An Investigation into Shakespeare’s Lost Years

In 2012, I published Not Wisely but Too Well, an epistolary, biographical novel narrated by William Shakespeare. This was intended to be the first volume of four and covered Shakespeare’s early life until 1593, just before his name first appeared in print with the publication of Venus and Adonis.

Unlike the subject of my first novel, The Slave, Shakespeare was virtually unknown to me, so this time I had to do lots of research, which I loved. I have very fond memories of the summer I spent in the State Library of Victoria chasing enthralling rabbits down intriguing rabbit-holes. I loved the research so much, I believe I may have spent more time blogging about it than I did writing the novel.

As well as Shakespeare’s childhood, Not Wisely but Too Well, also covers the period known as Shakespeare’s ‘Lost Years’, the time between the conception of his twins in spring 1584 and 1593, as there is no evidence of what Shakespeare was doing during that time. We don’t know exactly when he left Stratford-upon-Avon for London or why. We don’t know whether he went directly to London or not, nor do we know what he did when he got to London. No doubt you’ve heard the stories of his being chased out of Stratford for poaching and getting into theatre by holding the patrons’ horses, but these are just legends created more than a century after Shakespeare’s death.

As biographers had as little idea about this period in Shakespeare’s life as I did, I didn’t rely on their biographies, but followed my own lines of enquiry. I learnt about the Elizabethan theatre and Shakespeare’s contemporaries, perused documents, (albeit in transcript, though I would have loved to have been doing this research in the British Library) and studied how and when his plays were written. The narrative I came up with for my novel was, I believe, more grounded in fact than those early legends, and, even though I say so myself, much more interesting.

The cover image of my novel is a section of the Grafton Portrait. While it’s uncertain whether this is actually a portrait of Shakespeare, I like to think it is and based my characterisation of the young Shakespeare on this sad-eyed young man. However, the actual owners of the portrait, the University of Manchester, refuse to acknowledge even that it might be Shakespeare for, what I believe, are spurious reasons, as I argue in Is this a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Perhaps the only thing that we can be certain about Shakespeare’s life before he left for London is that he married Anne Hathaway and fathered three children. When they married, Shakespeare was only eighteen and Anne was eight years older and pregnant. The fact that he was so young presents us with two possibilities about his relationship with Anne, a question I examine in Will and Anne: love story or shotgun wedding?

In Shakespeare Goes to London I examine the possible scenarios that motivated Shakespeare to leave Stratford-upon-Avon and what he might have done when he arrived in London. One possibility I examine is that he went directly to the Theatre, London’s first purpose-built playhouse, which was built by James Burbage, the father of the renowned actor Richard Burbage. Shakespeare spent his known professional career in partnership with the Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert, who managed the Theatre and later the Globe playhouses. I tell their story in The Burbages: First Family of Theatre.

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