In Shakespeare versus Shallow (1931), Leslie Hotson wrote that if you wanted to look for new facts about William Shakespeare’s life then you should not “turn to the standard biographies for nourishment” as these were not about research but were merely capitalizing on the results of earlier findings. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not sit well with the writers of “standard” biographies. Especially so at that time because Hotson had just uncovered a remarkable legal document where the first party named was ‘William Shakspere’.
Hotson, as the title of his book suggests, then went on unsuccessfully to link the case in question with The Merry Wives of Windsor and in doing so smothered the impact and future analysis of his own discovery.
This blog and the two that follow revisit the nature, scope and personalities involved in the legal action, and though there are no new discoveries in these, they begin a reassessment of this important piece of Shakespearian evidence.
Some very creditable writers have tried, and have largely succeeded, in downplaying this document as a near irrelevancy. But far from being a minor spat between two good fellows that somehow, inexplicably, sucked William Shakespeare into their argument, it is, in reality, a key to a better understanding of events that shaped the development of the Early Modern Theatre in London and the true character of the men involved in that development.
Its opening lines may not actually mention the “muses of fire” of Henry V or the “doom of death end woes and all” of the The Comedy of Errors, but there is still a Shakespearian majesty about what, in the legal terminology of 1596, was a “writ of attachment”, a way to keep enemies at (at least) arm’s length if a citizen’s life or limbs were threatened:
‘England. Be it known that William Shakspere, Francis Langley, Dorothy Soer wife of John Soer, and Anne Lee, for fear of death…’
King’s Bench, Controlment Roll, Michaelmas Term 1596, K.B.29/234.
A modern equivalent might be John Betjeman being named before the Kray twins in a lawsuit. Neither of the real combatants behind the 1596 action were “nice people”; they were a pair of villains worthy of any Shakespearian tragedy.
How Shakespeare got into this situation and what it was ultimately to mean for his career will be continued tomorrow…