William Shakespeare seems to attract mysteries. We like to imagine how his life inspired his works and we love controversies around the authorship of his works. How did this ordinary man, coming from relatively modest beginnings, create so many important and iconic works and ultimately end up being the man of the millennium? What was his magic? Who was he really?
The first mystery I turned up is that no one knows for sure when Shakespeare’s birthday was. Though it’s traditionally celebrated in Stratford-upon-Avon (his birthplace) on 23 April, there’s no record for that actual date, it’s a guess taken from his baptism date of 26 April, 1564. This particular uncertainty is frustrating for those of us who aim link artworks to topical events, but actually is quite normal for the 1500s. And in fact, we do know some things for sure about Shakespeare’s life. We know what his parents did, where they lived and how their fortunes waxed and waned. There are documents from throughout his life, from parish records of important life events to trivial notes of levies unpaid or proposals of road repairs in Stratford. We have his will, and most importantly, of course, his poems and plays. There are also surviving bricks and mortar (or at least timber) linked to Shakespeare, not least of which is his father’s house on Henley Street in Stratford. The house is still standing and remains a sort of shrine for the Bard of Avon, as it has been for some 250 years.
This painting by Henry Wallis, as the title says, shows the room in which Shakespeare was born, in that Henley Street house. It’s one of a series of un-peopled interiors connected to Shakespeare’s life that Wallis exhibited in 1854 which also included The Font in which Shakespeare was Christened and Shakespeare’s House, Stratford-upon-Avon. Without any people, you could see it as a little stark, and in fact Sir Edwin Landseer later added a dog to Wallis’s empty view of the staircase in Shakespeare’s House, Stratford-upon-Avon, but I think the emptiness of this room is powerful. Painted in painstaking detail, right down to each nail securing the floorboards, it rises above fictionalised narratives from the life of the man, to passionless documentary – real depictions of real places. This, finally, seems to have the ring of authority.
However, as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Shakespeare puts it:
“in 1564 his parents appear to have been living in Henley Street, probably in part of the building now known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace but, equally probably, not in that part of the building in which the room traditionally known as the place of Shakespeare’s birth is located.”
So, we’re back to mystery again. It might be the room, though it’s just as probable that it isn’t.
In a way it’s not important any more, just as the ‘real’ date of his birth isn’t really important. Shakespeare’s birthplace remains a place of pilgrimage because of all the other people who’ve been there as much as because Shakespeare was there. This quiet painting tells us about the creation of Shakespeare as a national icon and the way we continue to create myths, rituals and mysteries around these icons – even when the documentary evidence means we don’t really need to.