It was a sunny and very busy September afternoon at the Shakespeare Birthplace. Heritage open weekend was underway, and visitors were making the most of the sunshine in the beautiful Birthplace garden. A rather conspicuous addition to the crowd was a film crew and, of course, Michael Portillo wearing a very striking cobalt blue jacket. Great British Railway Journeys, as part of its fourth season, had come to visit the Birthplace to learn about Victorian train travel to Stratford-upon-Avon in the nineteenth century.
The interview with Michael was long and often interrupted by sirens and the sound of the turnstiles rolling over as the visitors passed from the garden into the shop. Nevertheless, there were some important questions to be answered: why was Shakespeare so important to the Victorians? Why, of all ages, was it in theirs that the house came to be purchased for the enjoyment of the public? Though Michael’s questions were calculated to elicit railway-related responses, it was too delicious a period to avoid discussing the value of Shakespeare as an exemplary, self-made success to a nation being re-formed by its rapidly expanding middle class, and obsession with self-improvement. Though around three minutes of our conversation made it to the final episode, we spent nearly two hours thinking about Shakespeare’s place in the changing worlds of Victorian literature, heritage and society.
My earlier blogs focused on details of Shakespeare in performance on the late Victorian stage, and it is in the earlier part of the century, around the time when the Birthplace was purchased, that much of the later theatrical and scholarly enthusiasm for Shakespeare might be said to have burgeoned.
Fortunately, the Birthplace has extensive and carefully preserved archives stuffed with Shakespeare ephemera, scholarship, theatrical memorabilia and images from throughout the Victorian era. From photographs of the Birthplace and visitor books from the 1840s, to hand-painted portraits of Henry Irving playing Cardinal Wolsey in 1892, the Birthplace is a treasure trove of Victorian history calling out to be explored and enjoyed by all. And this is just what Michael and his fantastic crew discovered on their visit to us, on the very weekend when the archives were thrown open to the public. Not only did they enjoy looking at a First Folio, but they were absolutely thrilled to see programmes, rail timetables and images from the Stratford-upon-Avon celebrations during the 1864 tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth.
No doubt the magnificent railways and George Bradshaw’s thorough and impressive guide to them were, in part, to thank for the explosion of visitors to the Birthplace in the 1860s, when the railway first came to Stratford-upon-Avon. If you would like to watch the programme, first aired on 7th January 2013, please click here.
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