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The Birthplace

The Birthplace by Henry James
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Neither the name of Shakespeare nor that of Stratford appears directly in this short piece by James, and yet both are absolutely central to his plot. The story has to do with Mr. and Mrs. Gedge, tempted away from a dreary northern town library, which he runs, to become the wardens – caretakers and tour guides – of the house where the greatest writer of the English language was born, and in which he grew up.

Or did he? There is, after all, a paucity of facts about His life (in James's text, that pronoun is always capitalized, as befits a deity) and only the slenderest of historical evidence about the existence of such a man. No matter; what is important is the myth of his life, and the myth needs to be cared for and fostered so that crowds upon crowds of tourists may come, and, with a proper reverence, worship at His Birthplace.
And yet it is only myth, and the more he thinks of it, the unhappier poor honest Gedge becomes (to Mrs. Gedge, however, a job is a job, and too much speculation on reality might perhaps lead to dismissal). James himself was high skeptical about the Shakespeare question (who actually did write all those plays?) But that's not the point here. Rather the story has to do with the making of a shrine, the selling of its wares (commodification, to use a fancy word) and the priesthood needed to protect the myths necessary to its existence.

What should the skeptical Gedge do about it? What, if anything, will he do? (Introduction by Nicholas Clifford)


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