Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
If, like me, you’re a Shakespeare specialist with a media profile, your phone has been ringing off the hook this week. Earlier this month, the UK’s Daily Telegraph unveiled an “exclusive” claim that a museum creator has found the exact address where a young William Shakespeare lived in 1598, the year he was writing “Much Ado About Nothing.”
The claim is that Shakespeare was a tenant of a building in London’s Bishopsgate, on the site of what is now an office block known as a 35 Great St Helen’s. Cue international excitement.
The story has been carried all over the world. The problem? Scholarly discoveries like this are often blown out of ALL proportion when they’re carried in popular media – that’s if the story pushed out to excitable journalists is even an accurate discovery at all. Is this a real shakeup in the world of Shakespeare studies? Or has the Telegraph overplayed its hand?
Here’s a guide to a few things you should always look at if you want to be able to assess sensational “finds” about William Shakespeare. Whether it’s a new conspiracy theory about the plays actually being written by aristocrats – usually pushed by snobs who think middle-class people can’t be geniuses – or a ghoulish tale about a missing skull, here’s how to select the serious Shakespeare scholarship from the salacious.
First, what are the credentials of the scholar in question? Has his work been peer reviewed? The man behind this latest claim is Geoffrey Marsh, a senior curator with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He’s a serious person, with a long career in museums, but he’s also not a Shakespeare specialist.
Marsh is head of the theater and performing arts department at the V&A, which includes responsibility for archives like the museum’s glorious costume collection, and previously he was project director for the UK’s Imperial War Museum, which draws in crowds to its collection of 20th century weaponry.
The case for some Shakespeare skepticism
So Marsh understands history and how to get people exploring it. He’s no charlatan and deserves respect. But does he have the specialist expertise to be the last word on London in 1598?
His latest findings weren’t peer reviewed before being given to the Telegraph. But they are due to be explained at a seminar at this weekend’s upcoming Shakespeare Association of America conference, a hardcore gathering of hardcore scholarly experts. Until then, the academic jury is still out.
Secondly, what’s the actual claim being made here? Marsh has pointed out that William Shakespeare’s name is listed in an old tax record, just next to the names of Jonathan Prymme (or Pryn) and John Robinson. As Marsh has found, those two less familiar names also appear in a separate archive, listing tenants of the Leathersellers Company, who owned property in Bishopsgate.
Marsh suggests that names in the tax record were listed in geographical order – but he can’t prove it, and the record certainly doesn’t list exact addresses.
So we know where Mr. Prymme and Mr. Robinson lived, and thanks to Marsh, we now have good evidence that Shakespeare lived somewhere nearby. (We already knew he was listed on another tax record as owing unpaid tax in the area in 1597, but some scholars had suggested this meant he’d moved out of Bishopsgate by the time tax was due.) But Marsh, and the journalists writing this up, would like you to take that as evidence of Shakespeare’s exact address. The evidence simply isn’t that strong.
A wild ‘Macbeth’ theory
There’s a third question you should always ask yourself when stories like this pop up. Does the “discovery,” even if true, support the wild claims that are usually made about its consequences? The aspect of this story that has every Shakespeare scholar of my acquaintance wincing is the claim in the Telegraph story, backed by quotes from Marsh, that Shakespeare’s address could “explain why there are witches in ‘Macbeth.’” One resident at Bishopsgate was Dr. Edward Jordan, who had studied in Italy and in 1602 – four years after Shakespeare’s name appears on this tax record – was an expert witness in a major witchcraft trial. The theory is that Shakespeare could have chit-chatted with his witch-obsessed neighbor, and thereby got the plot inspiration for the appearances of three witches in “Macbeth.”
This is obviously bogus. Or as we say in Britain, bollocks. We know “why there are witches in ‘Macbeth’” – because there have always been witches in the ancient legend of “Macbeth.” Textual scholars have known for centuries that Shakespeare drew on existing anthologies of British folklore for his tale of medieval Scotland, notably Holinshed’s Chronicles. Macbeth, a genuine historical figure, was long said to have been encouraged by witches to usurp the throne – Holinshed records the story in 1577.
Meanwhile, witches were everywhere in the Elizabethan imagination – you didn’t need a neighbor to tell you about them. James VI and I, who would move from ruling Edinburgh to ruling London in 1603, had by 1597 published his own rant about the dangers of witchcraft, “Daemonologie.”
When Shakespeare wrote “Macbeth” for performance in 1606, he was drawing on the new king’s known interests and, as James Shapiro convincingly explains in his book “1606,” another famous witchcraft trial in which Friswood Williams, a servant girl, appeared to have become convinced that she could see daggers pointing toward her hand. Hence Macbeth’s famous vision of a dagger, as he contemplates murdering King Duncan. Sure, Shakespeare may have chatted about witches over the garden fence with a neighbor, but he had plenty of other sources to hand.
Sometimes it’s about looking more broadly, not about zeroing in
And here lies the big problem with Marsh’s claim, and the souped-up coverage from eager arts journalists keen to make a meal of it.
Everything we learn about Shakespeare can enrich our understanding of his period and, perhaps, his plays. But too often, new discoveries make claims that try to narrow down the possibilities for his inspiration and his ideas, rather than broaden them.
A claim that Shakespeare’s neighbor took part in a witchcraft trial shouldn’t stop us asking where else Shakespeare might have observed his peers panicking about witchcraft fantasies. Those questions give us other interesting answers about Shakespeare’s response to his era.
Marsh has a superb career as a curator behind him. But this week he told the Guardian that in Shakespeare’s day, “there were no newspapers, books were pretty unusual, so you had to speak to people to learn anything.” This is more bollocks; in the age of the printing press, pamphlets flooded London with stories from Europe and further afield.
Some of my own previous work has looked at how images of Italian sculpture made their way into cheap London booklets, sold in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral near Bishopsgate – in the same years as Shakespeare would write “The Winter’s Tale,” in which an Italian statue plays a pivotal role.
Thomas Dekker’s pamphlet, “The Wonderfull Yeare,” recorded his observations of London in 1603 and caused such a stir it was banned by authorities.
But whether it is Italian sculptures or the records of witchcraft trials, it’s always a mistake to claim a single piece of historical material “explains” Shakespeare. If his plays had simple meanings, we wouldn’t still be arguing about them four centuries later.
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When you see a big discovery about William Shakespeare hit the press before fellow scholars have had a chance to ask questions, take a breath and be very, very skeptical.