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Seeking John Sanders Add to ...

The Severn River flowed by, quiet and green. The dark stone cathedral towered over the town, while the smaller All Saints Church stood at the edge of the encircling walls, overlooking the river. The streets were cobbled and the space between the two churches was packed with hardscrabble housing.

The town was home to about 10,000 people, a centre of the weaving and glove-making trade -- for gloves, long a Worcester specialty, had of late become a fashion. It was a stop on the itineraries of travelling players, who performed in the guildhall or in the market.

This was Worcester in 1575, the year John Sanders was baptized at All Saints. It was a time of considerable religious tension. The entire population was obligated by law to attend Church of England services and receive communion; accusing someone of being a secret Catholic was much like the accusations of communism in the United States of the 1950s. The Sanders family, in Worcester, lived immediately under the eye of one of the most powerful bishops in the country.

John Sanders grew up here, and it was from Worcester, so the story goes, that he set out about 20 years later for London, then about a two-day ride or a four-day walk away.

We know all about a similar migration by a young Elizabethan man, for historians have pieced together one William Shakespeare's trip to seek his fortune in London. We know he prospered there, became part-owner of the most successful theatre in the capital and eventually, a few years before his death, retired home to the substantial properties he had acquired in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The bulk of actors for whom records survive were from London and lived there through their lives. But it is not a great stretch to imagine John Sanders setting off, seduced by the tales of the playhouses of teeming London, according to Andrew Gurr, an English professor at the University of Reading. Gurr chaired the scholars committee that directed the recent restoration of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London.

"It may well be that Sanders was part of a travelling [players]company that stopped off in London, and he stayed -- that he started off in Worcester as Shakespeare did in Stratford," Gurr said.

Along the way, they connected: Sanders became a bit actor in Shakespeare's company and painted a portrait of the playwright in 1603 -- the only picture of William Shakespeare painted from life. Or so the story goes.

And there's the rub.

In the weeks since The Globe and Mail revealed the existence of the painting, now in the possession of a retired Ontario engineer descended from John Sanders, scholars have leapt to question its authenticity.

Some claim there was no record of any such actor as Sanders, while others point out possible candidates.

"There was a Saunder [and the spelling of Sander, Sanders and Saunders is largely interchangeable in this era]in Burbage's company in 1591, at the time William Shakespeare became an actor-playwright," said Ian Lancashire, a professor of English at the University of Toronto. "He is found playing two women's parts in The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins."

Some scholars argue that Saunder is an abbreviation of the name Alexander. Lancashire said maybe not; perhaps it was John, who was not a particularly good actor and got the boot when his voice changed.

A "J. Sanders" is on the list of actors of the Lord Chamberlain's men from 1593 to 1603, according to Fleay's History of the London Stage, first published in the 1800s.

Sanders did not, it would seem, have any great success in the theatre. He does not appear on any of the records of players who became "sharers" in any of the playhouses.

But there was plenty of other work about. "Theatres had hired men, there were lots of different things to be done, painting, backstage things, there was a tire man [the costume-maker]and maintenance people and walk-on parts and a lot of hanging around theatres," Gurr said.

And, through the late 1500s and early 1600s, as theatres became more wealthy and established, there were ever more job opportunities. In the late 1580s, Gurr said, there are records of more than 200 people calling themselves "actor," and "I would be surprised if there were any less than that waiting for a chance to join a company."

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