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Digital Research Just Uncovered A Family Secret of the World’s Most Famous Playwright

A University of Bristol academic has uncovered that a mysterious religious tract found in the attic of William Shakespeare’s Stratford home in the mid-1700s was written by the famous playwright’s unknown sister, Joan Shakespeare.

The discovery was made by Professor Matthew Steggle from the Department of English who used online archives like Google Books to analyze a rare 17th century Italian religious text. His research revealed that a long-lost document, previously thought to be written by Shakespeare’s father John, was actually penned by Joan.

The document in question is a religious tract pledging to accept death as a good Catholic. It was found hidden in the rafters of Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1757. Early Shakespeare scholars assumed it belonged to John, implying he was a secret Catholic at a time when the faith was persecuted in England.

However, Steggle’s analysis proved the document was a translation of a 17th century Italian text titled “The Last Will and Testament of the Soul” published years after John’s death in 1601. By cross-referencing digital copies across European libraries, Steggle determined the only other “J. Shakespeare” who could have authored it was Joan.

“There are only seven surviving documents from Joan’s lifetime that even mention her by name,” said Steggle. “Virginia Woolf wrote about how a figure like her could never hope to have her writing preserved, so she became a symbol for lost voices of early modern women.”

The mysterious Shakespearean tract contains quotes affirming Joan’s Catholic beliefs, such as: “I, [Joan] Shakespeare, do protest that I will willingly accept of death…conforming my will unto the will of God.” It also reveals her veneration of St. Winifred, a 7th century Welsh princess particularly revered by women for repelling male sexual advances. 

Joan was five years younger than William and his only close living relative in his later years besides his wife and daughters. She married a tradesman, had four children, and lived in relative obscurity in Stratford after being widowed, residing in part of the Shakespeare family home until her death at 77 in 1646. 

“Even thirty years ago, research like this would have been incredibly difficult, confined to a single library’s physical holdings,” explained Steggle. “But now libraries have digitized so many rare materials, allowing global cross-referencing of texts and opening new avenues for scholarly discoveries.”

The find provides rare insight into the life of a woman who was related to one of, if not the most, celebrated, quoted, and venerated playwrights in the modern era. More importantly, this research underscores how digital archives can recover voices that were overshadowed or lost to history.

“There are hundreds of thousands of words surviving from her brother, and until now none at all, of any description, from her,” said Steggle. 

Beyond its historical significance, the discovery demonstrates how technologies like online databases and optical character recognition, which digitizes printed texts, can power new academic research by opening up the world’s libraries.

Steggle’s research was published in the journal Shakespeare Quarterly and will also feature in his upcoming biography of Shakespeare. 

MJ Banias is a journalist who covers security and technology. You can find his work here. He co-hosts The Debrief Weekly Report. and you can email MJ at mj@thedebrief.org or follow him on Twitter @mjbanias.