Part II

The Queen’s Men

Richard Tarlton, the most popular comedian of the Elizabethan age.


To Tell Thee Plaine, I Ayme to Lye with Thee

At some point after the wedding Shakespeare made his way to London. We do not know the year of this very significant transition, but he must have left Stratford by 1586 or 1587.

There are references in several of his plays to an unhappy separation immediately after a wedding, but these may all be wholly dramatic devices. John Aubrey has a note on the subject. “This Wm being inclined naturally to Poetry and acting, came to London I guesse about 18, and was an Actor at one of the Play-houses and did act exceedingly well.”1 Aubrey would then “guesse” his removal to London just after his marriage, as others have also supposed, but this seems to defy common sense and practical decency. We may give him the benefit of a little time with his bride. The probability must be that William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, with their expected child, returned to the bridegroom’s home in Henley Street. It was customary for a newly married couple to set up house with their own resources but, if that were not possible, the groom’s father would offer lodging. With such a young bridegroom as Shakespeare, this must have been a necessity.

It has been supposed that the newly married couple moved into the back extension of the house, with its own solar (or upstairs room) and staircase. But this was probably not constructed until 1601, so the available space in Henley Street was even by Elizabethan standards nicely filled. There was not much privacy, but privacy was not itself considered essential or even particularly important. It was already a large family, with Shakespeare’s four younger siblings—Gilbert, Joan, Richard and Edmund, whom we may safely call the forgotten family of the dramatist—as well as four adults, but this was the kind of household to which Mary Arden and Anne Hathaway were accustomed. The ménage was soon enlarged by three children of Shakespeare’s own, so it would have been crowded and noisy. And what of Shakespeare himself? In the sixteenth century a married man could not enter a university or be formally apprenticed to a trade. Before his removal to London we may imagine that he led an ordinarily conventional outward life as a lawyer’s clerk.

His first daughter, Susannah, was born in May 1583; the name itself, suggesting purity and spotlessness, derives from the Apocrypha. It may have been an assertion of virtue after a birth perilously close to the wrong side of marriage. Although the name later became popular in the circles of the religious reformers, at least if Puritan literature is anything to go by, it was already familiar enough in Stratford itself. Three female children were baptised with that name in the spring of 1583.

The cause of religion manifested itself in a more public, and more dangerous, context in the autumn of that year. Margaret Arden, the daughter of Edward and Mary Arden of Park Hall, with whom Shakespeare’s mother claimed some affinity, had married a Catholic gentleman from Warwickshire. This young man, John Somerville of Edstone, was of extreme views. On 25 October 1583, he set out with the express intention of killing Elizabeth I. He announced this ambition to anyone who cared to listen and, as a result of his indiscretion, was arrested on the following day and taken to the Tower of London. He may have been mentally deranged, but the plea of insanity was not enough to excuse an aspiring royal assassin. Somerville’s expedition was seen as the prelude to a foreign invasion and the resurgence of a Catholic regime in England.

The consequences were felt by his unfortunate family. A few days later a warrant was issued for the search of all suspected houses in Warwickshire and the arrest of suspicious persons. This investigation was considered urgent because, in the words of the officer in charge, “the papists in this county greatly do work upon the advantage of clearing their houses of all shows of suspicion.”2 Edward Arden was taken at the London house of the Earl of Southampton; Mary Arden and others of her family were arrested by SirThomas Lucy. The Ardens were tried at the Guildhall in London, and were found guilty of treason. Mary Arden was pardoned, but her husband was hanged, drawn and quartered in Smithfield and his head placed on a pole at the southern end of London Bridge. John Somerville hanged himself in Newgate, but his head joined that of his kinsman in its prominent position. And with them was decapitated the Arden family of Warwickshire.

Did John Shakespeare, husband of another Mary Arden and putative kindred of the martyred Ardens, come under suspicion? Did his son? It was a time of terror for anyone even peripherally concerned or related. The key-cold stone of the Tower, torture and a horrible death, were genuine possibilities. It may well have been at this juncture that John Shakespeare concealed his Catholic testament in the rafters of Henley Street. We know only that when the Shakespeares submitted their coat of arms to the College of Heralds, some sixteen years after the events here related, the device of “ermine fess cheeky”3 used by the Ardens of Park Hall had been removed. There is one other stray fact. In Henry VI, Part Three, Shakespeare invents a native of Warwickshire and gives him the name of John Somerville.

If ever there was a time when William Shakespeare might have appreciated the relative anonymity of the capital, then this was it. But he chose to remain with his family in Stratford for the duration. In February 1585 his twins, Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare, were baptised in the parish church. They were named after Hamnet and Judith Sadler, friends and neighbours who owned a baker’s business at the corner of High Street and Sheep Street. When the Sadlers had a son, they named him William. The young Shakespeare, despite his immortal longings, was still very much part of the local community. The name of the boy, so fraught with association, could have been pronounced and spelled Hamblet (chimney was pronounced as chimbley) or of course Hamlet. The mystery of twinship, unique and indissoluble, also provokes Shakespeare to dramatic speculation; in two of his plays, The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, a twin is confronted by his or her lost counterpart in some dream-like landscape.

The birth of the twins in the early spring of 1585 suggests that, despite Aubrey’s “guesse,” Shakespeare was still with his wife in the spring of 1584. But no children were conceived by the Shakespeares after that date. In this he did not follow the pattern of his parents, who produced eight children over twenty-two years. He did not even follow the pattern of the time, in which large families were common. At the birth of her twins Anne Shakespeare was only thirty years old, and well within the age of child-bearing. It may have been that the birth of Hamnet and Judith was in some way injurious.

In the conditions of Henley Street, however, it would have been inevitable that Anne and her husband slept in the same bed; in this period, too, there were no properly effective means of birth control. They may have abstained by mutual consent from sexual intercourse. All the evidence suggests, however, that Shakespeare was of a highly sexual nature; it is unlikely that, in his early twenties, he could have abstained without very good reason. The better explanation is also the more obvious one. He was not there. So where was he?

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