The destination for history

Why is Shakespeare’s real life (and his death) so undebatable?


Author Simon Andrew Stirling discusses his biographical research and the challenges that arise when you question the ‘facts’ about England’s Bard.

As I write this, I am about to send my second-year Screenwriting students out on their research missions. They all have a script to write, and so I want them to do some research. With any luck, I’ll convince them that the internet is just the starting point. The best research is done out there in the field.

When I was young, I got used to hearing the dreaded words, ‘Write what you know’. Dreaded, because they seemed so discriminatory: how could an adolescent – who, let’s face it, doesn’t know very much – write about anything but being an adolescent?

Then came the TV contracts, and I was riding around in police vans, spending whole nights in A&E, and interviewing everyone from youth workers to senior officers and managing directors. Whether it was general background, ‘atmospheric’ stuff, or something more specific, there simply was no substitute for information gleaned at the coal face.

Really, though, I have William Shakespeare to thank for my research obsession. I spent years wanting to write a book – probably a novel – about the writing of Macbeth. After ten years of reading around the subject, I had discovered links between Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot which were seldom covered in the set texts, but I felt no closer to Shakespeare himself. No biography seemed to tell me who he was.

I began to realise, little by little, that there was a fundamental flaw in many academics’ approach to Shakespeare. To put it simply, they tended only to repeat what previous academics had said. A few words might change, but the gist remained the same.

That approach had all the hallmarks of conditioning. Let me give an example.

On 27 November 1582, an eighteen-year old William Shakespeare was issued the first of two special marriage licences. The second, issued a day later, would stipulate that he was to marry Anne Hathaway of Stratford-upon-Avon, ‘maiden’. The first named Shakespeare’s bride-to-be as Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton.

My wife and I went to the old County Records Office at Worcester to examine a will, probated in 1554, in which John Whateley, a draper of Henley-in-Arden, named ‘Agnes my daughter’ as one of his beneficiaries. The names Anne and Agnes were used interchangeably (Shakespeare’s Anne – Hathaway – was named ‘Agnes’ in her father’s will). And so the will of John Whateley proved that there was at least one Anne Whateley in the vicinity; it so happens that her brother George was a colleague and near-neighbour of Shakespeare’s father.

Returning the sixteenth-century document to the counter, my wife wondered out loud whether anyone else had asked to see the will. When the staff looked rather blank, she explained that the document might have an extraordinary historical value, since it names Anne Whateley, the first woman Shakespeare contracted to marry.

Quick as a flash, a bearded man lurched across the room and announced, ‘Well, of course, the official line on Anne Whateley was given by Professor Samuel Schoenbaum, who stated that her name was a clerical error. No Anne Whateley actually existed.’

I kept quiet, waiting to see if he would ask to look at the document. He didn’t. As far as he was concerned, there never was an Anne Whateley, because Samuel Schoenbaum had said so. The fact that he was standing two feet away from her father’s will made no difference. Anne Whateley didn’t exist. So there.

This kind of dogmatism came close to scuppering a very intriguing investigation. Last year a television documentary company, working with archaeologists from the University of Staffordshire, had applied to the diocese of Worcester for permission to remove a disarticulated human skull from a church vault and subject it to detailed forensic analysis, on the grounds that the skull might be Shakespeare’s.

The Chancellor of the diocese resolved to hold a consistory court so that he could hear the evidence in support of the proposal.  Also attending the church court that day were a couple of Shakespeare experts from Stratford-upon-Avon.

The application for a faculty to remove the skull drew partly on my own research, published in Who Killed William Shakespeare? (The History Press, 2013), but mostly on the accounts of How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found, which were published by ‘A Warwickshire Man’ in 1879 and 1884.  I had gone to great pains over the story, trawling census returns and trade directories to determine how many of the individuals named in the accounts had genuinely existed (most of them had, and some were related to the original author). 

I had also scrutinised high-resolution images of the spare skull resting in the private family vault beneath the Sheldon Chapel at St Leonard’s Church, Beoley, comparing the skull with various images of Shakespeare, and I had come to the conclusion that the skull probably was Shakespeare’s. In addition to my book I had also published a university paper on the matter.

The Shakespeare experts chose to laugh the story of Shakespeare’s skull out of the church court.  Not that they had studied it, you understand. They weren’t even aware that Rev C.J. Langston, Vicar of Beoley when the fullest account of the theft and rediscovery of Shakespeare’s skull was published, had identified himself as the author and ‘compiler’ of How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found in correspondence now held in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C.

The experts could quote chapter and verse on who had said what about the story (‘lurid fiction’, etc.) but knew nothing about the background to the story, the context in which it was published, the probable motives of the author, or indeed that the tale led to a skull which displays remarkable similarities to the portraits of William Shakespeare.

They knew none of that. But, even so, their evidence carried the day.

Fortunately, the documentary team did secure permission to access the vault and make a 3-D laser scan of the skull, which should allow for some tentative steps towards identification. It can only be hoped that when the documentary is aired in April, the unbiased opinions of the facial recognition experts and biological anthropologists will pave the way for a renewed application and a proper examination of the skull under laboratory conditions.

While all this was going on, I was completing my manuscript of Shakespeare’s Bastard: The Life of Sir William Davenant. In his hometown of Oxford, Davenant was recognised as Shakespeare’s godson, although rumours persisted for many years that he was, in fact, Shakespeare’s natural (illegitimate) son. These rumours were passed on by credible people, several of whom had known Sir William and his family very well.

I had started studying Davenant for Who Killed William Shakespeare? I asked myself, why was he not better known? And why was the question of his paternity – was he, could he have been, the illegitimate product of Shakespeare’s love affair with the hostess of an Oxford tavern? – invariably batted aside on those rare occasions when somebody deigned to write about him?

The question (surely the key question of Davenant’s life) was not merely kicked into the long grass. There were hints of menace, threats almost, of the sternest academic disapproval should anyone dare to ask the question.  It was stated as a ‘fact’ that Davenant was not Shakespeare’s son, and that was that.

Except it wasn’t that at all, because I could find no evidence at all that anybody had ever dared to research the issue. So I went ahead, and am now quietly confident that Sir William Davenant, poet laureate, was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son. And if he wasn’t, well he certainly behaved as if he was.

The work is ongoing. My point, however, is that the things I have touched on – the will naming Shakespeare’s first choice of bride, the existence of what might be his missing skull, and the identity of his love-child – none of these had been properly explored. They had been dismissed out of hand, ignored, belittled, and warning signs put up to ward off the curious.

Historians cannot, or should not, behave like that: like the inquisitors who forced Galileo to recant because, as far as they were concerned, all things were already known and there could be no deviation from the wisdom of the ancients. To do so is to betray our readers, our discipline and ourselves.

And so I hope to plant, in my second-year Screenwriting students, a seed which will blossom into full-blown research mania. Because if there’s one thing they should never do, it is to take at face value the words of an expert. 

It’s quite possible that that expert doesn’t really know what he’s on about, he’s just quoting someone else.

By Simon Andrew Stirling

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