Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Drive-by Shakespeare

On the way home from New Plymouth yesterday, M. and I passed through Stratford. Originally named Stratford-upon-Patea, sometimes called Stratford-in-Taranaki, the town still plays up the fact it’s named after the birthplace of William Shakespeare…

There’s a bust of the bard outside the information centre and New Zealand’s only glockenspiel clock tower plays a scene from Romeo and Juliet four times daily.

But the thing that really interests me in Stratford are the street names.

[If you don’t have 4 minutes and 10 secoonds to watch the video (or are somewhere you really shouldn’t watch a 4 minute and 10 second video) there’s a collage further down the page...]

According to Stratford’s Wikipedia page, there are 67 streets named after characters from 27 of Shakespeare’s plays. M. and I drove around without the benefit of a map (that would be cheating) and managed to photograph 41 Shakespearean signs, though some are a bit dubious.

Curtis is indeed the name of Petruchio’s servant in The Taming of the Shrew, but it was also the last name of the first two town chairmen of Stratford (1882-90).

Surrey, Essex, Warwick and Exeter are all titles held by characters in Shakepeare’s histories, but they are also common street names in non-themed New Zealand towns.

And, Mr Wikipedia, may I point out that the names don’t all belong to characters. There’s Elsinore Street and Verona Place, as well as Shakespeare, Hathaway and Avon Streets.

With the help of a map, I can count 52 streets with Shakespearean names. 53 if you count “Sylvia Street” despite the fact Valentine’s love interest in The Two Gentlemen of Verona is spelt Silvia. If Sylvia Street is indeed an homage to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where’s Valentine and Proteus?

I have nothing against Stratford’s themed streets – it helps make the town far more memorable than, say, Inglewood or Eltham – but there seem to be some glaring omissions.

No Othello, Iago or Desdemona. No one from Othello at all.

We get Hamlet and Claudius, but what about Ophelia and Gertrude?

We get Portia and Antonio from The Merchant of Venice, but not Shylock, the play’s most memorable character (who just so happens to be a Jew).

Before launching into possible sexist/racist conspiracy theories, it should be noted that the only character from MacBeth is Seyton. Who? Macbeth's servant and attendant. Oh, right. I’m sure residents of Seyton Street, Stratford, rue this choice whenever asked for their address over the phone (“You live on Satan Street?”).

Different aspects of Shakespeare are emphasized at different points in time, just as different plays rise or fade in the popularity stakes. One can see hints of this in the selection of Stratford’s street names. A whopping five characters from Troilus and Cressida (though there’s no Troilus Street) suggest town planners were appealing to the Greek mythology English immigrants would have learnt at school in the Nineteenth century. I wonder how many university graduates today could identify Troilus and Cressida as a Shakepearean play in a line up of imposters?

But even taking Shakespearean fashions of the 1880s (or whenever these names came into being) into account, there were some whacky selection criteria.

The nature of the characters doesn’t seem to have had much bearing on their selection. One of the main streets bisecting the State Highway is Regan Street, named after one of Lear’s horrid daughters (though Goneril was passed over, thankfully).

Residents of Cloten Road live under the shadow of Imogen’s attempted rape in Cymbeline.

A surprising number of characters featuring on Stratford’s signs are dead by the end of the play they appear in, which does not seem the most auspicious way to label a street (though most of the tragic figures are not associated with “No Exit” streets -- that would be too funny).

Comedies -- those plays where despite the mess everything wraps up with the promise of procreation and prosperity -- would seem to be the perfect stuff for suburban street names. But where are Benedict and Beatrice? In fact, there’s no one from Much Ado About Nothing, or Alls Well That Ends Well, or Measure for Measure, or The Winter’s Tale...

The fact is, there’s some highly marginal characters immortalized in white on green while the eponymous characters from Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, Pericles, Titus Andronicus, Cymbeline and Antony and Cleopatra are snubbed.

If there was a Henry Crescent, it would knock off no less than seven of the History plays.

You could name the streets of a decent sized town with Stratford’s glaring omissions. Inglewood, are you listening?

So while I commend whatever generation of Stratfordians it was that themed their street names, it does feel like half of a good job.

And it leaves me to wonder what other writers might one day have their characters (and the odd setting / biographical detail) turn up on street signs.

Humbert Road, Lolita Street, Pnin Place, Krug Crescent, Shade Street, Kinbote Way, Ada Avenue, Van Alley, Fyodor Drive, Luzhin Lane, Cincinnatus Court…

Pilgrim Place, Trout Terrace, Rosewater Boulevard, Karabekian Close, Kazak Trail, Hoenikker Highway, Bokonon Bypass, Monzano Mall, Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain Street…

Yossarian Way, Dunbar Road, Aarfy Ave, Cathcart Court, Daneeka Drive, Orr Terrace, Minderbiner Parkway, Nately Place, —— de Coverley Square, Major Road, Dreedle Crescent, Hungry Joe Lane…

Even when crowbarred into real life, literature still manages to delight (me at least).


Unknown said...

What about music?

Mr. Kite Court, Eleanor Rigby Road, Dear Prudence Drive, Polythene Pam Place, Hey Jude Ave, Lovely Rita Rightofway, Sexy Sadie Street, and of course Penny Lane.

Craig Cliff said...


The Long And Winding Road, perhaps?