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.

The family home was also the workshop where his artisan father practised his trade as a glover and ‘whittawer’ – a worker of white leather, typically kidskin, and thus a producer of those ‘kid gloves’ still proverbial for their softness. The product was upmarket but the production of it messy and pungent. When Shakespeare mentions a man with a ‘great round beard, like a glover’s paring-knife’ (Merry Wives of Windsor, I.iv), he is thinking of the implement used to scrape the blood and muck off skins fresh in from the shambles. To achieve the desired pale, suede-like finish, skins were steeped in a caustic bath whose ingredients were a permutation of salt, alum, fish-fat and urine. Pissing in the Henley Street household was an active contribution to the family business, and one may be tempted to think this some kind of prototype for the profitable fluency of the poet’s ink.

Through Shakespeare’s childhood his father served the Stratford corporation in roles of increasing significance and status – from constable to ale-taster, chamberlain, bailiff, chief alderman and justice of the peace: a pillar of the civic and commercial community – but on none of the attesting documents has he left a signature. He used a mark, vaguely A-shaped, which is interpreted as a pair of glover’s dividers and so perhaps could be called a ‘logo’. The question of illiteracy has been raised, but doesn’t seem plausible. (We have no signatures from Mary either, but her well-penned monogram M, on a lease agreement of 1579, is described by Wood as a ‘practised initial with a decorative flourish, which follows the standard pattern books of secretary hand’, and seems to suggest she was literate.) Perhaps, Fallow says, Shakespeare senior was the kind of man who preferred not to sign things – a ‘calculated caution’, which took ‘pains not to leave signatures or detailed financial records’ – and there is indeed about him a touch of the sharp or slippery businessman. He broke usury laws by charging excessive interest on loans, and contravened trading regulations by buying up large quantities of wool. What catches the eye is not the illegality, which is standard enough, but the sums of money involved. In 1570 he disbursed loans amounting to £180 (around £25,000 in modern money) and the following year he was prosecuted for ‘brogging’, or illegal wool-dealing, having purchased 300 tods of wool for £210. Like the glover’s paring-knife, these ‘tods’ (a unit equivalent to 28 lb) resurface in a play-text – this time in The Winter’s Tale, where a shepherd struggles to reckon up the value of a shearing: ‘every ’leven wether tods; every tod yields pound and odd shilling; fifteen hundred shorn, what comes the wool to?’ By my calculation, the answer to this Shakespearean brainteaser is £143 3s 7½d (which is the value of the wool of 1500 sheep at the stated rate of 21 shillings for the wool of 11 sheep), but the more interesting point is the unspoken hinterland of personal memory: these words, and these sums, were familiar fare to the brogger’s son.

The usual story about John Shakespeare is that in the later 1570s he suffered some kind of business crisis, and thereafter spiralled into debt, absented himself from council meetings and ‘refused obstinately to resort to the church’, whereby he was listed as a recusant, though in the opinion of the commissioners it was ‘fear of process for debt’ that kept him away. Fallow questions this narrative as too neat, and points out that John continued to have disposable assets after his supposed financial crash. He concludes:

William Shakespeare as a poor boy from an impoverished family, bravely earning his extended family back to prosperity through participation in the early modern theatre makes a fine fable. But a broader study of his father challenges this … The timing of the family’s investments (virtually all made during John Shakespeare’s lifetime and before the theatre could have supplied the funds) shows the astute businessman and public figure.

It was this essentially capitalist ethic, Fallow thinks, that Shakespeare inherited and stuck with: ‘both father and son were successful, self-made businessmen.’


Whether as a budding young entrepreneur or an aspiring young actor – or quite possibly a mix of the two – Shakespeare’s move to London was a key event in his life. We have no precise date for this; it’s perhaps unnecessary to think of it as a single definitive departure. All the records of him up to early 1585, shortly before his 21st birthday, place him in and around Stratford: his courtship of, or fateful sexual encounter with, a farmer’s daughter from Shottery, Anne or Agnes Hathaway; their shotgun wedding in November 1582; the birth of their daughter Susanna the following May; another pregnancy a year or so later, resulting in the twins Hamnet and Judith, named after his lifelong friends the Sadlers, who ran a bakery on Sheep Street. The date of the twins’ baptism, 2 February 1585, is a last documentary marker of Shakespeare’s early years in Stratford, though his actual presence at the font is a reasonable assumption rather than a certainty. Thereafter begin the so-called ‘lost years’, with little or no record of his movements until 1592, by which time he had sufficient reputation in the London playhouses to earn that bitter satirical salvo in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit. The pamphlet was presented as the deathbed scribblings of Robert Greene, but is nowadays attributed to its ostensible ‘editor’, Henry Chettle. It scoffingly refers to him as ‘Shake-scene’ and calls him an ‘upstart crow, beautified with our feathers’, in other words a plagiarist. This episode is the subject of a very interesting essay by Andy Kesson.

Sociologically speaking, his move to the capital was typical. Shakespeare in London was one provincial incomer among thousands, part of a demographic drift that saw the city’s population double over the course of the 16th century. Among those who migrated from Stratford was a tanner’s son, Richard Field, a fellow pupil of Shakespeare’s at the local grammar school. He left in 1580, at the age of 18, to serve as an apprentice to a French immigrant printer in the Blackfriars, Thomas Vautrollier. In her essay on Field, Carol Chillington Rutter observes that printers’ and booksellers’ apprentices listed in the Stationers’ Register at this time came from ‘York, Wiltshire, Lincoln, Salop, Surrey [and] Flint’, and were sent ‘abroad’ to London by fathers who worked as fullers, chandlers, husbandmen, labourers, ‘preacher[s] of God’s word’, painters and butchers. Thus the great flowering of late Elizabethan literature was produced amid a hubbub of regional accents and brogues. Soon after Field completed his apprenticeship, his master Vautrollier died, and in 1588 he published his first book in partnership with Vautrollier’s widow; the following year he cemented the arrangement by marrying her. So began a distinguished, 35-year career in the business. Its high point in terms of literary history was the publication of Shakespeare’s first printed work, the narrative poem Venus and Adonis, in 1593.

Shakespeare’s earliest stage comedies are full of young men on the move, eager for new horizons. The Two Gentlemen of Verona opens with Valentine preparing to leave Verona, and chiding his stay-at-home friend Proteus for being unadventurous:

Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits …
I rather would entreat thy company
To see the wonders of the world abroad,
Than, living dully sluggardised at home,
Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness.

Similarly, in The Taming of the Shrew we first meet Petruchio newly arrived in Padua. ‘What happy gale/Blows you to Padua?’ he is asked, and replies:

Such wind as scatters young men through the world,
To seek their fortunes farther than at home
Where small experience grows.

In these speeches ‘home’ is characterised as narrow, dull, inactive; a young man who stays there remains ‘shapeless’ – it is leaving, going out into ‘the world’, that will form him into something. There is nothing very remarkable about this – the prose romances of the day, a major source for the early comedies, were chock-full of youths venturing forth to seek their fortunes – but Shakespeare is again writing from his own experience, telling his own story, with just a sprinkling of Italianate fairy-dust to make it seem more exotic and sophisticated. A cheap rented chamber in Shoreditch may not quite qualify as one of those ‘wonders of the world’ promised by Valentine, but his escape to London is a sine qua non of his career in the theatre, and therefore of the majority of his writings. None of this could have been achieved within the narrow confines – the ‘small experience’ – of a little market town in the Midlands.

The essays dealing with Shakespeare’s professional life in London cover more familiar ground. They include David Riggs on Ben Jonson, Emma Smith on Thomas Middleton, Alan Nelson on Shakespeare’s patrons, John Astington on the Burbages, Bart van Es on the comedians Will Kemp and Robert Armin, and Paul Edmondson on the editors of the First Folio, John Heminges and Henry Condell. It was decided to exclude writers who can’t be proved by specific occasion or active collaboration to have known Shakespeare personally, which relegates Christopher Marlowe to a glowering presence on the sidelines, and also excludes that engaging gadfly Thomas Nashe, though both had a decisive stylistic influence on Shakespeare in the 1590s, and both must surely have known him. I would also have liked more about the ‘War of the Theatres’, an exchange of highly personal hostilities between rival playwrights around the turn of the century. Contemporary testimony – and his own later comments in Hamlet – suggest Shakespeare was involved in this, though quite how has never been clearly defined. Riggs touches on it briefly in connection with Jonson, to whom Shakespeare is said to have administered a ‘purge that made him bewray his credit’ (i.e. ‘beshit’ himself, as Riggs glosses).

Duncan Salkeld gives a lively account of the brief and pungent career of George Wilkins, a little-read author who combined literature with a more lurid (and probably more profitable) career as a brothel-keeper and pimp. The chief biographical source for him is the records of the Middlesex magistrates’ court, where he was frequently in the dock on charges of violent assault (‘kicking a woman on the belly which was then great with child’ is one charge; that he had ‘outrageously beaten one Judith Walton & stamped upon her so that she was carried home in [a] chair’ is another; both women were probably prostitutes). His name would perhaps be forgotten today but for his collaboration with Shakespeare on Pericles (c.1607), to which (it is generally agreed) he contributed the first two acts. His sole-authored play, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, based loosely on a real murder case, was performed by Shakespeare’s company in the same year. It is rather chaotic but seethes with low-life energy and deserves a proper modern edition. Salkeld’s research in the archives of Bridewell Prison, published in Shakespeare among the Courtesans (2012), make him an expert guide to Wilkins, though I suspect he is wrong in ascribing to him a sonnet signed ‘G.W.’ which prefaces Spenser’s Amoretti (1595). Wilkins tried on various literary hats, but sub-Spenserian pastorals were definitely not his scene: the emblem-writer Geoffrey Whitney is a more likely candidate.

Another valuable essay is contributed by Spenser’s biographer Andrew Hadfield, though not on Spenser himself, who has no particular connection with Shakespeare (the idea that ‘pleasant Willy’ in The Tears of the Muses refers to Shakespeare no longer has much support). He focuses instead on a clutch of minor authors who published comments about Shakespeare in the late 1590s. He finds that while Spenser is often invoked as the acme of high poetic seriousness, Shakespeare receives double-edged praise as a skilful, mellifluous writer rather too sweet to the taste. In ‘Ad Gulielmum Shakespeare’ (Epigrams, 1599), John Weever calls him ‘honey-tongued Shakespeare’, and his creations ‘rosy-tainted’ and ‘sugared’, and sardonically bids Shakespeare ‘Go, woo thy muse’ and ‘more nymphish brood beget.’ Richard Barnfield similarly addresses Shakespeare as ‘thou, whose honey-flowing vein/(Pleasing the world) thy praises doth obtain’ (Poems in Divers Humours, 1598), while in the anonymous college comedy The Return from Parnassus (Part I, c.1599), a dim fop called Gullio resolves to ‘worship sweet Mr Shakespeare’ and to ‘have his picture in my study at the court’, though the hard-headed Judicio thinks Mr Shakespeare should move on from the ‘heart-robbing’ stuff to ‘a graver subject … without love’s foolish lazy languishment’. These writers are thinking primarily of Shakespeare the poet – of Venus, Lucrece and a handful of sonnets published without permission in 1599 – though Weever also mentions the characters Romeo and ‘Richard’ (possibly in the context Richard II rather than III). The shared view, Hadfield says, is of Shakespeare as a ‘talented crowd-pleaser … a skilful lightweight’ who has become the ‘fashionable darling of modern readers’. As often, the contemporary view is corrective. Shakespeare’s reputation, nowadays unassailable, is here still in flux, and in these preserved fragments of literary chatter we hear the question being asked: is he as good as he’s cracked up to be?


Shakespeare’s immersion in the literary world of London took him a long way from Stratford, but his roots remained deeply implanted there, and more practically it was where his wife, children and extended family lived. In Shakespeare’s Wife (2007), Germaine Greer presented Shakespeare as a bolter who callously abandoned his family for several years, and she offers much the same view, if more mutedly, in her essay on his daughter Judith: ‘At some point in her childhood [he] went away and ended up in London. Somehow Anne Shakespeare and her three children … survived.’ But it is one of the mantras of early modern research that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ and though we know almost nothing about his movements in the 1590s it is on the whole more likely that he did try to support his family, and that he did come back up to Stratford as often as he could, if not perhaps quite as often as he should. It was a distance of about a hundred miles, typically covered in three days on horseback. Stratford businessmen commuted back and forth quite casually, among them Richard Quiney, who in 1598 wrote to Shakespeare – his ‘loving good friend and countryman’ – requesting a loan of £30. This letter is the only item of Shakespeare’s correspondence still extant (a relic of sorts, though not one that spent much time in his hands, as it was later found among Quiney’s papers). Together with other related letters, it shows that Shakespeare – or ‘Mr Wm Shak’ as Quiney’s brother-in-law Abraham Sturley writes it – was well known in Stratford business circles. His connection or reconnection with Stratford is anyway evident by 1598, for in this year he completed his purchase of New Place, the handsome 12-gabled house on Chapel Street which announces his status as a local boy made good, and which becomes henceforth his family home, though one from which he will be frequently absent, billeted for months at a time in his lodgings in the city, living that double life to which writers naturally tend, halfway between two places, belonging to both and to neither. On the death of his father in September 1601 he inherited more property, including the house on Henley Street, which he gave over to the use of his sister Joan, wife of the hatter (and debtor) William Hart, and their family. The following year he invested £320 in purchasing land in Old Stratford (including the field where that ring later surfaced). Thus his earnings in the insubstantial world of the London theatres were prudently converted into bricks, mortar and productive acres of Warwickshire soil.

At the time of the Old Stratford purchase, May 1602, Shakespeare was in London and in his absence the transfer was handled by his brother Gilbert, to whom the deeds were ‘sealed and delivered’. Gilbert, a couple of years younger, sums up a sense of the life of parochial obscurity Shakespeare had escaped. He appears faintly in the Stratford records: there is a single signature witnessing a contract, written in a neat italic hand. It is possible he spent some time in London, where a ‘Gilbert Shackspere, haberdasher’ is mentioned in a suit at the Queen’s Bench in 1597, but the evidence is inconclusive. Gilbert died in Stratford in early 1612, at the age of 45. The burial entry describes him as ‘adolescens’, an odd phrasing that led early researchers to think this was an otherwise unknown son of his; but the word is used elsewhere in the register, and means only that he was a bachelor. The third brother, Richard, has left even less impression, just the entries of his baptism in March 1574 and his burial, at the age of 38, in February 1613, and between these termini a single appearance before the ecclesiastical court in 1608, on an unspecified charge for which he was fined a shilling.

Edmund, the youngest of the Shakespeare boys, was different. Born in early 1580, he was nearly 16 years Shakespeare’s junior, closer in age to his children. Sometime in his twenties he followed the trail of his big brother into the glamours and perils of the London playhouses. We find him there in three brief records dated 1607, all of them in extramural parishes where theatres were situated, and two of them describing him as a ‘player’:

St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, 12 July 1607: baptism of ‘Edward Shakesbye the sonne of Edward Shakesbye’.

St Giles, Cripplegate, 12 August 1607: burial of ‘Edward sonne of Edward Shackspeere player: base-borne’.

St Saviour’s, Southwark, 31 December 1607: burial of ‘Edmund Shakespeare, a player’.

These records tell, through a veil of approximate spellings, the desperate story of Edmund’s last months – the birth and death of his illegitimate son; and his own death, at the age of 27. The last entry bears the additional information that 20 shillings was paid for him to be buried ‘in the church’, as distinct from the churchyard, of St Saviour’s; and for a ‘forenoone knell of the great bell’ to mark his passing. It is assumed this payment was made by Shakespeare, well known in the neighbourhood for his connection with the Globe. He may also have ensured that the parish clerk got Edmund’s name right: a small act of recognition at the close of his brother’s brief and apparently squandered life.

This personal loss is somewhat counterbalanced by another event. On 5 June 1607, at Holy Trinity, Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna was married to John Hall, a 32-year-old physician. By the end of the summer a still happier outcome must have been apparent (‘she rounds apace’), for their daughter Elizabeth was born in February 1608, less than nine months after the wedding. Hall was from a Bedfordshire family of good standing and had studied at Cambridge. Over the years he built up an extensive practice in the Midlands (though he was not a member of the College of Physicians, and therefore not entitled to be addressed as Dr Hall, which he frequently is in books on Shakespeare). He comes down to us as a man of probity whom Shakespeare trusted and liked, despite his strong tinge of Puritanism. He has been claimed as a model for the wise and gentle physician Cerimon in Pericles, which was probably written in 1607. This is a moot point, but the figure of the daughter in the late plays reverberates in a way that is harder to ignore. In four plays written roughly between 1605 and 1609 Shakespeare circles repetitively round a redemptive narrative featuring a daughter – Cordelia, Marina, Imogen, Perdita – who is spurned or lost but eventually returns to heal a father whose life has in some way been broken apart:

O my dear father, restoration hang
Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms.

(King Lear, IV.vii)

It is often said that Susanna was Shakespeare’s favourite daughter, and that Judith – who signed her name with an awkward little mark like two pigtails, who was still a spinster at the age of 30 – was always second best. This is speculation, of course, though one seems to discern in Susanna a certain spark of strength and intelligence. The epitaph on her gravestone in Holy Trinity describes her as ‘witty above her sex’ and ‘wise to salvation’, adding that the wit was inherited from her father (‘something of Shakespeare was in that’) and the wisdom from her husband. Her writing hand is graceful and Mackinnon thinks she was educated enough to have written the Latin epitaph of her mother (which begins ‘Mother you gave me the breast, you gave me milk and life’), and perhaps also those of her husband and her son-in-law Thomas Nash. A year before her wedding her name appeared in a list of Stratfordians charged with not taking communion on Easter Sunday: a suspicion of Catholic sympathies which may have led to tensions with her Puritan husband. In 1613 a haberdasher called John Lane alleged that she had ‘bin naught with Rafe Smith’ and had contracted ‘the runinge of the raynes’ (i.e. gonorrhea); she sued him for slander and won the case. Hall’s own medical case-books – a digest of which was published in 1657 by a Warwick surgeon, James Cooke – offer more reliable revelations, though ones she might also have preferred to keep private:

Mrs Hall of Stratford, my wife, being miserably tormented with the cholick, was cured as followeth [he lists in Latin some emetic concoctions] … This injected [i.e. as an enema] gave her two stools, yet the pain continued, being but little mitigated. Therefore I appointed to inject a pint of sack made hot. This presently brought forth a great deal of wind and freed her from all pain.

[My] wife … was troubled with the scurvy, accompanied with pain of the loins, corruption of the gums, stinking breath, melancholy, wind, cardiac passion [i.e. fainting fits], laziness, difficulty of breathing, fear of the mother [i.e. hysteria], binding of the belly and torment there, and all of a long continuance with restlessness and weakness.

When Shakespeare drafted his will in January 1616 he left the bulk of his substantial estate to Susanna and her husband, and when he revised it a couple of months later he added a complex entail that increased their inheritance at the expense of Judith’s. This is the chief source for the idea that Susanna was the better loved of the daughters, though the preference being expressed is more probably to do with his sons-in-law and their suitability as custodians of the family coffers. On 10 February 1616, in the interim between the two versions of the will, Judith married; her husband was Thomas Quiney, the son of Shakespeare’s erstwhile correspondent Richard Quiney. Her spouse brought immediate embarrassment to the family when it was revealed that a local woman, Margaret Wheeler, was pregnant with his child. The situation worsened when both she and the baby died in childbirth: they were buried at Holy Trinity on 15 March. Quiney was hauled before the Vicars’ Court and sentenced to stand penitently before the congregation in a white sheet on three consecutive Sundays – the sentence was commuted, but it was hardly an auspicious beginning. The provisions of Shakespeare’s amended will of 25 March were chiefly concerned with blocking the feckless Quiney from any share of the inheritance, though this inevitably involved disappointment for Judith as well.

The will – that last, unsettling text, dictated to his attorney Francis Collins – exerts its fascination. It is almost a relic: three pages, each signed at the bottom; the hand increasingly feeble; the last page also including the only words incontestably written in his hand – ‘by me’. (The case for ‘Hand D’ in the multi-authored playscript of Sir Thomas More being Shakespeare’s is strong but not absolutely certain.) Much attention has been lavished on the notorious clause squeezed interlinearly into the third page of the will: ‘Unto my wife I give my second best bed with the furniture.’ As Katherine Scheil says in her essay on Anne, these 12 words have been the subject of almost as much ‘extended conjecture’ as the knottiest crux of his poetry. The bequest is widely regarded as a display of marital hostility, both because of its brusque reference to ‘my wife’ – unnamed, and without any formulaic adjective of affection such as ‘well-beloved’ – and because of the pointedly inferior quality of the legacy. Speaking recently on Radio 4’s Start the Week, Jeanette Winterson described it as ‘vicious, vituperative and bitter’. Scheil remains calmer. The pages of the will, she observes, are ‘in different stages of finality’, so it is hard to know whether the bequest is a tardy addition phrased by Shakespeare, or a corrective insertion of a clause the clerk had missed out by mistake. She questions the competence of Collins, who is ‘known for producing imperfect and uncorrected wills’, and wonders if a ‘multi-spectral analysis’ of the document might ‘reveal more details about the dating of the interlineations’. This all sounds a bit finicky, but is much more useful than indignant accusations of domestic malevolence. The absence of further provisions for Anne is not an issue: by common law she was entitled to the ‘widow’s dower’ – a life interest in one third of her husband’s estate – and to continued residence in his dwelling place. The Halls were entitled to the best bed, being the inheritors of New Place and all its ‘appurtenances’. Elsewhere in the volume, in an essay on Shakespeare’s Stratford friends the Combes, Stanley Wells draws attention to the will of Thomas Combe, made in December 1608. Combe bequeathed various pieces of furniture to his wife, ‘except the best bedstead which I will, give and bequeath unto my said son William … to have to his own use’. Presumably the grieving widow was left with the ‘second-best’ bed, but in this case – as Wells points out – the bequest seems to have been made ‘entirely without acrimony’.