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An image showing direct comparisons between the Shakespeare of the Cobbe Portrait, the Chandos Portrait and the Droeshout Engraving.            Source: Brice Stratford / Public domain

Archaeology Is Revealing New Clues About Shakespeare’s Life

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William Mitchell / The Conversation

William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time and one of the most important and influential people who has ever lived. His written works (plays, sonnets and poems) have been translated into more than 100 languages and these are performed around the world.

There is also an enduring desire to learn more about the man himself. Countless books and articles have been written about Shakespeare’s life. These have been based primarily on the scholarly analysis of his works and the official record associated with him and his family. Shakespeare’s popularity and legacy endures, despite  uncertainties in his life story  and debate surrounding  his authorship and identity .

The life and times of William Shakespeare and his family have also recently been informed by cutting-edge archaeological methods and interdisciplinary technologies at both New Place (his long-since demolished family home) and his burial place at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. The  evidence gathered from these investigations  by the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University provides new insights into his interests, attitudes and motivations – and those of his family – and shows how archaeology can provide further tangible evidence. These complement traditional Shakespearean research methods that have been limited to sparse documentary evidence and the study of his works .

Archaeology has the ability to provide a direct connection to an individual through the places and objects associated with them. Past excavations of the Shakespearean-era theatres in London have provided evidence of the places he worked and spent much of his time.

Attributing objects to Shakespeare is difficult, we have his written work of course, his portrait(s) and memorial bust – but all of his known possessions, like those mentioned in his will, no longer exist. A single gold signet ring, inscribed with the initials W S, is thought by some to be the most significant object owned and used by the poet, despite its  questionable provenance .

Shakespeare’s house

Shakespeare’s greatest and most expensive possession was his house, New Place. Evidence, obtained through  recent archaeological investigations of its foundations , give us quantifiable insights into Shakespeare’s thought processes, personal life and business success.

The building itself was lost in the 18th century, but the site and its remains were preserved beneath a garden. Erected in the center of Stratford-upon-Avon more than a century prior to Shakespeare’s purchase in 1597, from its inception, it was architecturally striking. One of the largest domestic residences in Stratford, it was the only courtyard-style, open-hall house within the town.

New Place, artist’s reconstruction. Phillip Watson, Author provided (No reuse)

This type of house typified the merchant and elite classes and in purchasing and renovating it to his own vision, Shakespeare inherited the traditions of his ancestors while embracing the latest fashions. The building materials used, its primary structure and later redevelopment can all be used as evidence of the deliberate and carefully considered choices made by him and his family.

Shakespeare focused on the outward appearance of the house, installing a long gallery and other fashionable architectural embellishments as was expected of a well-to-do, aspiring gentleman of the time. Many other  medieval features were retained  and the hall was likely retained as the showpiece of his home, a place to announce his prosperity, and his rise in status.

It provided a place for him and his immediate and extended family to live, work and entertain. But it was also a place which held local significance and symbolic associations. Intriguingly, its appearance also resembled the courtyard inn theatres of London and elsewhere with which Shakespeare was so familiar, presenting the opportunity to host private performances.

The New Place Courtyard with a stage erected, players and invited audience, based on reconstructions of performances at the courtyard inn theatres. Illustration by Philip Watson, Author provided (No reuse)

The New Place Courtyard with a stage erected, players and invited audience, based on reconstructions of performances at the courtyard inn theatres. Illustration by Philip Watson, Author provided (No reuse)

In search of the Bard

Extensive evidence of the personal possessions, diet and the leisure activities of Shakespeare, his family and the inhabitants of New Place were recovered during the archaeological investigations, revolutionizing what we understand about his day-to-day life.

An online exhibition , due to be made available in early May 2020, presents 3D-scanned artifacts recovered at the site of New Place. These objects, some of which may have belonged to Shakespeare, have been chosen to characterize the chronological development and activities undertaken at the site.

A 3D scan of a brick recovered from Shakespeare’s New Place, one of many which would have been placed between the timber-framing of the house. Staffordshire University Centre of Archaeology, Author provided (No reuse)

A 3D scan of a brick recovered from Shakespeare’s New Place, one of many which would have been placed between the timber-framing of the house. Staffordshire University Centre of Archaeology, Author provided (No reuse)

Open access to these virtual objects will enable the dissemination of these important results and the potential for others to continue the research.

Here lies …

Archaeological evidence recovered from non-invasive investigations at Shakespeare’s burial place has also been used to provide further evidence of his personal and family belief. Multi-frequency Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was used to investigate the Shakespeare family graves below the chancel of Holy Trinity Church.

A number of legends surrounded Shakespeare’s burial place. Among these were doubts over the presence of a grave, its contents, tales of grave robbing and suggestions of a large family crypt. The work confirmed that individual shallow graves exist beneath the tombstones and that the various members of Shakespeare’s family were not buried in coffins, but in simple shrouds. Analysis concluded that Shakespeare’s grave had been disturbed in the past and that it was likely that his skull had been removed,  confirming recorded stories .

GPR data of the graves (in green) of the Shakespeare family. The patterning of linear features with areas of black between, represent natural voids present around the simple burials. William’s grave is second from the left. Staffordshire University Centre of Archaeology, Author provided (No reuse)

GPR data of the graves (in green) of the Shakespeare family. The patterning of linear features with areas of black between, represent natural voids present around the simple burials. William’s grave is second from the left. Staffordshire University Centre of Archaeology, Author provided (No reuse)

These family graves occupy a significant (and expensive) location in Holy Trinity Church. Despite this, the simple nature of Shakespeare’s grave, with no elite trappings or finery and no large family crypt, coupled with his belief that he should not be disturbed, confirm a simple regional practice based on pious religious observance and an affinity with his hometown.

There is still so much we don’t know about Shakespeare’s life, so it’s a safe bet that researchers will continue to investigate what evidence there is. Archaeological techniques can provide quantifiable information that isn’t available through traditional Shakespearean research. But just like other disciplines, interpretation – based on the evidence – will be key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding the life (and death) of the English language’s greatest writer.

Top image: An image showing direct comparisons between the Shakespeare of the Cobbe Portrait, the Chandos Portrait and the Droeshout Engraving.            Source: Brice Stratford / Public domain

The article ‘ William Shakespeare: archaeology is revealing new clues about the Bard’s life (and death) by William Mitchell was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

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