Shakespeare Tourism Hinges on an Iffy Claim

Elizabeth Winkler of 'NYT' pokes some fun at Stratford-upon-Avon's $315M industry
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted May 11, 2024 3:30 PM CDT
Shakespeare Tourism Hinges on an Iffy Claim
A restored 16th-century home in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, where it's believed William Shakespeare was born in 1564.   (AP Photo/James Brooks)

Stratford-upon-Avon's lucrative tourist industry hinges on a claim that William Shakespeare's 1564 place of birth is open for visitors. New York Times writer Elizabeth Winkler goes on an entertaining journey through the doors of the Bard's alleged birth home in the small West Midlands town, where she ponders the authenticity of its historic significance. "Stratford permits—indeed encourages—one of the biggest frauds in England to rage unchecked," a journalist for the Daily Mail wrote in 1965. And indeed, the question of whether the tourist attraction, key to Stratford's $315 million tourism industry, is valid has prompted such energetic responses for centuries. To start, few official records from Shakespeare's life exist, and even his exact birth date is tenuous despite being celebrated every April on Shakespeare Day.

As the story goes, someone hung a sign on a Henley Street butcher shop in the late 18th century that read "The Immortal Shakspeare was born in this house" (a common spelling of his name at the time). There was some credence to this declaration—Shakespeare's father was fined for keeping a dung heap on Henley Street (perhaps as a renter), but he didn't purchase a property there until 11 years after Shakespeare was born. What stands there today is a charming, standalone Tudor decorated with questionably relevant items of the time (ie, quills and ink, despite his parents' likely illiteracy) and a museum filled with Shakespeare memorabilia.

The sign's claim stuck, and the building was bought in 1847 by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, outbidding the likes of PT Barnum to steward it. To sustain the 4 million visitors, Winkler writes that the town "exudes Elizabethan kitsch, with souvenir shops and half-timbered buildings," and oddly, a slew of Harry Potter-themed shops. While the question of where Shakespeare was born may never be answered, "stories are usually more seductive than the truth," Winkler closes. Read her full piece here. (Shakespeare's sister wrote text found in home.)

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