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The greatest writer of the English language as he lived and breathed-a compelling portrait of William Shakespeare and his world, vividly rendered by acclaimed author and television presenter Michael Wood.
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About the Author
Michael Wood is an acclaimed author and TV presenter. A broadcaster and film-maker of extraordinary range, Wood has over eighty documentary films to his name, including In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great , In Search of the Trojan War , and In Search of Shakespeare . Educated at Oxford, Wood is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Read an Excerpt
By Michael Wood
Basic BooksCopyright © 2004 Michael Wood
All right reserved.
Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, where Shakespeare was born in April 1564, was a rural market town 100 miles from London - not so far in physical distance, perhaps, but a long way in terms of mental horizons. The best place to get an idea of the lie of the land today is outside the town, at Welcombe, where low winter sunlight sharpens the patterns of ridge and furrow etched long ago by the medieval ox teams: the faint skeleton of Shakespeare's England. From the ridge above, where the wind, as they would say, comes 'rowling and gusting' across the valley, you can see the Avon like a silver ribbon snaking down from the hills of Northamptonshire. To the south in his day were arable fields; to the north the Forest of Arden. Stratford itself, the crossing point on the river, was where the produce of the two regions was bartered and sold in its markets and fairs. Even including outlying hamlets the town had a population of less than 2000, with no more than 100 good houses. A small place, then, ranked below the county town of Warwick and the urban centre of Coventry, now decaying as a result of the mid-century recession.
In those days it took three days and nights to get there from London. The roads were bad, and infested by robbers at lonelv spots: it was safest to travel in a group, or on horseback with the regular packhorse trains. Every two weeks the Stratford carriers, the Greenaways, took goods for sale in London - country produce, such as linen shirts, bespoke gloves, wool, cheeses and linseed oil - a small contribution to the flood of rural wealth that poured into the markets at Smithfield to feed the conspicuous consumption of the capital. On the return journey they carried the kind of imported luxuries that went down well in Warwickshire on middle-class tables, or at sheep shearings and other country feasts: dates, sugar, rice, figs, raisins and almonds. After crossing the river at Clopton Bridge, the homebound pack trains unloaded in the Greenaways' yard near the Market Cross, a few doors from the Shakespeares' house in Henley Street, where it is thought the poet was born.
Shakespeare's Family and Ancestors
The story of a person's life begins before he or she is born. It is our family that shapes our values and our ways of seeing, that gives us our deepest fund of tales and images: stories at our mother's knee; our observations of the way the family works; the relationship between our parents; the way they resolve conflicts or tell jokes; their attitude to work and play, to life and love, to public success and failure, and to the law.
On both sides of the family William Shakespeare came from farming stock: old families rooted in the Warwickshire countryside, families who, like all English people in the mid-sixteenth century, went through the traumatic religious crises out of which Britain's modern secular, capitalist society emerged. Contrary to the myth of the poet's lowly origins, the Shakespeares were an aspiring lower middle-class family - they were people with money, and his father later became mayor of Stratford. But both his parents were descended from husbandmen, small to middling yeomen with a peasant house and 100 acres, horses, barns and an ox team; people grounded in the penny-pinching realism of a class who laboured to build themselves up. Many of his relatives continued to live that life: Aunt Joan and Uncle Harry stayed farmers to the end.
The search for Shakespeare starts not in Stratford, then, but a short way to the north, for both sides of his family originated in a tiny cluster of villages in the Forest of Arden. His mother's name, indeed, was Arden. Warwickshire poets liked to call Arden the heart of England. Today, south of Birmingham and west of Warwick, only fragments of woodland remain alongside the roar of the M42 motorway. In the sixteenth century it was still a vast tract of forest, all part of what the Normans, who had hunted there, called Beaudesert, 'beautiful wild country', and a completely different world from the crowded streets of London where Shakespeare would spend so much of his life.
This was a place to fire the imagination. Unlike the works of most of his urban or university-educated contemporaries, Shakespeare's plays are full of images of flowers, trees and animals. His linguistic roots are here too - not in the more socially acceptable speech of London or the court. Shakespeare spoke with a Warwickshire accent, like Brummie today: more Lenny Henry than Laurence Olivier. The veneer of high culture and high society would come later, but in his plays the Warwickshire boy would still constantly betray his origins in the easy way he slipped into rural custom and country talk. Indeed, he would use it deliberately as an imaginal world to counterpoint with that of kings and nobles: Joan blowing her nails, frozen pails, the shepherd's son with his rods of wool and rice and dates for the fair. Long into his fame he still used idiosyncratic phonetic spellings of Warwickshire words, which perplexed his London printers; he would drop in minutely observed Midlands images, in dialect words still used well into the twentieth century, to describe the turn at the top of a furrow made by a plough team ('hade land'), the wheat sown in Gloucestershire at the end of August ('Red Lammas'), Cotswold apples ('redcoats' and 'caraways') or the kind of grass with which kids make whistles ('kecksies' - a word still known in Warwickshire). Shakespeare would use 'breeze' in a memorable image when describing the Egyptian queen's flight from the battle of Actium in Antony and Cleopatra:
The breeze upon her, like a cow in June, Hoists sail and flies
'Breeze' here has nothing to do with wind; it is an Anglo-Saxon word that was still used in Midlands dialect in Tudor times. It refers to the gadflies that, in summer, trouble cows, who all at once lift their tails high in the air and stampede away. That's the kind of knowledge you don't get at Oxbridge, or in a rich man's house.
This rich seam of peasant vocabulary in Shakespeare's language survived in the West Midlands into our own time. As late as the 1930s in the Cotswolds, you could still hear Shakespeare's 'mazzard' for head, 'lush' for rich, 'plash' for pool, 'twit' for blab, 'slobberly' for sloppy and 'orts' for the leftovers of food. More specifically, farming people still used 'reeds' for thatch, and 'pleaching' or 'plushing' for laying a hedge. In the village of Compton Abdale at this time one seventy-five-year-old farmer still used 'on a line' for in a rage and lago's 'speak within doore' for speak softly.
So although the poet was born in a small country town, his forebears were of farming stock. The Shakespeares' ancestors came from around the village of Balsall, with its old chapel and hall of the Knights Templars. Nearby, down Green Lane, shrouded by thickets of ash and silver birch, across a ford that runs deep in winter, there is still a red-brick farm where one Adam of Oldeditch lived in the fourteenth century. Rewarded by the king with land for service in war, his son gave himself the surname 'Shakespeare', perhaps to denote his deeds on the battlefield. There were still Shakespeares at Oldeditch 100 years later, in early Tudor times, and almost certainly the clan descended from them.
By the sixteenth century Shakespeares were thick on the ground and had spread to four villages: Rowington, Wroxall, Knowle and Packwood, with its moated hall and church surrounded by ancient yew trees. The Shakespeares at Packwood were business partners of William's father John, and probably his kinsmen. (Interestingly enough, the historian Raphael Holinshed passed his last days here as steward until 1580. Shakespeare would later use his Chronicles (1577) as the main source of his history plays - might he perhaps have known Holinshed in person?)
A Sense of History
All families have tales about their past. Today, they might be about the Second World War or the Depression, centred on an old box of photos, service medals and cuttings. One particular tale suggests that the Shakespeares were like that too. In 1596, when William was thirty-two and famous, he and his father went to London to try to obtain a coat of arms for John, to gain him the status of a gentleman. In the files of the Royal College of Arms their submission survives, including a rough draft with the herald's notes. That day Shakespeare claimed that long ago an ancestor had won reputation and 'lands and tenements' when he had done King Henry VII 'valiant and faithful service'. That meant deeds in war, and implies that William's ancestor had fought with Henry Tudor against Richard III at Bosworth in 1485.
Of course, it may have been pure fantasy, a family myth that had lost nothing in the retelling. But maybe the tale was true: handed down from the grandparents, or gleaned from a crumbling old title deed bearing the king's name in the family box under the bed. This particular ancestor has never been traced, but the likeliest candidate is Thomas Shakespeare of Balsall who, with his wife Micia, affirmed his status by joining the well-to-do guild of the chapel at Knowle in 1486. Perhaps Thomas had been in the army, in the retinue of his local lord, and was rewarded with a small parcel of land in the victor's share-out, which included the Warwickshire estates of Richard and his supporters. The real point here, though, is not whether the tale is true or not, but that it was a family tradition. Because it comes from words spoken and jotted down that day in 1596, it enables us to say confidently that history - national history, indeed - was part of the Shakespeares' family story.
As an adult Shakespeare would be fascinated by English and British history: the national narrative of the past two centuries with its good kings and bad kings; the sacredness of monarchy; the struggle between justice and might, power and conscience; the relation of poor people to the mighty; and what constitutes patriotism. All this was of particular fascination because the national narrative was up for grabs in Elizabeth's day as history was being rewritten root and branch. His early fame would rest not on comedy or tragedy, but on history.
There are many ways in which history is important. It shapes our identity; it gives reality and authenticity to our family and communal life; it creates for us a sense of a shared past; and, not least, it fashions our sense of justice. The Shakespeare family motto - composed, it would seem, by William for that meeting with the herald, and intended to sum up the family and their ancestry - makes precisely that point: 'Not without right'.
Religious Roots: The Society of Arden
Warwickshire was a focus for the ideological struggles of the time in the clash between Elizabeth's new elite and the old gentry of the shire. Elizabeth's enforcer Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who drove her Protestant revolution in these parts, was a new man, as were his local agents, such as the influential Lucy family at Charlecote. But old families like the Ardens, the poet's mother's kin, who were Catholic, resented the power of Dudley and his henchmen. The head of the Ardens, Edward Arden, called him an upstart and an adulterer; and he pointedly refused to wear Dudley's livery on the queen's visit to Kenilworth in 1575. From Henry VIII's day wills survive of these old-fashioned stalwarts of the shire - Underhills, Throgmortons and Ardens - which give a sense of this deep-rooted, almost medieval culture: the last gasp of the Old Religion, still rebuilding churches, leaving pious bequests and making provision for good works, all out of affection for the old saints and the 'dear familiar place'. In 1526 John Arden, for example, left Aston church 'my best black damask gown to be made into a cope ... my suit of armour to dress an image of St George to be placed over the pew where [ was accustomed to sit ... and two two-year-old heifers to help towards the maintenance of the church bells'.
In the Stratford area many families of this class kept loyal to the Old Faith right into the seventeenth century - the Treshams, Winters, Catesbys and Throgmortons prominent among them. The wooded countryside hereabouts was dotted with their isolated houses: Huddington, Packwood, Bushwood and 'moated granges' like Baddesley, with its moat, priest holes and secret tunnels. These places were safe houses for the Catholic underground in the 1580s and 1590s, and the scene of open warfare in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, when members of eminent Warwickshire families, well known to Shakespeare, would die fighting, clinging hopelessly to their older version of English history.
Below the gentry, many of the husbandmen in the villages of the Forest of Arden were of the same persuasion. Twenty-five years into Elizabeth's reign a Rowington man told friends that, given a free choice, only one in ten of his village would attend Protestant church. He was probably right: government surveys and interrogations reveal the strength of such loyalties well into Shakespeare's adulthood.
Just before Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries Shakespeares and Ardens were associated with the local gentry in the guild book of the chapel at Knowle, which survives in Birmingham Public Library. The entries for 1526 include Shakespeares from Packwood and Rowington, among them a Richard who is probably the poet's grandfather, alongside the old names of the shire:
Domina Jane Shakespeare Robert Catesby and his wife Jane George Throgmorton, knight, and his wife Katherine Edward Ferrars, knight, and Constance his wife William Clopton, knight, and Elizabeth his wife Richard Shakespeare and Alicia his wife William Shakespeare and Alicia his wife John Shakespeare and Joanna his wife
There we have an image of the old community of the shire, the local farmers and gentry of Arden, as they were on the eve of Henry VIII's revolution: rooted in the soil, deferential to the old landed families, devoted to the local shrines and guilds. This is an image in microcosm of the early sixteenth-century society of Arden into which Shakespeare's parents were born, and out of which his view of England, and its history, emerged.
Moving Out and Up
Although these family connections do not by themselves prove anything about William's own allegiances, they give precious hints about the world view handed down to him by his parents and grandparents. His was a traditional society in which such loyalties were valued and remembered. In our modern world we tend to think of close family in terms of no more than three generations, and our view of kinship can be quite narrow. Tudor people had a much wider sense of family relations; 'cousin', for example, meant something even when once or twice removed. And people had a bigger picture of their place in the family tree.
Excerpted from Shakespeare by Michael Wood Copyright © 2004 by Michael Wood. Excerpted by permission.
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