Shakespeare's Sister Wrote Text Found Hidden in Home

The 'J. Shakespeare' it referenced had long been thought to be the playwright's father
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 24, 2024 8:01 AM CDT
Shakespeare's Sister Wrote Text Found Hidden in Home
   (Getty Images / claudiodivizia)

The writings of another Shakespeare are entering the limelight, at least momentarily, thanks to a study by a University of Bristol academic. A document found between the rafters and roof tile of the Shakespeare House in Stratford-upon-Avon around 1760 has been attributed to the playwright's younger sister, Joan. As a press release explains, the document was "a religious tract in which the writer pledges to die a good Catholic death." It was thought to suggest the writer—J. Shakespeare, assumed to be William Shakespeare's father, John—was a closet Catholic at a time of anti-Catholic sentiment in England.

Professor Matthew Steggle's analysis involved using Google Books and other internet archives to establish that the document is a translation of an obscure Italian text called "The Last Will and Testament of the Soul." As the release explains, Steggle was able to track down early editions of it in Italian and six other languages, "many of which editions survive only in a single copy and are scattered across the libraries of Europe." Confirming the link between the two established a key timeline: The Italian text was written several years after John Shakespeare's 1601 death. The only J. Shakespeare alive at the time who could have penned it was Joan, who was five years younger than William and died in 1646.

Steggle explained that time was on his side: "Even thirty years ago, a researcher approaching a problem like this would have been based in a single big research library, using printed catalogues and even card catalogues to try to find copies of this text. But research libraries have now made many of their resources available digitally, so that it is possible to look across many different libraries in different countries at once, and what's more, you can look through the whole text, not just at the title and other details." (A pandemic may have influenced the writings of Joan's brother.)

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