Perhaps, in the dark arts of blogging, I should start telling the ‘story’ of Edmund Shakespeare in London and Southwark in terms of Fifty Shades of Grey! The dark arts of blogging being linking subjects outrageously to well known ones, and surprising readers with new discoveries. Except that we do not really know his story. We know, according to the Stratford register, that Shakespeare’s Brother was born in 1580, 16 years William’s junior. We know from a Christening register that he became a player and that he died in the freezing winter of 1607/08 and was buried “with a forenoon toll of the great bell” at a cost of twenty shillings, inside St Saviour’s Church, Southwark, now Southwark Cathedral. The date was December 31st, not technically a New Year’s eve, because the year 1607 stretched to May of 1608 and Lady Day. Edmund Shakespeare was only 27, and just four months earlier he had buried his infant son, who was marked down in the register as ‘base born‘. That very same year, 1607, William Shakespeare’s favourite daughter Susanna was married to John Hall. Was William, now the successful playwright and Globe sharer, the person who paid for that burial? It is just possible someone like Phillip Henslowe paid, or someone unknown. Edmund’s story though speaks of something we never associate with Shakespeare himself, failure and tragedy.

The mother of Edmund’s dead son we do not know the name of. She does not seem, from the records, to have died in childbirth. There is no evidence, as was put up on Wikipedia, that Edmund Shakespeare met her around 1600, but they were not married. However, as Germaine Greer said, picking up the arguments about life and death, marriage and sex during the period, half the men and women in Stratford and across England went up the aisle pregnant, and at least Edmund ‘owned’ his bastard son, by having him christened. Perhaps he and the mother had been together some time then. It seems they were living in a poor district though, Morefields, Edmund perhaps playing not with his brother at The Globe, but at The Fortune, in Phillip Henslowe’s company, but this is pure speculation.

If Peter Ackroyd says that Edmund, and William’s brothers Richard and Gilbert, his sister Joan too, constitute ‘the forgotten family of the playwright‘, then the proving of that family record is also the proving of the entire William Shakespeare Stratford story. William Shakespeare, by John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, had two other sisters, who died in infancy, in those big Elizabethan families, and were buried in the grounds of the Stratford church. Perhaps those sisters deaths played a role in forming his attitude to women. I started this project as fiction, the process of imagining around the tiniest details, and it made a youngest brother very significant to William Shakespeare’s life. Not least because one of the only Edmunds to appear in the plays is that ruthless yet vigorous Edmund of King Lear – “Why bastard, wherefore base?“. That ‘now God stand up for Bastards” sceptic and cynic, in revolt against ‘”the plague of custom“, the airy nothings of astrology, or the providences in a fall of a sparrow, but who is at least given the tiniest room for growth and redemption. Lear was written before 1607, before any ‘base born’ son arrived to William’s real brother Edmund, but it certainly seems that the years 1607-1608 marked a dramatic sea change in the writer’s life. Perhaps that is the theme of James Shapiro’s coming book. The Queen was dead, their father John was dead, then mother, Mary Arden, several player friends and now Edmund Shakespeare too. The strange romances begin, part collaborations, like Pericles, but most especially The Winter’s Tale, so much about the ‘magic’ of trying to restore the world, or heal the past.

But my fiction, and imagining of Edmund, was as much about the danger, hardness and potential tragedy of London life, if you did not make it. Of a world facing problems of poverty, crime, violence and disease, like the Black Death, that struck again in 1603, the same year Queen Elizabeth died. In terms of Fifty Shades of Grey though there is also the question of the ‘stews’ in Southwark, Shoreditch and right across London, or tavern brothels. Both Germaine Greer and John Constable, mentioned below, have talked about the fact that those Stews were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester, whose palace, Winchester House, stood in the Liberty of Southwark, five minutes walk from The Rose, Swan and Globe Theatres. As Bishops in Rome licensed brothels. It might be seen as the hypocrisy of a whole society, or the special sin of the Church, like a bad policeman, but the fact of those taverns, brothels and theatres, also became a sounding board for puritan opposition to the theatres, spreading their ‘foul miasmas’ and even more upsetting freedoms. By the time of the civil war, when theatres were banned across London, it as as if Southwark is especially marked out as the London bad Land, though the area would become far worse into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for crime, prostitution and poverty. Then London was growing very fast indeed.

But in exploring Edmund Shakespeare’s story and Southwark’s, especially around the already mentioned St Margaret’s Church and the group of wardens involved with The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption, the descendent of John Le Hunte coming to own The Vine where Edmund was staying in 1607, I have found direct evidence too of money going up to The Bishop of Winchester. One document specifically relates to a tavern the Brotherhood were running called The Haxe, or Axe. There is reference to a Flemish woman too, and if Amsterdam is still the city of sin, Flemish and Dutch immigrants were associated with the brothels and stews, or according to zenophobic English commentatators. If whoever was the authority though was also supposed to regulate or protect, the Bishop’s hired men were supposed to inspect those establishments, and there are ancient laws about women not being kept against their will. Some of the facts about the Church or State ‘running’ brothels is actually just the facts of rents and land ownership and by the time Ralph Thrale came to own the land that became the Anchor Brewery, along ‘Park Street’, formerly Maid Lane, it had been owned by a Mrs Bilson. Thomas Bilson was the Bishop of Winchester under Elizabeth, into James’s reign, and oversaw the publication of the King James Bible.

To add a touch of S&M though, that everyone seems interested in suddenly, go to a fine old pub called The Boot and Flogger in Southwark today! Right opposite is a gate to a Carpark where Crossbones Graveyard lies. That is at the centre of work John Constable is doing. It became the biggest unmarked graveyard in London, for those dying in poverty, especially out of the traffic of ‘single women’. “The Winchester Geese” prostitutes there were also called in Shakespeare’s day and the plays contain warnings about them and the potential prick of disease. But though Shakespeare was the opposite of the puritan, if Greer is right about him also being the poet of marriage, and of course people change and go on different journeys, what did he experience in Southwark and what was his attitude to it all? Differing and varied perhaps, yet near contemporaries describe him as not being ‘debauched’, keeping away from the everday antics of George Wilkins, a brothel owner and playwright who probably collaborated on Pericles and who was cited in court for kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach and stamping on another, though Shakespeare kept high and low company. Perhaps his youngest brother Edmund fell foul of London precisely because he did not enjoy his elder brother’s success. Pericles interestingly is all about a lost daughter, kidnapped by pirates, who ends up in a brothel, but protects her virtue and maiden head by serving finer ladies.

As arguments with William Ray and others about the Earl of Oxford show, there is a deal of speculation built around the delicate recorded facts of Shakespeare’s world, but one essential element is a missing player in Southwark, the lost Shakespeare, whose short and perhaps very sad London life sets up echoes everywhere.



Phoenix Ark Press

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