Will Shakeshaft and the cache in the rafters

Historical Notes
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CURRENTLY DOING the rounds of Hollywood production companies, amid the bandying of star names from Ralph Fiennes to Peter O'Toole, is a stylish script by the American screenwriter Thomas O'Connor portraying a teenage, recusant Catholic Will Shakespeare caught up in the celebrated 1580-81 Jesuit mission of Edmund Campion. At its climax, young Will helps the sainted Campion save their religious foe Elizabeth I from a Catholic assassination attempt - for which Campion is none the less blamed, tortured, tried and gruesomely executed.

If this latest Bardic biopic proves an apt sequel to the Oscar-laden Shakespeare in Love, it can this time claim to be based on a hard core of historical truth. Recent emphasis on the "Lancashire Shakespeare" amounts to the same thing as the "Catholic Shakespeare" now modish in English faculties the world over. A lone handful of scholars have been arguing the case for years; it has taken academe, not untypically, a few decades to catch up and take the plunge.

The academic respectability of the "Catholic Lancashire Shakespeare" was cemented last summer at a lively conference hosted by Professor Richard Wilson of Lancaster University at Hoghton Tower, near Preston - the handsome Elizabethan manor-house which was the scene, according to mounting evidence, of the fateful meeting between the aspirant actor Will Shakespeare and the martyr-with-a-mission Campion.

From Milan, whence he had smuggled copies of Cardinal Borromeo's secret Catholic "testament", Campion travelled incognito via Warwickshire to Lancashire, both hotbeds of Catholic recusancy in an Elizabethan England stiff with government spies. A public hanging, drawing and quartering awaited those caught in priest's holes like that at Hoghton Tower, where Campion arrived at Easter 1581. Among the household waiting to greet him, and hide him from Sir Francis Walsingham's ruthless secret service, was the 16-year-old tutor-turned-actor Will Shakespeare.

So what's the evidence? There are two pre-eminent documents: Alexander de Hoghton's will, made on his deathbed later that year, leaving to the nearby Hesketh family (also Catholics) vassals including the actor Will "Shakeshaft", "now in my employ"; and a copy of the Borromeo testament found hidden in the rafters of the Shakespeare home in Henley Street, Stratford, 150 years after his father's death.

John Shakespeare, the theory goes, a glover who had risen to be Mayor of Stratford, met secretly with Campion at the nearby Lapworth home of his friend Sir William Catesby, father of the Robert Catesby who would lead the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. With the help of the Stratford schoolmaster John Cottom, whose brother Thomas was Campion's right-hand man (soon to be martyred alongside him), John persuaded the travelling Jesuits to take his oldest son with them to Lancashire. There Will was supposed to become a tutor, perhaps even a priest, but showed rather more talent for acting and poetry.

The rest of O'Connor's screenplay, which sees young Will tracking Campion around the country, performing heroic and religiously important deeds, is engaging fiction based upon these suddenly fashionable new facts. If, like Shakespeare in Love, it coaxes new generations back to the majestic works they were put off for life at school, it will have served a very useful purpose. If it helps scholars put more flesh on the bones of the "Lancashire Shakespeare", it will merit more than mere Oscars.

There is no need, as the Harvard scholar Stephen Greenblatt put it at the Lancashire conference, to get "sectarian" about all this. The new evidence should not be used (as it already is being) to reinterpret the plays as Catholic tracts replete with hidden meanings, to the point of suggesting that Hamlet's "I am but mad north-north-west" is "clearly a reference to Lancashire". It should be taken simply for what it is: an important breakthrough in a field where breakthroughs are rare indeed.

Anthony Holden is the author of `William Shakespeare' (Little, Brown, pounds 20)