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A New Crop Of Hedging On The Bard

September 04, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The gently rolling hills of eastern England looked, in late August, startingly like Nebraska. There were giant harvesters on the horizons and the endless fields were brown with ripened wheat or new stubble.

Agricultural support policies, tied to the European Common Market, have encouraged the production of wheat and of rape-seed oil on a large scale in England.

Conservationists are alarmed because miles of those ancient hedgerows that gave rural England its storybook patchwork beauty have been ripped out to allow more efficient mechanical farming.

In the eastern shires there were huge plumes of smoke as the threshed fields were burned off, another policy that conservationists have protested strongly. Growers say the alternative to the burning, which sterilizes the soil, is to use more insecticides, and they increase costs (whatever else they do).

Then, too, all the wheat-growing in the east has displaced cattle-raising to the west of England, but it is unprofitable to ship the fodder to the west country. So it is burned, or sits in vast cylindrical bales, which one twilight I saw stacked in great columns looking for all the world like Stonehenge in straw.

It was mildly reassuring to see that our two great nations are united in the contradictions we have begat with farm policies.

At that, although it may be changing, the beauty of rural England is not diminished. The small villages with the large, weird names still cluster tidily amid the greenery (and the brownery), and even the smallest of them seem to retain splendid and innocent church spires from a confident and believing past. It is as ever a land of quietly thrilling vistas which man and nature have labored jointly to create.

My wife and I had come with a few friends to pursue the lives of Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, through the traces of Elizabethan England, of which there are many.

You didn't have to care a whit about what is known as the Authorship Question to find fascinating the visitations to Westminster Abbey, Lincoln's Inn, Oxford, Cambridge, Stratford, Salisbury, Winchester and the great houses--Wilton, Longleat, Penshurst--with their portrait-lined halls, their libraries and archives and their souvenir shops. You might wince for the tens of thousands of sheep that produced the sheets of enduring vellum on which the English past is recorded.

In the Public Record Office in London we were allowed to examine the original of Shakespeare's will, with its famous bequest to his wife of his second-best bed (one of history's great posthumous put-downs). In the bottom margin are three hardly decipherable signatures--half of the presumed examples of Shakespeare's hand known to exist.

The office, an extraordinary trove of legal documents (excepting births, deaths and marriages which are elsewhere), is presently celebrating the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book, the census ordered by William the Conqueror who obviously wanted to know what all he had conquered--and what tax revenues might be expected from it. (Between 500 and 1,000 sheep are said to have yielded their hides to the writing of the book.)

The exhibit includes two hologram figures, life-sized in the best Madame Tussaud tradition. Their faces blink and look about and talk with an eerie credibility, despite the pallid gray flesh tone, although it does suggest ghostly visitations from the 11th Century. One of the figures is William himself, speaking fine English; the other is a monk who finds the census a foolish endeavor and the idea of enumerating sheep appalling.

Our little tour, minutely planned by an energetic agent named Fred Bickmore, had to be circumspect, because the orthodox Stratfordians tend toward apoplexy at the notion that Shakespeare of Stratford may not have written what he is said to have written.

We had no specific ax to grind, although most of us find it increasingly hard to believe that the Stratford grain-dealer and the poet of genius were one and the same, despite the legends and assumptions that have hardened into fact under the weight of three centuries.

Yet even in a summer in which English tourism was off sharply, Stratford on a bright weekend was teeming, full of daytrippers as well as foreign guests. If Stratford Will is ever deposed (which is admittedly unlikely), an industry will collapse, and several generations of scholarship would have to be freshly footnoted.

There is a small but valiant Francis Bacon Society in England, admiring of their man generally but also convinced that he was the begetter (not necessarily the same thing as the line-by-line author) of the works.

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