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The Shakespeare Paper Trail

The Shakespeare Paper Trail

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Published by aziz khan masood

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: aziz khan masood on Mar 04, 2010
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03/04/2010

 
 The Shakespeare Paper Trail: The Early Years
By Michael Wood
About the author
Michael Wood is the writer and presenter of many critically acclaimed televisionseries, including
In the Footsteps of...
series. Born and educated in Manchester,Michael did postgraduate research on Anglo-Saxon history at Oxford. Since then hehas made over 60 documentary films and written several best selling books. Hisfilms have centred on history, but have also included travel, politics and culturalhistory.By aziz khan masood
Looking for clues
Shakespeare's biography has long been a source of controversy. He's one of thegreatest writers in the world, yet what we know of the events of the first 28 years of his life could be written on the back of a postage stamp (he lived to be 52). What isparticularly frustrating is that the crucial ten years of 1582-92 - between hismarriage and his emergence as a playwright in London - have so far yielded onlythree authentic documents that name him.  These are two baptismal records documenting the birth of his three children (a girland twins - a boy and a girl), and a record of a court case of 1587, in which hisfamily tried to recover property lost when his father's business collapsed. So thebiographer can see the writer's early years only through the eyes of those aroundhim. This scarcity of real knowledge has led to theories that Shakespeare never actuallyexisted, but was really the playwright Christopher Marlowe, the poet and politician
 
Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford - and many of these ideas still have a widepopular currency. It is now mostly thought by serious historians, however, thatthese theories are baseless: the later years of Shakespeare's life are in factrelatively well documented, for someone of his social class and profession.Despite this, his early biography has yet to be convincingly anchored in histurbulent times, so a fresh look at the limited range of historical documents relatingto the period from his birth until 1592 - the time when a little more starts to beknown about him - may offer some interesting clues to his life as a young man.
Revolutionary times
Shakespeare was born in Stratford upon Avon in 1564, only five years or so into thereign of Elizabeth I. The local church has a record of his baptism on 26 April, so hewas a born maybe three or four days earlier. His mother was Mary Arden, daughterof a well-off farmer from Wilmcote, South Warwickshire, and a descendent of theArdens of Park Hall, an important Catholic family in the area.William's father, John Shakespeare, was a former farmer from Snitterfield, also inSouth Warwickshire. He became a glover, and rose to be alderman and then mayorof Stratford-upon-Avon when William was still a boy. John himself is particularly welldocumented, being named in dozens of documents, and recent finds have includedfascinating evidence - reported by Queen Elizabeth's government informers -concerning his illegal money lending and wool dealing activities. The year 1564 was an extraordinary time to be born, for this was the time of thegreat cultural revolution in England. In the preceding 12 years, the state religionhad changed from the hard line Protestantism of Edward VI to the persecutingCatholicism of Queen Mary - and then back again to a less repressive form of Protestantism under Elizabeth I.In the aftermath of the defeat of the Spanish Armada (when, in 1588, Catholic Spainmade its attempt to reinstate a Catholic monarchy in England), the new Protestantestablishment triumphed, and by the turn of the century only a minority of QueenElizabeth's subjects remained true to the old faith.
 
So Shakespeare's formative years were spent at a time poised between two worlds -those of Catholicism and Protestantism, of the old and the new, the medieval andthe modern. This was the time reflected in some of the richly informativedocuments relating to his town and region that survive.
Spies' stories
Other reports show that during the time that William's father served as mayor of Stratford, officers delayed as long as possible before removing Catholic murals andvestments from the local chapel; some wall paintings were never destroyed.Perhaps even more significant, of the six schoolmasters employed by thecorporation at the grammar school during Shakespeare's youth, four were Catholicsympathisers. Of these, Simon Hunt, who probably taught the future playwright, isknown to have later become a Jesuit.In his life in the family, in the town, at school and at church he grew up betweentwo worlds. This fascinating local picture mirrors the national situation, and is perhaps a key toShakespeare's outlook on the world. In his life in the family, in the town, at schooland at church he grew up between two worlds.In the privacy of home the old faith may have been foremost. His grandfather,Robert Arden, left a will (of 1556) that demonstrates a strongly Catholic belief. Hisfather, John Shakespeare, appears on a list of Catholic recusants in 1592; and adocument discovered quite recently (in 1964), in the Maidstone church courtrecords, shows that even his daughter Susanna was summonsed, as late as 1606,for refusing to take Easter Communion.
Surviving change
 The Shakespeare family story seems typical of that of many English people in the16th century. They held on to their affection for old England, while the state sweptaway a vast and resonant world of custom and belief - from fairies to prayers for thedead. By the end of Elizabeth's reign most of the country had conformed, at leastoutwardly, to the new faith, but by then Shakespeare was nearly 40.Seen in this light, it seems that Shakespeare may have made concealment not onlypart of his art, but part perhaps of a deliberate pattern in his life too. It is intriguing,for example, that during his 25 years of lodging in London, with as many as eight

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