“I grant him bloody, Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful, Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin
That has a name.” Malcolm describing Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 3
In Shakespeare's tragedy of “Macbeth”, Prince Malcolm is the answer to the question 'what should Hamlet have done?' Like the 'unhappy Dane', Malcolm was the spoiled son of a King. When his father is murdered by Macbeth, the boy suffers indecision, just like Hamlet. But then Malcolm adopts all the worst traits he sees in Macbeth, and methodically lies his way to the top, pausing only to kill Macbeth along the way. If there was one thing William Shakespeare was familiar with it was human frailties of greed and self justification. I mean, it brought down his house, for God's sake.
The 'immortal bard' was born in the English midlands town of Stratford-upon-Avon, where the the road - or in old English the 'strat', which gives us our modern word 'street' – forded the river Avon, about 22 miles south-east of modern day Birmingham. At 19 William married a Stratford girl. But it was a very unpleasant place to live. Stratford was the final destination for herds of sheep from the rolling Cotswold county just to the south, which were fuel for a 16th century agro-chemical industry. Stratford was dotted with noisy, stinking slaughter houses and reeking tanneries, which produced meat and wool and glue and soap and leather and a myriad of other animal by-products the world has forgotten it ever needed. Shakespeare's father was a glove maker, and his raw material was sheepskin. As a layer of smog envelopes modern cities, the residents of Stratford lived under a permanent cloud of stench and flies.
Perhaps the flies explain why a good Catholic boy like William left Stratford, abandoning his wife and children, to pursue a career then viewed as sinful – in the theater. Against all odds he became a success, so well paid on the London stage that in 1597 he was able to pay sixty pounds for a 17 acre estate at the corner of Stratford and Chapel streets, in the middle of Stratford. It had two gardens, two small orchards, two barns and outbuildings, and the second largest house in Stratford, a two story Tudor stucco and beam affair, with a brick foundation - even the cesspit was brick. Though it was already a hundred years old, it was still called called “New Place”, and William deposited his wife and two daughters here, while he returned to London.
But even then the theater was a tough way to make a farthing. Between 1603 and 1610 the London theaters were closed more often than they were open, because of plague. New Place, with its gardens and the mulberry tree William had planted himself, became a sanctuary where he composed his last play, “The Tempest” - about an old man named Prospero, who is exiled on an island with his daughter, and a son-of-a-witch who makes his life miserable. To keep his sanity William often returned to London to go drinking with his friends William Burbage and Ben Johnson. But he was not a spring chicken anymore. He was in fact an ill man. And in 1616, at the age of 53, just two months after marrying his youngest daughter to the guy who owned the liquor store next door, William Shakespeare died. In his will William left his wife, Ann Hathaway, his “second best bed”, but he left the house it sat in, to his eldest daughter and her doctor husband.
The trouble was, none of Williams children's children had children who had children. Call it the Shakespeare curse, but within a hundred years his blood line had dried up completely. In 1702 the house and garden was sold to Sir John Clopton, whose family had originally built the house before Columbus left for America. John gutted it to the exterior walls and then rebuilt it. But he regularly allowed the public in to tour “Shakespeare’s garden” next door, including the mulberry tree. Then in 1757 John Clopton died suddenly and his family was forced to sell the house to pay his debts. The buyer this time had no connection to the house, nor an interest in Shakespeare. He was an arrogant neuveau riche Bishop from Chester named Francis Gastrell. We will pause here for a moment so you can boo and hiss this villain’s entrance upon the stage.
Done? Okay. Francis (above) inherited his money when his father, the previous Bishop of Chester, died in 1748 without a will. And he needed one because Daddy had been a very acquisitive clergyman who left behind a lot of investment properties. Now, you might ask how a man of God had obtained all that money – I would - but that is another story. This story is about his son, Francis.
The courts sold the old man's property, and then divided the money between his two sons. It took a few years, but by the time he was 50 Francis was finally “independently” wealthy. Like any good upwardly mobile Englishman of his time, he used his money to mobile upward further. In 1752 he married the daughter of a Baronet , and then he retired.. Upwardly mobile Englishmen did not “labor” for a living. Even Bishops. In 1756, Francis bought New Place in Stratford as a vacation home. And the first thing he noticed was the crowds of tourists who still expected to wander about in Shakespeare's garden. Except Francis saw it as “his” garden. He put up a fence. And padlocked the gate. Francis saw no reason he should allow strangers on “his” private property. Of course at the same time he saw no reason why he should be paying taxes on “his” property, either. Does any of this sound like rich bastards around today? You're damn right it does.
The local merchants recognized that keeping the town looking nice was an investment in the tourist trade, which even in 1760 was proving profitable. And keeping the poor off the streets kept Stratford looking prosperous and safe, not to mention it being the “Christian” duty of every believer. But Bishop Francis Gastrell did not see why he should care about the poor. In fact he asked for a tax cut, arguing that he didn't live in Stratford year-round (he wintered in Lichfield) and should not have to pay the poor taxes when he was not in residence. The town council disagreed. The poor did not stop needing food just because Francis was out of town. Francis still owed his forty schillings for the “Poor Tax”. And that made Francis angry. So he cut down Shakespeare's mulberry tree.
Oh, when challenged he explained the 150 year old tree had cast a shadow over the house, making it feel dank and dark. Like Tudor houses don't all feel dark and dank. But while the entire town went into shock, one man showed Francis how to turn his problem with the tourists into a gold mine. His name was Thomas Sharpe, and he was a local clock maker. He bought the corpse of Shakespeare's tree, at firewood prices, and carved it into Shakespeare mementos, which he sold to the tourists – clocks, statues, medallions, trinkets and cameos (above). He sold so many and he made so much money, that he was accused of fraud. Sharpe was forced to issue a statement. “I do hear by declare and take my solemn oath, upon the four Evangelists, in the presence of the Almighty God, that I never worked, sold, or substituted any other wood than what came from, and was part of, the said tree.”
But rather than sell tickets to the garden for a few days each week in the summer, when he wasn't in town anyway, Francis Gastrell went the other way. To protest his “Poor Taxes”, he boarded up the house (above) and refused to pay any taxes at all. He was a Tea Party thinker before there was a tea party. Of course this meant his servants were now unemployed and without a residence – in other words, poor. Besides being insulted by Francis' treatment of their citizens, the Stratford council did not agree with Francis' morality or his logic. The house might not be occupied, but it was still in the town, so there were still taxes to be paid.
In 1759, just three years after he bought it, Francis Gastrell had “Shakespeare's” house pulled down to make a political point. It was dismantled and burned, so nobody would profit from even the wreckage. Then, according to the London Gazette and Journal, “Upon completion of his outrages on the memory of Shakespeare ...Francis Gastrell departed from Stratford, hooted out of the town, and pursued by the excretions of its inhabitants.” The council even passed an ordnance that no one named Gastrell would ever be allowed to live in Stratford, ever again – not that there is a line of wandering Gastrells waiting at the city gates, but the law is still on the books
And that is why, if you go to Stratford-upon-Avon today, and you should if you can, you will see the house where Shakespeare was born, and the cottage where his wife, Ann Hathaway was born. You can visit their graves in the local church (above). You can visit his garden, where you will see a plaque where the mulberry tree once stood. But the house he owned, where he died, where Ann died as well, is long gone, thanks to an arrogant selfish jackass who could boast to the world, not that “I built that”, but “I destroyed that”.
But then, that is the only achievement of selfish people.
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