Charles Nicholl

  • The Shakespeare Circle: An Alternative Biography edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells
    Cambridge, 358 pp, £18.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 107 69909 0

On 16 March 1810 a Mrs Martin, a ‘labourer’s wife’, was working a field near Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon when she turned up an old gold signet ring bearing on its bezel the initials ‘W.S.’ It was bought for 36 shillings by Robert Bell Wheler, a local historian, and later donated to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, where it still resides. When the Romantic painter Benjamin Robert Haydon heard news of the discovery he wrote excitedly to his friend Keats: ‘If this is not Shakespeare who is it? … As sure as you breathe & that he was the first of beings the Seal belonged to him – Oh Lord!’ The sceptic might answer that it could have belonged to someone else with the same initials – the Stratford draper William Smith, for instance – but the possibility remains strong that it was Shakespeare’s. It is certainly a genuine ring of the period, and there are other pointers in its favour. The field where it was found, Mill Close, was on land that Shakespeare had owned: it was part of 107 acres of pasture and gardens he bought in 1602. A minor amendment to his will may also hold a clue. It originally concluded with the formulaic phrase, ‘in witnesse whereof I have hereunto put my seale,’ but in the final version of 25 March 1616 the word ‘seale’ is crossed out and ‘hand’ is written instead. Had he recently lost the ring he would have used to stamp his seal on the document?

If the arguments are right, this is the only personal possession of Shakespeare’s to survive. (There are a couple of books with his name inscribed in them, but neither inscription matches his known signatures and they are generally thought to be forgeries.) The ring appeals because of its simple tangibility, even its ordinariness. It is a standard accessory of the Jacobean ‘gent’, his authenticating personalised stamp: ‘take forth paper, fold it, write upon’t, read it, afterwards seal it’ (Macbeth V.i). It is handsome, expensive and chunky – Wheler gives its weight as ‘12 dwt’ (i.e. 12 pennyweights), which is equivalent to about two thirds of an ounce. One may call it a relic without intending any saintly or cultish overtone. It is just something left behind (literally ‘relinquished’) by the man who once owned it, a man whose life is often felt to be elusive, reticent, difficult to get at, but thanks to Mrs Martin’s lucky find becomes a little less so.

A colour photograph of the ring appears on the cover of The Shakespeare Circle, perhaps to suggest that the book’s contents might similarly help us to feel closer to him. Its subtitle promises an ‘alternative biography’, and rather unexpectedly it goes a good way towards providing one. Edited by the unflagging team of Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson, the book is a remarkable collection of 25 essays, each focusing on a person or group of people known to Shakespeare, on the ways they related to him and influenced him, and, in some cases, on the ways they perceived and reported him. The essays are concise, typically a dozen pages or so, a format that allows a variety of approaches and tones, and occasionally some contradictions. ‘We have not attempted to impose uniformity on the volume,’ the editors write, ‘but present it as a collection of authoritatively engaged voices … who do not always agree, but who have been willing to think afresh about the lives that touched Shakespeare’s most closely.’

In a sense the book’s aim is to be something like a TV documentary about the life of a much loved celebrity, though after four centuries the impressions and reminiscences of those who knew him are rather harder to elicit. As with that genre the fascination lies particularly in the early life – the pre-limelight years of obscurity, with their deceptive air of normality – and the essays dealing with Shakespeare’s family and other Stratford acquaintances find rich seams to mine. The majority – 14 of the 25 essays – fall into this category: this is primarily a book about Shakespeare of Stratford, even when it’s about Shakespeare in London. Obscurity is also a challenge, of course, and the documentation of his Stratford circle can be pretty threadbare. Tasked with researching Shakespeare’s brother-in-law, the shadowy hatter William Hart, Cathy Shrank notes ‘how invisible to the historical record someone of non-gentry status can be … if they are not badly behaved – or unfortunate – enough to show up in court records, or sufficiently wealthy and respectable to serve as a local office holder’; even Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna, though occasionally very sharply defined, is described by Lachlan Mackinnon as living ‘largely in unrecorded, impenetrable privacy’. Hardest of all to penetrate is the life of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, of whom nothing is known beyond the poignant fact of his death at the age of 11 in 1596. Graham Holderness rises to this challenge with an eight-page meditation centred on the echo of ‘Hamnet’ in ‘Hamlet’: the names have no etymological link, but one senses their emotional assonance, to which the old theatrical tradition that Shakespeare acted the part of Hamlet’s ghostly father (first mentioned by Nicholas Rowe in 1709) adds force.

The book opens with a brisk pair of essays by David Fallow and Michael Wood on the subject of his parents: John Shakespeare, born in about 1530, the son of a tenant farmer in the outlying village of Snitterfield, and Mary née Arden, some years younger, of a more prosperous family from Wilmcote. Neither of their baptisms is documented, nor the date of their marriage, which was sometime in the later 1550s. The fact that John’s father had leased land at Snitterfield owned by Mary’s father has led to an idea that the marriage was socially uneven, but Wood disagrees. ‘It is worth emphasising the very similar social backgrounds of the two families,’ he says. ‘These were well-off peasant families of very similar horizons, old-fashioned, loyal to the places of local piety, the guilds and shrines.’ The first record of John in Stratford is undistinguished – he was fined a shilling in 1552 for annoying the neighbourhood with a dunghill – but by the time of Shakespeare’s birth he was apparently prospering, and was the owner of two properties in town, one of them the house on Henley Street now revered as ‘The Birthplace’.

‘Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere’ was baptised at Holy Trinity Church on 26 April 1564. The actual date of his birth is unknown. The convention that it was 23 April, St George’s Day, is a wishful synchronicity first mooted in the 18th century; Thomas De Quincey’s counter-suggestion, that the date chosen for his granddaughter’s wedding – 22 April – commemorated his birthday, is attractive. He was one of 39 Stratford babies baptised that year, 23 of them boys. The birthrate was lower than in other years, no doubt due to an epidemic of bubonic plague, as noted in the parish register on 11 July: ‘Hic incepit pestis’ (‘here began the plague’), three words that describe the first and very considerable hurdle Shakespeare had to overcome. He was the third of John and Mary’s eight children – four male, four female – but the first two girls had already died in infancy before he was born, so he was de facto the eldest child as well as the eldest son and heir. All four brothers survived into adulthood, but only one of his sisters did. When one meets the name Anne Shakespeare in an index it almost invariably refers to his wife, but the first of that name to impinge on his life was his little sister, who died in the spring of 1579, at the age of seven, when he was a couple of weeks short of his 15th birthday.

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