Dr. Diana Owen is director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, an independent charity that aims to make Shakespeare’s heritage accessible to all. The trust maintains and preserves key properties in Stratford-upon-Avon including Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Mary Arden’s and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. Here, she speaks to About.com about the importance of preserving Shakespeare’s heritage.
About.com: Has enough evidence survived for us to create an accurate picture of William Shakespeare?
Diana Owen: Well, that depends on what you mean by accurate! If you mean do we know what kind of a man he was, what he liked, disliked, believed in and lived for, then the answer is no. Shakespeare’s psychology is a mystery to us all.
However, that does not mean that we know nothing about him. We know a lot about his craftsmanship from his works and we can see the various techniques he practiced and honed throughout his creative career. We can tell that he was daring and creative, at least with words! We can also assume that he had an amazing imagination and a great deal of empathy because he was able to express himself through a wide variety of dramatic personas.
We also know something of his personal life through records of business deals and transactions – although these tell us relatively little about his personality, they do suggest a person of some ambition and good sense. It feels as if we know an awful lot and nothing at all at the same time!
About.com: Why is it important to preserve these Shakespeare-related properties in and around Stratford-upon-Avon?
Diana Owen: These houses provide the context that shaped Shakespeare's life and imagination and are therefore a record of the times and the culture in which he lived. They tell us something about our heritage and they invite us to explore lives that are not our own. The Shakespeare-related houses don’t just tell us about Shakespeare; they tell us about the history of a small town in the English midlands. They contain a wealth of artifacts and treasures which paint a vivid picture of past lives. It is important to preserve them so that we can explore that past, step outside our own culture and expand our horizons by discovering others – particularly the world in which Shakespeare grew up and lived. Understanding that aids our understanding of his works.
About.com: What does Shakespeare’s house tell us about the Bard?
Diana Owen: It tells us about the things that shaped him. Like all of us, Shakespeare was profoundly influenced by the environment in which he grew up. Many of the things which would have been familiar to Shakespeare from his home environment appear in his plays – he spoke of the world he knew. Shakespeare’s house tells us about his family, his social standing, his lifestyle, and his world. Exploring Shakespeare’s roots invites us to engage imaginatively with the synergy between a man and his world. We can only speculate about moral or psychological influences, but those speculations are a creative journey in their own right and exploring Shakespeare’s house invites us to take this journey.
About.com: The trust manages Shakespeare’s birthplace – why not his burial place?
Diana Owen: Shakespeare was buried in Stratford-upon-Avon’s Holy Trinity Church which is managed by the Church of England – it has never been under any threat. The Trust ensures that other Shakespeare-related properties remain open to the public, but the Church keeps Holy Trinity open and they receive hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. We work very closely with them.
About.com: What do you say to those that don’t believe Shakespeare actually came from Stratford-upon-Avon?
Diana Owen: There is no strong evidence that he didn’t and a great deal of evidence to suggest he did. Nothing is ever 100 per cent certain, but for most purposes high odds are good enough. Until strong evidence is discovered to suggest that he come from elsewhere, I will continue to believe that he came from Stratford-upon-Avon .