Since his death four centuries ago, there have been few important discoveries about William Shakespeare, the genius that Samuel Johnson called quite simply "our poet." Yet this year several revelations have appeared, and they are major. An English historian has thrown new light on our poet's long-hidden life, and two American scholars have hit on a convincing -- at last! -- explanation of his great and baffling poem, "The Phoenix and Turtle." Shakespeare buffs and readers everywhere, after hundreds of years, are given fresh insights into his family and his work. The discoverers have received little or no attention in America, and they deserve our thanks.
A BBC television series, "In Search of Shakespeare," is the source of the family discoveries. It was researched and written by historian and filmmaker Michael Wood, who, since leaving Oriel College, Oxford, has created many TV documentaries, including the highly praised "Conquistadors," and published several well-received books, including "Domesday" and "In Search of England." To accompany the TV series, the BBC published an impressive, admirably detailed book by Wood, which appears here under the imprint of Basic Books in the same large, handsome format.
The most important news concerns the "secret" life of John Shakespeare, our poet's father, who was long regarded as either a jolly farmer or an uneducated butcher. Wood establishes that in 1564, when William was born, John was a well-to-do citizen of Stratford -- the town bailiff (equal to mayor), as well as a glove maker, wool dealer, real estate investor and moneylender. A contemporary Stratford document lists John as a "gentleman," but by the late 1570s he was in deep financial and local trouble, owing to the family's Catholicism. He was no longer dealing in the town's affairs and had stopped attending church, ostensibly to avoid arrest for his debts. John was a recusant: He had refused to give up his religion or to fake it by attending Protestant services at least once a year, as required by Queen Elizabeth's new law. When he was bailiff, John had been ordered to whitewash the church murals of ancient saints and symbols, and when he did nothing about it for a year, his troubles began. His wife, the former Mary Arden, was also a recusant; so were her well-born relatives, including Edward Arden, head of the family, whose estate, Park Hall, was a "safe house" for recalcitrant Catholics.