Shakespeare’s Lost Years by Aelwyn Edwards

Venice. Reproduced in Social England, ed. H.D.Traill.

For many years my father Aelwyn Edwards was fascinated by William Shakespeare’s “Lost Years” – the period in Shakespeare’s life for which historians and biographers have little or no information. He believed that Shakespeare might have travelled to Italy – specifically Venice – during this time. He undertook a good deal of his research in the two years following his retirement in 1979, and revisited his work periodically for the rest of his life, examining archives in Britain and in Venice for evidence which would confirm his theory. He didn’t find anything substantial, but I present his paper here to make it available, and in the hope that anyone who is aware of any supporting evidence might get in touch.

My daughter Rachel has also written a piece on Aelwyn’s Shakespeare theory in her Rare Accidents blog. This is based on a shorter piece Aelwyn wrote which was placed online by my brother Rob in 2007.



A great many words have been written about the life of William Shakespeare, but for all this, and for all the research that has been carried out, there are still significant areas of his life of which little or nothing is known. Mysteries surround much of his early life; let us examine some of these:


Shakespeare, born in April 1564, appears to have left Stratford-upon-Avon in or about 1585, aged about 21; his twins Hamnet and Judith were christened on 2nd February of that year. He is known to have been in London in 1593, the year in which his poem “Venus and Adonis” was published, but there is also some evidence, which is widely accepted, that he had been in London from about 1590 or 1591 working as an actor and playwright. There is no information whatsoever concerning his whereabouts or movements during what have become known as the “lost years” between 1585 and 1590. During this five-year period he appears to have developed, without the benefit of a university education, from a youth bred against the modest background of a glover’s household in a quiet provincial town, to the man of towering intellect whose works have come down to us today. Indeed, it has often been suggested that his plays could not possibly have been written by a man of such modest origins, thereby generating theories based on the assumption that they were written by someone else entirely. The background to Shakespeare’s remarkable development may not be fully understood, but almost any explanation is likely to be more credible than those invoking other writers, however eminent.

The most generally accepted view of Shakespeare’s whereabouts between the years 1585 and 1590 is that he spent part or all of this period as a schoolmaster; this experience would hardly have sufficed to effect the transformation from the provincial schoolboy to the poet and dramatist that we know. Something more is needed.


Some of Shakespeare’s plays are based on English history, and others on Greek and Roman history as described by Plutarch in English translation; in all these plays, the location is predetermined by the origin of the story. Nineteen plays fall into neither of those categories, and of these, fourteen are concerned with events in the Mediterranean region, with an especial bias towards cities in the Venetian State, particularly Venice, Padua and Verona. These plays display a remarkable understanding of Italian customs and ceremonials, together with an intimate awareness of the ambience of Italian life. It should be self-evident that any author who writes convincingly about a foreign country will have gained his knowledge at first hand. Only very rarely, however, has the possibility been considered that Shakespeare could have travelled abroad. Instead, the currently accepted view is that his intimate knowledge of foreign parts was acquired, astonishingly, as a result of accosting total strangers in London taverns and engaging them in conversation.

Again, something more is needed.


References to Shakespeare’s life-style in London in the early 1590’s invariably comment with surprise at how much money he appeared to have at his disposal. It is known with reasonable certainty that in 1596 he was able to pay off his father’s considerable debts, and went to the expense of renewing his father’s application for a Coat of Arms. In 1597 he bought New Place, one of the largest houses in Stratford, and, about that time, he acquired a shareholding in the Lord Chamberlain’s Company of players, of which he was a member.

It is inconceivable that Shakespeare could have attained this degree of affluence from his earnings as an actor and playwright in the early 1590’s. As an actor he appears to have played only minor roles and, with actors at that time being regarded as lesser members of society, he was unlikely to have been highly paid. With regard to his earnings as a playwright, it was the custom at that time for plays to be purchased outright from the authors by the theatre companies, so that any success attending a particular play would enrich the company and not the author. We learn from the diaries of Philip Henslowe, manager of one such theatre company, that £6 was an average sum being paid for a play in 1598, and even Ben Jonson was, in 1602, paid only £10 for a play entitled “Richard Crookback”. At that time, £200 a year would have represented a comfortable income, so that contemporary actors and writers would have had little opportunity of accumulating large amounts of wealth. Moreover, the London theatres were closed for long periods during 1592 and 1593 because of plague, which would inevitably have interfered with Shakespeare’s career. At the same time, he was obliged to keep a wife and three children in Stratford, as well as keeping himself in London.

Attempts to explain Shakespeare’s accumulation of wealth have assumed, with little justification, that some rich friend had given him, or lent him, substantial sums of money to enable him to make this or that purchase, or by making the bland assumption that his riches accumulated because he was a good businessman. In the real world, however, the legitimate earnings of a few years of daily toil do not readily convert themselves into fortunes.

Once again, something more is needed.

The great array of theories which have hitherto been advanced to explain the various unknown features of Shakespeare’s life have merely nibbled at the fringe of just one mystery at a time, and they do not add up to much that is at all convincing. If a convincing explanation of his life is to be found, we need to develop an approach to the problem which leads to an answer encompassing all the mysteries.


The key to this new approach is the recognition that Shakespeare’s financial situation in or about 1590 is entirely consistent with that of a young man arriving in London, his head teeming with plots and dialogues, aware that he cannot immediately expect a lucrative living in the theatre, but secure in the possession of sufficient capital to see him through the difficult times. For six years or so he cautiously draws on his capital to eke out his income, and then, feeling secure in his new career, he is able to put his capital to work, restoring his father’s ailing affairs, investing in property, and becoming a part-owner in theatrical ventures.

How and where did he acquire this capital? Could he conceivably have travelled to Northern Italy and made his fortune there?


During most of the 16th century, the port of Antwerp was Europe’s pre-eminent trading centre. Not only was Antwerp the market centre for western Europe, but all England’s export trade to the eastern Mediterranean at that time was channelled through Antwerp by the overland route to Venice, from which point goods for Turkey and beyond were carried by the Venetian merchant fleet. Two circumstances then combined to change the whole pattern of trade with the Mediterranean; first, the War of Cyprus (1570-1573) resulted in the Venetian merchant fleet being reduced to a level from which it never fully recovered; and second, war in the Spanish Netherlands led to the sacking of Antwerp in 1576 and the closure of the port to foreign trade in 1585, with the consequent blocking of the overland route between England and Venice.

Expeditions were now fitted out in England to explore and develop trade with Mediterranean countries by the direct sea route, in spite of the menace of a hostile Spain, and, for the first time, goods were carried into the eastern Mediterranean without the need to use Venetian ships. A logical development of this trend saw the formation in 1581 of the Turkey Company whereby Queen Elizabeth granted to a group of English merchants the sole right to trade in Turkey for a period of seven years; in 1583 a similar charter was granted to a separate group of merchants forming the Venice Company.

It is clear that fortunes were being made in the course of this trading, principally in cloth, hides, tin and wool, returning with raisins, wine and spices. The merchants would originally have travelled to the Mediterranean in their ships, but as they prospered they would travel less frequently, forsaking the rigours of the voyages in order to conduct their business from London, leaving agents or factors in each major trading centre to look after their affairs. Although the function of these factors was to transact business for their principals, for which they would be well paid, there can be no doubt that financial inducements existed for them to do business on their own account, in spite of regulations intended to curb the practice. There was clearly an opportunity in this trade for an ambitious young man to travel and make his fortune. Was this opportunity available to William Shakespeare?


John Shakespeare, William’s father, is remembered chiefly as a Stratford glover, his shop having occupied the part of the house in Henley Street known as the Woolshop. The glovers of the central and east Midlands were, however, notorious for having been great wool dealers in the latter part of the 16th century; there is ample evidence for this in repeated complaints made to the Merchants of the Staple regarding the intrusion of too many middlemen, especially glovers, into the marketing of wool during the 1570’s.

It is likely that John Shakespeare was involved with this trade no less than other glovers of the period. Not only was his place of work known as the Woolshop, but when the floor of the shop was being relaid early in the 19th century, the remnants of wool and the refuse of wool- combings were found under the old flooring. Also, a document exists referring to an action brought by him in 1599 for non-payment of a debt dating from 4th November 1568 for supplying a quantity of wool to a clothier in Wiltshire.

Thus young William, only four years of age when this debt was incurred, would have been familiar with the buying and selling of wool from an early age. It would have been entirely normal when he left school for him to have become involved in this side of his father’s business. He would then have had the opportunity of meeting prosperous wool and cloth merchants, not only at Stratford, but also at the local centre of cloth manufacture at Coventry or at the great wool marts of Cirencester. There would therefore have been ample opportunity for Shakespeare to have been tempted to London, perhaps at the instigation of a merchant who recognised his burgeoning business talents. From there it could be but a logical step on the ladder of promotion to a responsible and lucrative post in far-off Venice. The start of his business career is thus seen as a perfectly feasible series of events.


A theory is only a theory until evidence is found that proves it. In the course of research it quickly became clear that any documentary references to Shakespeare or to anyone or anything remotely connected with him are immediately seized upon and broadcast to the world. It follows, therefore, that any evidence destined to prove our theory will be found in documents that have not yet been read, or in documents whose relevance to Shakespeare’s life has not been recognised. Evidence must be sought which links Shakespeare directly with Venice, or which links the merchants of London with his world at Stratford or in the London theatre. Who, then, were the London merchants who were trading with Venice at this time?


On 5th April 1583 Queen Elizabeth wrote a letter to the Doge and Senate of Venice requesting that the fourteen merchants named therein should be granted trading facilities. This letter was sent to Paris, from where it was forwarded to Venice on 26th August 1583 by the Venetian Ambassador to France. In the meantime, the Queen issued a proclamation on 17th April 1583 announcing to London in general that these same fourteen merchants were licensed to trade with Venice, so setting up the Venice Company. Information regarding these merchants has been found in the records of the various Livery Companies in London, and they are listed below, with their Companies. In addition to the fourteen authorised merchants, another two are known to have also traded with Venice; they were William Harrison and Henry Parvish. These sixteen merchants and their Companies are:

  • Henry Anderson (Grocers)
  • Andrew Banning (Bayning) (Grocers)
  • Paul Banning (Bayning) (Grocers)
  • Thomas Cordell (Mercers)
  • Richard Dassell (Mercers)
  • Thomas Dawkins (Grocers)
  • Henry Farington (Drapers)
  • William Garraway (Garway) (Drapers)
  • Richard Glascock (Haberdashers)
  • Edward Holmden (Grocers)
  • Edward Lichland (Leachland) (Haberdashers)
  • Edward Sadler (Sadleir) (Haberdashers)
  • Robert Sadler (Sadleir) (Haberdashers)
  • Thomas Trowte (Trott) (Drapers)
  • William Harrison (Drapers)
  • Henry Parvish (Haberdashers)

Attempts have been made to trace the living descendants of these merchants, perhaps in the forlom hope that they might possess a chest full of unread documents. The families of Henry Farington and Edward Holmden have in fact been traced, but no evidence of contact with the bard has resulted.

Sadler is a well-known Stratford name, and Hamnet Sadler, a baker, was a close friend of Shakespeare’s; however, his family appears to contain neither an Edward nor a Robert. Another Warwickshire family, the Sadlers of Fillongley, includes an Edward and a Robert of about the right ages, but no evidence has been found linking them with the Haberdashers Company or with Venice. A further branch of the Sadlers is known to have included merchants with estates in Virginia, but again no relevant evidence has resulted.

Shakespeare’s friend Richard Quiney, a Stratford mercer, travelled frequently to London on behalf of his own business and that of Stratford borough. Many letters which were written to him have survived, and these contain the names of many London drapers whom he visited on behalf of various Stratford drapers, but none of these figure on the list of Venice merchants. Nor has any record been found of the names of the London mercers visited by Quiney on his own account.


The Port Books held at the Public Record Office in London give details of imported cargoes recorded for customs purposes, including ports of origin and the names of the merchants receiving the imports; searches among these books have revealed nothing of any value in relation to our theory. The possibility of similar records being available in Venice has been investigated, but it appears that all such records relating to the 16th century have been lost.

Entries observed in the Port Books relating to voyages between London and the Baltic port of Lubeck prompt the notion of our merchant bard travelling on this route – and calling in at Elsinore along the way.


Legal records of 16th and 17th century England have long since been thoroughly ransacked for information relating to Shakespeare, and the results well publicised, so there seems little prospect of help for the theory from this source. Legal records in Venice covering the same period are known to exist, so that if indeed Shakespeare ever went there, it is in these records, or in similar records in Padua, Verona or elsewhere, that evidence may yet be found. There is always the hope that he put his name to a contract with a local merchant, or that he sued someone, or that someone sued him, or that, just once, he was charged with being drunk and disorderly.


This theory of Shakespeare’s life has so far been mainly concerned with the lost years, with the Italian bias, and with his wealth. However, the theory turns out to have a surprising ability to provide credible explanations for other mysteries of his life.

Sources of the plays

Scholars have traced the origins of the plots of Shakespeare’s plays to many sources, but there remain many unanswered questions in this area. For instance, The Comedy of Errors, first produced in 1592, is believed to have been based on two comedies, the Menaechmi and the Amphitruo, by the Roman writer Plautus. However, English translations of these plays did not appear until 1595. So how was Shakespeare aware of these plots? On the basis of this theory, he could have seen a performance of the Menaechmi while he was in Italy during the period between 1585 and 1590.

Again, Twelfth Night bears a close resemblance to an Italian play Gl’Ingannati, which appears to have been unknown in England; this resemblance can be readily explained if Shakespeare had an opportunity of seeing the Italian play, in Italy. Similar instances can also be quoted in relation to Italian sources believed to have been used in the plots of Othello, Much Ado about Nothing, The Merchant of Venice and Cymbeline.

The theatre in northern Italy is known to have been thriving during the period of Shakespeare’s supposed presence there, as is well illustrated by the completion in 1586 of Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico at Vicenza. Not only would Shakespeare have had the opportunity of seeing Italian plays, but it may have been this contact with the Italian theatre that first kindled his interest in the writing of plays.

The Poems

Is it possible that Shakespeare’s poems Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, were inspired by paintings of these subjects? Among paintings known to have existed in Venice in the 1580’s are Veronese’s Venus and Adonis, and Tarquinio e Lucrezio by Titian and by the younger Palma, so that the opportunity for inspiration would certainly have been there. In any event, Shakespeare’s presence in Venice would surely have exposed him directly to all the cultural and civilising influences of that city.

Shakespeare and the Catholic Faith

Scholars have noted Shakespeare’s apparent familiarity with Catholic customs and beliefs, beliefs that carried grave risks if practised in Elizabethan England. However, a few years of residence in Italy would certainly have provided ample opportunity for acquiring knowledge of these matters.

Scholars have also been puzzled by the discovery in 1757 of a Catholic Testament of Faith bearing the name of John Shakespeare, William’s father, hidden in the roof of the house in Henley Street, the formula of the testament being one that had been drawn up by Archbishop Carlo Borromeo in Milan in the late 1570’s. No explanation has been given as to how such a seditious document came to be there, but it would have been quite simple for William to have acquired a copy in Italy and, aware of his father’s interest in the subject, to have brought it home with him.

The “Dark Lady” and Mr.W.H.

Among the other mysteries of Shakespeare’s life are those concerning the identities of the Dark Lady of the sonnets and of Mr.W.H., to whom the sonnets were dedicated. No theory would be complete unless it shone its own light on these matters. With regard to the lady, it is entirely natural that, during a protracted period of residence in Italy, a warm-blooded young man should have formed a romantic attachment with some local dark lady worthy to be praised in his sonnets; how easy it would have been for Shakespeare to meet his Juliet or his Jessica.

As for Mr. W.H., it will not have escaped the alert reader’s notice that one of the London merchants trading with Venice, William Harrison, is the proud bearer of these initials, and to whom should the sonnets composed for Shakespeare’s Italian mistress be dedicated but to the man who was instrumental in bringing them together?


The theory so far lacks the support of direct evidence, but there are various directions in which evidence may yet be sought. Even without evidence, however, the theory succeeds in being all-embracing; not only does it conform neatly with the known facts, but it also provides quite remarkably simple explanations for the unknown quantities. Even without evidence it is almost convincing, and from it all we get a heightened awareness of Shakespeare the man, of his knowledge and understanding of the human condition, and of his worldliness. Experience of life in the Venice of the 1580’s has completed the transformation from the provincial schoolboy to the most mature of men. Perhaps evidence for this view still lurks, waiting to be found somewhere in England, or in Venice and its former dominions.

Meanwhile, from the sonnets –

"Full many a glorious morning have I seen 
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye".

Where? at Stratford? or London? We think not.


  • S.Schoenbaum: Shakespeare’s Lives
  • S.Schoenbaum: William Shakespeare – A Documentary Life
  • Ralph Davis: English Overseas Trade 1500-1700
  • Ralph Davis: Essays in the Economic and Social History of Tudor and Stuart England (ed. F.J.Fisher)
  • G.D.Ramsay: English Overseas Trade in the Centuries of Emergence
  • T.S.Willan: Studies in Elizabethan Foreign Trade
  • T.S.Willan: English History Review LXX(1955) pp.399-410
  • P.J.Bowden: The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England
  • A.C.Wood: A History of the Levant Company
  • M.Epstein: The Early History of the Levant Company
  • Sir William Foster: The Travels of John Sanderson
  • R.Hakluyt: The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, Vol. VI
  • D.Sella: from: Crisis and Change in the Venetian Economy (ed. B.Pullan)
  • M.Praz: Shakespeare Survey, No.7, p.95
  • The Diary of Montaigne’s Journey to Italy in 1580 and 1581 (tr. E.J.Trechmann)
  • L.Einstein: Italian Renaissance in England
  • E.Grillo: Shakespeare and Italy
  • Mark Eccles: Shakespeare in Warwickshire
  • E.I.Fripp: Shakespeare: Man and Artist
  • E.I.Fripp: Richard Quyny
  • R.A.Foakes & R.T.Rickert: Henslowe’s Diaries
  • K.Muir: The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays
  • W.Creizenach: The English Drama in the Age of Shakespeare
  • J.S.Kennard: The Italian Theatre, Vol.I
  • Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: Collections Relative to the Quiney Family
  • Public Record Office: Calendar of State Papers, Domestic
  • Public Record Office: Calendar of State Papers, Venetian
  • Public Record Office: Port Books
  • County Record Office, Warwick: Parish Registers

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