Today, William Shakespeare is famous. Very famous. But things weren’t always so. Before the eighteenth century, he was somewhat obscure and noticeably disreputable.
More than a century after his death, people such as David Garrick and Samuel Johnson made Shakespeare fashionable, and respectable. They helped him pull off a remarkable transformation, from scrabbling playwright and scandalous poet to the Immortal Bard. The National Poet. Gentle, mellifluous Shakespeare.
And once that transformation was complete, an inescapable logic took hold. An author of Shakespeare’s exemplary stature and accomplishment just had to have an important personal library, rich with source-books and letters and manuscripts, and perhaps even diaries and unpublished works.
Late in the eighteenth century, the first searchers set out to find that library. Samuel Ireland was one of them. He lived in London with a Mrs Freeman, formerly a favorite of the Earl of Sandwich, now Samuel’s housekeeper, mistress and the mother of his children: Anna, Jane and William-Henry.
In the summer of 1793, William-Henry was eighteen when Samuel took him to Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Father and son had as their escort an amateur tourist guide by the name of John Jordan.
Jordan took the Irelands to attractions in and around the town. Along the way, Samuel asked people if they’d seen the manuscripts that would provide a window into Shakespeare’s creative life and work.
Most people hadn’t seen anything, but one rumor sounded promising. Apparently a quantity of manuscripts had been moved, at the time of the Stratford fire of 1742, from New Place, Shakespeare’s former home, to Clopton House.
Giddy with the prospect of finding rare paper, Jordan and the Irelands went to Clopton House full of expectation. The building’s occupant, a gentleman farmer named Williams, got straight to the point.
‘By God I wish you’d arrived a little sooner!’ he said. ‘Why, it isn’t two weeks since I destroyed several baskets of letters and papers to clear a small chamber for some young partridges which I wish to bring up alive. And as to Shakespeare, there were many bundles with his name wrote upon them. Why it was in this very fireplace I made a roaring bonfire of them.’
A stunned and appalled Ireland cried out.
‘My God sir, you are not aware of the loss that the world has sustained! Would to heaven I had arrived sooner!’
Farmer Williams’ wife verified the awful story and chided her husband.
‘I do remember it perfectly well!’ she said. ‘And, if you will call to mind my words, I told you not to burn the papers, as they might be of consequence.’
In shock, Ireland inspected the little chamber. He found nothing but partridges.
Another important search has an earlier date.
Born in Warwick in 1726, Reverend James Wilmot became a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, before leading an eminent life in London. Retiring in about 1781, he became rector at the village of Barton-on-the-Heath, some sixteen miles south of Stratford-upon-Avon.
When a local bookseller suggested that he write a biography of Shakespeare, Wilmot went to Stratford in search of the traces he expected to see left behind by a writer of Shakespeare’s stature.
He interviewed townsfolk and conducted other research in and around the town. The people of Stratford regaled him with colorful local folklore, like the story of the cakes that hailed down one Shrovetide and injured hapless pedestrians. And the one about the church tower wickedly removed by the devil. And the one about the unusually tall man who threatened to bewitch the local farmers’ cattle.
Why, Wilmot wondered, had Shakespeare not used these fascinating characters and stories in his plays? Most importantly for Wilmot’s search, the local people told him Shakespeare was the son, not of a glover or leather-trader, but of an illiterate butcher. When Shakespeare went to seek his fortune in London, he was a country clown.
Thoroughly, painstakingly the reverend searched the neighborhood for Shakespeare’s books and manuscripts. Interrogating bookcases, chests, drawers, closets and cabinets, Wilmot inspected every private library and every holding of letters and documents within fifty miles of Stratford.
His search encompassed Charlecote Park, home of the Lucy family; Coughton Court, home of the Throckmortons; Ragley Hall, home of the Conways; Baddesley Clinton, home of the Ferrers; Packwood House, the Fetherstons; Upton House, the Childs; Farnborough Hall, the Holbechs; and Arbury Hall, the Newdegates.
Most of the local gentry had roots dating back to Shakespeare’s day. Surely they purchased a selection of his books upon his death, or otherwise came upon his manuscripts and other papers?
Yet none of them seemed to have done so. None of them, in fact, seemed to know anything useful at all. Wilmot found nothing that Shakespeare might’ve owned. He calculated that the poet must’ve produced over a quarter of a million manuscript pages. Yet he discovered not a single one.
The failure of his search led Wilmot to an earth-shaking conclusion. Shakespeare wasn’t an author at all. He was an illiterate frontman for the true creator of the plays and poems, Sir Francis Bacon.
Bacon, Wilmot reasoned, was the only man who possessed the necessary depth of intellect and breadth of learning, encompassing an intimate knowledge of France, Italy, the law, government and philosophy. Having made this dramatic deduction, Wilmot wrote extensive notes and shared his conclusions with friends and visitors. Then he burned his papers. They were just too dangerous.
The Australian spiritualist and distiller, Hugh Junor Browne, was also implicated in the search for Shakespeare’s library. In his 1888 book The Grand Reality, Brown rebutted the case for Baconian authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. That book was followed by a further work, The Baconian Authorship of Shakespeare’s Plays Refuted.
The latter pamphlet included a striking revelation: Shakespeare had composed his plays while under the supernatural control of a band of poetic spirits, led by a chief called Busiris. Thus controlled, Shakespeare couldn’t ‘blot a line’, because he lacked the skill to amend the spirits’ writing.
Using séances, automatic writing and intermediating ‘sensitives’, Browne conversed extensively with Shakespeare. Revelations came thick and fast. According to Browne, the Bard had spent his youth slaughtering sheep and delivering the flesh to customers. With Busiris in charge, Shakespeare’s hand would be controlled to write all over the hides of the sheep he’d just skinned.
Not having any knowledge about automatic writing, he placed no value on what had thus been written. As a consequence, Browne said, many plays almost equal to Shakespeare’s best were lost to the world. Apart from making such unprecedented findings about Shakespeare, Browne also described how Mozart composed under the control of spirit musicians.
The search for William Shakespeare’s library has always been marvelously colorful, and devilishly contentious.
Hugh Browne wrote in a period of rampant spiritualism, but few people seem to have taken his discoveries seriously. The other two search accounts, however, were long accepted on face value. That was a mistake.
The Irelands really did search Stratford-upon-Avon, but farmer Williams’ bonfire story turned out to be a hoax: he was making fun of the nosy and bumbling antiquarians from London. After their Stratford search, the Irelands themselves went on perpetrate one of the biggest Shakespeare hoaxes of all time: the fabrication of letters and signed copies and other Shakespearean documents.
The Wilmot story was crucial to the Baconian theory of Shakespeare authorship. It was taken seriously throughout the twentieth century, and well into this century. But recently it, too, was shown to be a hoax. What are we to make of this?
The entire field of Shakespeare studies is full of forgeries and frauds and fake news, and the library search conforms to that bigger picture. And it leaves us at a very important conclusion. If some of the earliest and most thorough searches for Shakespeare’s library never actually happened, then some of his books and manuscripts might still be out there, sitting quietly on shelves, just waiting for us to find them.
Things do turn up. In 1904, the sole surviving copy of the first edition of Titus Andronicus was found among items inherited by a Swedish postal clerk. A lost play by Ben Jonson, The Entertainment at Britain’s Burse (1609), was rediscovered in 1997.
In my own search, I’ve found books that Shakespeare might’ve owned, and fragments of a letter he might’ve received. I also found, on a bedroom bookshelf in a suburban home, two rare plays by George Chapman. They are now two of the treasures in Melbourne’s marvelous State Library.
So I urge you to check your own shelves and those of your friends. You never know what you might find.
Adapted from Shakespeare's Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature published by Counterpoint Press.