Unveiling Shakespeare's Sister: New Digital Archives Shed Light on the Playwright's Little-Known Sibling

22 March 2024 1757
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March 21, 2024

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by the University of Bristol

A University of Bristol academic, by examining digital duplicates of an exceptionally scarce and arcane 17th-century Italian religious work, disclosed that a long-missing document assumed to have been penned by the father of William Shakespeare actually belongs to his lesser-known sister Joan.

The document, a religious pamphlet in which the author pledges to die a devoted Catholic death at a time when Catholicism was viewed negatively in England, was discovered by a construction worker hiding in the rafters of the Shakespeare House in Stratford-upon-Avon around 1770.

Two early scholars of Shakespeare noticed and described the document before it was lost. They both believed it belonged to John, Shakespeare's father, who died in 1601, suggesting he was an enthusiastic covert Catholic in a time when practicing Catholicism could lead to torture. Other scholars believed the document was a forgery intended to mimic a document from John's time.

However, the document is a translation from Italian, 'The Last Will and Testament of the Soul.' Using online resources like Google Books and various internet archives, Professor Matthew Steggle from the University's Department of English, traced early versions of this text in Italian and six other languages. These versions are now rare, with single copies spread throughout libraries in Europe.

This evidence indicated the document was from several years after John Shakespeare's death. Joan, the only other possible J Shakespeare, who lived from 1569 to 1646, was implied as the actual author.

Joan was five years younger than her brother William and was his main living relative in the later years of his life, apart from his wife and daughters. She was a lifelong resident of Stratford-upon-Avon, marrying a penniless tradesman and having four children. She outlived her husband and her renowned brother by three decades, leading a quiet life in the old Shakespeare family home.

Professor Steggle explained how similar research three decades ago would have been conducted in a major research library, relying on written and card catalogs to locate copies of the text. Thanks to modern technology, researchers can digitally access resources from a variety of libraries across the world. It enables viewing the entire text, not just the title and other details.

Only seven documented references to Joan exist from her time. Virginia Woolf's famous essay, 'Shakespeare's sister' discusses the unlikelihood of a figure like Joan becoming a writer or leaving preserved writing. This essay led Joan to symbolize many women of the early modern period whose voices went unheard. Her brother William left behind hundreds of thousands of written words but, until now, no known works by Joan.

Some quotes from the document include:

'I, [Joan] Shakespeare, do affirm that I am prepared to accept death in whatever manner it may occur, aligning my will with God's; accepting death as redemption for my sins and giving thanks to God's supreme power for bestowing life upon me.'

'I, [Joan] Shakespeare, hereby declare that I am profoundly grateful to God for all the blessings I have received, both concealed and obvious… but most of all for his great patience waiting for me to repent, when he could justly have taken my life when I least expected it, especially when I was engulfed in the quagmire of my sins.'

'I, [Joan] Shakespeare, do affirm that I am willing, nay I am infinitely desirous and humbly request that this my final testament, the glorious and eternal Virgin Mary, mother of God, defender and advocate of sinners, whom I honor above all other saints, take the principal role of executor along with these other patron saints of mine, Saint Winifred, all of whom I invite and implore to be present at my death. I ask that she and they comfort me with their cherished presence and appeal to sweet Jesus to receive my soul in peace.'

St Winifred, claimed as a patron saint in this passage, was a seventh-century Welsh princess who survived being beheaded by a disgruntled suitor and went on to found a nunnery. Winifred, whose story was all about repelling unwanted sexual advances by men, was particularly venerated by women, and this is another sign that the document belongs to Joan.

Pledges of this nature were about taking control of your own death, making a statement about final beliefs before the approach of death impairs any mental capacity. The Joan Shakespeare document is the only known British example, and there are only a handful known from the Continent.

The research, published in the journal Shakespeare Quarterly, is part of Professor Steggle's work on a biography of Shakespeare.

Provided by University of Bristol