On the Trail of William Shakespeare
by J. Keith Cheetham

Luath Press: Edinburgh, 2006

Review by
Jennifer Monroe Franson
180 pages; maps; color & b&w illustrations June 2012


On the Trail of William Shakespeare is partly a biography, partly a practical travel guide, and wholly fascinating. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a more perfect print resource for the traveling Shakespeare devotee — or for the Shakespeare-loving armchair traveler — than this small volume.*

As a practical guide, On the Trail of William Shakespeare should satisfy even the most die-hard completist. Author J. Keith Cheetham provides an amazing — perhaps obsessive — level of detail; indeed, it appears that every locale even remotely connected to Shakespeare is included in this book. Want to know where Shakespeare's brother's illegitimate child is buried? No problem. Feel the need to visit Shakespeare's granddaughter's first husband's family home? This book has you covered. Sites mentioned in the plays are included as well — for instance, Cheetham gives directions to the one oak tree remaining of Birnam Wood, famously mentioned in the final act of Macbeth. Even a few sites on the Continent are included; Cheetham takes us to Agincourt, Elsinore, and to the purported homes of Juliet and of Desdemona.

If you plan to use the book as a travel guide, note that the historic sites associated with Shakespeare himself are presented chronologically, not geographically. This chronology begins before Shakespeare's birth, which means that Cheetham starts with the village of Snitterfield, home to Shakespeare's paternal grandfather. From this point, we move on to an overview of Stratford, then to Aston Cantlow, where Shakespeare's parents likely married. Shakespeare's Birthplace is not reached until the second chapter, and the reconstructed Globe Theatre is not described in detail until Chapter 11; this may initially prove confusing to those who would expect the Shakespearean trail to start at one of the latter two sites. In all cases, though, the geographical references are carefully linked to the six excellent maps in the front of the book, and the appendices include a chronology of Shakespeare's times as well as listings of tourist information, addresses, etc.

While On the Trail of William Shakespeare was written as a practical travel guide, it's a treat for the armchair traveler as well. Cheetham provides both copious background detail and concise descriptions of the various historic sites; if you cannot visit, say, Charlecote Park — home of Sir Thomas Lucy, who may have had the young Will Shakespeare flogged for poaching — you can at least envision it and the other places with Bardic associations. In the case of Snitterfield, for instance, Cheetham gives us a succinct but evocative description of the village's ancient church, with its outward-leaning walls, large east window and 14th-century font, which may have been used for the baptisms of Shakespeare's forebears. While this is not quite the equivalent of an actual visit, it's a fine tour for the mind's eye.

In short, if On the Trail of William Shakespeare doesn't make the devotee consider a foray in the footsteps of the Bard, nothing will.


© 2012 Jennifer Monroe Franson

* Sadly, the book is not available — or at least not yet — in electronic form.

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