Since taking up my role as a period guide at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, I am sometimes uneasy with some of the information we give our visitors. Although there is quite a lot that we do know about Shakespeare’s life, some of it is speculation and guesswork. Whilst studying for my MA, I was very aware of the need to cite sources for everything I quoted. The practice has become ingrained and I am uncomfortable with stating some facts about Shakespeare when I have no primary sources to refer to. (However, there are few historians who do not, at some time, have to make assumptions to make the pieces fit the jigsaw.)
For example, to say that we know that William helped his father out in the leather goods workshop because there are over 70 references in the plays to glove making, seems like a bit of a stretch. Sure he knew about glove making, he could hardly have escaped the business since it was carried out in his family home. But do we know definitely that he made gloves? How do we know, for example, that his father didn’t send him outside into the yard (what is now a pretty cottage garden) to help the apprentices? One of their tasks would have been to treat the animal skins once they were delivered. The apprentices would need to soak the skins in copious amounts of urine held in pits in the yard – the pits would also have contained excrement and noxious dyes. Would his father have expected him to start at the very bottom (no pun intended) before allowing him into the workshop itself to make any goods? I think it’s highly likely.
We clearly have to make some assumptions in order to tell a coherent story to the thousands of visitors that come each year to see where Shakespeare started out in life. When we show the visitors the Birth-room, we say ‘this is where we believe all Mary Shakespeare’s children were born’ rather than, ‘this is the room where William Shakespeare was born’. We are virtually certain he was born there. People have been visiting the Birth-room (and paying for the privilege ) since the early 1700s. However, we do know William was born in a plague year. It is entirely possible Mary Shakespeare moved out of the town and to the family farm in Wilmcote to give birth or at least to take her newborn child there after the birth. She had already lost her first two children, Joan and Margaret and so she would have been unlikely to take risks with her surviving child, especially since it was her first son. Am I being too literal? Possibly, I may be a smidgen pedantic. The majority of visitors just want to hear a little about William and the social history of Elizabethan England and to enjoy their tour.
I love my job – one of the greatest rewards is registering the looks on some of the visitors’ faces while you’re telling them about Shakespeare’s life. Their eyes literally shine with pleasure and enthusiasm. We have had people from China and the U.S. telling us how they have have waited all their lives to see the house. It’s quite humbling. (Not everyone of course is fascinated – some of the children on school trips are almost catatonic!) But there is something wonderful about sharing the knowledge we do have about the person who is arguably the world’s greatest playwright and England’s greatest son, that makes me extremely proud.