New study reveals the mystery of Shakespeare’s sister

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In a remarkable discovery that sounds like something out of a detective novel, a piece of history tied to one of the world’s greatest playwrights, William Shakespeare, has been uncovered in an unexpected twist.

This story begins in the 17th century, weaving through the digital age to solve a mystery centuries old, shedding light on a figure long overshadowed by her legendary brother.

Long ago, hidden within the beams of the Shakespeare family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, a bricklayer stumbled upon a document around 1770.

This wasn’t just any document; it was a religious declaration, a personal vow to die adhering to the Catholic faith.

This was a daring stance, considering that during this period in England, being openly Catholic could lead to severe punishment, even death.

The find sparked curiosity and speculation, especially since it was believed to have belonged to John Shakespeare, William’s father, suggesting he was a devout, secret Catholic.

However, the story takes a turn thanks to the sleuthing of Professor Matthew Steggle from the University of Bristol.

By delving into the vast digital archives of Google Books and other internet resources, Steggle uncovered that the document was actually a translation of an Italian religious text called “The Last Will and Testament of the Soul.”

His detective work led to a surprising revelation: the document wasn’t John’s but belonged to Joan Shakespeare, William’s lesser-known sister.

Joan, who lived from 1569 to 1646, was William’s younger sister by five years. Despite her brother’s fame, Joan led a modest life in Stratford-upon-Avon, marrying a tradesman and raising four children.

She outlived her husband and William, spending her later years quietly in the Shakespeare family home. Her life, largely undocumented, paints a picture of a woman of her time, living in the shadows of her brother’s towering legacy.

The document itself is a profound pledge, with Joan expressing a willing acceptance of death according to God’s will, gratitude for her life, and a deep faith in Catholicism.

She invokes the Virgin Mary and Saint Winifred, showing a personal connection to her faith and the saints she revered, particularly Winifred, a symbol of female strength and resilience against male aggression.

Such pledges were significant, serving as final affirmations of belief and acceptance of one’s fate.

This finding is not just about adding a footnote to history; it represents a significant shift in understanding the Shakespeare family’s religious beliefs and the era’s social context. Moreover, it brings Joan Shakespeare out of the shadows, providing a rare glimpse into her life and beliefs.

In a world where her brother’s words have reached every corner of the globe, Joan’s voice, though limited to this single document, now resonates as a testament to her existence and faith.

Professor Steggle’s research, facilitated by the digital age’s resources, underscores how modern technology can illuminate the past, revealing stories long hidden.

This story, published in the Shakespeare Quarterly, contributes not only to our understanding of the Shakespeare family but also to the narrative of women in the early modern period, whose lives and voices have often been overlooked or lost to history.

In this tale of discovery, Joan Shakespeare emerges not just as William’s sister but as a woman of faith and conviction, her legacy now recognized centuries after her death.

It’s a reminder of the countless untold stories waiting to be uncovered, offering new perspectives on the past and enriching our understanding of history.

The research findings can be found in Shakespeare Quarterly.

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