‘Spiritual Testament’, John Shakespeare's

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John Shakespeare (1530—1601)

John Jordan (1746—1809) local historian and poet

Edmond Malone (1741—1812) literary scholar and biographer

Folger Shakespeare Library


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A booklet containing a handwritten Catholic protestation of faith by John Shakespeare in fourteen articles discovered in the rafters of his house in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1757. John Jordan submitted a transcript of all of it except the first leaf (which by then was missing) for publication in The Gentleman's Magazine in 1784, but it was rejected. Malone studied the original and printed it in his ‘Historical Account of the English Stage’ in his 1790 edition of Shakespeare's works, along with a transcript of the missing first page which Jordan was somehow able to supply. By this time, Malone was beginning to lose faith in the document's authenticity.

The original booklet is now lost, and we depend for our knowledge of it on Malone's printed transcript. For a long time Jordan was suspected of having forged the entire document, but about 1923 a Spanish version of the same basic statement, a ‘Last Will of the Soul, made in health for the Christian to secure himself from the temptations of the Devil at the hour of death’ and drawn up by Carlo Borromeo, who died in 1585, was discovered in the British Museum. It is known that British Jesuit missionaries, including Edmund Campion, visited Borromeo in 1580 and disseminated thousands of copies of the document on their return to England.

In 1966 an early printed English translation was acquired by the Folger Library, which proves that the document as printed by Malone was genuine, except for the first page, as to which Malone's suspicions of Jordan are justified.

The loss of the original document leaves several questions unanswered, but it does seem that at some point in his life Shakespeare's father subscribed to the Catholic faith.

Subjects: Shakespeare Studies and Criticism.

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