamber. In keeping with Warwickshire custom it is likely he was fed a small taste of honey and butter before being placed in his cradle.

Shakespeare lived here throughout his childhood and for the first five years of his marriage. A spacious house with a garden and orchard, it was often full of children. He remains a shadowy figure but the best information about the man can be gleaned from his plays and sonnets.

Knowledge of Nature

Shakespeare’s biographer Peter Ackroyd observes that this childhood home left a strong imprint on Shakespeare’s work. Here is a man who was steeped in the countryside of Warwickshire, with its gardens, orchards, meadows, river, and birds. He makes countless references to gardens, and they are often used as metaphors for the body or the state; for decay or regrowth, or for that which needs pruning, weeding or plucking out.

Why should we, in the compass of a pale,
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing as in a model our firm estate,
When our sea-walled Garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all unpruned, her hedges ruin’d,
Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?

Richard II, Act III, Scene 4

The plays burgeon with references to flowers, plants and herbs that Shakespeare knew from the hedgerows and woods of Warwickshire. His descriptions are touching and fresh and tell of a countryside he knew and loved. He observes them in all manner of places, from ‘flat meads’ to ‘turfy mountains’, from ‘bosky acres’ to ‘hedges even pleached’,

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine;
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1

Shakespeare sometimes used local names. For the flowers of the meadow there are Ophelia’s crow-flowers and Lear’s cuckoo-flowers and he uses the Warwickshire name for pansies: love-in-idleness. Flowers and plants are used proverbially, comparatively and adjectivally, ‘we grew together like to a double cherry seeming parted’, ‘the stinking elder, grief’, ‘not worth a gooseberry’ and ‘thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine’.

I’ll sweeten thy sad grave: thou shalt not lack
The flower that’s like thy face, pale primrose, nor
The azured harebell, like thy veins, no, nor
The leaf of eglantine, whom not to slander,
Out-sweeten’d not thy breath:

Cymbeline, Act IV. Scene 2

or

These lily lips,
This cherry nose,

These yellow cowslip cheeks
Are gone, are gone.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V. Scene 1

His orchards hang with apricots, grapes and plums and he sets many scenes in them – twenty-nine in fact. He knows the march of the seasons, ‘…daffodils come before the swallow dares, and take/ The winds of March with beauty.

Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun,
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer.

The Winter’s Tale, Act IV. Scene 3

More than sixty species of birds are mentioned in the plays, and Shakespeare understood their flight patterns and characteristics: larks ascend, grebes dive, wrens are plucky, swans serene.

His language is compelling, being composed of finely observed details from day-to-day life. The son of a leather merchant, he jokes that ‘a sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit, how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward’. So as McCrum observes, despite being set in a wood on the outskirts of Athens, A Midsummer Night’s Dream bears the stamp of a country lad from the English Midlands.

Myth and Legend

As a child, through experience or his voracious reading, Shakespeare was familiar with myths, fairytales, and the traditions of rural life. He later worked them into his plays, sprinkled with Stratford words, phrases and idioms. Knowledge of Welsh fairies who stowed away in foxgloves and witches who whipped up storms appeared in Romeo and Juliet as ‘Queen Mab’, the vindictive hag and bringer of dreams that Mercutio describes. The term Mab-led in Shakespeare’s Warkwickshire meant one was mad. A Winter’s Tale has goblins and sprites and a sheep-shearing feast he would have witnessed in Snitterfield (birthplace of his father). He makes Mistress Quickly fall in love with Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, which is likely to have been a favourite childhood book.

Childhood

Ackroyd makes the point that the one aspect of a writer’s life that cannot be disguised is childhood. ‘It arises unbidden and unannounced in a hundred different contexts.’ The children who feature in his works are robust and full of life. They appear as confident, precocious, articulate beings, sometimes wayward but able to talk with adults in a natural, unrestrained fashion. Reading between the lines then, we can be reasonably confident that Shakespeare was loved and nurtured, and spent a happy childhood here.

Pictures taken with the kind permission of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Music:

Anthony Holborne, Image in Melancholy, Ensemble Masques

Anthony Holborne was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s and it is possible they met through a mutual patron. I like to think that Shakepeare knew this beautiful piece of music.  Ensemble Masques are early music specialists. They take their name from the  masques of Elizabethan England, performances known for their mystery and blend of  poetry, dance, music and drama. The ensemble performed Holborne’s ‘Image in Melancholy’ live in concert at the Waalsekerk, Amsterdam:

Violins: Sophie Gent and Tuomo Suni

Bass viols: Margaret Little and Mélisande Corriveaubass

Violone: Benoît Van Den Bemden

Harpsichord: Olivier Fortin

Connection

Countless writers and poets have been profoundly influenced by Shakespeare but one of his most ardent admirers was the Romantic poet John Keats.

Following the publication of his Poems in March 1817, Keats turned for inspiration to Shakespeare. Familiar with his works from his schooldays, he now read in earnest the seven-volume edition of the Dramatic Work which he had bought before his departure for a journey to the Isle of Wight. He wrote to his brothers Tom and George on 14th April:

I felt rather lonely this Morning at breakfast so I went and unbox’d a Shakespeare – “There’s my Comfort.”

He buried himself in the work and Shakespeare became by turns a consoling companion, mentor and master. The music of his language haunted and delighted Keats, together with his ability to create potent images full of meaning. He hung a portrait of the Bard over his writing space and referred to it repeatedly in his letters to friends, giving the impression that he was communing with Shakespeare.

Of all Shakespeare’s characters, Keats identified with Hamlet as his ideal poetical character: capable of uncertainty and doubt, entertaining mystery, and content with half knowledge. Keats was wary of the barren realms of dogmatic certainty, believing that a capacity for speculation left the mind open to alternative approaches and perspectives. He began to posit lack of certainty as a value. In this vein he wrote to John Hamilton Reynolds in February 1818:

Man should not dispute or assert but whisper results to his neighbour and thus…Humanity instead of being a wide heath of Furze and Briars…would become a grand democracy of Forest Trees!

In grappling with the mystery of Shakespeare’s achievement and his ‘breadth of mind’, Keats found meaning in his own life and work. His thoughts coalesced into a concept of negative capability, as expressed in a letter to brothers George and Tom in December 1817:

…Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties.

This quality requires submission to life’s chaos, and the practice of desisting from the need to order or control life through the use of sense, fact or scientific evidence. Keats thought that Coleridge’s attempt to herd his intuitions about beauty into a coherent system of thought was a weakness. He felt that although this line of inquiry ended in the certitude of philosophy, it missed life’s mystery. This mystery of life might be glimpsed only occasionally, after much groping in the dark. Even then, such glimpses could not count as truth because they were aspects, and did not represent the whole.

In the absence of a formal religious belief, negative capability became a form of salvation for Keats as his health declined. It was an enriched perception that released him from the obligations of experience, allowing him to view life with a benign and tolerant detachment.

Towards the end of his life, weary with illness and Fanny Brawne’s seeming flightiness, he was reminded of the lonely suffering of Hamlet, and wrote to Fanny in August 1820:

Shakespeare always sums up matters in the most sovereign manner. Hamlet’s heart was full of such Misery as mine is when he said to Ophelia ‘Go to a Nunnery, go, go!’

In his work about Keats (1971) the scholar Bhabatosh Chatterjee wrote:

Keats’s study of Shakespeare is the soul’s adventure amidst great poetry, a communion with another kindred spirit. His approach is not that of a scholar, nor does he have recourse to a regular critic’s tools and methods. For him, Shakespeare is almost a sacred text – both esoteric and human – offering guidance, inspiration and comfort, and answering his deepest questions in moments of crisis.

Sources

Chatterjee, Bhabatosh. John Keats: His Mind and Work, Longman, 1971

Popova, Maria. Brain Pickings, The Art of “Negative Capability”: Keats on Embracing Uncertainty and Celebrating the Mysterious, Brain Pickings, 11 January, 201

Notes

The actors here recite Shakespeare on demand and also work as informal guides. One told me an intriguing story about how the house was nearly lost to England. In 1845, having fallen into a state of disrepair, it was put up for sale. One Phineas Barnum, the showman and founder of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, made a bid to buy it. He planned to have the house dismantled piece-by-piece, shipped to America then reassembled and taken around the country as a travelling roadshow. Fortunately Charles Dickens, who had loved the house for many years, intervened. He bought it along with two others and had it restored. He used to relish sleeping in Shakespeare’s bed.

The actor I spoke with knew a great deal about this place and spoke of it with reverence. He enjoyed the fact that should Shakespeare suddenly turn up one lazy Sunday afternoon, he’d be able to recognise his old home at once. The day leaves me with the memory of this man’s great care and tenderness, and the image of a woman in Elizabethan dress scurrying out of the rain.

Weblinks

www.shakespeare.org.uk

This is the website for Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust. See here for news, events, resources, plus directions and opening times for Shakespeare’s birthplace and other houses connected to him in the Stratford area.

Blogging Shakespeare

Produced by the education team at Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, this blog features articles by Shakespeare scholars and other notaries discussing fascinating aspects about the man and his work. Read about Hamlet and Man Ray’s Painting or Bob Dylan and Shakespeare.

Play Shakespeare

Free Shakespeare resources including annotated texts, reviews, discussion forums, apps, the list is endless

Shakespeare’s Globe

What’s on at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

Shakespeare Geek

Duane is a software engineer and Shakespeare fan who’s been blogging about the Bard since 2005. This is a lighter look at the many ways Shakespeare ‘makes life better’.

I Love Shakespeare

An actor’s perspective about Shakespeare which among other things takes on the difficulties of memorising lines, getting the right pronunciation, giving the best performance and speaking the odes.

The Bard Box

A collection of online Shakespeare related videos.

The Shakespeare Blog

Featuring an enormous number of articles about things Shakespearean, with links to audio recordings and online resources.

The Shakespeare Institute

A research institute based in Stratford-upon-Avon for international Shakespeare scholarship.

Bard on Film, documents the splashy, the trashy and the serious adaptations of Shakespeare in theatre or on screen.

Sources:

Ackroyd, Peter. Shakespeare: The biography, Vintage, 2006.

Ellacombe, Henry. The Plant-Lore and Garden Craft of Shakespeare, W. Satchell and Co. 1884

McCrum, Robert. ‘Why Shakespeare never fails to get Brains Buzzing‘, The Guardian, 24 April, 2011

Strong, Roy. The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden, Thames & Hudson 2016

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Comments from others

  1. Barbara Cail AO on

    A totally enriching read. I learned so much as well as having a wonderful emotional experience in dwelling on the marvellous photography.

    Reply
    • Jo Wing on

      I’m so glad you enjoyed that story Barb. It was a really special experience and flukily well timed for those roses. XXX

      Reply
  2. Tina on

    Those are some of the most interesting observations and commentary about Shakespeare I have read and all the while listening to the marvellous ensemble’s music of his time, desiring the pear and being intrigued by the man in the doorway. Too special!

    Reply