He came back to a larger but not necessarily happier family. In the spring of 1580 John Shakespeare had been summoned to the Queen’s Bench in Westminster and, when he did not appear, was fined the large sum of £40. He was not alone in his transgression, since approximately two hundred men and women from different counties were caught up in the same punitive action and fined various amounts to a maximum of £200. The supposition must inevitably be that these “malcontents” were brought to the bar of justice for recusancy or refusal to attend church services. In the following year it was formally proclaimed that those who did not conform to the prescriptions of the Act of Uniformity would be fined the sum of £20 per month, rising to “all their goods and a third part of their land.” For Catholics there was now the clear danger of financial ruin. Half of John Shakespeare’s fine was levied because of his reluctance or inability to ensure that a Nottinghamshire hat-maker, John Audley, came to court. On the same day Audley himself was in turn fined £10 for not bringing John Shakespeare to the Queen’s Bench. Historians have inferred that this system of mutual bail, uniting people from various regions and different jurisdictions, was an attempt by Catholics to circumvent the collection of any fines. Yet Shakespeare’s father did pay his fine, as recorded in the Coram Regina Roll, suggesting that he lived still in relative affluence.
When Shakespeare returned to Stratford in 1582, it was in the face of an uncertain future. At the age of eighteen, what likely career might have been open to him? In recent years there has grown an abiding, if not universal, belief that he had some training as a lawyer’s clerk in Stratford. It was not an unnatural progress. For a quick and intelligent young man there were many possible “openings” in his home town. One of the old schoolmasters at the Free School, Walter Roche, had a lawyer’s practice in Chapel Street. John Shakespeare used the services of William Court in the same street. If he was not clerk to a solicitor, he might have been a copyist or even a scrivener’s apprentice. It is also possible that as a result of his father’s influence he worked in the office of Henry Rogers, the town clerk of Stratford, situated in Wood Street.
His drama is striated with legal terminology, particularly with that concerning property law. There is scarcely a play in which words or phrases from the courts are not employed. The sonnets are filled with similar references, to such an extent that it has even been supposed that they were addressed to a member of one of the Inns of Court. It could just as well be argued that the age of Shakespeare was excessively litigious, and that any Elizabethan would of necessity have acquired a great deal of knowledge about the law. As one contemporary put it, “now every Raskall will tak upon to knowe the laws as well as the best gentleman.”1 The law was an inevitable part of ordinary social life.
But the most important Shakespearian scholar of the eighteenth century, Edmond Malone, remarked that “his knowledge of legal terms is not merely such as might be acquired by the casual observation of even his all-comprehending mind; it has the appearance of technical skill.”2 More significantly, perhaps, it emerges in the very texture of his writing. He writes of warrants and conveyances, leases and inventories, presentments and suits, fines and recoveries. There is such a multitude of examples that it is almost absurd to single out any of them. Mistress Page says of Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor (2132-4), “If the diuell haue him not in fee-simple, with fine and re-couery, he will neuer (I think) in the way of waste, attempt vs againe.” It would take an expert in Tudor law to explain the remark, which may not in any case have come naturally to a wife of Windsor. Lady Macbeth consoles her husband, on the ticklish matter of Banquo and Fleance, with the sentence (983) that “in them Natures coppie’s not eterne,” a reference to the law of copia or copyhold. In The Rape of Lucrece the unfortunate heroine “folds shee vp the tenure of her woe” (1310); “tenure” is the technical legal term for a correctly completed statement. In All’s Well That Ends Well Parolles says of his erstwhile master (2220-1), “for a Cardecue he will sell the fee-simple of his saluation, the inheritance of it, and cut th’intaile from all remainders.” But enough is enough. It need only be said that it is a mark of his “all-comprehending” imagination that the language of law comes to him as effortlessly and as instinctively as the language of nature. In the larger sense he places all his characters before the Court of Equity, where justice is tempered by mercy.
There is other evidence concerning Shakespeare’s early career. The first references allude to him somewhat slightingly as a former “noverint” or legal scrivener. Several palaeographers have agreed that the available remnants of his handwriting, particularly in his signatures, give clear indication of a legal training. One of those signatures appears in a volume entitled Archaionomia, found in 1939. It is a legal text, composed by William Lambarde, which contains a Latin translation of Anglo-Saxon edicts. The signature of “Wm Shakspere” within it is the object of considerable scholarly debate. But Lambarde was an officer of the court in Westminster Hall during the period when John Shakespeare was filing a bill of complaint at the Queen’s Bench. At a later date Lambarde was Master of Chancery when another of John Shakespeare’s fifty separate suits was entered there. He was also Master of the Revels at Lincoln’s Inn, one of whose duties was the staging of appropriate dramas. There was every reason why Shakespeare would have been acquainted with him.
John Shakespeare’s relatively late appearance as a plaintiff at Westminster suggests another explanation for Shakespeare’s knowledge of the law—he may have been assisting his father in the various legal manoeuvres in which the Shakespeare family was engaged. That might explain the dramatist’s excellent knowledge of property law. He could have been working for his father. There is a strange note, in the copy of Archaionomia possibly signed by Shakespeare, to the effect that “Mr. Wm Shakspeare Lived at No 1 Little Crown St. Westminster”; it is in an eighteenth-century hand, and the location is genuine. The information may be spurious, or it may apply to quite another William Shakespeare. In a certain set of circumstances, however, it would make perfect sense. If he had lived close to the courts of justice, while pursuing a familial suit, he may have acquired Archaionomia in order to impress Lambarde with ancient precedents. Lambarde’s volume also acted as a source book for the play entitled Edmund Ironside, the surviving manuscript of which (to be found in the Manuscript Collections of the British Library) is written in an unmistakably legal hand and contains many legal abbreviations. The authorship of the play is contested, but some have ascribed it to Shakespeare himself. The connections and associations are there, for those who care to find them. The biographer can thus explore a number of possible Shakespearian identities without traducing the essential nature of the man.
One other quasi-legal digression is of some pertinence. If the young Shakespeare had indeed been working in the office of Stratford’s town clerk, he would have become fully acquainted with the case of a young woman who in 1580 drowned in the Avon. The inference was that she had committed suicide but her family, intent upon giving her a proper Christian burial, insisted that she had fallen accidentally into the river while going down to the bank with her milk-pail in order to draw water. The Avon at this juncture, by Tiddington, is known for its overhanging willows and coronet weeds. If she had been found guilty of “felo de se” or suicide, she would have been buried in a hole by a crossroads, at a spot where local folk were permitted to throw stones or broken pots. Henry Rogers conducted the inquest, and arrived at the conclusion that she had indeed met her death “per infortunium” or accidentally. If this suggests images of Ophelia, then it is interesting that the name of the girl was Katherine Hamlett.
All this is speculation, but—if he did begin his career in a lawyer’s office—he did not particularly care for the work. His emergence in London as an actor and dramatist suggests that, at an early stage, he willingly abandoned it. There was another change. A short while after his return to Stratford in 1582, he was courting Anne Hathaway.