Discover the Mysterious Shakespeare Lost Years

Portrait of William Shakespeare
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What are the Shakespeare lost years? Well, scholars have managed to piece together Shakespeare’s biography from the scant documentary evidence that has survived from Shakespeare’s time. Baptisms, marriages, and legal dealings provide concrete evidence about Shakespeare’s whereabouts—but there are two big gaps in the story which have become known as the Shakespeare lost years.

The Lost Years

The two periods of time that make up the Shakespeare lost years are:

  • 1578–1582: We know little about Shakespeare’s life after he left grammar school and his marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582.
  • 1585-1592: After the baptism of his children, Shakespeare again disappears from the history books for several years until he resurfaces in the early 1590s as a London-based playwright.

It is this second “bout of absence” that intrigues historians the most because it is during this period that Shakespeare would have perfected his craft, established himself as a dramatist and gained experience of the theater.

In truth, nobody actually knows what Shakespeare was doing between 1585 and 1592, but there are a number of popular theories and stories, as outlined below.

Shakespeare the Poacher

In 1616, a clergyman from Gloucester recounted a story in which the young Shakespeare was caught poaching near Stratford-upon-Avon on the land of Sir Thomas Lucy. Although there is no concrete evidence, it is suggested that Shakespeare fled to London to escape Lucy’s punishment. It is also suggested that Shakespeare later based Justice Shallow from The Merry Wives of Windsor on Lucy.

Shakespeare the Pilgrim

Evidence has recently been presented that Shakespeare may have made a pilgrimage to Rome as part of his Roman Catholic faith. There is certainly lots of evidence to suggest that Shakespeare was Catholic—which was a very dangerous religion to practice in Elizabethan England.

A 16th-century guest book signed by pilgrims to Rome reveals three cryptic signatures thought to be Shakespeare’s. This has led some to believe Shakespeare spent his lost years in Italy—perhaps seeking refuge from England’s persecution of Catholics at the time. Indeed, it is true that 14 of Shakespeare’s plays have Italian settings.

The parchment was signed by:

  • “Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis” in 1589
    Believed to mean “William, clerk of Stratford”
  • “Shfordus Cestriensis” in 1587
    Believed to mean “Shakespeare of Stratford in the diocese of Chester”
  • “Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis” in 1585
    Believed to mean: “(King) Arthur's compatriot from Stratford in the diocese of Worcester”
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Jamieson, Lee. "Discover the Mysterious Shakespeare Lost Years." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 26). Discover the Mysterious Shakespeare Lost Years. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "Discover the Mysterious Shakespeare Lost Years." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).