Excerpt from Shakespeare by Peter Ackroyd, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Peter Ackroyd

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  • First Published:
    Oct 2005, 592 pages
    Nov 2006, 592 pages

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Beyond the Wealden, in the south of the county, lay the Fielden. In Saxton's map of Warwickshire, issued in 1576, this region is almost wholly devoid of trees except for those growing in groves and small woods. The rest of the land had been changed to scrub and pasture, with the arable territory sweeping across the hills. In his Britannia William Camden described it as "plain champaign country, and being rich in corn and green grass yieldeth a right goodly and pleasant prospect." John Speed saw the view from the same spot as Camden, on the summit of Edgehill, and noticed "the medowing pastures with their green mantles so imbrodered with flowers." It is the quintessential picture of rural England. It was as much part of Shakespeare's vision as the forests beyond. It has been surmised that the Fielden was rich and Protestant, while the Wealden was poor and Catholic. This is the shorthand of popular prejudice, but it suggests a context for that balancing of oppositions that came so instinctively to Shakespeare.

The climate of Stratford was of a mild temper, protected by the Welsh hills. There was much moisture in the land and in the air, as the various streams running through Stratford itself would have testified. The clouds from the south-west were known as "Severn Jacks" and presaged rain. Only "the Tyrannous breathing of the North," as Imogen remarks in Cymbeline, "Shakes all our buddes from growing" (257-8).

But what, in the larger sense, has this landscape to do with Shakespeare or Shakespeare with the landscape? Some future genius of topography may elucidate what has become known as the territorial imperative, the sense of place that binds and determines the nature of those who grow up on a certain spot of ground. Yet, in relation to Shakespeare, we may already venture one conclusion. The evidence of his work provides unequivocal proof that he was neither born nor raised in London. He does not have the harshness or magniloquence of John Milton, born in Bread Street; he does not have the hardness of Ben Jonson, educated at Westminster School; he does not have the sharpness of Alexander Pope from the City or the obsessiveness of William Blake from Soho. He is of the country.

Chapter 3
Dost Thou Loue Pictures?

Stratford is a meeting place of roads crossing the Avon river; afon is the Celtic name for river. The area had been settled from the Bronze Age. There were barrows and stone circles, lying now neglected, and there were "lowes" or graves where meets or open courts once gathered. A Romano-British village was established on the outskirts of the present town, lending weight and substance to the weathered and enduring atmosphere of the place.

Stratford means a Roman straet, a paved road or highway, crossing a ford. In the seventh century a monastery was established, by the banks of the river; this was first in the possession of Aethelard, subordinate king of the Hwiccas, but was then transferred into the ownership of Egwin, Bishop of Worcester. Since this was soon after the conversion of the Saxons to the Christian faith, we may say that Stratford had a connection with the old religion from the earliest times. The church in which Shakespeare was baptised was erected on the site of the old monastery, and the dwellings of the monks and their servants were once on land now known as "Old Town." The Domesday surveyors of 1085 carefully noted the presence of a village on this spot, comprising farmers and labourers as well as the ecclesiastical community; there was a priest, together with twenty-one "villeins" and seven "bordarii" or cottagers.

It began to prosper in the thirteenth century. A fair of three days was instituted in 1216; it was supplemented by four other fairs held at various times of the year, one of which lasted for fifteen days. A survey of 1252 reports 240 "burgages," or properties held on a yearly rental from the lord of the manor, as well as numerous shops, stalls and tenements. Here were shoemakers and fleshmongers, blacksmiths and carpenters, dyers and wheelwrights, engaged in trades that Shakespeare would still have seen on the streets of his childhood. The medieval town itself was approximately the same size as it was at the time of Shakespeare's birth. To be aware of continuity - to be settled within it - was in a real sense his birthright.

Excerpted from Shakespeare by Peter Ackroyd Copyright © 2005 by Peter Ackroyd. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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