The Edmund Shakespeare Blog
Just finished Charles Nicholl’s excellent The Lodger, which came into the frame as appropriate scholarship, when trying to get a project on Edmund Shakespeare off the ground. That moved from a novel, to a TV proposal, to months at the Metropolitan Archive, trying to be honourable to the actual evidence, or lack of it. Last weekend I also found a little second-hand yellow bound edition of the 1949 Shakespeare biography, by Ivor Brown, in the wonderful Stoke Abbot book barn in Dorset, at their annual village fair. Brown’s highly articulate and extremely passionate take is dedicated to ‘The Players’, and takes just the route I wanted to, which is straight through a theatre door. It’s approach and language could not be more different to Nicholls’ finely written and very measured story of the Bellot-Mountjoy case, and the evidence of Shakespeare lodging on London’s Silver Street, mixing with the likes of the French immigrant wig making family, and also the tavern-brothel owner George Wilkins, who is the best candidate for the co-authorship of Pericles. Low company indeed.
First though to upbraid a modern ‘player’, Charles Dance, who was extremely nice when I collared him in the Chelsea Arts Club, over a sneaky cigarette in the garden, and asked him to take a look at a two page treatment on Shakespeare’s Brother. Little did he know I had had to suffer repeated nights of watching his striding Coriolanus, when I was working front of House at the RSC, years back. He can have no had idea of my only professional ‘acting’ performace, for one night, as the bear in the Winter’s Tale, at Regents Park Open Air Theatre. I borrowed Joe Regal’s costume. After Anonymous had come out though, he could hardly suspect my already dreaming fantasy, being a fantasy author, of today’s finest players rising up in fiery indignation to defend the ‘cause’ of Elizabethan actors, scumbags to heroes, and tell Edmund Shakespeare’s lost story in Southwark. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers!” Dream on, though my cry these last four years has been about being ‘allowed’ to write, and earn, especially under contract. But, while warning that he would be brutally honest, Charles Dance at least gave his word that he would get back to me, and never did! Words, words, words. Perhaps he loathed it, or it was Molly Parkin, or he was right about my “living in cloud cuckoo land” if I thought the giants of stage, TV and Film had more time than for two pages. At least the folk at Sky Arts thought it not that bad. But since I think a director like Stephen Spielberg has all the storytelling magic, yet necessary respect for historical accuracy too, to tell such a Southwark Tale, perhaps borrowing Roland Emmerich’s set, not to mention the Hollywood clout, he is very welcome to pick up a phone instead and call Phoenix Ark Press. “Mr Davies, I have Mr Spielberg on the phone, we have to have this Edmund Shakespeare story thing, the world is crying out to know!” Both the TV treatment and the nascent novel though, as part of an overall project on Edmund Shakespeare here, with the non-fiction work above too, will be blogged as well.
The Lodger is fascinating, if strangely slight in the end, like so much world building around Shakespeare, although it’s interesting that Nicholl’s creative juices really start to flow when he talks of the steamer side of London, from the fortress brothel, Holland’s Leaguer, in Southwark, to the dirty weekend goings on in Brentford. But then the mystery and drive of sex are always in question in sensing how Shakespeare lived and “conceived it so”, as are all the murderous arguments of the Reformation. That was what my story of lost Edmund was largely about though, living in and surviving often foul London, and the madness, jealousy and misery of art. I still think Stoppard in Shakespeare in Love got some spirit very right, and he should know more than most. Charles Nicholls particularly highlights the period from around 1604 to 1607 as Shakespeare’s time on Silver Street, and Measure for Measure and Pericles as part of a sea change in his work. He also suggests the influence and effect his relationship with the dispossessed daughter Marie Mountjoy may have had on the plays. From Pericles to Lear, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, so many of Shakespeare’s major characters in the later plays are about father-daughter relationships, and London and Southwark was a place where very good advice might be to ‘lock up your daughters.’. But if such biographical links can be made, or are purely suggestive to the creative psyche of such a writer, another fact that must surely have resonated very loudly indeed through William Shakespeare’s life at the time was the death of his youngest, player brother, Edmund, in 1607. Edmund’s own infant son had died, four months earlier, and was marked down as ‘base born’. That means that the unmarried mother, living in the poor environs of Morefields, was about to give birth, at a supposedly very happy time for elder and now succesful William, the marriage of his own daughter Susanna to John Hall, that same year. With the Great Frost that seized up the Thames in December, and saw London watermen cutting channels in the ice, as they do in Coriolanus, with a marriage and a filial death too, 1607/8 was also quite a shattering year then.
Off the top of my head, I think it was the unreliable John Aubrey who first suggested Shakespeare spent something like ten years living in Southwark, after he moved from the Bishop’s Gate. His recorded time on wealthier Silver Street, north and inside London Wall, suggests he was more in transit. It is a pet theory here that his move from Southwark, by current evidence in that monumental year of 1603, that saw a Queen’s death and the return of plague, also had something to do with the political rise of long time resident in Southwark, Philippe Henslowe. I think not enough has been made of the Henslowe rivalry, Will Kempe split, the building of the Globe, the decline of the Rose, two hundred yards away, and the political rivalries at court, with Henslowe as Master of the Game and a Groom of the Chamber, like Shakespeare, the man who would build The Hope, as he northern Fortune declined, but die in the same year as Shakespeare, 1616. These were showmen, in sometimes literally violent competition. Shakespeare in Love gets that rivalry between the Admiral’s and King’s Men, or His Majestie’s Servants.
But there is also Henslowe’s local establishment role, along with Edward Alleyn, as part of The Great Enqueste, under James I. It is recorded in the St Saviour’s Church Token Books too. In Southwark that brought into the frame the fascinating question of the troubled administration of St Saviour’s, now Southwark Cathedral, where Henslowe and then Alleyn became Wardens, and the complaints about the merry behaviour of the 80 stong Vestrymen there. Being a warden meant you oversaw wills, deeds and property transfers in the area though, and we know much of Henslowe’s numerous business interests there from his famous account books. With the death of the Queen and a new royal administration, every office was thrown into question, and in controversial Southwark, the hopeful stomping ground of the expanding City of London too, just around then William Shakespeare, triumphant at the Globe and elsewhere, seems to move out of the area, to Silver Street. In many ways he seems to be a man often trying to get away from it all.
But Henslowe’s fingers in Southwark pies was also dabbling in the administration of poor relief in the area, and the running of local charitable institutions like Cure’s College. It is in an accounts book in the Cure’s College papers, again without the notes and off the top of my head, that I found a note of a payment of 20 Shillings for “Mr Jonson’s Booke”. I do not know if others have found that, and have not jet checked it against Henslowe’s hand writing, but it suggests to me a play by Ben Jonson, and that Church admin, local arms colleges, taverns, brothels and theatres, could be a very off the cuff and interconnected affair.
As for his unknown brother Edmund, completely absent in any playlists, yet marked down as a player too, and dying at only 27 in Southwark in 1607, how can you tell his story? There is a great deal to be said about brothers in Shakespeare’s plays, especially Lear and As You Like It, though nothing that proves anything absolutely. If the controversies rage over the sparse records around William, although far more considerable circumstantial evidence, which The Lodger finely adds to, Edmund’s really would be the ‘Biography of an Unrecorded Life’, as I first tagged Shakespeare’s Brother. As all biography contains ‘fiction’, perhaps putting scholarship right beside creative narrative will be helpful, although it also shows how quickly knowledge of the plays start to change the vision, and get into the work. But there are only six records of Edmund Shakespeare’s existence, one is questionable, and two repeat. We really only know of a birth and a death then, and that he was, although not how successfully, supportively or jealously, a player. So much about him suggests something we are unused to in reading about the mythic William Shakespeare though, a World mythos that he and his work achieved only later, despite any contemporary phenomenon, as Ackroyd claims, and that is a Shakespeare as failure. That is the thrill of the historical detective story too though, which helps recapture the whole extraordinary story of writers and actors in Southwark, indeed ordinary London life, over four hundred years ago.
Phoenix Ark Press
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