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The Edmund Shakespeare Blog

That little 1949 edition on Shakespeare by Ivor Brown certainly underlines gaps in my knowledge, which are probably wide as a church door, but it’s very clear the Stradfordian-Oxfordian clash is in full swing by the time it came out, five years after the war. Indeed the book seems written to defend against it, though, with apologies to passionate William Ray, Brown reminds how it was all good-natured stuff, with a shared love of the times. So, if genius cannot perhaps come from quite ‘anywhere’, but needs the soil of some culture, certainly reading and writing, Ivor Brown underlines the grandeur of the Arden line, if Shakespeare’s family were a dispossessed branch, financial crises, but the town prominence of John Shakespeare and that fight for a Coat of Arms, even if Shakespeare winked at it. He also pours a dung heap of scorn on the contempt the Oxfordians then hurled at a supposedly illiterate household, because it had a midden outside. The communal dung heap was a feature of country towns, and he also points out that the demonstrably literate Adrian Quiney also signed his name with a cross, as did John Shakespeare, on the same document. That x marking a spot was a common Elizabethan practice, particularly perhaps among people who did not especially like signing documents, or trust the law.

He’s very interesting on the lack of information about any schooling, and again, having spent my own little time going blind trying to read Elizabethan records, while evoking the Stratford Shakespeare you must underline the sparsity and sometimes difficulty of evidence too. No record of Shakespeare exists between a baptism and a wedding, but then why would there need to be any? If there is not a ‘mountain of evidence’ though, there is a comparative mountain, compared to Bacons and Oxfords, though I owe time to a Cardan grille! But one name comes up again in the book, Simon Hunt, a teacher at the Stratford Grammar School, who ended his days a Jesuit in Rome. I have made no connection yet between the London Hunts, owners of The Vine where Edmund Shakespeare was staying when he died, a Phoenix discovery linked to the reign of Henry VI, thank ye very much, and any Stratford Hunts, whether Simon, or Richard Hunt, the Vicar and Oxford man who owned the book with the latin inscription talking of Shakespeare as a ‘Roscius’. I think it’s a valuable area of enquiry though, in that intensely interconnected Elizabethan world, so do join the blog, if you can add to the scholarship. (Then I’ll write a book and make some money out of it, buy a fine house and live like the earl of Oxford!)

As for a Catholic trail that might echo out of a Catholic school master, as one Catholic friend said hopefully at Stoke Abbot last weekend, “then everyone was a Catholic”. Well, yes, perhaps, because ‘is the pope a Catholic’? You might ask it of the Barberinnis, those hungry Princes of the Church, or indeed Pope Leo X, who said ‘it has served us well, this myth of Christ’. As for any myth of Shakespeare, I have my own notions about his beliefs, out of highly secular though also magical plays, but also his affections for prominent Catholics, and connections with them too. There is that Blackfriars Gatehouse, and if there was any intimacy with the London Hunts, pure surmise, there is now that Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption, somewhere in the background, founded at St Margaret’s Church in Southwark. But above all there is Southwark as a place of independence and free thought, on both sides, but a vivid London Reformation fault line.

St Margaret’s had been thrown down, though who knows what became of the Brotherhood. But anyway, the Fraternity, like the Bishops of Winchester, seems much involved in local property ownership, of taverns and perhaps brothels, since Alan Nelson said in his lecture that local lore suggested The Vine was a tavern-brothel. Alan Nelson is right in saying there is no evidence, but you just have to look at Cowcross Street, Clerkenwell,Shoreditch, described in The Lodger, something of Soho today, but especially Southwark then, to understand what taverns often were, or how close it all was. “It all happened here,” said one lady, talking of Bankside and beaming at me from the Globe reception, while the theatre too is that place of putting on and taking off clothes. Ooh la la.



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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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You can read some of the arguments about a Stratford vs supposed Oxford camp, around Shakespeare authorship, mostly in the comments under the post EDMUND SHAKESPEARE, THE EARL OF OXFORD, FALSTAFF AND THE HOLLOW CROWN, in William Ray’s and our notes. First little Phoenix Ark should declare an edge of ‘prejudice’ and that is all instincts here are towards Rowe, Aubrey and the ensuing Shakespeare tradition, of Stratford Will Shakespeare. Not as blind followers of any tradition though, and not without interest in other authorship ‘theories’. Then we would say that there is not a significant Oxford camp, in a theory dreamt up in the troubled 1920s and that any onus towards proving anything lies most assuredly there.

But if anyone starts to trumpet the research they do, Phoenix Ark want to suggest the value, even the singular importance of the Edmund Shakespeare story, in Southwark, to the debate. If a link can be made, and it has not been yet, between a London Hunt family, that owned The Vine in Southwark, where 27 year old Edmund Shakespeare was staying in 1607, (in the tenement rooms of one Edward Woodroofe, and perhaps his wife, probably at least, from the Southwark Cathedral Token Books) and the Stratford Hunts, it is at least suggestive. We tracked The Vine back to The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption, linked to St Margaret’s Church, and founded under Henry VI, in the name of John Le Hunte, Peter Averne and others. But in a highly interconnected world, perhaps Shakespeare’s player brother, young and ultimately tragic Edmund, came to London to stay with people already known in Stratford. That has yet to be proved.

Southwark though, and especially St Olave’s Church, no longer there, but the spire of which is mentioned more than any other in Shakespeare’s plays (Ackroyd), also has strong Wessex ties. But there too, among many players and writers, is another actor in the Shakespeare family. Indeed the tradition of acting families was to emerge out of the Shoreditch, Southwark, and London circles. The significance of brothers in the plays is its own field of study, though echoes in fiction do not absolutely prove historical fact. But beyond any authorship debate, what is wonderful too are the vivid bits of evidence about lives and deaths in Southwark, so evocative of extraordinary times and a world that still raises marvellous passions.


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