The Birth of Shakespeare's Birthplace
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"There is, indeed, little doubt,” the formidable scholar James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps confidently explained to the Victorian readers of his Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare, “that the Birth-place did not become one of the incentives for pilgrimage until public attention had been specially directed to it at the time of the Jubilee.” That's broadly true. The earliest reference to the three-gabled, half-timbered house (two houses, originally) on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon as the birthplace of William Shakespeare dates only from the late 1750s, when it was so named in Samuel Winter's town map. During the Stratford Jubilee, which David Garrick organized in 1769, the “small old house,” as the actor's first biographer called it, was fully recognized and promoted as the place where Shakespeare was born. Even so, Halliwell-Phillipps's observation conceals more than it reveals, because there is also little doubt that the dwelling that tradition calls Shakespeare's birthplace did not suddenly acquire that status during the first week of September 1769. The process by which the unremarkable piece of real estate that John Shakespeare purchased sometime in the late sixteenth century was transformed into what Barbara Hodgdon has rightly called the “controlling ideological center” of Shakespeare biography was long, slow, and far from inevitable. That process is the subject of this essay.
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