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Shakespeare & Beyond

Coat of arms discovery yields new insights into Shakespeare

Shakespeare coat of arms
Shakespeare coat of arms
Shakespeare coat of arms

The New England Historic Genealogical Society

Last month, we highlighted what was one of the biggest Shakespeare stories of 2016: previously unknown depictions of Shakespeare’s coat of arms, discovered by Folger Curator of Manuscripts Heather Wolfe.

Now, dig deeper into the story with Wolfe and Folger Director Michael Witmore. Writing on The Collation blog, they elaborate on the significance of those discoveries and the insights they yield about Shakespeare:

The Guardian newspaper recently published an article about new manuscript discoveries concerning the life of William Shakespeare. These discoveries, made by Heather Wolfe, are described as a decisive blow to the belief that Shakespeare was a front man for someone else—a smoking gun that disproves the claims for other candidates such as Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, or Queen Elizabeth.

But we don’t believe additional smoking guns are necessary when it comes to the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. We know that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him, and that some of these reflect the collaborative working process inherent in writing for performance. But the anniversary celebrations of 2016 provided an opportunity to consider afresh what we know about Shakespeare’s life and reputation using contemporary documents. As part of the Folger’s yearlong celebrations, Wolfe curated the exhibition Shakespeare, Life of an Icon and its digital complement, Shakespeare Documented, which gathers over 400 documents making reference to Shakespeare, his works, and his family in and around his lifetime.

In the course of developing both projects, Wolfe discovered previously unstudied depictions of Shakespeare’s coat of arms and new manuscript evidence of the well-known controversy surrounding the grant of arms to Shakespeare’s father, a controversy that touches on William Shakespeare directly in the early 1600s. That evidence, outlined below, gives us a fuller picture of how two heralds in the College of Arms, William Dethick and Ralph Brooke, argued over the legitimacy of the grant of Shakespeare’s coat of arms and of 22 other recent grants.

Read more on The Collation