Shakespeare’s birthplace: Embellishing an ordinary home

Shakespeare's birthplace
‘A House in Stratford upon Avon, in which the famous Poet Shakespear was Born’, from Gentlemen’s Magazine, July 1769. Engraving by B. Cole based on a drawing by Richard Greene. ART File S899h1 no.65 copy 1 (size XS). Greene’s original 1762 watercolor is Folger Art Vol. d75 [27c].
In July 1769, the first published image of William Shakespeare’s birthplace—his father’s house on Henley Street, in Stratford-upon-Avon—appeared in Gentlemen’s Magazine. Based on a watercolor drawing (now in the Folger’s collection) made seven years earlier by the antiquary Richard Greene, it depicted a detached, three-gabled building with dormer windows. An impressive abode, especially for the family of a town glovemaker like John Shakespeare.

But it wasn’t altogether real. Shakespeare’s birthplace appears isolated in an open field, when actually it stood in a row of houses, inns, and shops. The drawing combines the eastern and western halves of the property to form a large single dwelling, when, in fact, the premises had long been divided into a private family residence and a public tavern, the Swan and Maidenhead Inn. The exterior looks clean and fresh, even though the house, then inhabited by the descendants of Shakespeare’s sister Joan Hart, was falling into disrepair. It was an eighteenth-century version of photoshopping.

Granted, illustrators back then often modified details in architectural or topographical drawings to render picturesque effects, as Greene did by having puffs of smoke billow pleasingly from one of the house’s five chimneys. But something more than decorative detail must have been at stake. After all, the drawing misrepresents where the birthplace was and what it looked like. Hardly a cosmetic retouching.

To understand why Shakespeare’s birthplace was falsely depicted, we need to remember that the image was published on the eve of the Stratford Jubilee—the world’s first Shakespeare festival, dreamt up and led in September 1769 by the famed actor David Garrick. The magazine engraving was part of the Jubilee’s advance publicity campaign. Although it was a much-mocked fiasco in the short term, the Jubilee transformed the town of Stratford-upon-Avon into a gigantic Shakespeare tourist site. Such it has been ever since. In Shakespeare’s hometown, what site could be more compelling than the house where he was born?

But there was a problem: the house looked too ordinary. Its humdrum appearance could never beguile or enchant any onlooker. And yet now, in the wake of the Jubilee, the house had become a tourist attraction in its own right. No longer a private family home, as it had been for centuries, it had suddenly risen to the status of a public monument to Shakespeare. A monument that looked better on paper than in three-dimensional real life, but the printed image would suffice to give the needed false impression. Shakespeare’s house, to be appealing to the public, had to be rendered untrue to life.

And so, the artist went to work, replacing the banal with the colossal and the drab with the fantastical. This ideal version of Shakespeare’s birthplace obscured the humble truth—and it was meant to. In 1769, what looked authentic to a Shakespeare devotee was not the squat house on Henley Street, but its mass-produced likeness that was, by design, no likeness at all.

In the pages of the Gentlemen’s Magazine, everyone could see for themselves the house that William Shakespeare should have been born in but wasn’t. And they didn’t have to travel to Stratford to do it. Posterity gifted to William Shakespeare the birthplace he deserved, but never had: a grand dwelling, set apart, approached from all directions, a landmark unto itself. A house that made you stop and stare. A house that was worthy of the immortal Bard of Avon.