The Edmund Shakespeare Blog

William Ray described Alan Nelson as a somewhat rude Shakespeare critic, or words to that effect. That impression also emerged in a spat that took place between him and Katherine Duncan Jones on the Net, or his Socrates site. I first contacted the Berkeley University theatre historian about a novel I had started on Edmund Shakespeare, when a teacher in a Clapham pub told me about the tomb stone in the centre of Southwark Cathedral. It must be said, a late eighteenth or early nineteenth century addition to the sculptured dead there. Professor Nelson was working on listing the names in the Southwark Cathedral Token Books with a colleague, Professor Ingram, and certainly deserves the credit for naming the place Edmund Shakespeare turns up in Southwark, The Vine, at a little lecture to his students at The Globe Theatre. I hope I would have eventually uncovered it alone, but along with the difficulty of deciphering names and Elizabethan writing, you have to let a period into your blood, before you wake up to who and what, and interesting connections, that can suddenly vanish again, like wood smoke.

I was rather less impressed with a desire to ‘protect moral copyright’ in that work, since Edmund’s presence in the Token Books was already up on the net, and there is no copyright, moral or otherwise, in fact. To be fair, Alan Nelson quickly announced that at a first talk to the friends of Southwark Cathedral and how the name just might have been a forgery of John Payne Collier’s. He does not think so, though I am less certain about the name attached to The Vine, than Edmund’s certain burial record in Southwark Cathedral in 1607. I was also less impressed when I invited him to lunch in London, to discuss the whole subject, even perhaps seeking support from Berkley University, but never even got an answer.

As James Shapiro, doing 1608 for Faber and Faber, was not exactly hugely supportive of an Edmund Shakespeare project, although he said it was important. Well, our American cousins are as capable of being as protective of ‘new’ information about Shakespeare as anyone, not least because of waspish voices everywhere, in an increasingly competitive publishing world, and that there is gold in them there Shakespeare hills, or academic kudos. Except here, because frustration means we are giving work done for free! I hope it is of interest and value.

I also hope the scholars can be a little more open to work from those who are not the supposed ‘authorities’. I think writers’ and players’ instincts are very real authorities, but you must also have respect for what is actually said in the records. Alan Nelson made that point about the record of Will Kemp’s death, and the relaying of mistakes into the ‘mainstream’, picked up as ‘truth’. Go back to the source then, but do not get too fustion either about the nature of historical imagination and insight needed, nor the certain reliability of records or indeed scholarship. Much American interest in Southwark now, with Sam Wanamaker’s Globe, does seem to come straight out of the American search for its own roots, from an age of New World Discoveries, but I for one am rather dubious about the supposed name of John Harvard highlighted by an arrow in the Southwark burial records. Perhaps I am going blind!

As I have said though, I think the direct link of The Vine, in a group of Southwark buildings in the Token Books called Hunt’s Rents, to John Le Hunte, and The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption, is a new and extremely important window into the vitally under studied area. As far as I know, no one else has revealed that but a scholar will have to tell me if I am wrong. Following the records of St Margaret’s Church there, which became one of the Compter Prisons, it is wonderful to find records of ‘pleyers‘ in the church, a hundred and fifty years before the new permanent Theatres. It ties that playing tradition to everyday and church life, to the great festivals and to the mystery plays, that were effectively banned under the Reformation. So theatre became essentially secular and political, in an intense and dangerous London environment. But as Ackroyd says, a Roman gladiator’s trident has been found in Southwark, and there was a very long tradition of ‘entertainments’ there.

So the dirge being sung for Henry VIII, at his death, by priests in St Saviours, now the Cathedral, was interrupted by the rowdy sound of players in the Southwark streets. Ah, time and history stop for no man, as was written over London Bridge. That band of ‘low life’ scum that William Ray tries to refer to then, or a great tradition of player troupes in England, that Shakespeare joined and fed from, however much he and Hamlet may have redirected the vision of theatre, or not, as the case may be. But it is of course Hamlet, and Hamlet’s reaction to the players’, with their vital reports, their window into truth, the play being the thing to catch the conscience of the king, and everyone else, that is one of the most obvious signs of Will Shakespeare’s living engagement with the playhouses. As that ‘magestical roof, fretted with golden fire’, gives a new resonance to an actor’s consciousness, standing physically on stage, referring to the props and artifice of the wooden O. The echo chambers to his art and his metaphysics. But it works throughout the plays, as Shakespeare engages in a dialogue about his own art, and what is truth and what show. What ‘History’ is too.

If you try and read my handwriting, in my large notebook, out of six months work at the London Metropolitan Archive, you might think mine an example of sloppy, mispelt Elizabethan writing, before spelling codified, like so much else! I have not got that with me, but it will come out in time. The picture you can begin to build up of Southwark, what was there, who living there, and how that assists Shakespeare scholarship, is one that should be shared, and shared by people on each other’s ‘side’, not trying to be the harbingers of the only truth around. Shakespeare scholarship does stand on the cusp of recorded ‘history’, perhaps a new consciousness of English or British history, suddenly being dramatised so powerfully by Shakespeare, not least because it was the beginning of parish records themselves.


Phoenix Ark Press

1 Comment

Filed under America and the UK, Education, Language, London


  1. I wish to correct the description conveyed as mine in the above essay. I never said Alan Nelson was “somewhat rude”. I said “Alan Nelson nullified years of research writing a bilious and biased study of Oxford, ‘Monstrous Adversary’, which is not quoted or taken seriously by any scholar, Stratfordian or Oxfordian. That is how shameful the book is.” Similarly, my comment about actors (players) being considered “low-lifes” was in the context of explaining his aristocratic peers’ condemnations upon Oxford for associating with them. The Queen’s Chief Secretary Lord Burghley (Oxford’s father-in-law) referred to Oxford’s associates in writing and theater as his “lewd friends”. Oxford, speaking in the voice of Hamlet, did not agree with Burghley but said in reply, “The players…are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time: after your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.” Hamlet to Polonius (the fictional Burghley). Hamlet gave that ill report of Burghley and it will stick until the language vanishes.

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