“All cough in ink, all think what other people think,” Yeats
It is not the acceptance of the absolutes of ‘worthy’ scholarship or ‘establishment’ theory, even if Prince Charles did put his face on the Shakespeare Birthplace website in reply to Anonymous, upholding the very merry Shakespeare industry and RSC land, that makes an ‘attack’ on the Oxford authorship theory for Will Shakespeare important, but because it is an irritating sideshow. In fact, the supposed authority of the scholars on a Stratford Shakespeare can be just as irritating, since documentary evidence is so thin, and truths lost to the veils of time. Half of the reason for scholarly tentativeness seems to be you might get your head bitten off, but in terms of the supposed authority of established truth, of course Shakespeare has been reinvented and rediscovered for four hundred years. As history is a dialogue between past and present. So he has been co-opted as protestant path finder, a staunch monarchist, pure revolutionary, the voice of Brit propaganda, or simply the God of the word.
Perhaps that’s why it is important to resist received authority too, especially when setting out to make discoveries. When trying to present ideas on Edmund Shakespeare to one major publisher, and also bringing up the three signatures in the Catholic English college in Rome, the only comment was ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ Because the Reformation itself still carries such deep echoes. But if a person’s ‘faith’ or lack of it can be a private and intimate thing, or should be, there is much evidence for Shakespeare’s involvement with prominent Catholics, as a society mutated from ‘Catholic’ to ‘Protestant’. So the ‘truth’ carries deep felt echoes and controversies, but is also defended so hotly because there is gold in them there hills. Though it is circumstantial, the residence in his last days of Edmund Shakespeare, Will’s youngest brother, living at The Vine in Southwark, ties into the London Hunt family’s involvement, under Henry VI, and the likes of Peter Averne, with the very Catholic Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption in Southwark. Perhaps the overriding point though is that Southwark itself is such a fascinating area and an absolute fault line for London politics and the Reformation too. It does irritate too, much as facts are a guide, when the new voice of American literalism swings onto the scene, if it loses Peter Ackroyd’s sense of the intrinsic mysteries of identity, creativity but above all a shifting English language.
St Margeret’s Church, where the Brotherhood began, was thrown down by Henry VIII and turned into a prison, and its parishoner’s transferred to the large St Saviours, previously St Mary’s Ovaries, now Southwark Cathedral. But at that Cathedral, five minutes walk away, there Becket had preached, there too Bloody Mary staged heresy trials against Protestants, and nearby at St Thomas’ ‘hospital’ they produced the first English language bible, in the form of the Vulgate. It lay on the Canterbury Road, real and metaphorical, running down towards the continent. It was filled with Protestant Dutch, many involved in the tavern-brewing business that swallowed up the district, but also notable for many years for Catholic dissenters, especially under the Jacobites. The Bishops of Winchester there were at the heart of Henry’s divorce and ensuing Reformation battles, but also excerised their power and protection in the liberties, until the Puritans and the Civil War closed them down in London, and the theatres too. So exactly the place, with it taverns, brothels and theatres, used but complained about by the City of London across the water, or local ‘respectable’ folk, to encourage the stews of free thought and creativity. A place to be wary of too. Evidence suggests Will did not live there all the time, in that ‘Domus et Aliorum’, also living in St Helen’s, at the Bishop’s Gate, Silver Street or Stratford, but he may have lived and worked there for ten years and more, and the place has been underestimated in its significance. Go back to the source, though the ‘source’ of Shakespeare’s mind and art is another thing, the different ‘countries’ he journeyed to, as is what we are really talking about when we talk of his ‘identity’. It was Bulgakov who wrote the life of Mr Moliere, Shakespeare’s only comparative rival in Paris, but doubting the easy validity of documentary biography, believed an artist had to inhabit an artist to get close. To do that with a mind like Shakespeare’s, through the currents of his time, can be a slightly dangerous exercise and you might do better just to enjoy the work!
Arguments can be followed in Shakespeare’s Brother, posted experimentally above.