Just as Shakespeare has confounded high school students for generations, it seems the playwright has been doing the same to historians for even longer. Recently, new research found that as well as hoarding grain during food shortages, the Bard was also threatened with jail for tax evasion. Given my thirst for knowledge, this meant a visit to the Shakespeare Museum was required.
Hard to believe, but 400 years on Shakespeare still manages to keep a fair few secrets up his sleeve. This became apparent to my friend and I when we visited Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon in England.
As you can imagine, the town has well and truly contracted “Shakespeare Fever” and attracts bus loads of cashed-up, Bard-loving tourists. After all, this is the town where Shakespeare was born, grew up, lived some of his adult life, and was buried.
But what surprised us most was how little is actually known about Shakespeare… and how there continues to be doubt about whether he actually wrote all of his plays or not. Granted he did live several hundred years ago, but given his prominent role in English literature we had assumed every facet of his life had already been discovered and documented.
We visited one of the town’s main “pilgrim” sites called Shakespeare’s Birthplace – a 16th century half-timbered house on Henley Street which is now a museum. This is believed to have been the Shakespeare family home where William was born, grew up and spent the first five years with his wife Anne Hathaway.
Reading the museum’s information boards, we noticed the liberal use of the following types of phrases: “he almost certainly would have…”, “it’s believed he…”, “like others at the time he may have…”, “he quite possibly would have…” and so on.
The vagueness is justified.
For a man who seemingly couldn’t put his pen down, doubters note that this not a single piece of evidence Shakespeare actually wrote anything. There are no manuscripts, letters or other documents in his own hand. Even the spelling of Shakespeare’s name is up for debate as the only surviving examples of his handwriting are six scrawled signatures where his surname is spelt several ways.
We had the distinct impression that we thought we knew more about the man before we had actually walked into the museum. However, thanks to the local Holy Trinity Church, there is more concrete evidence about Shakespeare’s life.
Here they have written records about his baptism on 26th of April, 1564 (“possibly” in the damaged medieval font on display) and burial on 25 the of April, 1616. Interestingly it does not have any account of his wedding to Anne Hathaway; other churches claim they were the venue.
Frustratingly, even the grave indicated as being William Shakespeare’s doesn’t actually bear his name, however the graves either side of his belong to wife Anne and daughter Susanna. Instead it has the following inscription (which he “possibly” wrote himself) warning anyone against moving his bones.
“Good friend fur Jesus sake forebeare
To digg the dust encloased heare
Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And curst be he yt moves my bones”
And it seems he was already developing a following not long after his death with a funerary monument built into the church wall.
The church also has a glass case with a first edition of the King James Bible from 1611, just before Shakespeare’s death. Apparently it is usually open at Psalm 46; 46 also being Shakespeare’s age in 1611.
At the end of the day, perhaps it doesn’t really matter that we don’t know a great deal about Shakespeare himself. “His” plays have already shaped English literature and how he will be remembered.
What is known is that generations of school children, and others, will continue to struggle finding great detail when they are next forced to write an assignment on William Shakespeare.