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William Shakespeare

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Who was he?

The scarcity of real knowledge about William Shakespeare, especially his early years, has led to theories that he didn't exist as an individual at all, but was really another writer working under a pseudonym. Most serious historians however, regard these theories as baseless: the later years of Shakespeare's life are in fact relatively well documented, for someone of his standing.

...his early experience of belonging to a persecuted minority could have played its part in ...a self-effacing stance.

In addition, the playwright's colleagues, in their commemoration volume of his plays after his death (the First Folio, published in 1623), confirm that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon was the author of those plays. Evidence that a poet of this name, from Stratford, did exist is also backed up by further documents from around the same time, including Shakespeare's will (now in the National Archive, at Kew), and his funeral monument (in the church at Stratford). A look at the main documents relating to his later life, and some recent finds, may offer further clues.

Shakespeare's formative years had been spent at a time poised between two worlds - the old world of Catholicism and the new world of Protestantism. Then, in the aftermath of Spain's failed attempt, in 1588, to impose Catholicism on the English, the new Protestant establishment had triumphed. Thus, by the turn of the century, Catholicism had become a minority religion.

It seems likely that in the privacy of the Shakespeare family home the old faith may have been foremost. His grandfather had left a will demonstrating strong Catholic beliefs, and his father appears on a list of Catholic recusants in 1592. Perhaps his early experience of belonging to a persecuted minority could have played its part in what appears to be a self-effacing, even evasive, stance as a writer in his later career in London.

It is intriguing, for example, that he was never picked up on church attendance lists, including during his years of lodging within the London estate known as the Liberty of the Clink, in Southwark, belonging the Bishops of Winchester. He is known to have lived here in 1599, and maybe later.

It is perhaps also significant that his one known house purchase in London (for which the mortgage documents survive), was made in 1613, after he had retired to Stratford - and that this house had once been well known to the government as a Catholic safe house.

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London clues

In his private life Shakespeare is always hard to pin down, but interesting light can be cast on his time in London by looking at the neighbourhoods he is known to have frequented. London has a very rich body of source material, much of it accessible in the Guildhall

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