One day in February 1637, a party of bailiffs knocked on the door of New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, a fine townhouse and the home of the widow Susanna Hall. Mistress Hall, née Shakespeare, was the daughter of the playwright and businessman who had bought the house long before, and whose posthumous fame was already gathering. The bailiffs had no interest, however, in this prior owner. They had come to bother Susanna for debts left by her husband, a respected physician who had failed to settle his affairs. Their visit was a baleful moment for future Shakespearean scholars, as the good men concluded their visit by removing a now tantalising collection of ‘Divers bookes boxes Deskes, moneyes bonds bills and other goods of great value’. Indeed, their historical worth now would be incalculable. For surely tied up somewhere among those books and boxes (a ‘desk’ was a small chest for money and precious bits and pieces) were the family and personal papers of William Shakespeare.
As anyone who has tried it will tell you, the greatest obstacle to writing a biography of Shakespeare is the absence of private memoranda. A journal would be too much to expect: how would he have found the time to keep it? But there are no personal letters,