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Shakespeare and the Documents, Part 3:


We can tell from his plays that the knowledge of the old rituals learned at his mother's knee never left him, as one would expect. As a young man, he may have moved between both worlds, like many of his generation of artists, poets, musicians and writers. But in his case, the persistence of private loyalties may have been more a matter of choice. A sensational new discovery, announced only in April 2003 reinforces this idea. It concerns Shakespeare's most enigmatic poem, "The Phoenix and Turtle" which was published in 1601 in a strange collection of verse called Love's Martyr. Till now, this work has defied all attempts at explanation, But it is now strongly argued that it was a memorial poem for Mrs Anne Line, a Catholic widow executed at Tyburn in February 1601. This exciting discovery, if it is accepted, shows us that in mid-career, in the year in which he staged "Twelfth Night," and the last version of "Hamlet," Shakespeare was not only sympathetic to such a figure as Mrs Line, but seemingly well connected with the noble and intellectual circles of Catholicism. Even so, a couple of years later one Catholic writer working from a secret printing press would reject the secular agenda of his plays, almost as a betrayal of the cause.

For the last phase of his life there are numerous documents connected with the plays but also an interesting cluster bearing on his life in Stratford: the purchase of New Place was followed over the next few years by several deals on land, field strips and tithes: evidently Shakespeare was building up his holdings back home. He may have retired to Stratford after writing "The Tempest" in 1611: he gives Stratford as his address in a London court case in spring 1612. Other documents show his involvement in a dispute between rich landowners the Combes, whom he knew, and the rural poor, Diggers and Levellers, outside Stratford. The town found itself on the side of the landless protesters, and as a figure of standing on all sides, Shakespeare seems successfully to have acted as an honest broker - or at least a canny one - if the notebook of his cousin Thomas Green is to be trusted, in which conversations with "my cousin Shakespeare" are reported. At this same time an insight into the kind of jobs he did on the side is provided by an account book of the Earl of Rutland which shows Shakespeare and Burbage designing and composing a heraldic emblem for a royal tournament. But there are still riddles. In 1613 for example an interesting collection of documents surrounds Shakespeare's purchase of a large London house in the Blackfriars: his first London house bought only after he had moved back to Stratford; and a former Catholic safe house to boot.

The Last primary documents are his will and the record of his death; 23 April 1616. He was a rector of his local church near the end, which means he had been a financial benefactor of the place where his parents and his son were buried. This enabled him to get the prime position in front of the altar for himself, wife and daughters and sons in law-where they still are today. But in a final twist, a story surfaced in the Cotswolds in the late 17th century that he "dyed a papiste," in other words, that he took the last rites of the Old Faith on his deathbed. If so, it would be typical of the conflicted loyalties of many of his generation.

So there's a brief summary of some of the more interesting Shakespeare documents among more than a hundred which name the poet. How will the new discoveries and reappraisals affect our view of Shakespeare? Obviously they begin to set him in his time in a much more concrete way. I think they make him more human, more moving, and more understandable. Many longstanding problems in the biography may become clearer, including Shakespeare's self effacing stance as an artist. His characteristic quality, his empathy - his feeling for the "stranger's case" – for example, is all the more explicable in someone who came from an increasingly marginalized and persecuted minority. How careful was I, when I took my way he wrote in the sonnets: now we begin to see why. And the world he represents with such affection - old England with its good and bad Kings, old friars and holy women - is of course the world he had lost: in short, more even than we could have guessed, he is English history. In his own life, as well as his work, he embodies the conflicts of his time, the Cultural Revolution of the 16th century. Though of course, it still remains true, as his friend Ben Jonson said, that "He was not of an age but for all time."

"Shakespeare and the Documents: the sources for the bard's life"
by Michael Wood

Shakespeare and The Documents

Part 1: Early Life
Part 2: Career
Part 3: Religion

The Evidence

John Shakespeare's fine for wool dealing
Stratford Council records
Baptismal register, Stratford parish church
Shakespeare's summons
Marriage certificate
William Knell coroner's report
Coat of arms application
Burial of Hamnet Shakespeare
Shakespeare's will
Burial of William Shakespeare
In your state
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