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Shakespeare Connected - Shakespeare and Literary Pilgrimage

This blog introduces a Shakespeare Connected exhibition about literary pilgrimage, Shakespeare and Stratford.

Nicola J Watson

A Shakespeare Connected exhibition in collaboration with Professor Nicola J Watson, Open University.

It seems natural nowadays to visit Stratford-upon-Avon as ‘Shakespeare’s town’ because it is the place where he was born, established a family home, died and was buried. But it was not always so. Stratford-upon-Avon only slowly came to be a must-see for literary pilgrims. 

Although there is evidence of some tourist interest in the early to mid-eighteenth century in Shakespearian locations, Stratford really only took off as a tourist destination with David Garrick’s famous ‘Shakespeare Jubilee’ in 1769. Despite being partially rained off, the Jubilee established Stratford as the centre of the cult of Shakespeare as the National Poet, celebrated the Birthplace as its centre-piece, and instituted the idea of a commemorative procession, still mounted every April in honour of Shakespeare’s Birthday.

In the years that followed, Shakespeare’s growing status as the Bard of Avon combined with the fashions for literary biography and travel-writing tours to locate him ever more firmly in the town and its environs. Publications such as Samuel Ireland’s Picturesque Views on the Upper or Warwickshire Avon (1795) identified, illustrated, imagined and enthused over Shakespearian localities beyond the Birthplace – notably the deer-park at Charlecote in which the poet was said to have gone deer-poaching, the house in which he was said to have courted his future wife, Anne Hathaway, and the site of the house at New Place which he bought with his considerable earnings as a playwright. By the end of the century, the increasing desire for much more intimate biographical information about Shakespeare began to produce not just more tourists to the Birthplace itself, now regularly shown to the public by its custodian, but all sorts of relics (many of dubious provenance) to sell to them. At the same time, tourists’ desire to publicise their own personal encounters with Shakespeare resulted in practices ranging from inscription on walls and windows, versifying in visitors’ books, taking mementos and souvenirs, and eventually purchasing, writing, and sending postcards.  

Desk Fragments
Small fragments of wood cut from Shakespeare's Desk (SBT 1936-7/2)

In 1847 the Birthplace came under the auctioneer’s hammer and was purchased ‘for the Nation’ by what would become the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, supposedly rescuing it from the commercial rapacity of the American showman P.T. Barnum who was said to be interested in traipsing it around America as part of his travelling show.  There is little to substantiate this scare-story, but American emotional investment in the Birthplace, exemplified and inspired by Washington Irving’s famous account of visiting Stratford in the essays comprising his Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon (1819-20), certainly played a large part in ensuring its imaginative and commercial viability as one of the earliest writer’s house museums.  Nowadays you are unlikely to be allowed to chip off a piece of the furniture or to scribble your name on the walls, but the ways in which these early literary pilgrims imagined encountering Shakespeare in Stratford are clearly related to today’s tourist selfies and souvenirs.

Washington Irving's Tribute
Postcard created of Washington Irving's entry in the Shakespeare Visitors Book, 1821 (ER25/3/9/1)

This online exhibition sketches the story of early literary pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon over the century before the Birthplace was purchased for the nation. I’ve chosen twelve objects from the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which express in their different ways the desire to see Shakespeare as a Stratford local and which argue for this identity as fundamental to his national status. 

To see Nicola Watson's exhibition in full, click here