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William Shakespeare was born here. Or was he?

About 250 years after its break from the Catholic Church, England had its own Bethlehem and manger. The problem: No one really knows where Shakespeare was born.

William Shakespeare was born here. Or was he?

Visuals from the town


Sometime in the 18th century, a sign appeared outside a shambly butcher’s hut in the English town of Stratford-upon-Avon: “The Immortal Shakespeare was born in this house,” it announced, using a then common spelling of his name. Devotees began making pilgrimages — dropping to their knees, weeping, singing odes: “Untouched, sacred be thy shrine, Avonian Willy, bard Divine!”

A tradesman grew rich selling carvings from a local mulberry tree, like pieces of the true cross. Some skeptics suspected that the sign was part of a scheme to bring visitors to Stratford; others wondered if it had been hung by the property’s occupant. A local antiquarian criticized the whole scene as “a design to extort pecuniary gratuities from the credulous and unwary.”

Pilgrims flocked to the house, and it became a site so hallowed that one visitor warned that the veneration of Shakespeare threatened to eclipse that of God: Yet steals a sigh, as reason weighs/ The fame to Shakespeare given,/ That thousands, worshippers of him,/ Forget to worship Heaven!

About 250 years after its break from the Catholic Church, England had its own Bethlehem and manger. The problem: No one really knows where Shakespeare was born.

Stratford-upon-Avon lies two hours northwest of London in the Midlands, more or less the heart of England. Today, it is one of Britain’s most popular tourist destinations, drawing up to three million visitors a year. The Birthplace is its main attraction, followed by the cottage reputed to be the place where Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, grew up.

Stratford exudes Elizabethan kitsch, with souvenir shops and half-timbered buildings. In the 19th century, the Victorians tried to make Stratford look more “authentic,” which has left it teeming with mock Tudors. It’s a town whose economy and identity revolve around Shakespearean fervor, which peaks every year on April 23, the date celebrated as Shakespeare’s birthday. It is also St. George’s Day, honouring the patron saint of England.

On my first visit in June 2021, I passed the Hathaway Tea Rooms and a cafe called the Food of Love, a cutesy name taken from “Twelfth Night” (“If music be the food of love, play on”). Confusingly, there were also several Harry Potter-themed shops. Stratford and Hogwarts, quills and wands, poems and spells. Then again, maybe the conflation was apt: Wasn’t Shakespeare a sort of boy wizard, magically endowed with inexplicable powers? On Henley Street, I arrived at the Birthplace, a house yellowed with age. Today, it looks like a single detached building, but it was originally a row of tenements. John Shakespeare bought one tenement on the street in 1556, though he also bought property on nearby Greenhill Street, which could just as easily have been the site of his son’s birth. He bought the property thought to be the Birthplace in 1575, 11 years after his son was born.

Those who believe in the Birthplace point to a record from 1552 showing that a John Shakespeare was fined for keeping a dung heap somewhere on Henley Street. It doesn’t specify the location, but that dung heap has fueled a theory that he must have been living there at the time of his son’s birth, perhaps as a renter.

NYT Editorial Board
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