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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The open country beyond the town has been described as "tumbled down," covered with thorn bush and populated by rabbits. There were few trees and no hedges, but flat land all around sprinkled with cowslips and clover and yellow mustard. This unenclosed territory comprised meadow land, arable land and rough pasture stretching towards the hills. Of all writers, Shakespeare has the widest vocabulary on the variety of weeds to be found in such places, disentangling the hemlock from the cuckoo-flower, the fumiter from the darnel.

There had been a church in Stratford, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, since the early thirteenth century. It was erected beside the river, of local undressed stone and yellow stone from the Campden quarries, in the utmost harmony with the landscape; it possessed a wooden steeple and was surrounded by elm trees, with an avenue of lime trees leading to the north porch.

Shakespeare would have known the ancient bone-house on the north side of the chancel, where the skeletons of the long-dead had been deposited; it had also been a dormitory for the singing boys and a study for the minister. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were familiar with death, although this did not prevent Juliet from crying out against the "Charnel house" with its "reekie shanks and yealow chaples sculls" (2259). Local legend suggests that the playwright had this bone-house in mind when he wrote this passage in Romeo and Juliet, and local legend may be right. His own grave was to be situated just a few feet from it, within the church itself, and his solemn curse against anyone who "moves my bones" acts as a reminder. There were other intimations of mortality: a college, or house for chantry priests praying in perpetual intercession for the dead, had been erected on the western side of the churchyard in 1351.

Of equal antiquity was the Guild of the Holy Cross, established in Stratford at the beginning of the thirteenth century. This was a society of lay people devoted to the festivals and institutions of their faith; it was a "friendly society" where, by payment of an annual subscription, its members would be assured of a fitting funeral. But it was also a communal society, with its own wardens and beadles who supervised the interests of the town as well as the benefactions of the church.

If Shakespeare knew one public building in Stratford thoroughly well, it was the chapel of this guild; it was erected beside the school where he was taught, and each weekday morning he attended prayers here. And then there were the bells. The little bell called the boy to school in the morning; the great bell tolled at dawn and dusk, and was "the surly sullen bell" of the sonnet that tolled at the time of dying and the time of burial. It eventually tolled for Shakespeare when he was laid in the Stratford ground.

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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