Folger curator shares new Shakespeare discoveries

Folger Curator of Manuscripts Heather Wolfe dropped a bombshell in The New York Times this past week: Newly discovered depictions of Shakespeare’s coat of arms from the seventeenth century provide documentary evidence that while the heralds made the grant of arms to his father, William Shakespeare himself was intimately involved in the application and the ensuing controversy over their legitimacy, casting new light on his status as a gentleman-writer.

From the Times story:

The documents, discovered by Heather Wolfe, the curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, relate to a coat of arms that was granted to Shakespeare’s father in 1596, attesting to his and his son’s status as gentlemen.

Considered with previously known records, Ms. Wolfe argues, the documents suggest both how deeply invested Shakespeare was in gaining that recognition — a rarity for a man from the theater — and how directly he may have been drawn into colorful bureaucratic infighting that threatened to strip it away.

The new evidence “really helps us get a little bit closer to the man himself,” Ms. Wolfe said. “It shows him shaping himself and building his reputation in a very intentional way.”

These previously unknown records have been added to Shakespeare Documented, the largest and most authoritative collection of primary-source materials documenting the life of William Shakespeare, with all known references to the man, his works, and his family—during his lifetime and shortly thereafter.

Wolfe, one of the world’s leading experts on early modern manuscripts, made the finds while working as the curator for Shakespeare Documented and Shakespeare, Life of an Icon, a 2016 landmark exhibition at the Folger showcasing the most important manuscripts and printed books related to Shakespeare’s life and career.

One of the chief discoveries is a manuscript entitled Promptuarium Armorum (“Storehouse of Arms”), compiled by William Smith, Rouge Dragon Pursuivant (one of the 13 heralds of the College of Arms in England) between 1602 and 1616. Now located at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, the manuscript is thought to have been brought to New England by the herald William Crowne in the seventeenth century and is possibly the earliest example of Shakespeare’s coat of arms to arrive in America.

See the Shakespeare coat of arms in the third row, fourth column:

Shakespeare coat of arms
Harold Bowditch Collection, Mss 1180, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, page 66. The New England Historic Genealogical Society. Image from Shakespeare Documented.

The Shakespeare coat of arms shows a shield with a diagonal black “bend,” with a spear inside the bend. The spear in the shield and the spear being “shaken” by the falcon perched above are both visual puns on the Shakespeare family name.

Here is another depiction from the recent discoveries:

William Shakespeare Coat of Arms
Ralph Brooke’s compilation of arms granted by William Dethick: 1600 copy with the arms of “Shakespeare the player”. The College of Arms. Shakespeare Documented.

Read The New York Times article and view the manuscripts themselves on Shakespeare Documented.


    • And you are quite right! The document, as noted above, is from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. We asked their manager of manuscript collections, Tim Salls, about the Washington connection for the coat of arms in the first position on the third row. He tells us that “the coat of arms in question were for Laurence Washington. Judging from the date of 1594, it probably refers to Lawrence Washington (ca. 1565-1616) of Sulgrave Manor, Northamptonshire, England, a great-great-great-grandfather of George Washington.” For more information on the Washington family coat of arms, consult this source at Mount Vernon.

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