Tag Archives: James Shapiro


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.


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It was the US academic, and very nice guy, even if he would not help with an agent, who said that any work on Edmund Shakespeare was a ‘good idea’. So it was gloomy to take it to Faber and Faber and discover James Shapiro is doing another book on the year 1608 there, after his very valuable and enjoyable 1599. Sorry to correct editors though, but there is a great deal that was and is completely new in writing about Edmund Shakespeare and Southwark, in Shakespeare’s Brother.

Firstly is the precise discovery of where Edmund was living in Southwark and probably died in 1607, The Vine, who owned it and what it was. It was based on initial information in a lecture by Berkeley Professor Alan Nelson on the Token Books at Southwark Cathedral, but then original research into deeds and the ownership of The Vine by the Hunt family. That family also played a part with a fascinating local Catholic fraternity called The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption, linked to the leatherworking Guild that played a large role at the all important church of St Mary Ovaries, later St Saviours, now Southwark Cathedral, where Edmund Shakespeare is buried.

There are jewels of information in those Token Books, that read like an Elizabethan Address Book, as there are in birth and death records, new to the Reformation, proving how long Philip Henslowe, who became a warden, lived in Southwark, precisely where, and the residence there of his son in law Edward Alleyn and his family. There are a great many things about other players living in Southwark at the time too. But following the trail of that Brotherhood of Our Lady there are also unknown facts, as far as we are aware, about ‘pleyers’ in the district and at the Church of St Margarets, that was thrown down during the Reformation, well over a hundred years before Shakespeare’s troupe, especially performing on St Margaret’s and St Lucy’s days. But in that Reformation earthquake also specific evidence of how The Bishops of Winchester were running and licencing brothels, and how so much of the history of Bankside was about the tavern and then coming brewing industry, and the battle for money and wealth in the great capital.

Much of the writing on Shakespeare nowadays comes from the US, perhaps because of the forming of a consciousness at a particular time, or a US need for roots, especially in Southwark, with the likes of John Harvard being born there (if he was). Also because of those religious echoes that still sound so loudly in America. But much as American academics can be very brilliant, and well funded, there seems also the danger of American literalism in work on Shakespeare that does miss some point about the mysterious well springs of language and inspiration itself. Read the story with us, as it happens, and perhaps James Shapiro can tell if it is of further importance or value.

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We haven’t seen Anonymous yet, the ‘Shakespeare was a fraud’ Roland Emmerich movie. But it was very interesting speaking to James Shapiro recently, the American Shakespeare academic. He appeared on stage with Emmerich in New york to argue the merits of the almost completely discredited Edward Devere theory, that emerged in the twenties, about Shakespeare really being the Earl of Oxford. Perhaps the strongest argument was that Devere was called ‘The Spear Shaker’ at court but, as Shapiro and many others say, no serious academic credits the Devere theory at all, the man was named as a writer during his lifetime and his work does not scratch the Bard.

It is interesting how the ‘lovie’ establishment has divided, with such a brilliant cast in Emmeric’s movie, including Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi. On the other side, the old fashioned Shakespeare and Stratford side, apparently come the likes of Ian Mckellan and Simon Russell Beale. It seems odd that the likes of Rylance, admitting the plays sometimes had joint authorship, should not believe such a man could have been a ‘common man’. Indeed, it seems rather crucial to contemporary arguments about Free Schools in Britain, like Toby Young’s. We think genius can come from anywhere, and Stratford’s free school was probably a very good one, not to mention the fact the Ardens were of a fairly grand Catholic lineage. Not only that, but Shakespeare emerged precisely at a time when the Players were being patronised by and mingled directly at Court. It is a vital part of Shakespeare’s story, as is the linguistic explosion, in an age that saw writers process to the grave of Edmund Spencer to throw in their quills, while the Players were the newspapers of their time, or perhaps bloggers is better! Nowadays we lionize film-makers not writers, and at that, in this case and in the name of the lad from Stratford, we shake our spears crudely!

Shapiro’s argument, and it seems American Academics care more than we seem to in the UK, is very much about education. He is indignant that Anonymous is being taught as ‘truth’ in US Schools, complete with study aids. We share that indignation, and one also about the likely truth of history, and the presentation of Queen Elizabeth as being DeVere’s incestuous mother. ‘It’s only a movie’ countered Emmeric in that debate, but when you are dealing with possible history and Shakespeare it isn’t good enough. You have to apply some discipline of fact and possibility. First there is that schooling and background debate, Shapiro worries is treated with the laxity of the Creationism argument in American schools, fact versus faith, secondly there is historical accuracy, thirdly a mind like Shakespeare’s. One, working on a novel here, we think breathes the world of Stratford, the forest of Arden in As You Like It, as it does London and the opening world, including the New World. Above all though, the plays are completely forged in the crucible of the working, living theatre, it is their prevailing metaphor, not written by some nob from the wings. Perhaps it picks up a point in a book called The Closing of The American Mind, which suggested everyone nowadays picks up Socrate’s saw that he ‘knew nothing’, but at High School and Grad level, rather than a lifetime’s struggle for insight and knowledge. Then only the Scriptwriter and the money source for Anonymous is American.

You MUST go an see Anonymous, some critics cry, loving the famous Emmerich production values, and calling to the fact the Bard plays with history and truth all the time. Well yes, but the contempt for the players themselves, and their kind of heroism, seems hugely off-putting, especially in the excerpts, making Shakespeare so revolting that they distort any possible argument against Devere. You want him to ‘win’. Of course Shakespeare played with historical truth for his own theatrical purposes, his own extraordinary but changing visions, but then to so play fast and loose with a real man, above all a mind, and an extraordinary theatrical and cultural moment too, seems just not good enough. It is a work, whether it wins an audience here or not, for our age of Anxiety and Conspiracy, though Emmerich is certainly an interesting man and film-maker. The last thing it is is true, or even historical, unless you like the values of Titus Andronicus, perhaps, when the Bard was trying to put bums on seats, with his stories ‘baked in a pie’. Though Shapiro suggests the Emmerich camp are fantatic believers in their ’cause’. The problem, as Shapiro points out, is that twenty years ago it would have been laughed out of ‘court’, and now perhaps no-one cares at all. What is more likely though, in our age of democratised images, Conspiracies and huge anxiety, where fantasy and fact have become so confused, partly because of the camera and movies, to fuel all that, than the sloppiness of thought and research that means the ones who dominate our culture cannot be trusted with a true genius at all? It is important where that genius came from, how it grew and what it represents for an age. On the other hand, perhaps we’ll go and see it, even if controversy is what sells, and one merit is the interest in Shakespeare! In the meantime, wondering about the conspiracy of how and why films get made, we will by-line this blog Yours Anonymous.

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