A Witty Mother, Witlesse Else Her Sonne

It is an undoubted fact,” Charles Dickens once wrote, that “all remarkable men have remarkable mothers.” In the lineaments of the mature William Shakespeare, then, we might see the outline of Mary Arden. She is a formidable figure. She could plausibly claim to be part of a family that extended beyond the Norman Conquest. The Ardens had been “Lords of Warwick” and one of their number, Turchillus de Eardene, was credited in the Domesday Book with vast extents of land.1 The immediate beneficiaries of this wealth and gentility were the Ardens of Park Hall, in the north of the county of Warwickshire. They were a strongly Catholic family who were eventually harried and persecuted for their faith.

There is no proof that the Ardens of the village of Wilmcote were related to the wealthy landowners of Park Hall. In matters of lineage, however, what can be asserted or suggested is more important than that which can be proved. The shared surname was probably enough. It seems likely that the Ardens from whom Mary Arden was descended considered themselves to be connected, in however distant a fashion, with other branches of the Ardens and indeed with the grand families who were related to other Ardens— families such as the Sidneys and the Nevilles.

It has often been suggested that male actors are prone, in their earliest years, to identify with the mother; they internalise her behaviour and adopt her values. This at least is one explanation for the overriding concern for nobility and gentility in Shakespeare’s subsequent drama; he was known for playing kingly roles, and the aristocratic world is at the heart of his design. Could his mother have taught him his fastidiousness and his disdain? In the quest for an alternative Shakespeare, it has often been suggested that the dramatist was actually a well-known aristocrat; among these hypothetical aliases can be found the seventeenth Earl of Oxford and the sixth Earl of Derby. So it is a matter of the greatest irony that Shakespeare may have already considered himself to be of noble stock. He may even be alluding to his parents’ marriage at the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew (82-3):

Since once he plaide a Farmers eldest sonne,

“Twas where you woo’d the Gentlewoman so well.

Mary Arden’s father, Robert Arden, was an affluent yeoman farmer who owned two farmhouses and possessed more than 150 acres of land. Of such farmers William Harrison wrote that they “commonlie live wealthilie, keepe good houses, and travel to get riches … and with grazing, frequenting of markets and keeping of servants do come to great welthe.”2 Robert Arden was in fact the most prosperous farmer, and the largest landowner, in Wilmcote. The village itself was three miles from Stratford, situated in cleared woodland; it was close to the very edge of the forest from which the family derived its name. The Ardens were nourished with a specific sense of belonging.

They lived here in a single-storey farmhouse, built at the beginning of the sixteenth century, with its barns and its cowsheds, its dovecote and its woodpiles, its pump and its apiary. Robert Arden possessed oxen and bullocks, horses and calves and colts and sheep, bees and poultry. There were plentiful quantities of barley and oats. Shakespeare’s mother, just like Shakespeare’s father, was brought up as an integral part of a working farm. This may be the best way of describing Robert Arden himself: he was of ancient farming stock, with pretensions to gentility.

An inventory of his possessions has survived. Among these were the farmhouse at Snitterfield, where Richard Shakespeare and his family had recently lived, as well as the house in Wilmcote. In that household there was a hall and a second chamber for sleeping, as well as a kitchen, but the accommodation was still somewhat cramped; Mary Arden had six sisters, and she grew up in an environment where there was much competition for attention and affection. In the inventory, too, there are references to table-boards andbenches, cupboards and little tables in the hall or principal room; there were shelves, too, and three chairs. From these bare memoranda we can fill a sixteenth-century room in imagination. The second chamber contained a feather bed, two mattresses and seven pairs of sheets, as well as towels and tablecloths kept in two wooden coffers.

In the rooms were hung painted cloths for decoration and edification. These depicted classical or religious scenes, such as Daniel in the Lions’ Den or the Siege of Troy, and would have dominated the interiors of this relatively modest farmhouse. Mary Arden was bequeathed at least one of these painted tapestries in her father’s will, and it is most likely to have ended up on a wall in Henley Street. In Macbeth Shakespeare refers to the “Eye of Childhood that feares a painted Deuill” (595-6), and Falstaff mentions “Lazarus in the painted cloth” (1 Henry IV, 2287).

When Mary Arden brought the painted cloth with her from her family home, and became the mistress of Henley Street, she was probably in her seventeenth or eighteenth year. Her husband was a decade older and already, as we have seen, a rising man. She was the youngest of Robert Arden’s daughters, and may have some claim to being the most favoured. Alone among her kin she was left a specific piece of land. Her father bequeathed to her “all my lande in Willmecote cawlid Asbyes and the crop apone the grounde sowne and tyllide as hitt is.”3 From this we may deduce that she was dependable and practical. No farmer would leave land to an incompetent daughter. She was also healthy and vigorous, giving birth to many children and living to the age of sixty-eight. We may plausibly imagine her also to be energetic, intelligent and quick-witted; in a household of seven sisters she would also have learnt the virtues of tact and compliance. It is not known whether she was literate, but her mark upon a bond is well formed and even graceful. She could wield a pen in a single movement. Her private seal was of a galloping horse, an emblem of agility and industry. The fact that she had a seal at all is a sign of affluence and respectability. Shakespeare has left no record of her, but it has been surmised that her outlines can be glimpsed in a number of strong-minded mothers who appear in his dramas—Volumnia extolling Coriolanus’s achievements, the Countess reminding Bertram of his duty, the Duchess of York berating King Richard. It is also possible, and indeed plausible, that the high-spirited and intelligent young women of the comedies owe something to the memories of his mother.

The family house in Henley Street can even now be seen; it is much changed, but still recognisable. It was originally two (or perhaps three) houses, each with a garden and an orchard. It was on the northern side of Henley Street, at the edge of the town, with its narrow rooms looking directly on to the thoroughfare; there was very little privacy. At the back of the house, beyond the garden, was an area known as the “Guild Pits” that was essentially a stretch of waste ground with a ramshackle road threading within it.

The house itself was erected at the beginning of the sixteenth century in the usual mode of oak timber frame with wattle-and-daub, and with a roof of thatch. The ceilings of the interiors were lime-washed, and the walls decorated with painted cloths or patterned all over with the use of wood-blocks. Its timbers were much lighter in colour than the “mock-Tudor” beams now characteristically stained black or dark brown. The plaster work would have been of light beige. The whole effect was of brightness or, at least, of lightness. The stark black and white of restored Tudor interiors is wrong; Shakespeare’s contemporaries used much paler colours, and more subtly graded shades. The wooden furniture was of the standard household type, as already exemplified by Robert Arden’s inventory—chairs and plain tables and joint-stools (so called because the separate parts were joined together). The floors were of broken Wilmcote limestone, covered by rushes. If there were “carpets,” they were used as covers for the table. There may have been a wall-cupboard to display dishes or plate. In Romeo and Juliet a servant calls out, “Away with the ioyntstooles, remove the Courtcubbert [cupboard], looke to the plate” (579-80).

It was a commodious house with six separate chambers, the lower and upper storeys connected with a ladder rather than a stairway. The hall was the principal room of the house, next to the front door and the cross-passage; there was a large fireplace here, and the Shakespeare family sat for their meals in front of it. There was a kitchen at the back of the house with its usual complements of a hand-turned spit, brass skillets and leathern bottles. Beside the hall was the parlour, a combined sitting room and bedroom where the bed itself was displayed as a prize specimen of household furniture. The walls here were heavily patterned and decorated. Across from the hall, on the other side of the passage, was John Shakespeare’s workshop, where the labour of stitching and sewing was undertaken by him and his apprentices. It was also a shop trading with the outside world, with a casement opening on to the street, and as such had a different atmosphere from the rest of the house. From an early age Shakespeare knew all about the demands of the public. On the floor above there were three bedchambers. Shakespeare would have slept on a mattress of rush, stretched on cords between the wooden frame of the bed. In the attic rooms slept the servants and the apprentices. It was a large house for a tradesman and reinforces the note of affluence in all his father’s affairs.

It was also a noisy house, a wooden sound-box in which a conversation in one part of the house could clearly be heard in another. The creaking of timber, and the noise of footsteps, would have been a constant accompaniment to household tasks. From Shakespeare’s dramas, too, come the unmistakable impressions of childhood in Henley Street. There are images of stopped ovens and smoking lamps, of washing and scouring, of dusting and sweeping; there are many references to the preparation of food, to boiling and mincing and stewing and frying; there are allusions to badly prepared cakes and unsieved flour, to a rabbit being turned upon a spit and a pasty being “pinched.” There are many references to what was considered to be women’s work within the home, to knitting and to needlework. But there are also images of carpentering, of hooping and of joinery; these were the activities of the yard or of the outhouses at the back of John Shakespeare’s property. No other Elizabethan dramatist employs so many domestic allusions. Shakespeare maintained a unique connection with his past.

That is why the natural world seems to impinge so directly upon him. The house in Stratford, like most others in the vicinity, had a garden and an orchard. The image of the garden occurs to him in many different contexts, whether that of the body or of the state. An ill-weeded garden is an image of decay. He knows of grafting and pruning, of digging and dunging. In Romeo and Juliet there is an image of a trailing plant being pressed down to the ground so that it will put forth fresh roots. This is not a scene, perhaps, that would have readily occurred to an urban writer. In all he alludes to 108 different plants. In his orchards hang apples and plums, grapes and apricots.

The flowers of his plays are native to the soil from which he came; the primrose and the violet, the wallflower and the daffodil, the cowslip and the rose, sprang up wild all around him. He need only shut his eyes to see them again. He uses the local names for the flowers of the meadow, such as Ophelia’s crow-flowers and Lear’s cuckoo-flowers; he uses the Warwickshire word for the pansy, love-in-idleness. He employs the local names of bilberry for the whortleberry and honey-stalks for stalks of clover. In that same dialect, too, a dandelion is a “golden lad” before becoming a “chimney sweeper” when its spore is cast upon the breeze. Thus, in Cymbeline (2214-15),

Golden Lads and Girles all must,

As Chimney-Sweepers, come to dust.

The words of his childhood surround him once more when he contemplates meadows and gardens.

No poet besides Chaucer has celebrated with such sweetness the enchantment of birds, whether it be the lark ascending or the little grebe diving, the plucky wren or the serene swan. He mentions some sixty species in total. He knows, for example, that the martlet builds its nest on exposed walls. Of the singing birds he notices the thrush and the ousel or blackbird. More ominous are the owl and raven, the crow and the maggot-pie. He knows them all, and has observed their course across the sky. The spectacle of birds in flight entrances him. He cannot bear the thought of their being trapped, or caught, or snared. He loves free energy and movement, as if they were in some instinctive sympathy with his own nature.

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