Shakespeare's "Lost Years"

The Mystery Between Stratford and London

by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor

William Shakespeare--or is it? (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shakespeare Fun Fact

Although no direct descendants of William Shakespeare survived past the seventeenth century, there are still descendants alive today of his sister, Joan Hart.

William Shakespeare is the most famous writer in the history of Western literature. His plays have been performed for over 400 years. Yet we know very little about Shakespeare as a person. Only a few records have survived over the centuries, like the date of his christening, some legal documents, and his last will and testament. If Shakespeare wrote any letters to his friends or kept manuscript copies of the plays he wrote, no one has ever found them. We don't even have evidence that Shakespeare owned any books.

One of the biggest mysteries about William Shakespeare, however, is that he completely disappears for more than seven years. When he was 21 years old, Shakespeare was married with three children and living in the small town of Stratford in England. Seven years later, he was living in London as resident playwright and part owner of a theater company. Nobody knows just what Shakespeare was doing for all those years in between.

In fact, the first attempt at any kind of coherent biography wasn't until 1709, nearly a century after Shakespeare had died. Much of the source material by then consisted of anecdotes and gossip rather than any documented evidence. Compounding the problem, all of Shakespeare's direct line died well before the eighteenth century, leaving neither descended heirs nor family lore to help round out our knowledge of the man.

The earliest and most common tale was related around 1616 by a clergyman in Gloucestershire by the name of Richard Davies. According to Davies, Shakespeare was known to poach deer and rabbits on the property of local landowner Sir Thomas Lucy, who "who oft had him whipped and sometimes imprisoned." Rowe elaborated that Shakespeare eventually left Stratford to avoid Lucy's punishment. Rowe even says that Shakespeare lampooned Lucy in a ballad, and there are those that believe Justice Shallow of The Merry Wives of Windsor is based largely upon Shakespeare's supposed tormentor. There is no evidence, though, that any of it ever happened, and most scholars do not believe the story credible.

In the late 1600s, John Aubrey's Brief Lives spoke of Shakespeare as a schoolmaster in rural England for at least part of those years. This story is considered more believable since it comes from the son of an actor who had been in Shakespeare's theater company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. It also helps to explain how Shakespeare may have gotten more education between leaving Stratford and arriving in London. However, there is no documentary evidence to support this tale, either.

In 1985, noted scholar E. A. J. Honigmann put forth a startling new theory in his work Shakespeare: The Lost Years. Based on some admittedly circumstantial documentary evidence, he proposes that Shakespeare served a wealthy Catholic family in Lancashire, and that Shakespeare was likely a recusant Catholic himself, which may have prompted his departure from Stratford. The theory hinges on the reference to a "William Shakeshafte" in the will of Alexander Hoghton, in which there is also mention of costumes and musical instruments. Honigmann's premise remains a theory, albeit an intriguing one, in the absence of definitive proof.

This period continues to be the subject of much speculation. Other popular—if apocryphal—tales have Shakespeare leaving Stratford with a traveling troupe of actors, or working as a soldier, law clerk, butcher, glover, scrivener, or merchant. One story even puts a young Shakespeare in London, holding horses outside of theaters for patrons. These are overwhelmingly tall tales with roughly the same legitimacy as George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Only Shakespeare knows for certain what happened during his "Lost Years," and he didn't leave behind any clues.

Sources

Bevington, David, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare—5th ed. New York: Longman, 2003.

Honigmann, E. A. J. Shakespeare: The "Lost Years". Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.

Schoenbaum, Sam. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Wood, Michael. In Search of Shakespeare. London: BBC Books, 2005.

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