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Shakespeare’s “New Place” in his Old Home Town

When I was at home I was in a better place; but travellers must be content - Touchstone, As You Like It, Act 2 Scene 4

Amy Hurst
New Place Fine
New Place fine, 4 May 1597 (ER27/4a)

The documentary sources suggest that the little market town of Stratford-upon-Avon mattered a great deal to William Shakespeare. He may have flourished in the creative hotbed of the London theatre scene, but the draw of Stratford endured throughout his life. To explore the range of sources that tell this story further, please see (a fantastic online resource, which brings together all known manuscript and print references concerning William Shakespeare, within his lifetime and shortly after). The sources reveal how the London and Stratford strands of his life interconnected. While there were undoubtedly absences from Stratford, the overall impression is of a ‘to and fro’ between the two key places in his life.

Shakespeare’s wife and children remained in Stratford and he made most of his financial investments in his home town. This certainly suggests that he cared about their (and his) comfort and status in Stratford. His first significant financial investment was rather high profile, a large family home in the centre of town, known as New Place. The purchase of New Place, in Spring 1597, would have sent out a clear message to his Stratford contemporaries, showing his growing wealth and therefore status. This may have been particularly meaningful to him given his father’s financial difficulties, dating from late 1570s. The large comfortable family house would also surely have given him more reason to make trips “home” from London. The site of New Place will be reopening soon as part of a large re-interpretation project, which, amongst other things, will provide a sense of scale of the former property, allowing visitors to walk within the footprint of Shakespeare’s final home. For further details on this project, please see our website here.

We hold a very special document in our archive, which provides some insights into the purchase. The ‘Exemplification of Fine’ (SBT Archive Reference: ER27/4A) is a specially commissioned and rather grand formal copy of the purchase deed. We can only speculate as to why Shakespeare had this ornate copy made. It may have been in the absence of a formal conveyance in order to bolster his legal proof of ownership; or could also suggest that Shakespeare was proud of his purchase and might have handled and shown off the copy with some pleasure. An ornate ‘E’ of Elizabeth I (the first word of the Fine), found on many such documents, is not present. Could this have been omitted to save on costs? It might be that while Shakespeare wished to confirm and communicate his wealth and status he was also occupied with preserving it.  In this way, this document tells us about Shakespeare’s financial rise, the importance to him of his home town and family, and perhaps even something of how he felt about it.

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