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  • Shakespeare's Lost Domesticity:Material Responses to Absence in Stratford-upon-Avon
  • Cathryn Enis (bio) and Tara Hamling (bio)

People's engagement with the world does not simply consist in deducing the meaning of people, places and things or what they represent, but also in presencing that which is absent in one way or another.

—Mikkel Bille, Frida Hastrup, and Tim Flohr Sørensen 1

Among a set of photographs of Stratford-upon-Avon taken around 1900 is a view without much visual interest. The perspective is from the street, and there are buildings to each side, with trees in the background and a streetlight in the right foreground. Framed at the center is an empty area of land surrounded by a low wall and railings (figure 1). The photograph captures an absence at the heart of "Shakespeare's Stratford": the site of New Place, his Stratford home between 1597 and 1616. This photograph, and the countless others like it, is a material response and record of engagement with the lost building. It makes substance and meaning out of absence. [End Page 52]

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Figure 1.

Chapel Street, site of New Place, ca. 1900. SC2/3. © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

This essay examines a range of cultural and creative responses to the loss of domestic material culture associated with William Shakespeare in Stratfordupon-Avon. It views the material culture and heritage of Shakespeare's hometown in negative, that is, by bringing into focus what has gone as the context for what exists. Our research contributes to growing interest in the physical and metaphorical construction of Stratford-upon-Avon, a topic described in 2012 as "ripe for analysis." 2 Here we point to the significance of the stripping of domestic fabric and items from the town in shaping, sustaining, and extending a sense of Shakespeare's domesticity. The term domesticity is used here to refer not just to home and family life but also to "the quality or state of being domestic," which implies interaction with the domestic environment. 3 Based on extensive [End Page 53] investigation into the museum collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT), we provide a historical and critical framework through which to interpret lesser-known, even problematic, elements of this internationally recognized collection. 4 In developing a lens through which to approach and understand what otherwise may be regarded as inauthentic or anomalous accessions within the SBT collection, this essay demonstrates how processes of destruction and loss of domestic material fabric associated with Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon had an allied trajectory of creative production and peculiar preservation. It also looks beyond the properties cared for by the SBT to consider disputes about the wider material environment of the town as evidence of historical and present-day tensions involved in the ownership and presentation of this unique heritage site.

In a 2014 special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly devoted to "Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography,"Brian Cummings observes, "From its beginnings, the life story of Shakespeare has been haunted by a sense of loss and a concomitant desire to fill in the gaps." 5 Recent developments in Shakespeare biography acknowledge and engage creatively with these archival gaps. 6 In its focus on the built environment and material objects, our essay can be understood as a parallel investigation into the matter of "the absent presence of Shakespeare's life." 7 We argue that the processes by which absence is understood and reconciled, and the things generated as response to loss, provide an "alternative" material record and vision of Shakespeare's homelife that should be studied on its own terms. 8

The research presented here engages with a range of scholarly work and approaches across the fields of material culture, anthropology, literary biography, social studies, heritage, and tourism. The "material turn" in historical disciplines over the past two decades has focused attention on how people interact with the built environment and crafted things. The emergence of a multidisciplinary field of early modern material culture has established the importance of studying everyday objects and domestic materiality as part of a wider interest in the [End Page 54] experiences of ordinary people...


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pp. 52-83
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