For my spring term class at Washington and Lee, I was lucky enough to attend an English class in England. The class was called “Shakespeare in Performance,” which, as you can probably guess, entailed mainly plays and site seeing. While I learned a great deal from the sites—particularly in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare’s birthplace is located, I was surprised to find that I felt more awe at simply being in the same physical space as the bard. It wasn’t the plaques or the preserved walls of the Shakespeare sites that struck me; rather, I felt an idealistic sort of second hand inspiration from soaking up the air he breathed, the views he saw from his window, the ripples on the river across from the Globe theater. I began to think that literary place and space are more important to literature than I had once thought.
This notion grew stronger when, while in London, I walked through Bloomsbury square, the meeting place of The Bloomsbury Group. There aren’t any markers or signs designating this lovely but unremarkable park as the hub of literary inspiration (or even just gossip among literary figures), but the knowledge that I was in the same small space that these writers congregated in had more of an impact on me. I imagined I could hear their voices in the trees.
I did, however, find a meaningful plaque in an unexpected place: one day, I made a solo journey to the flat of Hilda Doolittle, or H.D., one of the first poets that I fell in love with, who lived in London for significant periods of her life. I sat shamelessly on her former stoop for thirty minutes before the flat’s current resident walked up and gave me a (deserved) odd look. I am slightly ashamed to say that I asked her to take my picture in front of the flat. As meaningful as the experience was, I walked away wondering if, had there been a plaque on any of the given flats in that area, would I have felt differently? Would I have felt less magic sitting on the stoop of a random strange but thinking it had once held H.D.’s erratic and genius brain?
A large part of our class consisted of this same question: what difference in understanding the original text does seeing Shakespeare in his original context make? I did feel lucky to join the same throng of famous writers and anonymous individuals who have made a pilgrimage to carve their names into the window of Shakespeare’s birthplace, to soak up that same weird presence.
Here’s how I answer the question: even if it was all a hoax, there is something wonderful about knowing that, even if you don’t know for sure, you are in the presence—the same space—as a writer that you admire. It’s sharing the same real world as someone whose textual worlds you have become a part of, and it allowed me to experience those textual worlds in richer detail. I can’t help but think that, ultimately, place does matter when it comes to understanding an author. What do you think?