Shakespeare’s Lost Years

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is one of the most celebrated and notable British historical figures to date. Along with the likes of Sir Winston Churchill, Henry VIII and Charles Darwin, Shakespeare’s life and work has shaped certain aspects of the world we live in. Today’s English language derives from the words he used and sometimes created, his plays are to this day reinterpreted and performed worldwide as well as studied meticulously in British schools.

Shakespeare’s undeniable impact has led to a plethora of study on his works and his life, with historians, writers, theorists and thespians alike researching and writing on him to try and understand and analyse how and why this seemingly normal son of a glove-maker from Stratford-upon-Avon went on to change the world of theatre and language forever with his numerous theatrical and poetic works.

With this amount of study on William Shakespeare you would expect there to be no stone unturned, no skeletons in a closet left unfound, no secrets untold…

Alas, we come to Shakespeare’s lost years. There are no historical traces of William Shakespeare between 1585 and 1592. We see Shakespeare last in February 1585, age 21 at the birth of his twins Hamnet and Judith, married to 29-year-old Anne Hathaway. Seven years later at 28 Shakespeare was living in London as a resident playwright and part owner of a theatre company. But how did he get there? His various biographers have many a theory but because most of them were formed on the basis of anecdotes and gossip rather than anything with documented evidence, we can never be sure.

The earliest and most common theory began circulating as early as 1616. A Gloucestershire clergyman, Richard Davies claimed that Shakespeare fled Stratford after ending up in hot water for hunting and poaching deer from local squire Thomas Lucy. This theory was fuelled by Shakespeare’s scurrilous ballad The Merry Wives of Windsor, with readers at the time believing that the character Justice Shallow was a near direct copy of Thomas Lucy. Despite there being very little credible evidence for this theory, this is also the story that Shakespeare’s first biographer Nicholas Rowe believed and told in 1765.

Shakespeare's reconstructed Globe Theatre in London
Shakespeare's reconstructed Globe Theatre in London

Nevertheless, there are also contradictions surrounding what Nicholas Rowe told, as he supposedly told author and poet Alexander Pope that Shakespeare in fact spent those years minding horses for theatre patrons. A plausible theory, as it places Shakespeare not only in London where we know he was in 1592 but also suggests how he got his start in the world of theatre. However, the question begs that if this were true why would Shakespeare’s biographer not publish this information, but instead only add information to the rumour mill?

Shakespeare is again speculatively placed into London’s theatre scene by a later biographer, Samuel Schoenbaum. He theorises that in 1587 after the sudden death in Stratford of William Knell, a member of Queen Elizabeth’s Men (the Queen’s touring acting troupe) that maybe Shakespeare took his place thus thrusting him into the theatrical world, giving him the skills and contacts to become a resident playwright and part owner of a theatre company. The loose evidence that Schoenbaum had was that John, father of William Shakespeare, as High Bailiff of Stratford would be responsible for the acceptance and welfare of the visiting theatrical troupe. Therefore, he would be willing and ready to help by suggesting his son as an actor in this time of need for the acting troupe.

Despite this theory being perhaps the most glamorous and exciting, even Schoenbaum knows that is highly unlikely, only ever using the story whimsically and as a ‘maybe’.

A slightly more likely story was told on the authority of William Beeston whose father was Christopher Beeston, a fellow actor who acted with Shakespeare in Every Man in His Humour in 1598. His story was that Shakespeare had been working as a school master in the country. Once again, this story has no evidence behind it and also offers no explanation as to how Shakespeare ended up established in London by 1892.

Other, more frivolous theories have Shakespeare working as a soldier, law clerk, glove maker, scrivener or merchant. Another theory sees Shakespeare running away with an acting troupe to Italy, with the only glimpse of evidence for this being that a lot of his plays were set in Italy…

Despite the copious amount of rumours and gossipy stories floating around Shakespeare expert’s research, it appears there will never be a definite answer as to what William Shakespeare was doing in those years. All of the above theories are just that; theories fuelled by speculation and gossip. Shakespeare left no clues during these lost years, and as all of Shakespeare’s direct family line died well before the 18th century, there is no knowledge to be passed down and shared. All we can assume, is that whatever happened in those seven years, ended with Shakespeare being in London, sharing his work with the world. So despite immense frustration at not knowing what happened, we must be thankful that it did.

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