In his book “Shakespeare And His World”, (published in 1970 by Thames & Hudson) the renowned Shakespearean scholar, F.E. Halliday attempts to denounce the statement or view of other academics of the time that very little was then known about the playwright William Shakespeare. On the fly-leaf he writes:
“The object of this book,” as Mr. Halliday writes in the preface, “is quite simply to describe what we know about Shakespeare’s life after three centuries of discovery, and to illuminate and animate the story by illustration. And what we know will probably surprise a great many people” – reassuring them, incidentally if they have any doubts, that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon really was the author of the plays and poetry attributed to him.
In the preface written while resident in Cornwall in the summer of 1956 in the book he goes on to affirm:
“It is, unfortunately, a common delusion that little or nothing is known about the life of Shakespeare. In fact quite a lot is known, thanks to the devoted labours of a succession of English and American authors, from Malone and Halliwell/Phillips in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to C.W. Wallace and Leslie Hotson in our own day, much has been discovered, and still being discovered; far more indeed, than we had any right to expect concerning a dramatist who lived the greater part of his life, and died, in an obscure provincial town.”
William Shakspere’s ancestor some 300 years before him previous, was named William Saksper who lived in Clopton and was found guilty of highway robbery then summarily arrested and publicly hanged. In the 15th – 16th century Stratford-upon-Avon was, like many other English Shires subject to a number of transitions, socially and economically due to Henry VIIIth’s attitude to Church property and the economic and religious requirements of the Reformation. Enforced land enclosures, particularly in the Midlands, were extremely common because land previously owned by the church was abandoned and then re-designated as belonging to the Crown, the local council, or perhaps adopted by some presiding Lord or Earl or some converted for use as common land. In other words lots of land suddenly became up for grabs by anyone who was audacious enough to enclose it or find an alternate use for it. William Shakspere was born in the sleepy, rural town of Stratford-upon-Avon (population around 2,500) on the 23rd April 1564 (St. George’s Day), the son of John Shakspere of Wilmcote and Anne Hathaway of Shottery.
He was baptised on the April 26th according to the parish register in Stratford-upon-Avon. Incidentally, both his parents were illiterate according to the records scholars have found, John simply signed any documents with an “X”. His grandfather, also illiterate was Richard Shakyspere, a glover and tenant farmer in Snitterfield who moved from Budbrooke. Richard farmed land owned by Robert Arden of Wilmcote, a gentleman Warwickshire landowner. After Robert Arden’s death (1556) John Shakspere married his daughter, Mary in the church of Aston Catlow and acquired a substantial piece of farmland some 150 acres in size. By this time John Shakspere already owned two other properties on Henley Street, Stratford along with his close friend Adrian Quiney. John Shakspere’s brother Henry died in 1596 but after his marriage to Mary, she gave birth to eight children, namely Joan Shakspere (b. 1558), Margaret (b.1562), then William (b. 1564), Gilbert (b.1566), Anne (b.1571), Richard (b.1574) and Edward (b.1580). After her marriage to William, Anne Hathaway in turn gave birth to Susanna (1583) and later to twins, Hamnet, and Judith in (1585). We know that Judith went on to marry Thomas Quiney, presumably a descendant of Adrian Quiney. And Susanna went on to marry John Hall and they had a child Elizabeth and that William’s sister Joan married William Hart and they had four children, namely, William (1620-39), Mary (1603-07), Thomas (1605-1670), and Michael (1608-1618). The only descendant of William Shakspere to have issue was Thomas Hart whose descendants were Thomas and George. George Hart in turn had three children named Joan, Susanna and Shakespeare whose descendants are still living. Similarly, in an attempt to cash in on the Shakespeare name, Judith and Thomas Quiney named their children “Shakespeare”, rather than Shakspere (1616-17), Richard (1618-39), and Thomas (1620-39). Unfortunately, none of them survived long enough to reproduce any heirs. That left Susanna’s child with John Hall named Elizabeth (1608-1670) who married Thomas Nash (d. 1647) but again they had no children. Elizabeth then married Sir John Bernard who died in 1674. So, anyone claiming to be a descendant of William Shakespeare today is simply making a false claim.
There is no corroborating evidence to substantiate the claims and suppositions that William Shakspere, as a 7-year old child had any education although many academics writing on the subject (eg: A.L. Rowse) have simply imagined he attended the local school from 6am-6pm, and for five days a week he was studiously examining his “horn-book” (an alphanumerical abedacery). Despite the absence of any written records, the Shakespeare scholar and academic, F. E. Halliday (“Shakespeare & His World”) imagines him attending the local grammar school, which was free up to the age of sixteen. Similarly, the Shakespearean scholar and academic, Nicholas Rowe presumed, without a shred of evidence that he attended King’s School, the Free-School in Church Street, located behind the Guild Chapel a few hundred yards from his family home in Henley Street. Having swallowed whole that presumption we are expected to imagine Will Shakspere graduating to an advanced education by the year 1571, when the still illiterate John Shakspere became Chief Alderman in the Parish Council of Stratford. However, again no records exist to support any of these well-tuned theories that Will Shakspere acquired the rudiments of Latin, French or Greek at any school as would have been the case for any budding poet or playwright. To add further to this gaping chasm of an illiterate childhood there appears to be no record even of a religious education such as would have matured with reading the various versions of the Bible (eg: The Vulgate Bible, Geneva Bible or Book of Psalms etc). No possession of books or writing materials is made in Shakspere’s will. We are implored nevertheless that such an education would have been made available to the young boy through sheer in-born talent or literary genius and this would have been the basis of his subsequent accomplishments that gave him the means to become a leading poet and playwright by the age of say 28-30 years old and able to assiduously write several history plays, early comedies and occasional tragedies.
Now, just for a moment let’s examine in real detail just one of the many myths or rather fallacies about our William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon, namely that he was born and died on St. George’s Day, the 23rd April. Seriously folks, I’m no mathematician but the chances of anyone being born on England’s national festival in any one year and then at some future date, presumably the end of an average life span for the time, (another statistical variable, he lived for 52 years?) has got to be at least 365 million to one! In any case England still employed the Julian Calendar during Shakespeare’s time so that any date would be at least eleven days short in any year proposed. In advertising the general rule is if you’re going to tell a lie which is likely more believable then it is better to tell a lie that is so outrageous, such a big fib that it could never be disproved or for that matter rejected as false! Now tell me whether you think this piece of biographical propaganda is true or false? I think very doubtful, but it is still a large part of the myth or legend of William Shakespeare.
However, William Shakspere’s fortunes were somewhat enmeshed in the life of his father John who was born 1530 in Snittefield, Warwickshire. By 1552 he was living in Henley Street, and trading as a glover having made enough money to buy the eastern house on Henley Street and another on Greenhill Street by 1556. The following year he had married Mary Arden and was also managing the Snitterfield Farm with the help of his brother Henry when his father died in February 1561. Shakspere’s uncle, Henry was equally a reprobate failing to pay his debts with Nicholas Lane although he had many financial assets, for causing affrays, fighting with a constable and disputing tithes then finally being imprisoned. From 1558 John, as a lapsed Catholic, was Constable of Stratford monitoring and assessing property and finance while the Guild Chapel were making way for the transition to Protestantism. For a period of time he was an ale-taster in the town and became well-known. Consequently, he became a committee member of the Parish Council replacing William Bott as an alderman in 1565. In the same year he was appointed Bailiff (Justice of the Peace) and in 1568 became Chief Alderman through to 1571. It would appear that in 1569, a touring group of players came to Stratford to stage plays-most likely the Queen’s players and Worcester’s Men which may have been an inspiration for William to consider working in drama through his Stratford connections. Meanwhile, John Shakspere, who in character was the archetypal wheeler-dealer, was ascending to positions of influence and power primarily to further his own personal financial status and property portfolio. I suspect that his son William, a chip off the old block, was of a similar inclination and persuasion. By 1572 it seems that John Shakspere was no longer in office and was visiting London with Adrian Quiney where they sought to bring a case of Common Pleas at Westminster on his own account for the relief of taxes because of the fires and plague. No doubt this also had something to do with his status and his wife’s spurious genealogical relationship with the Ardens of Park Hall. In 1575 he bought two more properties in Stratford and by 1577 had applied for a coat of arms on the basis that his wife, Mary Arden was related to the distinguished Ardens of Park Hall (Arden Estate), whose descendants go back to the Norman Conquest and not in any sense related to the Ardens of Wilmcote, although the former vehemently denied any direct connection to Mary Arden. As evidence the College of Arms manuscript clearly indicates a rejection with the words “Non Sanz Droict”. (See “Shakespeare’s Coat of Arms”)
When William was 18 years old (1582) John arranged for his son’s marriage to a certain Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior in 1582 who was pregnant with child, but most likely belonging to the father not in actual fact to his son, William. For some unknown reason they were given the family names of Sadler in the parish register perhaps to distance them from the Shakspere name which would no doubt have caused a scandal. A similar attempt to confound records appears in the Stratford Parish records which listed a certain Anne Whateley (aka: Hathawaye) of Temple Grafton, while the church records list a certain Anne Hathawaye of Shottery (Hewlands Farm).
Just to confuse matters even more in her father’s will she is named as Agnes and was left a mere £6 13s 14d as dowry when he died and when she were eventually to wed. Apparently, since William was a minor at 18 years old a special licence was required to marry from the Diocesan Court at Worcester Cathedral, but the licence was never officially granted because the posting of three consecutive banns could not be called until the Sunday following 6th January (Epiphany), 1583 when it would be obvious as she walked down the aisle that she was heavy with child. As a result, a surety was given of £40 that Anne was still a ‘maiden’ by Shakspere’s executors, Fulke Sandells and John Richardson but the actual marriage itself was never entered into the local church records of Stratford. The parish records held an entry for late November 1582 for the marriage of a certain William Shagspere (note the spelling) to Anne of Shottery, Temple Grafton. No other record such as a certificate of marriage has been found and no one is absolutely certain whether Anne of Shottery was the same person as Anne Hathawaye. Today we would describe it euphemistically as a “shotgun wedding” hurriedly performed and agreed to avoid any unnecessary embarrassment to the clergy or to John Shaxpere, the father of the child. The document exists and is dated 28th November, 1582 authorising the union after only one reading of the banns between William Shagspere and Anne Hathwey.
One is therefore tempted to recall Prospero’s advice to Ferdinand in Shakespeare’s late play, the Tempest:
If thou dost break her virgin-knot before
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be ministered
No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow; but barren hate,
Sour-eyed disdain, and discord shall bestrew
The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both.
The child, Susanna was baptised on the 26th of May 1583. The Stratfordians insist this was a scribal error which it could easily be but error upon error has evolved surrounding the Shaxpere fortunes over marriage contracts and properties. According to the author Anthony Burgess Anne Whateley was another of William’s teenage loves who was rejected by him in order to meet his father’s wishes. Needless to say William naturally agreed to his father’s devious plan because it would increase his property portfolio, with a promise of future inheritance and soon after the twins, Judith and Hamnet were born and baptised in February 2nd 1585 William Shakspere aged 23 years old, mysteriously and suspiciously left Stratford aided by an unspecified acting group and was looking for work in London in order to escape any dire ramifications of his own and his father’s indiscretions. A clue is available from The Winter’s Tale in the words of the wise shepherd;
I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty,
Or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing
In between but getting wenches with child, wronging the
Ancientry, stealing, and fighting.
I suspect either the Earl of Warwick’s Men who were transferred to the Earl of Oxford’s Men in 1580 or Lord Strange’s Men who played at Stratford on the 11th of February, 1579 were the means of his circuitous escape from parental responsibility or first taste of the theatrical world. When the troupe finally arrived back in London Will Shakspere would have easily obtained some work as a stage-hand and later as an extra on the stage with his lodgings at Bishopsgate. However, it seems William’s father’s financial fortunes continued to decline following his breach of the peace and he was obliged to mortgage Mary’s inheritance at Wilmcote and sell the land dowry to Robert Webbe, her nephew. Other land-ownings and assets followed suit. One should bear in mind of course that for the past 20 years Warwickshire was being ravaged by plague which would have been a contributory factor in these unrecorded events. Several more “lost years” appear to pass with little documentary evidence of Will’s whereabouts or activities which again academics have struggled in the vacuum of his life until in 1589 he is named in legal proceedings when attempting to recover the Wilmcote property that his father had lost. This is followed by a stark absence of any records to connect him as an active playwright or actor suggesting that his acting career was of little import or significance in the teeming capital Will was no more than a very small frog in an extremely large pond. No reviews, no acknowledgements or praises were forthcoming, so what was the Stratford man doing with himself from 1587-89? (See “The Lost Years Debate”).
Nevertheless, John was still being pursued and sued for numerous unpaid debts he had accrued and by 1592 he was left with just one property at Henley Street and was also listed as a recusant because he was afraid of being served a warrant of arrest for debts when appearing at church. In actual fact a Jesuit treatise entitled “A Spiritual Testament” was discovered in the eaves of his house in 1757 by workmen which confirmed his religious affiliations to Catholicism. William Shakspere’s numerous travels between London and Stratford were intended to alleviate his father’s misfortunes not necessarily in order to see his wife and family.
In 1594, the date connected to the Shakespeare play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and also in 1595 the city of Stratford was ravaged by two fires, the townsfolk were devastated and Richard Quiney travelled to London every year from 1597 through to 1601 to raise relief funds and obtain an exemption of tax while reparations were underway. He probably consulted with Thomas Greene and apparently wrote to Shakspere when he required a loan of £30 to offset his personal expenses in London, although strangely enough this correspondence was never delivered and, as far as we know the loan was never made. Then in 1595 it is alleged he had joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and in March *1595 he is mentioned in the lists as receiving payment for his performance in the play “A Comedy of Errors”, played at Gray’s Inn.
However, as usual trouble was stalking our now middle-aged Shakspere as in 1596 the London court records mention the following:
1596 – Michaelmas – Court record. William Wayte “swore before the Judge of Queen’s Bench that he stood in danger of death, or bodily hurt,” from “William Shakspere” and three others. “The magistrate then commanded the sheriff of the appropriate county to produce the accused … who had to post bond to keep the peace, on pain of forfeiting the security”.
In the following year his son Hamnet died but a year later in 1597 he bought New Place, a substantial property in Stratford laying down an initial deposit on the lease of £60. According to records in the same year we note:
In 1597, 15th November – Tax record. Shakspere is named in the King’s Remembrancer Subsidy Roll as a tax defaulter in Bishopgate ward who had failed to pay an assessed 5 shillings.
By 1598 we find the following records, the first of which we should take with a pinch of *salt or should we say mustard? Again in 1598 he is listed as a tax dodger and in the same year he is approached for a loan by Richard Quinney while he was staying in London which he declined for some unknown reason. Quiney’s request for a loan was thought to have been altruistic since he required funds for the relief of those whose lives and homes had been devastated by fire which swept through Stratford. William is thought to have lodged in a house at St. Helen’s Parish, Bishopsgate when in London.
*1598 – List of Actors. In the initial presentation of Ben Jonson’s “Every Man In His Humour”, “Will Shakespeare “was a “principall Comoedian”.
Meanwhile, the comedic, tax-dodging William Shakspere is back in Stratford:
1598, 24th January – Letter – Abraham Sturley wrote to his brother-in-law that “our countriman Mr Shaksper is willing to disburse some stone upon some od yardeland or other Shottrei or neare about us…”
1598, 1st December – Bill of sale. Chamberlain’s Accounts Wyllyn Wyatt Chamberlin “Pd to Mr. Shakspere for one load of stone xd”.
In other words William Shakspere has diversified from his career as an up and coming poet, actor/playwright in London’s “fair city” and in Stratford become a local builder’s merchant?
1598, 4th February – List of Hoarders. Shakspere is named as having illegally held 10 quarters (80 bushels) of malt or corn during a shortage.
1598, September – Tax record. In the Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer
Accounts of Subsidies, Shakspere is listed among those in Bishopgate ward who had moved out of the district.
1598, 1st October – Tax record. In the King’s Remembrancer Subsidy Roll, Shakspere is listed as a tax defaulter who failed to pay an assessed 13s..4d.
When the Globe was built he moved to the Liberty of the Clink, Southwark around 1599. Then, quite unexpectedly in the same year he is mentioned by Heminges and Condell as a 10% share holder in the Globe Theatre in Sir Thomas Brend’s inventory but was still being pursued for unpaid tax and rates by council bailiffs in Stratford and London. In the same year William Shakspere is also listed as the owner of a new residence on adjoining land, listed as the property of Thomas Brend, the father of Nicholas Brend who was the lease-holder of the land the Globe Theatre was built on.
Remission of taxes was also finally granted in 1599 and Quiney’s expenses, the sum of £44 were paid by the Exchequer. Sir Edward Greville of Stratford, Lord of the Manor and son of Lodowick Greville was the cousin of Fulke Greville II, the courtier poet, who was obliging in this regard although somewhat belatedly. This must have been around the same time that his name and reputation became known to the Earl of Oxford, who being fond of the common man agreed to assist the Shaxpere family during their time of financial duress. But the deal was that William Shakspere should be a “mask” for the Earl’s literary and theatrical endeavours which no doubt other dignitaries were well aware of. Acting and drama as well as drama groups, patronised by the aristocracy, was a means of propaganda, for spying and for disseminating information throughout the provinces thereby reinforcing the Protestant doctrines and the state’s policies. But it could also be used to encourage dissent, false information and rebellion as in the Martin Marprelate pamphlets. The confusion over literary endeavours and the actual identity of the so-called William Shakespeare inevitably reached a crisis when the playwright Robert Greene made a death bed complaint about a certain Shakspere strutting about in London saying he was the author of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. Rumour has it that Shakspere was investing in poetry and plays to supplement his income as an actor. (See another in-depth article on this incident and what actually transpired “The Upstart Crow”).
The second part in the life of William Shakspere can be found by clicking on the following link:
|The links to my current publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and an anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:|