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.
The first inkling that Shakespeare's family was Catholic appeared in 1757, when some Stratford workmen, repairing his Henley Street birthplace, stumbled on a handwritten English testament to the old faith, hidden in the eaves. The document was attacked as spurious until Edmond Malone, the great Shakespeare scholar of that period, pronounced it authentic. Wood reports another, more recent (1964) clue to the family's recusancy: the discovery of church records of Stratford recusants who failed to attend Protestant Easter services in May 1606. The list bears the name "Susanna Shakespeere," William's daughter. The date, 10 years before her father's death, leads Wood to call it "one coincidence too many. This looks very much like family loyalty."
Was Shakespeare a recusant? Certainly not in the public eye. Several factors may have saved him from papist-hunters: the amount of time he spent in the London theater, his position as a shareholder at the Globe and the lack of any evidence of churchgoing. In the 1590s, he gained a powerful patron in the young Earl of Southampton, whose mother was Catholic and harbored a fugitive priest in her house in Holborn.
Shakespeare's rise to fame began after England's triumph over the Spanish Armada, with his patriotic play "Henry VI." It was hailed as a smash hit by poet Thomas Nashe, whose review sheds light on the box office receipts. Invoking "brave Talbot (the terror of the French)
Shakespeare's biography as we have known it has also been altered by three important discoveries about Elizabethan poet Robert Southwell, who had decided to become a Jesuit at age 14. The Southwells, a distinguished family, antedated Henry VIII, and Southwell's mother, as a child at court, was a playmate of the king's daughter, Elizabeth, the queen-to-be. Southwell, auburn-haired and good-looking, was known for his breeding and elegant manners. After deciding to become a Jesuit, he went abroad and eventually to the Jesuit College in Rome before returning to England as an outlaw in 1586. Wood reveals that Southwell was related to the Earl of Southampton; the revelation that Southwell had also become the confessor and spiritual advisor of the 18-year-old earl just when he became Shakespeare's patron comes from an unexpected source, the prison records of Richard Topcliffe, a brutal torturer of recusants whom Southwell's Jesuit companion Henry Garnet described as homo sordidissimus ("a superlatively bad man"), relentless in his pursuit of Jesuits, whose capture meant disembowelment at Tyburn as traitors.