Hoarder of Malt

Michael Dobson

  • Shakespeare: A Life by Park Honan
    Oxford, 479 pp, £25.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 19 811792 2
  • Shakespeare: The ‘Lost Years’ by E.A.J. Honigmann
    Manchester, 172 pp, £11.99, December 1998, ISBN 0 7190 5425 7

Every year, on a Saturday morning in April, the miscellaneous participants in the most improbably charming event in the official national calendar gather for a cup of tea in the Georgian town hall of a small market town in the West Midlands. There is a great deal of scarlet in evidence, in the robes of the assembled Council and of sundry invited academics, white in the vestments of the local clergy, and a respectable quantity of gold in the mayoral chains of office; there are any number of sombre grey suits on visiting diplomats and corporate sponsors; and outside the sunshine, if there is any, glints from the brass instruments and buttons of a military band. More unusually for such an unostentatiously English and provincial event, the procession into which this ill-assorted group will shortly be organised also includes people dressed in simulated buckram and taffeta and the gleaming mock-silver of property breastplates and crowns, all of them borrowed from the second-best wardrobe of the Royal Shakespeare Company in order to deck out students and members of local amateur dramatic societies as representative characters from each of Shakespeare’s plays. This is Stratford-upon-Avon on the weekend after 23 April, a day celebrated since the 18th century as Shakespeare’s Birthday. As Park Honan’s impressive new biography reminds us, the parish records for 1564 make it certain only that he was christened on 26 April, and our knowledge of contemporary church practice suggests that Shakespeare’s real birthday is just as likely to have been 21 or 22 April. But it has become obvious that if the National Poet wasn’t born on St George’s Day it can only have been through an oversight which we have a duty to overlook.

What is more immediately striking than the Armistice-Day-cum-carnival appearance of Shakespeare’s state birthday party, though, is its smell. Every member of a parade which by 11 a.m. will stretch through the middle of the town is wearing a large sprig of rosemary. (That, courtesy of Ophelia, is for remembrance, though the scent seems less funereal than paschal.) Most celebrants are also carrying substantial mixed bouquets – in the economic life of Stratford’s florists, Shakespeare is nearly as important as St Valentine or Mother – which at the close of their ritual progress from the Birthplace on Henley Street to Holy Trinity Church by the river they will solemnly lay on Shakespeare’s grave, or at least will pass to a parish volunteer nearby, to be added to a pile which must make Harvest Festival look like a poor relation. In quasi-Hellenic fashion, a vegetable cult has developed at the shrine of the local hero, a cult which Anglicanism bravely struggles to co-opt at the next morning’s annual Shakespeare Service. During this unusual ceremony stars from the RSC will perform the Bible readings, and a specially commissioned theologian will attempt to prove that the Complete Works are really all about the glory of God (having reminded the congregation that the retired playwright ended his days as a ‘lay rector’, though probably without mentioning that Shakespeare acquired this pious distinction by buying a lucrative interest in the parish’s tithes).

At Stratford on this Saturday, however, it is impossible not to recognise Bardolatry as a rival religion in its own right, its yearly jamboree as eclectically fertile as the dramatic canon it nominally celebrates. With the flower-bearing pilgrims attended on their journey from Birthplace to Tomb by worryingly sacrificial-looking local schoolchildren, all walking in time to regimental trumpets and the inane jingling of morris-dancers, the Immortal invoked and perhaps appeased by all this partakes at once of municipal worthy, folk hero, national icon, monarch, pagan god, Catholic saint and Messiah. (The last analogy is made all but inescapable by the name of Shakespeare’s mother, and even as sober an account of his life as Honan’s sounds at times like a Victorian carol: ‘In early life he must have been the focus of Mary’s very urgently watchful, intense love.’) If Shakespeare’s birthday belongs to a priesthood it isn’t Holy Trinity’s but the threefold local clerisy made up of the Shakespeare Institute, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (earthly representatives of Shakespeare the writer, Shakespeare the dramatist and Shakespeare the man respectively), and at this annual sacrament of their common faith it is the last which takes precedence. To undertake a new full-scale biography of William Shakespeare, then, or to suggest a major alteration to our understanding of the playwright’s early life, is to walk directly onto holy ground: in setting out to produce Shakespeare: A Life and Shakespeare: The ‘Lost Years’, Park Honan and E.A.J. Honigmann have taken on tasks which are about as uncontroversial as resurveying the street map of Jerusalem.

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