Will I’am Shakespeare: Original Gangster

This story has been posted in several places already, including my favorite history blog, Past Imperfect. You may remember a post I did earlier this year about the awesome Mike Dash who runs A Blast From the Past history blog, but since then Dash has been picked up by the Smithsonian Blog where he continues to write awesome investigative history articles.

From the article on Past Imperfect:

 “…most Shakespeare biographies are highly speculative. But this only makes it all the more remarkable that scholars of Shakespeare have chosen to pretty much ignore one of the very few new documents to emerge from the National Archives over the last century. It is an obscure legal paper, unearthed from a set of ancient sheets of vellum known as “sureties of the peace”, and it not only names Shakespeare but lists a number of his close associates. The document portrays the “gentle Shakespeare” that we met in high school English class as a dangerous thug; indeed, it has been plausibly suggested that it proves he was heavily involved in organized crime.

Exploring this unlighted lane in Shakespeare’s life means, first, looking at the crucial document. “Be it known,” the Latin text begins,

The 1596 writ charging Shakespeare with making death threats, discovered in Britain’s National Archives by the Canadian scholar Leslie Hotson in 1931. The second of the four entries is the one relating to the playwright.

thatWilliam Wayte craves sureties [guarantees] of the peace against William Shakspere, Francis Langley, Dorothy Soer wife of John Soer, and Anne Lee, for fear of death, and so forth. Writ of attachment issued by the sheriff of Surrey, returnable on the eighteenth of St Martin [November 29, 1596].

A few pages away in the same collection of documents, there is a second writ, issued by Francis Langley and making similar charges against William Wayte.

Who are these people, each alleging the other was issuing death threats? The scholar who unearthed the document—an indefatigable Canadian by the name of Leslie Hotson, best remembered today as the man who first stumbled across the records of the inquest into the highly mysterious murder of Shakespeare’s fellow playwright, Christopher Marlowe—uncovered a squalid tale of gangland rivalries in the theatrical underworld of Queen Elizabeth’s day.

According to Hotson’s researches, Shakespeare was an energetic, quick-witted but only sketchily educated country boy—perfect qualifications for someone trying to make his way in the bohemian and morally dubious world of the theater. That world was far from respectable in those days; that is why London’s playhouses were clustered on the south bank of the Thames, in the borough of Southwark, outside the jurisdiction of the City of London–and why the document Hotson discovered lies with the Surrey writs and not among those dealing with London proper.”

Dash goes on to point out other evidence that might support a theoretical view of Shakespeare as a less than stellar moral character. Check out the full (excellently written) article for more.

 

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~ by K. Ritcheson on December 7, 2011.

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