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Sat, Jun 22 | 12:37 pm

Unveiling Hidden Details about Shakespeare’s Unknown Sister

by | Mar 23, 2024

An academic from the English Department at the University of Bristol (UK), Matthew Steggle, revealed that a long-lost document, previously thought to have been written by William Shakespeare’s father, actually belongs to his sister Joan, a relatively unknown figure.

Difficult times for Catholicism

Willliam Shakespeare (1564-1616).Ullstein bild / Gettyimages.ru

The manuscript in question, called the ‘Spiritual Testament’, is a religious treatise in which the author commits to having a good Catholic death. It was found by a mason, hidden among the beams of Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, around 1770. The document was written at a time in English history when Catholicism was strongly disapproved of, and people risked torture for their faith.

The material was viewed and described by two Shakespeare experts and then lost. Both thought it must have belonged to Shakespeare’s father, John, who died in 1601. This would imply that John was a secret Catholic. Later researchers believed it to be a forgery, designed to give the impression of being a document from John’s life.

Digital archive analysis

Steggle used Google Books and other internet archives to locate early editions of the text in Italian from the 17th century and six other languages, in a single copy and scattered across libraries in Europe. The analysis showed that the document dates several years after John Shakespeare’s death. Steggle discovered that the only possible author is Joan Shakespeare, the sister of the famous British playwright, who lived from 1569 to 1646.

“Even 30 years ago, a researcher tackling a problem like this would have relied on a single major research library, using printed catalogs and even card catalogs to try to find copies of this text. But research libraries have made many of their resources digitally available, so it is possible to consult many different libraries in different countries at once and, at the same time, consult the full text, not just the title and other details,” emphasized Steggle.

A scarcely known figure

Joan Shakespeare was five years younger than her brother William. She lived in Stratford-upon-Avon all her life. She had four children and outlived her brother by 30 years. “There are only seven documents from Joan’s life that even mention her by name,” Steggle stated.

“Virginia Woolf wrote a famous essay, ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’, about how a figure like her could never have aspired to be a writer or to have her writings preserved,” he added. Furthermore, he considers the essay to have become a kind of symbol of all the lost voices of early modern women. The research was published this Tuesday in the Shakespeare Quarterly journal.

Tags:shakespear

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