Shakespeare: A Life

Shakespeare: A Life

by Park Honan

View All Available Formats & Editions

In the most complete, accurate, and up-to-date narrative of Shakespeare's life ever written, Park Honan uses a wealth of fresh information to dramatically alter our perceptions of the actor, poet, and playwright. The young poet's relationships, his early courtship of Anne Hathaway, their marriage, his attitudes to women such as Jennet Davenant, Marie Mountjoy, and


In the most complete, accurate, and up-to-date narrative of Shakespeare's life ever written, Park Honan uses a wealth of fresh information to dramatically alter our perceptions of the actor, poet, and playwright. The young poet's relationships, his early courtship of Anne Hathaway, their marriage, his attitudes to women such as Jennet Davenant, Marie Mountjoy, and his own daughters, are seen in a new light, illuminating Shakespeare's needs, habits, passions and concerns. Park Honan examines the world of the playing companies -- the power of patronage, theatrical conditions, and personal rivalries -- to reveal the relationship between the man and the writing, and using previously unpublished material explores the causes of Shakespeare's success; Stratford childhood, his parents' capabilities, and his preparations for a London career. Shakespeare: A Life casts new light on the complexity and fascination of Shakespeare's life and his extraordinary development as an artist.

Editorial Reviews
Shakespeare in Love has proven a huge hit with audiences and critics alike, attracting huge crowds across the country and snagging 13 Academy Award nominations. The accolades are well-deserved; it's a terrific movie. But it's not exactly what one might call historically accurate. If seeing the film has piqued your interest in the Bard of Avon, you'll want to read Shakespeare: A Life for the straight scoop.
Lois Potter
...[A]n admirable job....comprehensive, up-to-date and agreeably written...a definitive (for the time being) life of Shakespeare.
New York Times Book Review
Leeta Taylor
Park Honan's Shakespeare: A Life is a welcome Baedeker of a biography, a scrupulous blend of family-history research and political context that never forgets the common reader.
ForeWord Magazine
Terry Teachout
I take this opportunity to laud a recently published biography that belongs on anybody's short list of indispensable volumes on the inexhaustible subject of the world's greatest playwright. Park Honan, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Leeds, has brought together in the compass of one compact, elegantly written volume everything that is now known about Shakespeare, clearly differentiating between fact and speculation.
Baltimore Sun
Robert Taylor
The best available biography....Honan's Shakespeare is good natured, sociable, and extraordinary by any measure.
Boston Globe
Paul Dean
[Honan] moves at a stately pace through the chronological sequence of events, and is willing to let the record speak for itself....[He] has to bring off some delicate balancing acts....There are some bold moves....All he can give us is his truth about Shakespeare...[a man who expressed] his sense of life's complexities in works of art which, like himself, are both intimate and lonely.
New Criterion
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
So little evidence of Shakespeare's life exists that biographers have had to resort to sometimes far-fetched guesswork to flesh out a vivid chronicle of his days. Many of them would benefit from the healthy dose of common sense evident in Honan's latest critical study. As a leading biographer of Robert Browning and Jane Austen, Honan brings a sensible eye to the Sisyphean task of sifting through what is now called the "Shakespeare Industry." Synthesizing documentary material on Renaissance England with the latest scholarship--be it Helen Vendler on the sonnets or Leeds Barroll on politics and plague in Elizabethan London--Honan attempts to link, perhaps a little too closely, the Bard's life experiences with his literary representations. In an examination of Shakespeare's schooling, Honan refutes the oft-cited remark that he had "small Latin and less Greek" and finds analogies to his student years in such plays as The Merry Wives of Windsor and Hamlet. Honan vibrantly depicts Renaissance urban life, where "the theatre [was] a quick-paced, disenchanting funfair; with jigs, dancing, dumb-shows and clowns' acts interlaced with drama." Despite his insistence on historical context, however, Honan reserves most of his critical energies for the poet's high tragedies. In Hamlet, "pathos arises from his hero's idealization of a prior normalcy"; Othello contains a "flawless structure of feeling"; and Antony and Cleopatra investigates "non-literal truth, in myth, fable, and implicit connections between historical epochs." Studies of Shakespeare frequently reflect hotly contested trends in literary criticism; this biography's value, by contrast, lies in its responsibly researched, unflinching look at what is indisputably the artist's real achievement: "Far from soothing an audience," Honan writes, "Shakespeare depicts human nature in ways that are at once truthful and deeply troubling."
Students (and sometimes teachers) who believe that not much is known about the life of William Shakespeare should be directed to Park Honan's impressive work. Readers will realize that, as Honan writes in his introduction, "new material about Shakespeare, his town, his parents, his schooling, his friendships, or his career comes to light continually." This is quite an exciting reality. Honan's work, therefore, is not the definitive biography of Shakespeare, but rather an attempt "to supply a dispassionate, up-to-date report on the available facts." One must assume that others will expand on this work as new research warrants. In its 18 chapters, this work literally discusses Shakespeare's life from "Birth" (Ch. 1) to death in "A Gentleman's Choices" (Ch. 18). Honan effectively uses a narrative style that will be accessible to the majority while including details and insights that will be satisfying to the scholar. Shakespeare's works are examined in terms of the sources that Shakespeare might have used in writing them as well as events in his life that might have influenced his work. Many myths are dispelled by facts. Where needed facts have yet to be uncovered, mysteries remain. One fact, which I thought was undisputed, concerns the date of Shakespeare's birth, widely regarded as April 23, 1564. However, Honan finds no convincing proof and contends that it just as easily could be April 21 or April 22. One myth that is rather convincingly dispelled is that the sonnets were written with a particular Young Man or Dark Lady in mind. Another interesting possibility is presented in a listing of Shakespeare's plays made in 1603 that includes Love's Labour Won as well as Love's Labour Lost.Honan cannot conclude whether the former is a missing work or an alternative title for an existing work such as Taming of the Shrew. Readers will finish this book with the feeling that they have come closer to a knowledge of Shakespeare as a man, a citizen, an actor, and a writer. Honan presents the portrait of a kind and humble individual whose extraordinary talent continues to fascinate generations. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students, and adults. 1999, Oxford Univ. Press, 479p, 22cm, 98-22114, $17.95. Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Anthony J. Pucci; English Dept. Chair., Notre Dame H.S., Elmira, NY, November 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 6)
Library Journal
Honan (English, emeritus, University of Leeds), author of biographies of Jane Austen, Matthew Arnold, and Robert Browning, aims to create the most up-to-date and accurate narrative of the Bard's life yet penned. Dismissive of other writers who, in his view, have imagined moments and motives in Shakespeare's life, he tries to rely on documentary and contextualized fact. The result is a blow-by-blow account of Shakespeare's life from birth to death, with some attention paid to the historical, political, and social world Shakespeare inhabited. Extensive notes and a study of the biographical writings on Shakespeare to date conclude the work. At times this biography is overwritten for its target audience, the general public, and it can be slow reading. -- Neal Wyatt, Chesterfield County Public Library, Virginia
Matt Wolf
...[T]he book's real dramatic juice resides in talk of the plays....[P]erhaps inevitably, the direct links between writer and work are what fascinate most....For all its scrupulous scholarship, this book leaves no doubt that the quest for the genius at its heart will go on.
The New York Times
Norman A. Anderson
...[S]killfully interweaves the little-known facts of Shakespeare's life and many incidental historical details with the most accurate knowledge we have of the writing and performance of the plays. His inferences and suppositions...are carefully reasoned and deeply documented.
The Christian Science Monitor
Times Literary Supplement
The year before Shakespeare was born, the Stratford council whitewashed over the frescos of Doom in the chapel belonging to the Guild of the Holy Cross. The Guild was a religious mutual society, part of the welfare system grandly dismantled under Henry VIII and his successors; its members (who included not only the dead but also women) tended the sick, aided the poor, prayed for the repose of departed souls, ran a school and the town itself until they were demutualized in 1547. A decade and a half later, the reformed authorities nerved themselves to that erasure of past imagery so dear to fragile, new regimes. Shakespeare never saw this superseded apocalypse, but you can discern in his writing, as Baudelaire glimpsed in the eyes of Delacroix's eastern potentates, a nostalgia for something he had never known. For example, in the halted tune which evokes abolished chantries at the end of "The Phoenix and the Turtle" - "For these dead birds sigh a prayer" - or when he places, with exceptional deftness and weight, the scare-word "indulgence" in Prospero's mouth just as it closes: "Let your indulgence set me free".

From which it does not follow that Shakespeare was a Catholic. We have no evidence of his views; Eliot was right to ask "did Shakespeare think anything at all?" and half-reply "he was occupied with turning human actions into poetry". Views are, anyway, less important to the workings of the imagination than those who have little in their heads but views are wont to imagine. The Tudor unsettlements and resettlements of Church and State tell on and in Shakespeare's plays and their first audiences at levels other than that of formulated doctrine - in sore alertness such as Hamlet's about "all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past", in a simultaneous hankering for and fear of big words, in wisecracks and a taste for kitsch.

Kirkus Reviews
A meticulously researched, lucidly presented, but oddly undramatic life of English literature's elusive icon. Bardolaters hoping for more speculation about the Dark Lady's identity or adventurous hypotheses of the "missing years" before London will get a refreshing cold shower from this up-to-date, strictly factual life. Veteran British biographer Honan (professor emeritus of English at the University of Leeds; Jane Austen) pitches in with Shakespearean studies' slow work to overturn the romantic tide of mythologizing, garbled oral tradition, and basic errors surrounding the poet ever since Aubrey's gossipy anecdotography in his Restoration-era Brief Lives.

With the current accumulation of unearthed Elizabethan documents, Honan's work has a solid footing in the era. Mapping out Shakespeare's post-Reformation Stratford, the author analyzes both his father's business and civic affairs, his family's ties to recusant Midlands Catholics, and his mother's and wife's personalities-at least as far as can be inferred from official documents such as wills. Honan also goes into detail about a grammar school education (and how it would have formed the basis of Shakespeare's tutelage) before he suggests that Will left to become something like a teacher-cum-actor in Lancashire (if "William Shakeshafte," in the employ of Alexander de Hoghton, is indeed the Bard). Picking up his trail in London, Honan's treatment of Shakespeare's career in the tumultuous Elizabethan theater is grounded in documentary evidence wherever possible, with suppositions about Shakespeare's attitudes to his fellow actors and contemporary tastes (such as for child actors) always carefully qualified. By the end,although Honan is impartial about the dogmatic conflicts of Shakespeare's times, he does not approach the final question of Shakespeare's personal religious convictions-as Aubrey noted, he was accused of having "died a papist." Still, this life objectively scrutinizes the public individual rather than the inner man. Synthesizing current scholarship, Honan is as likely to quote from official documents, from church records and business papers, or from law court testimonies, as from Shakespeare's works for his portrait.

From the Publisher
"If you have never read a book about William Shakespeare, please read this one....Exceptional....Honan examines virtually all of Shakespeare's work in impressive detail, weaving his staggeringly clear knowledge of establishable historic fact with literary scholarship."—Michael Parkenham, Baltimore Sun

Product Details

Oxford University Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
7 MB

Read an Excerpt


A Life
By Park Honan

Oxford University Press

Copyright ©2000 Park Honan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0192825275

Chapter One


the cruel times before
(John Foxe)


Shakespeare's life began near the reflecting, gleaming river Avon, which today flows past Stratford's Church of the Holy Trinity where he lies buried, and past a theatre where his dramas are seen and heard by visitors from all nations. In rare flood times, the river was wild and destructive, sweeping away bridges and much in its path, but normally it was hospitable to truant boys or patient fishermen, and no guttered rocks or congregated sands imperilled any large keel here. The river arises in grassy highland in the east of England near Naseby, and for miles hardly deserves the name Avon, or 'river', which has echoes all over Celtic Europe: the Avon or Aven in Brittany, the Avenza in Italy, and the Avona in Spain. This Avon is at first only a runnel and then a willow-bordered stream, but below the old city of Warwick it is slow and stately as it divides Warwickshire and cuts the middle of England.

To the north is the Arden region, where the Forest of Arden was more thinly wooded in Shakespeare's day than in medieval times. Here were irregular fields,meadows, moated farmsteads, and groups of cottages, but few villages. South and west lay the Feldon, with new ornamental parks at Clopton and Goldicote, Ettington and Charlecote. Round about were fields cultivated in narrow strips, as well as tithe barns, villages, and black and white half-timbered cottages.

Stratford-upon-Avon, between Arden and Feldon, was a market town where goods from the two regions could be exchanged. Protected because it lay in the rain-shadow of Welsh hills to the west, it had a mild climate. Farmers found the Avon valley fertile and took advantage of a bridge built by the town's benefactor Sir Hugh Clopton in the reign of Henry VII to take goods to market, John Leland, the antiquary, saw Stratford's bridge with its fourteen stone arches around 1540, and noted the well-laid-out town. A parish church rose to the south at Old Stratford, and from here one walked north into good streets, partly paved, to see the Pedagogue's House accommodating a grammar school, a range of almshouses, and the Gild hall and Gild chapel. Besides back lanes the town 'hath 2. or 3. very lardge stretes', Leland wrote. 'One of the principall stretes ledithe from est to west, anothar from southe to northe.' Houses of two and three storeys were of timber, and he was struck by the 'right goodly chappell' in Church Street.

The land on which Stratford was built had belonged to bishops of Worcester after Ethelhard, a Saxon king, granted it to the third bishop (AD 693-714). From then until fifteen years before Shakespeare's birth Stratford had been a manerium of Worcester bishops. Once the town had been a small group of farms called Straetford, meaning a Roman approach to a ford, and it stood on a Roman road. But in 1196 there had been a change: a bishop purchased the right to hold a weekly market at the Avon, and his plan avoided the existing village. Land north of Stratford, some 109 acres, was laid out into six streets, forming a grid which is still visible in the town's pattern today. Three streets ran roughly parallel to the river, intersected by three more, and the land within this grid was marked into 'burgage' plots, each of which was 12 perches in length and 3 1/2 perches in breadth (198 feet by 57 feet 9 inches. The plots would be subdivided in various ways in the years ahead, but they allowed for ample buildings and convenient neighbourhoods. The Roman road was worked into the grid to form an open area, and hence Bridge Street is wide today. Craftsmen and merchants were attracted to settle in this well-planned town, and the 'Manerium de novo Stratford' began to thrive. It had tall inns and some 240 built-up plots (besides other tenements, shops, and stalls) in the thirteenth century, and would have been no larger in Shakespeare's day.

The medieval town of Stratford was known for one of its social features, its lay religious Gild. Membership in the Gild of the Holy Cross was open to all men and women--and the fame of this organization spread beyond the county. Members elected their own aldermen, and a woman's vote counted as equal to a man's; the Gild provided jurors for the manorial courts, looked after the sick and the poor, prayed for the dead (even admitting departed souls to the membership), and founded a school. The Gild nearly absorbed the local government and gave continuity to local life.

Indeed, the Gild not only linked the generations, and gave common religious and social purposes to the people of Stratford, but it had too the effect of stimulating at least a few men of exceptional talent. Robert de Stratford (taking his surname from the town) founded the Gild chapel and almshouses in 1296. John de Stratford, his son, rose to be Bishop of Winchester and three times Chancellor of England, before returning to found, in 1331, a chantry in honour of Thomas a Becket and a college of five priests who were bidden to pray for his family, himself, the bishops of Worcester, and kings of England. When Henry V (Shakespeare's most heroic king) confirmed the college, Stratford's church came to be called the Collegiate Church of the Holy Trinity.

Civic pride--and the long traditions of the Gild--were nevertheless affected by a convulsion. Until the sixteenth century, little had unsettled the town's religious life. But new Protestant reforms struck hard at Stratford--when the College was forced to close. Then after the Gild was dissolved and its properties were confiscated, in 1547, the town government collapsed.

Worried merchants petitioned the Crown. They received a charter of 28 June 1553, which incorporated the town as a royal borough. Yet no sooner was the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon in being than Mary Tudor returned the nation to Roman Catholicism. Under Henry VIII, her father, few people had known from day to day which opinions were orthodox and which heretical; but Queen Mary was clearer. A woman of inflexible honesty with a dim, obstinate mind, she pressed ahead with heresy trials, supported by her bureaucracy. Stratford became the eye of a circle of martyr fires at Coventry, Lichfield, Gloucester, Wotton-under-Edge, Banbury, Oxford, Northampton, and Leicester. Women and tradesmen were burned--and a baby born in Coventry's fire was thrown back onto the hard, burning faggots. Lest anyone forget these events John Foxe, in his 'Book of Martyrs' or Actes and Monuments, published a year before Shakespeare's birth, was to describe them in lurid detail. One effect was that people living under the reign of Mary's successor were often reticent on points of faith. Shocking and violent as it was, doctrinal controversy had torn at the normal fabric of social connections in the Midlands, and proved bad for trade. As late as the 1590s Stratford's wardens were to be lax or restrained in reporting on non-attendance at church; Shakespeare's father and Shakespeare himself, at different times, were to camouflage their religious commitments and feelings with a caution that seems typical of all but an outspoken few at Stratford. Foxe had meant his martyrs to be remembered--and had excelled himself in an account of Bishop Hooper, who when burning had cried out to 'Lord Jesus'. When 'blacke in the mouth, and his tonge swollen, that he could not speak' he struck off an arm into the fire and 'knocked still with the other, what time the fat, water, and bloud dropped out at his fingers endes, until by renewing the fire, his strength was gone, and his hand did cleave fast in knocking to the yron on his brest'.

Mary's martyrs, of course, gave immense authority to the Protestant cause, and her marriage with her cousin Philip II of Spain led to a ruinous war. When her half-sister, the Lady Elizabeth, came to the throne in 1558, French troops were in Scotland with nothing between them and England but an ill-manned fortess at Berwick. Coinage was debased, and the religious problem festered at Stratford, where a town constable had been assaulted by Alderman Perrott. If blood flew even among the council, merchants might well worry. After the Catholic vicar left in 1558, Stratford's people lived in an odd limbo with no regular vicar at all.

Master Bretchgirdle's arrival

When a sound Protestant, John Bretchgirdle, became Stratford's new vicar in 1561, Catholics were then still in the town council and Catholic frescos in the Gild chapel--but the new vicar waited. A native of Baguley near Manchester with his MA degree from Christ Church, Oxford, Master Bretchgirdle wrote in Latin in the town's registers (whereas the Catholic vicar had used English) and settled down as a bachelor on Church Street, where as 'vicar perpetuall' he unpacked a library.

Few clergymen--outside London and the universities--could have matched it. He had a Horace, a Sallust and a Virgil, Aesop's fables, two or three books by Erasmus, with Acts of the Apostles translated into English Metre--and his books took a long view of those forces that helped to form Shakespeare's mind. Once the Roman empire had held sway over Europe, to be replaced by the order of an imperial papacy; now the collapse of the Catholic Church in England was releasing the full effect of the European Renaissance and Reformation, so that gusto, freedom, and energy were in the English air. At the vicar's Oxford, medieval logic had given way to the humanist study of rhetoric, but everywhere an older, calmer temper of life was also passing--or was locked up in London with the 'caged wolves', the Marian bishops, six of whom Queen Elizabeth kept imprisoned. People were to know incipient doubt, a loss of calm certainty about human destiny, and sharp changes in the nation's mood. Shakespeare was born when things began to seem badly out of date. Lost with the 'old faith' were Catholic dirges and trentals, or the sets of thirty requiem services, and the De Profundis, shrines, pilgrimages and incense, as well as candles and torches and old ceremonies, extreme unction and purgatory and satisfactory masses. Holy days had been cut in number from over a hundred to twenty-seven, and a vicar was now exalted. The Catholic priestly function had never depended on the moral worth of the priest. Now, a vicar had to be exemplary as a teacher of God's will, and so a deep change, in each community, was helping to foster a new interest in the person--in behaviour and character.

Yet--at Stratford--one thing was unchanged. Into the fourth year of a Protestant reign the council had not removed Catholic traces in the Gild chapel; their caution was in keeping with Elizabeth's wish not to have any 'image in glass windows' broken nor to leave 'the place of prayers desolate' in chapels and churches. Indeed, the Queen wisely avoided enquiry into Catholic consciences--and Bretchgirdle, in his correct Anglican 'square cap', did not purge the town of papists. He had to placate the council--and he was more articulate than many clergymen. An outcry was loud in the land against non-residency, pluralism (the holding of two or more benefices at the same time), and the horrors of 'lay patronage' which sent men to pulpits from which they never preached. The power of appointment to five-sixths of the church livings in south Warwickshire was in lay hands--but Stratford's council were confident of the new vicar. In 1563 they decided at last to expunge the Catholic decor of the old Gild chapel, and in that sense the town's past was to be removed.

The Chamberlain's first son

Sitting on Stratford's governing council were trusted local men, including a bailiff or mayor (elected by themselves for a year), thirteen other aldermen, and fourteen capital burgesses. They had many rules to enforce. Bretchgirdle was responsible to the council, but he did not have to desecrate the chapel himself--or record the deed. The aldermen had other help, and no one helped them more in seven years than John Shakespeare.

Stratford's records tell us more about this man than appears in any biography of his son, and we see him at first as a yeoman farmer from nearby Snitterfield, who had set up as a craftsman and merchant. He had become a glover and whittawer (a dresser of soft, white-coloured leather) on Henley Street, and he would have had other interests. In the hand of a clerk, his name appears typically as 'Jhon shacksper' or 'John Shaxpere', once in a London record as John 'Shakespeare', and we find it beneath terse, efficient reports.

In September 1556 John was chosen as one of the council's two tasters of ale and bread, a job for an able and 'discreet' man. He was burly enough to be a constable who had to deprive 'single-men' of weapons, and astute enough to be an affeeror, or assessor of fines. On 3 October 1561, he was sworn in as one of the two chamberlains in charge of the borough's property and finances.

We have no example of his writing--though he drew his mark as a cross or as a pair of glover's compasses (an instrument used for making designs on the back of gloves); one of his marks resembles a glover's stitching clamp, or 'donkey'. Men such as John Shakespeare could often read, but not write, as writing was an advanced, fairly specialized, skill, and Tudor people learned to write only after getting the basic skill of reading; he probably would not have kept the borough's accounts, as he did for over three years, if he had been unable to read sums. His wife had given birth so far to infants who died--her first child, Joan, evidently died in infancy, and a second child, Margaret, was baptized on 2 December 1562 and buried four months later.

During the period when John Shakespeare was keeping the accounts, the Gild chapel was defaced. Near its orchard border of sundried clay, workmen moved into the chapel to see its painted walls with legends--the town's old Catholic poetry:


Over the chancel arch was a Doom, or Last Judgement, with the Virgin in blue and St John in bright brown. Heaven was a palace with St Peter in a red alb and green cope, and burning souls fell through a hell-mouth into a cauldron. A crucifixion rose on the south wall, and on jambs for the tower arch were Thomas a Becket and the names of his murderers. After the Doom had been whitewashed, for which the workmen were paid 25., but before the rood-loft was taken down and seats were installed for the vicar and his clerk, the acting chamberlain's account noted on 10 January 1564:

Item payd for defasyng ymages in ye chappell ijs

The altar may have been removed then--but otherwise the chapel was mainly untouched. The council replaced stained glass with 'quarrells', or glass panels, yet kept forbidden 'George' armour for their Catholic St George festival well scoured. No one knew if the old faith would return; and there were more dire problems. A plague had ravaged London--where a fifth of the population died--and Spaniards, it appeared, had found a way to destroy Protestant England. They had closed down the main market abroad for broadcloths and kerseys at Antwerp. Forty English ships in the Thames had to be unloaded and cloth worth up to £700,000 had to be stored at the risk of damp, moth, and total loss.

Warwickshire would suffer with no cloth market. The Queen had used her wiles on the Spanish envoy--but early in 1564 the only Spanish envoy in England was a corpse, and creditors prevented the release of his body. With the cloth fleet blocked, merchants were desperate. The plague had begun to move north, killing children and the poor. On 14 March, before it struck Stratford, the vicar recorded the loss of his own sister Cicely, 'Sicilia Bretchgerdle soror Vicarij.' With death and ruin on his doorstep, he even had to think of his unlucky chamberlain, whose wife had borne yet another child. As the father of two dead infants John Shakespeare, on this occasion, presented a boy. William, or Gulielmus, the vicar wrote on 26 April 1564, when infants were dying within two days' ride of Stratford parish,

Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere.

Chapter Two


At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.

(Jaques, As You Like It)

Mary Shakespeare at Henley Street

When her first son was born, Mary Shakespeare's town lay in the path of the worst plague since the Black Death. Yet the town's corporate council had been warned about the contagion, and for years the aldermen and chief burgesses had been trying to keep the streets clean. As early as April 1552 John Shakespeare had paid a small fine for keeping an unauthorized muck-heap (or sterquinarium) on Henley Street. At the town's northern end, this was an old, built-up street, traversed by horsemen riding through on the way up to Henley-in-Arden. Wagons drawn by oxen bumped over a cross-gutter in front of Gilbert Bradley's house, a few doors to the east of his fellow glover John Shakespeare. Once, in 1560, nearly every tenant had to pay for pavings broken by the damaging wagons. 'All the tenauntes in Henley stret from ye cros gutter befor bradleys doore', it was stated, were to blame, as many of 'the pavementes are broken befor ther doores & for not mendynge of them they stand amerced'. A street also had to be kept clear, and Robert Rogers and others paid for leaving carts at their doors.

Wagons and pack-horses were less likely to use the parallel way known as the Gild Pits, or royal highway, since it was rutty. Crossing Clopton's bridge, a traveller would be led by a walled causeway into Bridge Street, and on past two inns showing the Bear and the Swan. This was a major market area, divided in the centre by a row of houses called Middle Row into Fore Bridge and Back Bridge streets. Riding up opposite the Crown inn and past the Angel inn, one turned into Henley Street, where orchards and gardens lay behind the facades. Here doors abutted pavings, and on the north side, leading east to west, stood a row of half-timbered tenements, some of which served as shops. A tradesman let down a wooden board or shelf before a ground-floor window to display his wares, and a glover would show an array of purses, belts, gloves of various quality, and other soft-leather goods.

In the street's north row, John Shakespeare's two houses were separate but adjoining. In later times the eastern one became known as the Woolshop, and the western as the Birthplace. He held these libere of the lord of Stratford manor on a burgage tenure (nearly the equivalent of a freehold) and paid a small annual chief-rent, or ground-rent, of 6d. for the Woolshop and 13d. for the Birthplace; with these rents, we find both houses linked to his name in 1590 in a list of manorial tenants of the late Ambrose, Earl of Warwick:

Vicus Vocatus
Henley Strete

[The Street Called
Henley Street]

Johannes Shakespere tenet libere unum tenementum cum pertinentiis per redditum per annum vjd secta curie vjd

[John Shakespere freely holds one tenement with appurtenances for a rent per year of 6d. by suit of court 6d.

Idem Johannes tenet libere unum tenementum cum pertinentiis per redditum per annum xiijd secta curie xiijd

[The same John freely holds one tenement with appurtenances for a rent per year of 13d, by suit of court 13d.]

He had bought the Woolshop from Edward West, in October 1556, when its small chief-rent of 6d. is mentioned. We do not know when he began to inhabit the western house, or Birthplace, but the tradition that he lived in early enough for his son William to be born there is respectable. After his son's time, workmen broke through a wall to join the two tenements, so that on Henley Street today there is a much-restored house of three gables as a shrine for Stratford's visitors.

John had a barn in the Gild Pits well behind the frontages, and he needed ample work-space. As a whittawer, he would have had to boil and scrape some of his animal skins--a job often given to a boy apprentice since it involved steam, human sweat, and stinking refuse. In 1556 he had bought an estate with garden and croft in Greenhill Street ('unum tenementum cum gardino et crofto'), and our improving knowledge of the town in his time suggests that he may either have transferred some of his work there, or leased that property to his helpers. Greenhill Street was then an area with open lots and storage buildings, and it was easily accessible to the Woolshop by way of Meer Lane.

In any case, he had more space. Soon after that purchase, or on a day between 25 November 1556 and mid-December of the year following, he married Mary Arden, whose father had leased a Snitterfield farm to John's father. Mary came from Wilmcote, a hamlet on a ridge of grassy land in Aston Cantlow parish where meadows rose to 400 feet at the Alne Hills and stone was quarried to repair Stratford's bridge. With its 'auncient name' Arden, as Leland found, the area north of the river was 'much enclosyd', lacking in corn if not in meadow-grass. Billesley, near Wilmcote, once had seventeen peasants and eight slaves; the Trussell family held its manor in declining circumstances which included the sentencing to death of one Trussell for highway robbery. Poor families lost their homes as arable ground was fenced into sheep pasture, and fifteen families had been evicted over at Ardens Grafton. Enclosures of parkland tempted others; so many deerpoachers hunted at Shelfield Park that two commissions had had to look into the stealing.

Land seems to have changed hands rather quickly in this region. Thomas Finderne or Fynderne, a man of wealth, made two interesting purchases: he acquired--just when, we do not know--a holding that was called the manor of Great Wilmcote, as well as the farm that we know today as 'Mary Arden's House'. He sold both, five years after Mary's father died, to George Gibbes and to Adam Palmer; the latter had been a legal executor of Robert Arden's will in 1550. These slim facts do not prove the Ardens' farm was 'Mary Arden's House', but the property that we see today on Featherbed Lane is of about the right size. The farmstead's sturdy, narrow main dwelling has low gables, close-timbered oak beams, a fair-sized kitchen. Outside is a dovecote, which supplied eggs and meat for winter. Either at this farm or at one close by, Mary Arden was born in about 1540, the youngest of eight daughters.

When Mary was young, her mother died. In 1548 her father married Agnes Hill, who brought two boys and two girls of her own to live near adze-roughened surfaces. Life on a Tudor farm could be bleak; the oddity of Robert Arden's household was that he lacked sons, and lost the help of his own daughters. Two years after Agnes Hill arrived, Margaret Arden was already married to Alexander Webbe of nearby Bearley, and Joan Arden to Edmund Lambert of Barton Henmarsh (or Barton on the Heath) fifteen miles south of Stratford. Other Arden daughters were wed later--Anne (or Agnes) first to John Hewyns of Bearley, and then to Thomas Stringer of Stockton in Shropshire; Katherine to Thomas Edkins of Wilmcote and Elizabeth to a Skarlett. At all events, by 1556 Robert Arden found some merits in his youngest, unmarried girl and named Mary one of his will's two executors despite her youth; he also favoured her, leaving her not only the sum of 10 marks (£6. 13s. 4d.) but his most valuable property, Asbies, at Wilmcote.

The skills of Shakespeare's mother have been unknown, but it is not unlikely that she could read and write, and we have a sign of her hand. When selling her share in a land-holding to her nephew Robert Webbe, in 1579, she made her 'marke' on a deed and on a bond. The deed (unlike the bond) is a large enough piece of parchment to have lain flat and offered her ample space to sign. Did she intend to write her initials on the deed? If she did, why does she appear to have written them in reverse, as S M and not M S, in between the scrivener's words 'the marke' and 'of Marye Shacksper'? Instead of drawing a stolid cross on the Webbe deed, Mary Shakespeare drew a small, neat, rather complex design suggesting the letters S M in a Tudor secretary style of script which her son William appears to have used; the 'S', in this design, is exampled in the handwriting of literate persons; the 'M' (if such was intended) lacks a final stroke or minim. She may have intended only a pretty design, and alphabetic letters in a 'marke' would not be proof of her ability to write. But what has become quite clear, partly because time has worn away some of her clotted ink, is that she drew her mark in one continuous movement. She appears to have been familiar with a quill pen.

If she was indeed able to write phrases and sums and to read them, she would have been of considerable use to her father. However that may be, Robert Arden's belief in her dependability is evident. She can hardly have been much older than 17 or 18 when he made his will. Young women, at that time, were seldom named in wills as executors, and Robert Arden's will is that of an alert, shrewd Catholic, who does not wholly trust his own wife. Whether or not he came from a cadet branch of the Catholic Park Hall Ardens, in Castle Bromwich in the parish of Aston near Birmingham, he seems to have shared the Arden piety. His father Thomas in 1501 had been able to use as a trustee the first of the intently pious Throckmortons, of Coughton Court, who died on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and whose son, Sir George, spoke out against Henry VIII's divorce. Robert Arden joined Stratford's pious foundation. He chose as his will's first witness (as he had no need to do)a curate so stubbornly Catholic as to be dismissed later from a Snitterfield vicarage for adhering to the old faith. Wedded to John Shakespeare, Mary may have found his religious views problematic or unlike her father's, but John seems to have been brought up as a Catholic, and their son William was raised in the shadow of the old faith.

By the late autumn in 1557 she was living at Stratford. Young enough to have a chance of bearing a healthy child, Mary Shakespeare failed at first. Her son William's life itself was at risk in plague-time, and his birth-date was important to her and would have been lovingly recalled until Mary died. The wishful notion that he was born on 23 April was first mooted, so far as we know, by William Oldys in a marginal note written in all probability between 1743 and 1750, and properly belongs to legends about Shakespeare. 'The actual day of William's birth is unknown', wrote E. K. Chambers in a statement that still holds good; 'a belief that it was April 23, on which day he died in 1616, seems to rest on an eighteenth-century blunder.' Oldys, writing a century and a quarter after Shakespeare died, presumably had no evidence as to the birth-date other than the ambiguous words on the tablet in the poet's monument at Holy Trinity, 'obiit anno ... AEtatis 53' (he died in his fifty-third year), and Chambers believed that Oldys probably made 'an incorrect use' of these. Edmond Malone, the exacting eighteenth-century Shakespeare scholar, expressed doubt that Joseph Greene, a curate of Stratford and Oldys's contemporary, had any authority for declaring 23 April as the birth-date other than the monument. It has been said to be 'especially appropriate' that Shakespeare should have been born on St George's Day, the day of England's patron saint; but the wish certainly does not add up to a fact. Had his birth and death really occurred on two 23rds of April, such a coincidence would surely have been noted within a hundred years of his death. Yet we have no sign of this. Strong family loyalty may well have moved Shakespeare's granddaughter Elizabeth Hall to honour his memory, just ten years after he died, by marrying on 22 April. Elizabeth's honouring his birthday as the 22nd remains only a good possibility, suggested at first by De Quincey; but it is supported by what we know of the closeness of John and Mary Shakespeare's people. Despite a record that includes lawsuits and a family fray, Ardens and Shakespeares knew the force of family ties (as when many of them helped young Robert Webbe, Margaret Arden's son, to acquire their own individual shares in an estate). In brief, it is possible that Shakespeare was born on either the 21st, 22nd, or 23rd, but the day is still unknown. It is no more likely that his birth-date was Sunday, 23, than Saturday, 22 April 1564.

As a young woman who had known the death of her infants Mary Shakespeare must have been apprehensive that month. She perhaps lay on a bed supported by the same simple, cross-cross system of ropes used in most Elizabethan homes, and heard advice from servants or housewives in their stiff, practical white bodices of 'durance'--that stout cloth that appears in Stratford's records typically as 'boddies of durance'.

Christening was a festival with apostle-spoons and a white chrisom-cloth, basins, ewers, and towels at the parish church. And yet the chances of a boy baptized in time of plague were not good. If a baby died, the town's bell might be sounded, as when the clerk records a 'ringing of ye grete bell' for three small children. A boy who survived would wear swaddling-clothes until he was ready for a little russet-coloured dress.


Excerpted from Shakespeare by Park Honan Copyright ©2000 by Park Honan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Stanley Wells
Park Honan's book…is written in a lively, engaging, and accessible style…I think that this will be by far the best available biography of Shakespeare.
—(Stanley Wells)

Meet the Author

Park Honan is Emeritus Professor at the School of English, University of Leeds. He has written biographies of Jane Austen, Matthew Arnold, and Robert Browning, and lives in the United Kingdom.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >