Shakespeare’s first biographer was the gossipy antiquarian John Aubrey, who famously described the playwright as ‘not a company keeper’. It has long been tempting to see him this way: Shakespeare the aloof genius, almost divine. There’s something chilly in this vision, and scholarly work on Shakespeare of the past few decades has increasingly tended to picture him in different kinds of company. Academic studies now routinely investigate Shakespeare as a member of a group of players, or trace his links to patrons, his family and his rivals. By now it is generally accepted that Shakespeare’s plays were collaborative; the scholarly squabbles are over how much and which bits of work his co-writers did. The lonely poet in his garret has been superseded by a man in the crowd.
Geoffrey Marsh’s diffuse yet fascinating new book discovers Shakespeare in a small cluster of streets at the foot of what is now the Gherkin, but was in the 16th century the parish of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate. Shakespeare’s name appears on a Lay Subsidy Roll for this parish in October 1597. This is a listing of all those liable for tax, and it reveals that Shakespeare must have lived here in the mid-1590s. This record has long been known to biographers, but Marsh’s book is the first to dig deeply into all the other names alongside Shakespeare’s. The parish was ‘a thriving, wealthy, bustling community of perhaps 550-650 people’, writes Marsh: ‘It was full of wealthy merchants, textile traders and leatherworkers, with a scattering of MPs, gentry and artists.’ These were Shakespeare’s neighbours, who lived and worked around him as he wrote Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Merchant of Venice.
There’s a lot of fun in this.