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New study discovers Shakespeare’s sister’s unknown literary talent


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William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, has captivated audiences for centuries. But what about his sister, Joan? Largely unknown, her story remained shrouded in mystery—until now.

A remarkable discovery by Professor Matthew Steggle of the University of Bristol sheds new light on Joan Shakespeare. Through a meticulous analysis of digital archives, Professor Steggle has identified a long-lost document previously attributed to William’s father, John.

The document, a religious tract unearthed in the rafters of Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon residence around 1770, expresses a fervent Catholic faith. Given the period’s strong anti-Catholic sentiment, this discovery would have painted John as a secret Catholic—a potentially explosive revelation.

However, Professor Steggle’s investigation revealed a surprising truth. By delving into digital copies of a rare 17th-century Italian text, The Last Will and Testament of the Soul, he was able to pinpoint the document’s origin. It was, in fact, a translation, and the true author wasn’t John Shakespeare, but Joan herself!

Born five years after William, Joan remained his only significant living relative in his later years. Unlike her brother’s prolific literary legacy, Joan’s voice has been virtually absent from historical records. Only 7 documents from her lifetime even mention her name.

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Professor Steggle acknowledges the significance of this discovery: “Virginia Woolf famously wrote about ‘Shakespeare’s sister,’ a figure symbolising the lost voices of women in early modern times. Here we have hundreds of thousands of words from William, but until now, none from Joan.”

The unearthed document offers a glimpse into Joan’s faith. The passages reveal her pious nature and her devotion to the Virgin Mary and Saint Winifred, a Welsh princess who defied unwanted advances. This choice of saint further suggests the document’s authorship by Joan.

Pledges of this nature, Professor Steggle explains, were a way for individuals to assert control over their passing and express their final beliefs. The Joan Shakespeare document stands as a unique example in British history, with just a handful of similar continental records.

Professor Steggle’s research, published in Shakespeare Quarterly, forms part of his upcoming biography of William Shakespeare. This discovery not only sheds light on Bard’s family life but also offers a precious window into the life and faith of a previously unknown figure: Shakespeare’s sister, Joan.


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