Tag Archives: Shakespeare’s Brother



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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As part of the project here on Edmund Shakespeare, as promised, we are blogging the treatment that preceded a partially completed novel, but then the detailed research on Edmund Shakespeare and Southwark that should really build a history of an ‘unrecorded life’.

Apparently a script was read in Stratford last year that reached the Cohen Brother’s desk on Richard Shakespeare and another in the pipeline about Susanna.



It is spring, 1596, and a handsome 16 year old lad we mistake for Will Shakespeare, is trying to escape a life at home in provincial Stratford, rattling along the road to dreams and greatness in London. His thoughts are mixed with a montage of the opening of two theatres in Bankside and Blackfriars, where a children’s troupe becomes the Queen’s Choir, and of groundlings, nobles and critics, and the thunder of applause, or the pelt of vegetables. In London, Edmund Shakespeare arrives, and makes for the Curtain Theatre, in Shoreditch, walking in with the reverence of going into a church, to see the aging Edward Alleyn rehearsing the Prologue of Henry V – ‘Or may we cram, Within this wooden O, the very casques, That did affright the air at Agincourt? O, Pardon! Since a crooked figure may, attest in little place a million; And let us, ciphers to this great accompt, On your imaginary forces work…’

Edmund’s brother William, now 30, is in the middle of writing a new history, as a member of thrilling young troupe of actors, Lord Strange’s Men. The process of acting, rehearsing and rewriting, all together, is clear, but two years after they were closed because of plague, the theatres are open again, although the City of London has just banned them within its mile wide limits, and business is moving south, indeed London is on the move. The players are now in the hands of one of the ‘Liberties’, and, dangerously, South of the River, the influence of the just ascended Bishop of Winchester, Thomas Bilson, on payment of an annuity to Elizabeth of £400, in a world where offices were bought. A hawk against Catholic recusants, like Shakespeare’s own Grandfather Edward Arden, and hugely ambitious, Bilson ‘carried prelature in his very aspect’, a defender of the notion Christ descended into hell, the ‘Decensus Controversy’, not to suffer in sympathy with the ‘damned’, but to wrestle the keys of heaven from the devil.

We see the Bishop dining in his great hall in Southwark, a dead ringer for Antonio, in Measure for Measure, but it hides his Court’s apparent acceptance that a human hell can be maintained in London, with the Bishop of Winchester’s brothels, and the Clink prison next door, where the prisoners have to fund their own incarceration. The Church is much in play, at a time when the Elizabethan Religious Settlement is crucial, the Book of Common Prayer insisting children must be baptised, the first Sunday after their birth. While the likes of Arden had been executed for plotting against Queen Elizabeth, as his Catholic Son-in-law, John Sommerville, had been racked, and executed in The Tower. The Tower too looms over the whole drama, both literally and metaphorically for the high-born, a warning to over ambition. Elizabeth’s is an attempt at a more tolerant time, and stability too, but religion is a dangerous political tool, and eyes are everywhere still.

William Shakespeare is on the cusp of huge success though, with his plays starting to appear four years before, in 1592. It has already been a roller-coaster ride, and Edmund gives blessings, and a gift from their mother, Mary Arden, as we hear the line from the theatre, ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers….’ Will tries to persuade his baby brother against the dangerous, murderous and filthy city though, despite his affection for Ed, and the scheming, paranoid court.

He tells him simply to go straight home, to the healing countryside. To pretty Silvia, a local girl he grew up with, and they all thought Ed would marry. To go back to their mother, Mary Arden, and the pastoral ‘Forest of Arden’, of Stratford and Warwickshire, to get married, and make gloves! Ed’s loves are hunting deer, sitting by the mill chase, stealing apples, and running wild, and the seasons, blossom-fall, high summer, barren trees, blasted heaths, and deep snow will be much in evidence. We see they were the young Shakespeare’s loves too, and it is a constant theme of town versus country, hard city versus healing nature, as countrymen and women flood in along the Canterbury road, Chaucer’s road, at Borough, to make their ‘fortunes’ in town.

‘The theatre, Ed,’ Will asks Edmund, warily, ‘is the plague in your blood too?’, warning him too how hard it is to really make it as a player, because they are vain and fractious, jealous and backbiting, and in love with the ‘bubble reputation’. Perhaps he should go and see Gilbert, their brother also doing business in town. Edmund comments that Will is losing his hair.

To be continued…

Shakespeare’s Brother is in Copyright to David Clement-Davies and Phoenix Ark Press 2102 All RIghts Reserved

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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.


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Wonderful to see the BBC series of plays, and actor’s commentaries, in The Hollow Crown. To see Simon Russel Beale talking about that empty word ‘honour’, or Falstaff, though honour was very important to Shakespeare and the time, in a sense beyond the Knighted meaning, that might evoke Calvino’s The Ancestors. To see Jeremy Irons rowing The Thames, recalling those events James Shapiro describes so powerfully in 1599, when the Burbages and Shakespeare, perhaps his youngest brother Edmund, a player too, carried the wood from The Theatre across to river to Southwark, to build The Globe. They took their theatre, their craft and their vision on their backs, and Phoenix believe in very conscious opposition with the likes of impressario and landlord Philip Henslowe, as Will Kemp, an original Globe sharer, split away, although any good story needs its baddy and Henslowe is quite a complex character.

If the experimental blog on Edmund Shakespeare here, Shakespeare’s Brother, is of any value, it has turned up some startling and unknown facts about Southwark and a London district we think completely underestimated in understanding a period and those plays. One of those insights is Jeremy Irons’ reporting that Falstaff was based on the Lollard soldier Sir John Oldcastle. An ancestor of the temporary Master of the Revels, Lord Cobham, whose wife lived on London Bridge and owned Southwark property, Oldcastle may have been an inspiration, though one chorus actually denied it on stage, mentioning Oldcastle, out of the little controversy, and saying ‘this is not the man.’

But another candidate is the real Sir John Fastolf. If you believe in the literal translation of authors, out of people or events, he seems an obvious candidate. Perhaps the point is that the Fastolfs actually owned a Southwark Tavern called The Boar’s Head. The sight was excavated by the Museum of London, though nothing found. Then there is that very famous Boar’s Head of Henry IV and East Cheap. There was a Boar’s Head in the walled City too, and perhaps two in Southwark, with its hundreds of taverns, but again it has been slightly translated. For those who have been following the little spat about the Edward Devere, Earl of Oxford, authorship theory though, it brings up the subject of how writers actually work, moving between facts and fictions, drawing from many ideas and sources, and translating their realities, as Bottom is translated in his fairy dream, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Perhaps then Will was thinking of Oldcastle, but a local tavern owning family too, the Fastolfs, and their cowardly ancestor Sir John Fastolf, soon to be made a False Staff, with a rival tavern in Southwark actually in the frame. Was he taking revenge for some local goings on, as he got caught up in that battle over the Soer house? He might simultaneously have been firing a purposeful shot at the walled City. But perhaps the point, if we are seeking Shakespeare’s ‘identity’, out of the nonsense Devere theory (that’s a friendly shot at William Ray) is the difficulty of biography and the real value being the realised vision on the page.

But what is really thrilling, with unknown Edmund Shakespeare in the frame too in Southwark, now linked to a tavern called the Vine, owned by the Hunt family, probably bought under Henry VI, by a local fraternity called The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption, Edmund being the missing player if you like, is building up the localised picture, however faint, however filled with semi-fictive imaginings, of a real place and very interconnected people. There is a great deal more to come.

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The London Olympics, whether a success or wash out, are actually a wonderful chance for many valuable discussions and cultural discoveries. One, for American and world visitors alike, is the coming mega exhibition at the British Museum on Elizabethan London and all its writers, Shakespeare: Staging the World, from July 19th through to November. Another are the cycle of Shakespeare plays being staged at The Globe, in 37 different languages, but then, supported by a Bardic fest on the BBC, this is also World Shakespeare Year: A Cultural Olympiad too then, with Bill going for cultural Gold.

It is a chance for an obvious plug for work here, and the experimental posting of the story of Shakespeare’s Brother, above, on Southwark and William’s unknown younger brother Edmund, also a player, who died in Southwark in the freezing winter of 1607/8. It might be a chance to stop Thames Water mutilating an important and wonderful London district too, as the actor Patrick Stewart has been campaigning on, with its plans for awful new water tunnels, to quench the washed and unwashed in the capital, in the glinting shadow of the Shard. Southwark must be preserved, or protected, but perhaps not in that ‘theme park’ way we do history nowadays. But actually the story of the players, Southwark, The City and the Reformation lies at the very root of World banking and economic discussions too, ever looming over the City of London.

For years we have talked about that “American Dream“, good or bad, dream or nightmare, but it actually came straight out of the Elizabethan City of London, and speaks of a very long ‘special relationship’. In the establishing of the Virginia Trading Company’s Free Standing Lotterie in 1612, taken up by all 13 colonies and formed in the City of London, in the founding of the East India Company too, so much of what we believe and debate today was forged five hundred years ago, in the trading ethic of the City, the battle with Rome and Euro Centrism, and the discovery and colonisation of the ‘New World’. As those writers and players, vagabond or connected, were writing their works and building their theatres, often attacked by the City Corporation, in the hungry “Square mile”. Just as the violent religious debates of the Reformation, subtly redirected in Shakespeare, and the energetic freedoms of separatist Puritans and dissenters, were carried straight to the founding heart of often still Puritan America, or East Coast America, with the actually levelling idea of Lotteries and Capitalism powerfully in toe – levelling until capital became such an unlevel playing field. It may be why there is such interest in Shakespeare and Southwark from American academics nowadays, but in many ways American consciousness has not moved on from those Elizabethan London arguments and energetic opposites, four hundred years ago. Maybe the UK is always returning to them too, especially in its symbiotic or lap dog relationship with the USA.

Perhaps the Olympics then are a chance to discuss what Shakespeare’s real vision and journey was, and if that can be a true guiding light once more, or if it is all just fustian recreation. Peter Ackroyd argues he did not have a meaning or vision, as such, since he was both a writer trying to make it, and please an audience, and all-encompassing in his mirror up to nature, or the world. Yet, if “we all such stuff as dreams are made of”, perhaps the good or bad life dream does revolve around that play Ackroyd does not think was effectively his last work, and we do, The Tempest. Especially what Shakespeare was trying to get at in terms of the creative ‘faith’ of the writer magician, Prospero, in that ‘isle full of noises’ of his mind, and those “brave new worlds that hath such people in it.” Much as Ackroyd may be right about some quality in Shakespeare drawing on “The English Imagination”, that is a world vision, for all humanity, not a London one, and a search for other ‘countries’, or reality and imagination, beyond the clashes of his time. Whatever golds the Olympics bring for Team Britain though, now branded just like the Corporation or ‘Big Apple’ New York City, there is a lot of cultural gold to be had in London this year. Enjoy.

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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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