An editor at the FT suggested the story of Shakespeare’s youngest brother Edmund might be ‘flogging a dead horse’. With only six records of his life, over four hundred years ago, who exactly are you searching for anyway, and does it matter? It perhaps matters most in building up a record and portrait of Southwark and London at the time, especially with many players living in the area. But apart from a birth record, and the assumption that Edmund would have shared many of the peripheral experiences William did, back in Stratford, then a death at only 27, with an infant son dying 4 months earlier, as Susanna was being married in Stratford, there is nothing else. A potential biography of ‘an unrecorded life’ indeed! There is a rather weak and unconvincing portrait that is supposed to be Edmund Shakespeare, but how else might you look for Shakespeare’s Brother?

One answer might be the plays, and two images that conjure how brothers and especially youngest brother’s were moving inside the poet and playwright’s psyche. There is that Edmund of King Lear, who rails against the ‘monster custom’, scorns astrology, and branded a bastard, like real Edmund’s ‘base born’ son, engages in the ambitions and cruelties of Lear’s eldest daughters. Edmund of Lear is much the ‘new man’ of an increasingly competitive London world and the striving ambitions of the City of London. But there is almost the diametrical opposite to that character, a youngest son, and that is Orlando, of As You Like It. Although ostensibly set in France, there is so much in the play that speaks of Shakespeare’s attitude to nature, and, of course, with those forests of Arden echoing a Shakespeare family name, of Shakespeare’s movement between country and city, court and commoner.

It is very interesting how Orlando is the hero, in relation to his disposessing elder brothers, and maintains some intrinsic spirit as ‘old Sir Roland’s son’, which is almost about a vision the poet has of full manhood. Well built, muscular, brave, he also has the poet’s heart, and gets perhaps the finest girl in all of Shakespeare, Rosalind. Sensing something about the real Edmund Shakespeare then, and his eldest’s brother’s journey too, perhaps it speaks very loudly of the playwright’s own guilt, and responsive idealization of his youngest brother, whose journey in dangerous London was one that seems to have ended in a kind of tragedy. Although tragedy, like comedy, is the stuff of theatre and drama and maybe Edmund’s life was not so bound up with his brother’s. Yet it is very likely that the by then 40-year-old playwright paid that ’20 shillings’, to bury his brother Edmund in St Saviour’s Church, with an honouring ‘forenoon toll of the great bell.” But what is so fascinating about the research is that it begins to build up a gritty portrait of many London lives, and beyond that, in his mirrors up to nature, it is Shakespeare above all who provides ways of evoking what potentially moves inside us all.

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