“So Many Dead Lie Round”: Origins
Stratford-On-Avon. It’s a tourist trap, to be sure, and even on a cold spring day, the hordes of visitors approaching Anne Hathaway’s cottage or Shakespeare’s birthplace with phones extended before them to snap photos can overwhelm a solitary pilgrim. The guides herd us along, taking only as many as can squeeze into the small sitting room at one time. Others wait outdoors, shivering among the iris and unfurling hostas. They’ve got it down to a formula.
And yet, the stones that lie beneath our feet are the very stones that a young William walked across. The bed upstairs may be the very “second-best” one that he left to his wife (did he love her or despise her?). “Sleep tight”: from the need to stretch and re-fasten the cords that hold the thin mattress in shape when they begin to sag.
The kitchen is low and dark, but more spacious than you might imagine. The oven has its “stop-gap”: from common usage, as a plank of wood was used to cover the opening. Bread cooked in a stone oven burns on the bottom, so a Tudor host would serve “a cut above” to guests . . . or to himself. The best bit was the “upper crust,” nicely browned but far enough away from the hot base to come out soft.
It’s pouring as we leave, of course. The roof is thatch, a perfect nesting place for vermin of all kinds: rats and mice, insects and spiders. A good Tudor housewife might have tossed the family terrier or tabby up there to catch a meal. “Raining cats and dogs”: from the frequency of pets sliding off water-slick thatch in a downpour.
The gravesite, with its plea for permanence, is more shrine than bone-box, but the curse seems to have done its job in making sure that no one moves the body. The dead lie all around us, though, whether marked or not. Our language carries them to us, whispers their fears and their habits and their secrets into our ears. Listen. They’re still talking.