Tell Me This: Who Begot Thee?

There were two cultures in a more particular sense: old and reformed. The English Reformation of religion was begun in fury and in greed; such violent origins beget violent deeds. It was only during the cautious and pragmatic reign of Elizabeth that a form of compromise or settlement was reached.

As a result of his anger and impatience with the Pope, Henry VIII had proclaimed himself to be the head of the Church in England, despatching several churchmen to their deaths for daring to deny his supremacy. His more ardent advisers, moved by the prospect of enrichment as much as by religious fervour, suppressed the monasteries and confiscated the monastic lands. It was the single largest blow to the medieval inheritance of England. The king was also responsible for the introduction of the English Bible into parish churches, an innovation which had more beneficent effects.

Edward VI, after the death of his father, was more eagerly devoted to the destruction of Catholicism. He was the young Josiah, ready to tear down the idols. In particular he was emboldened to reform the prayer book and the liturgy, but his early death interrupted his programme of renewal. His measures were then reversed during the equally brief reign of Mary I, leaving the English people in some doubt as to the nature and direction of the nation’s faith. It was Mary’s successor, Elizabeth, who successfully found a middle path. She seemed intent upon placating as many factions as possible.

It was part of her church “settlement” in which the vagaries of Catholicism and Protestantism were chastened. She ordained that church services should be held in English, but permitted the use of such papist tokens as the crucifix and the candlestick. By the Act of Supremacy she affirmed her position as the head of the Church of England, and by the Act of Uniformity she installed the Book of Common Prayer in every church. It was a somewhat rickety structure, stitched together by compromise and special pleading, but it held. She may have underestimated the power of the Puritan factions, as well as the residual Catholicism of the people themselves, but her control of religious affairs was never seriously in doubt.

The Virgin Queen, however, was not necessarily mild with her more recalcitrant subjects. Recusants as they were known—those who refused to attend the services of the Church of England—were fined, arrested or imprisoned. They were considered to be traitors to their sovereign and their realm. Catholic priests and missionaries were tortured and killed. Commissioners made periodic and much advertised “visits” to towns where the old faith was said to persist, while the bishops made regular inspections of their dioceses in pursuit of renegade piety. It was perilous to be a Catholic, or a suspected Catholic.

All these conflicts and changes found a vivid reflection in the life of John Shakespeare. The father of the dramatist was described in later life as “a merry Cheekd old man—that said—Will was a good Honest Fellow, but he durst have crackt a jeast with him at any time.”1 Since this sketch was first published in the mid-seventeenth century, from an ambiguous source, it need not be taken with any high degree of literalness. It is perhaps too close to the image of Falstaff, although we may surmise that the merry-cheeked roisterer of the history plays may bear some passing resemblance to a domestic original. What we know about Shakespeare’s father, and forefathers, can be more carefully measured by documentary reports.

The ancestry of the Shakespeares stretches far back. Shakespeare’s own name had more than eighty different spellings—including Sakspere, Schakosper, Schackspere, Saxper, Schaftspere, Shakstaf, Chacsper, Shasspeere—perhaps testifying to the multifarious and polyphonic nature of his given identity. The variations suggest prolificity and universality. In Stratford documents alone there are some twenty different and separate spellings.

The original family may have been of Norman derivation. In the Great Rolls of Normandy, dated 1195, there is found “William Sakeespee”; a late thirteenth-century Norman romance, Le Chatelain de Couci, was composed by “Jakemes Sakesep.” It is also true that the Shakespeare families of England preferred Christian names that were characteristically Norman. The surname itself seems to have had some militaristic association, and in Shakespeare’s lifetime there were some who were impressed by its martial ring. An early sixteenth-century text suggests that it was “imposed upon the first bearers … for valour and feats of arms.”2 It is suggestive, then, that when Shakespeare’s father applied for a coat of arms, he claimed that his grandfather had been rewarded by Henry VII for “faithfull & valeant service.”3 Shakespeare was also used as a nickname “for a belligerent person, or perhaps a bawdy name for an exhibitionist.”4 For this reason it was sometimes regarded as a “base” name. In 1487 Hugo Shakespeare wished to change his surname because “vile reputatum est”5 (it was considered “low”). Similar obloquy was later heaped upon the name of Dickens.

The first mention of the name in English records is of “William Sakspeer” in 1248; he came from the village of Clopton, just a few miles outside Stratford. From the thirteenth century the name often occurs in Warwickshire records; it was a family name of long local settlement, in a literal sense part of the landscape. This may help to explain the rootedness of Shakespeare himself within English culture. Thomas Shakespere was living in Coventry in 1359. William Shakespere dwelled in the southern part of Balsall in 1385. Adam Shakespere was part of the manor of Baddesley Clinton in 1389. The religious guild of Knowle had as its members Richard and Alice Shakspere, in 1457, subsequently joined by Ralph Schakespeire in 1464. Thomas and Alice Shakespere, of Balsall, entered the same guild in 1486.

There are many other Shakespeares of later date in Balsall, Baddesley, Knowle, Wroxall and neighbouring villages; the names and dates provide clear evidence of an extended family of siblings and cousins living within a geographical area a few miles in extent. Many of them were part of the guild of Knowle, fulfilling certain secular and religious obligations, and can therefore be considered good and observant Catholics. The prioress of the nuns’ house in Wroxall in the first years of the sixteenth century was Isabella Shakespeare; in 1526 that position, in characteristically medieval fashion, was in turn granted to Jane Shakspere. It was from this cluster of Shakespeares that William Shakespeare’s immediate ancestors came.

His grandfather, Richard Shakespeare, was a farmer of Snitterfield, a village four miles north of Stratford. He was the son either of John Shakeschaffte of Balsall, or of Adam Shakespere of Baddesley Clinton; whatever his exact paternity, his origin is clear. He was an affluent farmer, commonly known as a husbandman, with two sets of land in the vicinity. Snitterfield itself was a scattered parish with a church and manor-house, ancient farmhouses and cottages, presiding over a mixed landscape of woodland and pasture, heath and meadow. This was the landscape for part of the dramatist’s childhood.

There was a further familial bond. Richard Shakespeare’s house and grounds were leased from Robert Arden, the father of Mary Arden, whom John Shakespeare later married. The dramatist’s mother and father knew each other from an early age, therefore, and doubtless met in Richard Shakespeare’s old house on the High Street whose land stretched down to a little brook. It had a hall and several bedchambers; by the standard of the time it was an imposing dwelling. John Shakespeare himself grew up in the life and atmosphere of the farm. He was born in 1529, the year that his father is first known in Snitterfield, and it seems likely that Richard Shakespeare moved to this area with his new wife and anticipated family.

Richard Shakespeare left in his will the sum of £38 14s 0d, which demonstrates that he was by the standard of his age and position living in modest affluence. He was fined on occasions, for not attending the manorial court and for not controlling his livestock or yoking his swine, but he was a man of some substance in the little community of Snitterfield. A friend of his living in Stratford, Thomas Atwood, bequeathed him a team of oxen. He sat on juries in order to appraise his neighbours’ goods, and seems to have also been enrolled in the religious guild of Knowle. He was in that sense the image of the Shakespeare family itself, in its affluence, in its solidity, and also in its occasional recklessness. It is sometimes conjectured that Shakespeare sprang from a race of illiterate peasants, but that is emphatically not the case.

Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, embarked at an early age on a prosperous career. Although there were already Shakespeares settled in Stratford, he was a native of Snitterfield. His younger brother, Henry, remained a Snitterfield farmer, but John did not choose to work only in the family business. He wished to pursue other trades as well. He was, in the tradition of striving first sons, moving upwards through the world. His own son would follow him. John Shakespeare left the farm in order to be enrolled as an apprentice to a glover in Stratford. The most plausible candidate for his master is Thomas Dixon, who was the innkeeper of the Swan, at the bottom of Bridge Street, as well as a master glover. His wife came from Snitterfield.

John Shakespeare’s apprenticeship lasted for seven years, and in the Stratford records of 1556 he was listed as a “glover.” He was then twenty-seven, and he would already have pursued the trade for a few years. In later documents he is described as a “whittawer” or dresser of “tawed” or un-tanned white leather. He soaked and scraped the skins of horses and deer, sheep and hounds, before softening them with salt and alum; they were placed in pots of urine or excrement before being laid out in the garden to dry. It was a messy and smelly business. From the evidence of his drama Shakespeare had a pronounced aversion to unpleasant smells. When the skins had been rendered tender and pliant they were cut to pattern with knife and scissors as they assumed the shape of gloves, purses, belts and bags. They were then hung on a rod by the window in order to attract custom. Shakespeare often mentions the trade, and its products, in his plays. He knows the varieties of leather, from dog-skin to deer-skin, and lists the assortment of items that his father sold, from shoes of neat’s leather to bridles of sheep’s leather and the bags of sow-skin carried by tinkers. “Is not Parchment made of sheepe-skinnes?” Hamlet’s question is answered by Horatio with a further refinement: “I, my Lord, and of Calues-skinnes to” (3082-3). Gloves, particularly those made of cheveril or kid-skin, are praised by Shakespeare for their softness; there are references to a “soft chiuerell Conscience” (All Is True, 996) and “a wit of cheuerell, that stretches from an ynch narrow, to an ell broad”(Romeo and Juliet, 1139-40). Shakespeare describes gloves continually, whether worn in the hat or thrown down as a pledge. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Quickly remarks upon “a great round Beard, like a Glouer’s pairing-knife.” This is the language of close observation.

John Shakespeare had a ground-floor shop at the front of his house, looking out upon Henley Street, with outbuildings at the back for stretching and drying. He found employment here for one or two apprentices or “stitchers.” His “sign” was a pair of glover’s compasses. He also set up a stall on market-days by the High Cross, where the cheapest gloves sold at 4 pence a pair; lined and embroidered items were of course far more expensive. It would be interesting to see his eldest son helping to attract custom at this Thursday morning market; but on most weekday mornings he was at school. Nevertheless every business was in some sense a family business.

John Shakespeare was a member of the glovers’ guild. The making and selling of gloves was a well-developed and thriving Stratford trade. Between 1570 and 1630, there were some twenty-three glovers in the town. But he had other occupations as well. He was still a yeoman farmer, and farmed land with his father in Snitterfield and with his younger brother in the neighbouring village of Ingon. Here he reared and slaughtered the animals whose skins were later converted into leather; hence derive later Stratford reports that Shakespeare’s father was a butcher and that the young Shakespeare had become a butcher’s apprentice. Behind all local legends, there lies a modicum of ascertainable fact. There are indeed a number of references to butchers and to butchery in Shakespeare’s dramas, most notably connected with the relationship between sons and fathers; Shakespeare knows the various shades and textures of blood, as well as the “uncleanly sauours of a Slaughterhouse” (King John, 2002). There is a suggestive connection.

John Shakespeare, recorded in an official document as “agricola” or farmer, dealt in barley and in wool. He also traded in timber. It was perfectly natural, and proper, that a man should be possessed of many skills and trades. Of his business in wool-dealing, there is ample evidence. Like many other glovers he needed the skins and wished to pass on the fleece. Part of the house in Henley Street was known as “the Woolshop,” and when a later tenant “re-laid the floors of the parlour, the remnants of wool, and the refuse of wool-combing, were found under the old flooring, imbedded with the earth of the foundation.”6 John Shakespeare sold 28-pound parcels of wool, or “tods,” to mercers and clothiers in surrounding towns. The clown in The Winter’s Tale does his arithmetic—“Let me see, euery Leauen-weather toddes, euery tod yeeldes pound and odde shilling: fifteene hundred shorne, what comes the wooll too?” (1508-9).

But, like other glovers, John Shakespeare also acted as an unlicensed wool-broker or “brogger”; information was laid against him in court that on two occasions he had illegally purchased wool at 14 shillings per “tod.” His actions were illegal because he was not a member of the wool “Staple,” a kind of guild, but more importantly he laid down the sums of £140 for one transaction and £70 for the other. These were very large amounts indeed. They suggest that John Shakespeare was a wealthy man.

That is why he could afford to speculate in property. He bought a house in Greenhill Street, just down the road from Henley Street, and rented it out. He bought two further houses, with gardens and orchards, for £40. He rented another house to one William Burbage, who may or may not have been related to the London acting family. Ordinary life is filled with coincidence.

He also lent money at an illegal rate of interest to his neighbours, a trade which passed under the unhappy name of “usury.” The legal rate was 10 per cent, but John Shakespeare lent £100 to a business colleague at interest of 20 per cent, and a further £80 to another contemporary at the same rate. He charged the excess because it had become standard practice. He could get away with it, in other words. Money-lending was itself widely accepted, in a period where there were no banks or credit facilities, and it was even one in which his son engaged from time to time. According to one social historian such financial dealings were “extremely widespread,”7 and in fact necessary for the smooth running of the community. Of usury William Harrison wrote that it is “practiced so commonly that he is accounted a fool that doth lend his money for nothing.”8 The sums in which John Shakespeare dealt were nevertheless very large. When observing his payment of £210 for wool, and his loans of £180, a contrast might be made with his father’s entire estate amounting to less than £40. The son had far outstripped the affluence of his father. It was a tradition of striving that his own son would inherit.

So John Shakespeare was a canny and prosperous businessman. There has been much speculation, however, about his literacy. He signed with a mark rather than a signature, which suggests that he could not write. There is something deeply satisfying, to some commentators, in the prospect of the greatest writer in the history of the world springing from an illiterate family. It adds to the supposed drama. The fact that John Shakespeare could not write, however, does not necessarily imply that he could not read. Reading and writing were taught separately, and were considered to be different skills. It would in any case have been difficult for him to engage in his multifarious trades and businesses without being able to read. He was also left some books, in a bequest, which points towards the same conclusion.

And then there is the vexed question of his religion. For centuries scholars have argued over the possibility that Shakespeare’s father was a secret adherent of the old faith. The question is confused by the perplexing circumstances of the time, when a person’s professed faith might not have been his or her real faith and when there were nice distinctions and gradations in any religious observance. There were conflicting loyalties. You might be a Catholic who attended the reformed services for the sake of propriety, or to escape a fine; you might be a member of the new communion, yet one who loved the rituals and festivals of the old Church. You might be undecided, leaning one way and then another in the quest for certainty. You might have no real faith at all.

The evidence for John Shakespeare is similarly equivocal. He had his son baptised within the rites of the Anglican communion, and the minister Bretchgirdle was a Protestant. But John Shakespeare might also have concealed within the rafters of the roof at Henley Street an explicit “spiritual testament.” There are many scholars who doubt the authenticity of this document, believing it to be a fabrication or a plant, but its provenance seems genuine enough. It has been shown to be a standard Roman Catholic production, distributed by Edmund Campion, who journeyed to Warwickshire in 1581 and stayed just a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. Campion himself was a Jesuit priest who had travelled from Rome on a secret and ultimately fatal mission to England, both to bolster the faith of native Catholics and to convert those who were wavering in their allegiance. Jesuit missionaries were not welcome in England, especially after the Pope’s excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570, and Campion was eventually apprehended, tried and sentenced to death.

The spiritual testament found in Henley Street included John Shakespeare’s obedience to “the Catholike, Romaine & Apostolicke Church” and invocations to the Virgin Mary and “my Angell guardian,” as well as to the succour of “the holy sacrifice of the masse.” It could not be a more orthodox or pious document. It was printed or transcribed, with blanks left for the specific details of the testator. Here John Shakespeare’s mark or signature appeared, as well as the information that his particular patron saint was “saint Winifrede.” This saint had her shrine in Holywell, Flintshire, which was a place of pilgrimage for the wealthier Catholic families of Warwickshire. If the testament is a forgery, only a well-informed forger would know the details of a local saint. More doubts are raised by the notation. If John Shakespeare could not write, then who added the reference to Winifred? Was there another member of the Shakespeare family who could read and write by 1581? There is one clue. In this Catholic testament there is reference to the danger that “I may be possibly cut off in the blossome of my sins.” In Hamlet the ghost laments that he was “Cut off euen in the blossomes of my sinne” (693) and invokes the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. This ghost is of course that of the father.

The identity of the amanuensis must, however, remain a matter for speculation. But if we believe that the testament was signed by John Shakespeare, and then concealed in the attic of his house, the suggestion is that he was or had become a secret and practising Catholic. There are other pieces of evidence. His family history included pious ancestors, among them Dame Isabella and Dame Jane of the nuns’ house in Wroxall. His wife, Mary Arden, also came from an old Catholic family. On several occasions he himself was included in lists of recusants “presented for not comminge monethlie to the Churche according to hir Majesties lawes.” In this context, he may also have conveyed his properties to members of his family to avoid the possibility of confiscation.

On the other side of the argument is the contention that he would have subscribed to the oath of supremacy in order to take up various official posts in Stratford; he was also instrumental in ordering and overseeing the lime-washing of the religious imagery in the guild chapel as well as the removal of the “rood loft” or crucifixion scene. But he was an ambitious man, one of many sixteenth-century officials who continually balanced their careers against their convictions. He could fulfil his administrative duties on these occasions without necessarily compromising or admitting any deeply held private faith.

By 1552 John Shakespeare is recorded as a tenant or householder in Henley Street; at the age of twenty-three he had passed through his apprenticeship, and had set up business on his own account. In 1556 he purchased the adjoining house in Henley Street that has since become known as the “Wool-shop.” The two houses were eventually knocked together to create the comfortable and commodious house that survives still. In the same year he bought the tenement and garden in neighbouring Greenhill Street. He was expanding.

In the spring or summer of the following year he married Mary Arden, the daughter of his father’s old landlord. In 1556, too, he began his slow rise in the Stratford hierarchy when he was appointed one of two “tasters.” These were the borough officials who ensured the quality of the bread and ale purveyed in the district. He was moving forward on all fronts with his family, his business, and his civic career, being organised simultaneously.

He was fined for missing three meetings of the Stratford court, but that did not prevent him from being appointed as one of four “constables” in 1558. He was obliged to supervise the night watch, quell disturbances in the street and disarm those bent on an affray. It was not a sinecure and suggests that, at the age of twenty-nine, John Shakespeare was a person of considerable respect among his neighbours. His judicial duties increased in the following year, when he was appointed to be “affeeror” or fixer of fines. Within a short space of time came a greater honour, when he was elected as a burgess of Stratford; he now attended the monthly council meeting and was permitted to educate any of his sons at the King’s New School free of charge. His first son, however, would not be born for another six years.

In 1561 he was elected as chamberlain, in charge of the property and revenues of the Stratford corporation; he filled that office for four years, in which period he supervised the building of a new schoolroom in the upper storey of the guildhall, where his son would one day be taught.

He was appointed as one of fourteen aldermen in 1565, the year after his son’s birth. From this time forward he was addressed as “Master Shakespeare.” On holy days and days of public festival he was obliged to wear a black cloth gown faced with fur; he also wore an aldermanic ring of agate that his young son knew very well. In Romeo and Juliet the playwright refers to “an Agot stone / on the forefinger of an Alderman” (515-16). And then in 1568 John Shakespeare reached the height of his civic ambition, when he was elected bailiff or mayor of Stratford. He exchanged his black robe for a scarlet gown. He was led to the guildhall by a Serjeant bearing the mace of office. He sat with his family, now including the four-year-old William Shakespeare, in the front pew of the Church of the Holy Trinity. He was also a Justice of the Peace, presiding over the Court of Record. When his term of office expired in 1571 he was appointed high alderman and deputy to his successor as mayor; he was clearly held in great respect. The extant and sporadic records of council business suggest a man of tact and moderation—referring to his colleagues, for example, as a “brotherhode”—as well as one of sound judgement. We will see some of those virtues in his son. Like many other “self-made” men, however, he may also have been excessively confident in his own abilities. This was also a familial trait.

His younger brother, Henry, continued the family tradition of farming; he rented land in Snitterfield and in a neighbouring parish. What little is known of him suggests pugnacity and a certain independence of mind. He was fined for assaulting one of his close relations—the husband of one of Mary Arden’s sisters—and in his eighties he was excommunicated from the church for failing to pay his tithes. He was also fined for breaching the Statute of Caps; he refused, in other words, to wear a cap on Sundays. He was fined on other occasions for various agricultural misdemeanours, and gaoled at different times for debt and for trespass. He was, perhaps, a “black sheep” in the Stratford farm landscape. But he exhibited a fierceness and hardiness that would inspire any young relative. Shakespeare might have inherited the vices of his uncle as well as the virtues of his father. Despite his reputation as a bad debtor Henry Shakespeare was good at acquiring and keeping his money. At his death a witness deposed that there was “plenty of money in his coffers”; his barns, too, were filled with corn and hay “of a great value.”9 Shakespeare came from a family of undoubted affluence, with all the ease and self-confidence that such affluence encourages.

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