September 26, 2013


The Murderer, the Motive, the Means
by Simon Andrew Stirling
288 pages, The History Press

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

Considering how little we know about William Shakespeare it is remarkable how much has been written about the man. He is, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest playwright in the English language and, quite possibly, the greatest writer of all time. Although his poetry and plays have survived for over 400 years, the details of his life are remarkably scant.

Perhaps it is this great unknown that has enabled the field of Shakespeare scholarship to become so very crowded. As a student of literature, I recall a vast number of academic texts on Shakespeare cluttering the shelves of the university library. There were feminist perspectives on the Bard, Marxist readings of his sonnets, postmodernist texts, books on Shakespeare's sexuality, his politics and books on whether the Stratford-born son of a glove-maker could have been the author of such wonderful works of literature. Ideas put forward in one text would be dismissed in the next and I came away from that term studying Shakespeare with a head full of conflicting ideas.

Despite all this, I was intrigued with the concept behind Simon Andrew Stirling's "Who Killed William Shakespeare?" The book approaches Stratford's greatest son from an interesting angle that makes for compelling reading. Stirling examines the life of the Bard with the theory that, like his father, William was a Catholic. During the reign of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and then that of King James, Catholics were persecuted, tortured and executed for their beliefs. Many Catholics kept their faith a secret and engaged in private acts of worship. Stirling examines Shakespeare's life and provides the reader with a dazzling array of information linking the Shakespeare family with a number of Catholic families who were kept in contact with one another by a network of underground priests. Shakespeare's links with these families, some of whom were involved in the Gunpowder plot of 1605 would have made him a target for Protestant spies and informants hoping to curry favour with those in charge of the country.

Of course, there is no evidence directly linking Shakespeare to any Catholic plot – such evidence would undoubtedly have led to his plays and poems being erased from history –but Stirling puts forward a very convincing argument for Shakespeare's religious and political leanings. These theories are backed up by extensive reference to Shakespeare's plays and poems and Stirling examines the countless inferences, double-meanings and subtexts that are scattered throughout his work. William Shakespeare, it seems, was quite vocal in his condemnation of the Protestant regime and the ill-treatment of English Catholics. Stirling argues that Shakespeare's popularity was such that he was considered dangerous and that he should be stopped. Shakespeare did not die of natural causes, he was murdered.

With such a bold assertion as its central argument, "Who Killed William Shakespeare?" has the potential to be overblown, sensationalist and... well, a bit silly. However, the author's meticulous historical research and deep familiarity with the works of Shakespeare ensures that it never feels like a work of wild speculation. Chapters examining the evidence that the skull found in a crypt beneath a church in Beoley belonged to Shakespeare are handled with a similarly circumspect approach so that even if we are not 100% convinced by Stirling's theories, we are at least able to view them as definite possibilities.

For a book with such a strong focus on the politics of such a confusing period of British history, "Who Killed William Shakespeare?" is a surprisingly accessible read. Stirling writes with the requisite balance of authority and good humour to ensure that the reader never feels lost or bored. By placing Shakespeare's poems and plays firmly in the historical context in which they were written, Stirling is able to breathe new life into verses that have grown stale through over-familiarity. For those with an interest in the history or literature of Shakespeare's time, "Who Killed William Shakespeare?" is guaranteed to be an illuminating, enlightening read.

Hereward L.M. Proops

Read the author interview here.

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