From Clerkenwell or not from Clerkenwell, that is the question.

St. John's Gate, Clerkenwell. Image: Jim Linwood
St. John's Gate, Clerkenwell. Image: Jim Linwood
St. John’s Gate, Clerkenwell. Image: Jim Linwood

William Shakespeare’s London career is traditionally associated with Southwark, where the famous bankside Globe Theatre stood between 1599 and 1644, not far from the site of it’s modern reconstruction.

When he first arrived in London, Shakespeare was based at The Theatre in Shoreditch, and legend suggests he once lived on Hoxton Street in Hackney. But could Islington have its own claims to Shakespearean fame?

One man who thinks so is Dr Duncan Salkeld, reader in Shakespeare Studies at the University of Chichester, who gave a talk at the Islington Museum last week on the bard’s links with Clerkenwell.

Dr Salkeld made national headlines last summer when he suggested that the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets may have been a dark-skinned Clerkenwell prostitute known as Black Lucy.

The mysterious mistress, described as “black beauty”, appears throughout Shakespeare’s sonnets 127-152, and has been a source of much scholarly speculation.

Dr Salkeld began investigating a possible Islington connection five years ago, when he found a reference to a “Black Luce” in local prison records. “I was struck by the similarity with the Lucy Negro [character] in literary texts and wanted to explore further,” he said.

The historical Black Lucy ran a notorious bawdy house in 16th century Clerkenwell, and is named repeatedly in court and prison records, but was never prosecuted.

She also appears to have been present at the Grays Inn Christmas revelry on 20 December 1597. Transcripts of the festivities reference a woman known as “Lucy Negro”, humourously described as “Abbess de Clerkenwell”.

Evidence shows that just eight days later, on 28 December, Shakespeare himself attended Grays Inn – where he associated with a number of the members – to perform The Comedy of Errors with his company.

The name Luciana, or Luce, appears throughout The Comedy of Errors, often linked with innuendo and bawdy jokes. Dr Salkeld believes Shakespeare changed the character’s name from Nell specially for the occasion, knowing the significance it would have for his prostitute-frequenting audience at Grays Inn.

References to Black Luce, and fellow Clerkenwell brothel owner Gilbert East, also appear in the diary of Philip Henslowe, owner of The Rose Theatre and The Globe’s biggest rival.

Dr Salkeld’s research doesn’t just focus on 16th century Clerkenwell’s seedy underbelly though; he also believes the bard may have had relatives in the area.

Parish records show a Matthew Shakespeare living in Clerkenwell during the 1570s, and a Humfrey Shakespeare, son of Hugh. There is no evidence to prove the link, but Dr Salkeld conjectures that the Clerkenwell Shakespeares may have been cousins of the playwright himself.

Most interesting is Matthew Shakespeare, who married an Isabel Peele in 1569. According to Dr Salkeld, Isabel’s connections with Christ Church and Christ’s Hospital, Greyfriars, make it “virtually certain” that she was the sister of George Peele, the dramatist who collaborated with Shakespeare on Titus Andronicus.

Islington may never rival Southwark or Stratford-Upon-Avon as a tourist hotspot for Shakespeare fanatics, but admirers of the bard can at least walk the streets of Clerkenwell in his footsteps.