It was the US academic, and very nice guy, even if he would not help with an agent, who said that any work on Edmund Shakespeare was a ‘good idea’. So it was gloomy to take it to Faber and Faber and discover James Shapiro is doing another book on the year 1608 there, after his very valuable and enjoyable 1599. Sorry to correct editors though, but there is a great deal that was and is completely new in writing about Edmund Shakespeare and Southwark, in Shakespeare’s Brother.
Firstly is the precise discovery of where Edmund was living in Southwark and probably died in 1607, The Vine, who owned it and what it was. It was based on initial information in a lecture by Berkeley Professor Alan Nelson on the Token Books at Southwark Cathedral, but then original research into deeds and the ownership of The Vine by the Hunt family. That family also played a part with a fascinating local Catholic fraternity called The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption, linked to the leatherworking Guild that played a large role at the all important church of St Mary Ovaries, later St Saviours, now Southwark Cathedral, where Edmund Shakespeare is buried.
There are jewels of information in those Token Books, that read like an Elizabethan Address Book, as there are in birth and death records, new to the Reformation, proving how long Philip Henslowe, who became a warden, lived in Southwark, precisely where, and the residence there of his son in law Edward Alleyn and his family. There are a great many things about other players living in Southwark at the time too. But following the trail of that Brotherhood of Our Lady there are also unknown facts, as far as we are aware, about ‘pleyers’ in the district and at the Church of St Margarets, that was thrown down during the Reformation, well over a hundred years before Shakespeare’s troupe, especially performing on St Margaret’s and St Lucy’s days. But in that Reformation earthquake also specific evidence of how The Bishops of Winchester were running and licencing brothels, and how so much of the history of Bankside was about the tavern and then coming brewing industry, and the battle for money and wealth in the great capital.
Much of the writing on Shakespeare nowadays comes from the US, perhaps because of the forming of a consciousness at a particular time, or a US need for roots, especially in Southwark, with the likes of John Harvard being born there (if he was). Also because of those religious echoes that still sound so loudly in America. But much as American academics can be very brilliant, and well funded, there seems also the danger of American literalism in work on Shakespeare that does miss some point about the mysterious well springs of language and inspiration itself. Read the story with us, as it happens, and perhaps James Shapiro can tell if it is of further importance or value.
Phoenix Ark Press