Charles Nicholl

  • BuyThe 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?

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