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Both his parents were illiterate. His father, who rose to become Mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon, all his life signed his name with a mark. His mother, like most women of her day, was never taught to read or write.
There are those who believe that their eldest son was himself unable to read or write, that the collected works of William Shakespeare could not have been written by the simple son of Warwickshire whose baptism was recorded in the parish register of Stratford's Holy Trinity Church on 26 April 1564. So miraculous is Shakespeare's achievement that a thriving industry has grown up around baffled, usually snobbish attempts to deny it to suggest that it must have been the work of more than one man, that the 'rude groom' from Stratford could only have been plagiarising, stealing or rewriting the work of others, lending his name to plays and poems which really belonged to better-educated contemporaries, also better-born.
Least logical of all, in the face of the canon's sheer scale and diversity, its breadth of observation and experience, its unparalleled combination of eloquence, learning and wisdom, are those who ascribe it all to some other individual, usually aristocratic and also, presumably, possessed of superhuman powers. Anti-Stratfordians, as these diverse opponents of Shakespeare's authorship are collectively known, must also assume that his friend and fellow playwright Ben Jonson, who first called him 'Swan of Avon', was in on the plot that Jonson was, not to mince words, lying when he wrote of Shakespeare: 'I loved the man, anddo honour his memory (on this side idolatry) as much as any. He was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped...'
Was Jonson still lying in the title of his poem 'To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author, Mr William Shakespeare, And what he hath left us', and in its sentiments on the title page of the posthumously published First Folio?
Soul of the Age!
The applause! delight! the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise ! . . .BRK He was not of an age, but for all time!
Must the same go for the writer Robert Greene, who enviously attacked the young Shakespeare's work in 1592; for the printer Henry Chettle, who rapidly apologised amid a shower of personal compliments; for the Stratford mercer Richard Quiney, whose son married Shakespeare's daughter, and who in 1598 wrote a begging letter to 'my loving good friend and countryman'; for the anonymous author of the so-called Parnassus Plays, who saluted 'sweet' Master Shakespeare as the author of Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra and the poem Venus and Adonis, a copy of which he wished to keep beneath his pillow; for the Elizabethan scholar, critic and lawyer Gabriel Harvey, who praised Shakespeare as the author of Hamlet, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece; for the comic actor Will Kemp and his satirical reference to 'my notable Shakerags'; for his family friend Leonard Digges, who spoke of 'thy Stratford monument'; and for numerous other contemporaries up to and including the playwright's friends and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, who lovingly gathered his plays into the indispensable First Folio of 1623, seven years after his death, to 'keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow-worker alive as was our Shakespeare'?
Was King James I of England and VI of Scotland also conning posterity when he named William Shakespeare and eight others, plus 'the rest of their associates', as the King's Men in a royal charter granted under the Great Seal of England on 17 May 1603? Of course not. Only a talent so uniquely versatile could have inspired such a perverse combination of jealous rivalry, awe-struck eulogy and affectionate remembrance.
Beyond the tedious, class-ridden distraction that its subject never existed, or could not have been the man who wrote the plays and poems attributed to him, or was even (in a tired academic joke) a different man of the same name, Shakespeare biography must chart a wary course through the encrusted myths of more than four centuries the first being the popular delusion that there is scant documentary evidence about the life of the most remarkable poet the world has been privileged to know. Shakespeare's life is in fact documented in more detail than that of any writer of his age, except to some degree Ben Jonson, as we shall see from these (and many other) contemporary references to his work.
So another myth must be dispelled at the outset. There is no evidence, alas, to support the popular belief that William Shakespeare was born as fifty-two years later he was to die on 23 April, the date celebrated in England since 1222 as the feast day of dragon-slaying St George. As the poet's posthumous fame grew, securing a unique niche for his country in the cultural history of the world, it was a natural enough temptation for posterity to unite the birthday of England's national poet with that of its patron saint. But the tradition is based on a false assumption, that Elizabethan baptisms invariably took place three days after the birth.
The instruction given to parents in the 1559 Prayer Book, published five years before Shakespeare's birth, was to have the christening performed before the first Sunday or holy day following the birth 'unless upon a great and reasonable cause declared to the curate and by him approved'. In 1564 the 23rd day of April happened to fall on a Sunday, four days after the feast day of St Alphege and two before that of St Mark traditionally an unlucky day, so the curate's permission to avoid it may well have been forthcoming. But the contemporary inscription on Shakespeare's tomb in Holy Trinity that same church where he was christened on 26 April by the vicar of the parish, John Bretchgirdle reads that he died in his fifty-third year ('obiit anno . . . aetatis 53'). We know that he died on St George's Day, 23 April, so this would seem to imply that he was born before it, however marginally. There are few more satisfactory resolutions of this problem than that of the poet Thomas de Quincey, who suggested that Shakespeare's granddaughter Elizabeth Hall married on 22 April 1626 'in honour of her famous relation' choosing the sixty-second anniversary of his birth, in other words, rather than the tenth of his death.
William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was to bring lasting lustre to a surname long held to be an embarrassment. In 1487, on becoming a celibate don at Merton College, Oxford, one Hugh Shakespeare had changed his name to Hugh Sawnders. 'Mutatum est istud nomen eius, quia vile reputatum est,' records the College register: 'He changed that name of his, because of its base repute.'
For all its ripe phallic imagery, shared with similar names like Shakestaff and Wagstaff, Shakespeare survived as a fairly common surname (in all manner of different spellings) in Warwickshire and its environs throughout the late Middle Ages, particularly in the thriving city of Coventry and a cluster of villages in what was then the Forest of Arden, a dozen miles north of Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1284 a William Sakspere of Clopton, Gloucestershire, was hanged for theft; a century later, in 1385, another William Shakespeare served on a coroner's jury in Balsall.
Between 1530 and 1550 tenant farmers called Richard Shakspere, Shakespere, Shakkespere, Shaxpere and Shakstaff were penalised on numerous occasions for non-attendance at the manor court at Warwick, choosing to pay the 2d fine rather than lose a day's work making the six-mile walk each way. In fact, of course, they were all the same man: the poet's grandfather.
From 1529 to his death in 1561, Richard Shakespeare was a tenant farmer in the village of Snitterfield, four miles north-east of Stratford on the main Warwick road. We can conjure a picture of his workaday life from its petty irritants, still preserved in Stratford amid the legal records of the day: penalised in 1535 for overburdening the common pasture with his animals; ordered in 1538 to mend the hedges dividing his land from that of one Thomas Palmer; fined in 1560 for not yoking or ringing his pigs, and letting his livestock run wild on the public meadow. In October that year, only months before his death, the collegiate church of St Mary, Warwick, gave all its tenants a two-week deadline to create a hedge and dig a ditch between 'the end of Richard Shakespeare's lane' and 'the hedge called Dawkins hedge'.
Evidently, Richard Shakespeare had become a senior citizen of Snitterfield over a life long by the standards of his day. Several times he was chosen to take responsibility for valuing the estates of deceased friends and neighbours. In 1560, when Sir Thomas Lucy held an 'inquisition' in Warwick into the estates of Sir Robert Throckmorton, Richard 'Shakyspere' was a member of the jury. At the time of his death in February 1561, he owned the land between his house on the High Street and the stream which flowed through the centre of Snitterfield. His estate was valued at ?38 17s a not insubstantial sum, when compared with the ?34 left three years earlier by the vicar of the parish, Sir Thomas Hargrave.
Richard Shakespeare's landlord was Robert Arden, of the nearby village of Wilmcote, in the parish of Aston Cantlow, whose daughter Mary would marry Shakespeare's son John in 1557. John was the second, perhaps the third of Richard's sons. The parish records mention a Thomas Shakespeare, whose ?4 rent was the largest of all Snitterfield tenants, but not his parentage. But Henry Shakespeare, a colourful character in constant trouble with the law, certainly was Richard's son, John's younger brother, the future poet's uncle and the black sheep of the family.
A tenant farmer like his father, with land at nearby Ingon, Henry appears to have inherited the Shakespeare indifference to keeping his fences and ditches in good repair, or playing his communal part in the maintenance of the Queen's highway. More reckless than his father, Henry served frequent prison terms for trespass and debt, and was temporarily excommunicated for refusing to pay his tithes. In 1574 he 'drew blood' in a fight with one Edward Cornwell also, later, to become William's uncle, as the second husband of his mother's sister Margaret; having failed to turn up in court, Henry was fined in absentia. Nine years later, in 1583, he and two friends were also fined for the curiously provocative act of attending church in hats, rather than caps in defiance of the Statute of Caps, a recent measure designed to assist the ailing cap-making industry. For all the attraction of seeing this as a gesture of religious protest there was widespread Puritan opposition to the statute it was more likely just another roguish act of defiance from a man impatient with authority all his life. Henry also pioneered the Shakespeare trait of not repaying debts until sorely pressed; once, as he languished in Stratford jail for non-payment, his surety, William Rounde, took the chance to reclaim two oxen which Henry had bought but not yet paid for. Though still in debt when he died in December 1596, the poet's Uncle 'Harry' left corn and hay 'of great value' in his barn, and a mare in the stable.
Henry's younger brother John, the poet's father, was a Shakespeare of quite another stamp. Born in 1529, he was dubbed agricola, or husbandman, in documents relating to his father's estate; but by then, the early 1560s, he had long forsaken the traditional Shakespeare life on the land for what he saw as more prosperous urban pastures. Though raised in the family business of tenant-farming, John had set his sights higher from early youth, migrating to the thriving market town of Stratford by the mid-point of the century.
Settled in a lush, wooded valley, by then a decent-sized town of some 1,500 souls, Stratford-upon-Avon originally took its name from the point where a Roman road (or 'straet') crossed (or 'forded') the elegant river flowing through its heart. One of the oldest settlements in Christian England, Stratford is mentioned in the Domesday Book as the personal fiefdom of the Bishops of Worcester; by Shakespeare's day its agricultural tenants had won their emancipation, and formed the nucleus of a thriving mercantile community, with artisans and shopkeepers displaying their wares on market days alongside the usual livestock and country produce. Already the Avon (Welsh for 'river') was spanned, as still it is, by a handsome stone bridge built by Sir Hugh Clopton, a wealthy local mercer who had risen to become Lord Mayor of London. In the heart of Stratford, in the last decade of the fifteenth century, Clopton built himself the biggest house in town, which he called New Place. It was one measure of the subsequent success in London of another son of Stratford, the glover's boy William Shakespeare, that eventually he in turn would become the proud owner of New Place.
A hundred miles from the capital, but handily close to the major Midlands townships of Worcester and Warwick, Banbury and Oxford, Stratford was described by a contemporary map-maker as 'emporium non inelegans' a market town not without its charms, already boasting the handsome thirteenth-century parish church of Holy Trinity, and the smaller but even older, equally finely detailed chapel of the Guild of the Holy Cross. Both would play significant roles in the life of John Shakespeare, and make cameo appearances in the works of his son. Beside the parish church, on the banks of the Avon, stood a charnel-house crammed to overflowing with the bones of the dug-up dead; the young William's religious dread of it, as he played in the churchyard as a child, finds apparent echoes in Macbeth's horror at Banquo's ghost and Juliet's feverish protests to Friar Laurence about marrying anyone other than Romeo:
O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of any tower,
Or walk in thievish ways, or bid me lurk
Where serpents are; chain me with roaring bears,
Or hide me nightly in a charnel-house,
O'er-cover'd quite with dead men's rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls . . .
We know that by 1552 John Shakespeare was living on the north-eastern side of town, in Henley Street, thanks to his ignominious debut in the town records on 29 April: fined a shilling, along with Humphrey Reynolds and Adrian Quiney, for making an unauthorised dunghill sterquinarium, or midden heap in front of the house of a neighbour, the wheelwright William Chambers. In those days of the plague, a fine equivalent to two days' pay for an artisan was a suitably stern judgement on those too idle to use the communal muck-hill at the rural end of the street. In a rare defiance of the family tradition (and his own later practice), John Shakespeare paid his fine promptly. Already, it seems, he had it in mind to become not just a worthy citizen of Stratford, but a civic eminence. This early misdemeanour appears to have proved no bar to his upward mobility.
After serving (we can but assume) the statutory seven-year apprenticeship, Shakespeare's father had entered trade as a glover and whittawer: a dresser of 'whitleather', soft light-coloured leather. Between 1556 and 1592 various legal documents concerning unpaid debts and bail sureties unambiguously describe Johannes Shakyspere, or Shakspere, or Shackspeare, as a 'glover'. His craft involved the 'tawing' of hides and skins of deer and horses, goats and sheep, but not of protected livestock such as cattle or pigs by soaking them in a solution of salt and alum (aluminium sulphate). The resulting leathers he fashioned not only into gloves, but belts, purses, aprons whatever he could sell in his shop, or in the glovers' stall given prime position on market days beneath the clock of Stratford's Market Cross, today the traffic island at the junction of the High Street, Bridge Street and Henley Street, which leads to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.
The seventeenth-century diarist John Aubrey, one of the first to visit Stratford in search of Shakespeare evidence, reported unequivocally that the poet's father was a butcher. Aubrey is never the most reliable of witnesses, but it does seem plausible, in the light of later events, that there was a period in John Shakespeare's life when he might have defied the regulations strictly separating the otherwise allied professions of whittawer and butcher. He certainly traded openly in the wool of sheep slaughtered for their skins. The eastern wing of the Henley Street house which doubled as his leather goods store was known as 'the Woolshop'; when the floor was relaid in the nineteenth century, after the house had become an inn, the landlord testified to finding beneath the floorboards 'the remnants of wool, and the refuse of wool-combing . . . imbedded with the earth of the foundation'.So why not their meat as well, if under-the-counter, hugger-mugger? According to Aubrey, the young William himself would kill a calf 'in a high style, & make a speech'; and there are plenty of expert references to the art of butchery in the plays not least to the expertise of the human butcher, or hangman, who performed the drawing and quartering which followed the half-hanging of convicted felons from cutpurses to Romanist recusants. Theirs are the hands of which Macbeth is thinking, thick with blood and entrails from a human belly, when he shudders at his own 'hangman's hands' after murdering Duncan.
'Is it not parchment made of sheep-skins?' Hamlet asks Horatio, who replies, 'Ay, my lord, and of calves'-skins too.' A Warwickshire antiquary has devotedly catalogued copious Shakespeare references to 'the hides of oxen and horses, to calf-skin, sheep-skin, lamb-skin, fox-skin and dog-skin, deer-skin and cheveril'. The poet knew that neat's-leather was used for shoes, sheep's leather for a bridle, that tanned leather could keep out water, and that deer's hide was the keeper's perquisite. 'He notices leathern aprons, jerkins and bottles, the "sow-skin bowget" or bag carried by tinkers.' He makes frequent reference to cheveril, or kid-skin, whose softness and flexibility suited it to the making of fine gloves and thus, also, of fine Shakespearean metaphors. Mercutio jokes about Romeo's 'wit of cheveril, that stretches from an inch narrow to an ell broad', and Viola's clown about a sentence that 'is but a chev'ril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turn'd outward!' At the end of his writing career, in Henry VIII, the poet has a wise old lady speak of Anne Bullen's 'soft cheveril conscience', that would receive gifts if she might 'please to stretch it'. Calf-skins make an especially telling appearance in King John, when the Bastard Faulconbridge defiantly repeats an insult to the Duke of Austria: 'And hang a calf's-skin on those recreant limbs.' But the trade of Shakespeare's father is nowhere, perhaps, more authentically recalled than in Mistress Quickly's description of Master Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor: 'Does he not wear a great round beard, like a glover's paring knife?'
Other legal documents, the key pieces of our jigsaw for this period, involve John Shakespeare in suits concerning the sale and purchase of timber, and barley, whose sole commercial use was for the manufacture of beer and ale. Clearly he was something of an entrepreneur, a jack of all trades a 'Johannes factotum', as his son was enviously to be mocked, during his father's lifetime. John Shakespeare, again like his son after him, was also something of a property dealer.If by 1552 Shakespeare's father owned or rented all or part of the Henley Street house still held sacred (despite scant evidence) as The Birthplace, he soon added to his property portfolio with the purchase in 1556 of a freehold estate with garden and croft, tenementum cum gardino et crofto, in Greenhill Street (later to become known as More Towns End). The business must have been thriving, for that same year also saw him buy an adjacent house in Henley Street, complete with garden, which would become the east wing or Woolshop when the two properties were joined together as a handsome, three-gabled dwelling.
More than forty years on, in 1597, the Stratford records show John selling off a narrow strip of land alongside this property to a draper named George Badger, for the purpose of building a wall, and another small parcel to Edward Willis of King's Norton, who proposed to open an inn called the Bell. Thus we can be reasonably sure that Henley Street remained the Shakespeare family home, through many vicissitudes for its paterfamilias, over half a century and more. It was still in the family 150 years later.
In 1553, soon after John Shakespeare had settled there, the borough of Stratford-upon-Avon had received its formal charter of incorporation from the Crown. Subject to the whims of the lord of the manor in this case the Earl of Warwick, who still nominated the vicar and schoolmaster, and had power of veto over the borough's choice of bailiff, or mayor this afforded a large degree of self-government to an elected council of aldermen and burgesses, who themselves appointed lesser functionaries. As luck would have it, the ambitious glover had arrived in the right town at the right time, the perfect moment to establish a mercantile foothold in the community while answering its new need for civic leaders. Nor, presumably, would a badge of office and thus local respectability be all that bad for business.
John's first recognition came in September 1556, within three years of the borough's incorporation, when he was chosen as one of its two ale-tasters an office for 'able persons and discreet', whose duties were to check that bakers made loaves of regulation weight, and brewers 'wholesome' ales and beers at regulation prices. The ale-taster's powers were considerable: those he found in breach of the regulations were liable to appear before the twice-yearly manorial court, or 'leet', which had the power to inflict punishments from fines to a whipping, a sojourn in the stocks or pillory, or even worse public humiliation in the 'cucking stool' a chair in the shape of a giant chamber-pot, in which the offender was ducked in the river to the delighted derision of his clientele.
Within nine months of his appointment, in June 1557, the new ale-taster found himself on the wrong side of the law, blotting his copybook by failing to attend three sittings of the Court of Record in his official capacity. The 8d fine he paid seems to have been worth it, for that spring saw John Shakespeare with other priorities to take his mind off his duties.
The journey back and forth to Wilmcote, presumably after hours, would have taken its toll on John's extra-curricular activities. Having established a secure base in the heart of Stratford, he returned to his rural roots for his bride, while still intent on social advancement. Mary Arden was not just the daughter of a prosperous farmer, his father's landlord; hers was one of Warwickshire's most prominent families, tracing its ancestry back beyond the Norman Conquest to the Domesday Book, fully four columns of which were filled by the landholdings of Turchill of Arden more than any other individual.
Mary was the youngest of eight daughters of the widowed Robert Arden, whose second marriage in April 1548 (to Agnes Hill, née Webbe, widow of another prosperous farmer) added four stepchildren to the substantial brood already crammed into the two-storey Wilmcote farmstead. Whether it was the timber-frame house in Featherbed Lane identified in the late eighteenth century, and today visited by flocks of tourists, as 'Mary Arden's home', we cannot be sure any more than we can be sure that her son William was born in the Henley Street manse today known as The Birthplace. But it would have been very similar, with its stone foundation and gabled dormers, timbered ceilings and rough-hewn oak beams, stone hearths and inglenooks, its main walls bedecked with painted hangings which would pass from the playwright's childhood memory into his first play to be performed, The First Part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster (later known as Henry VI Part 2):
Like rich hangings in a homely house,
So was his will in his old feeble body.
So powerful an impression was left by the biblical and mythological scenes dominating the main rooms of his mother's family home that William remained wide-eyed at the age of thirty, when he published his poem The Rape of Lucrece:
Who fears a sentence or an old man's saw
Shall by a painted cloth be kept in awe.
No record survives of John Shakespeare's marriage to Mary Arden, but it must have taken place presumably in the parish church of St John the Baptist, Aston Cantlow, where no register was yet kept towards the end of 1557. Their first child was born in the ninth month of 1558; but Mary would not have married during 1556, as her father lay dying. On 24 November that year Robert Arden made his will, whose terms suggest that his youngest daughter was, like King Lear's, also his favourite. Beyond the customary ten marks, Mary's father left her his most valuable possession in its entirety: the Arden estate in Wilmcote, named Asbies, 'and the crop upon the ground sown and tilled as it is'.
Such was the handsome dowry Mary Arden brought to her marriage to the Stratford glover, by whom she would bear eight children in all four sons and four daughters over twenty years. A decade or so older than his wife, John would live into his seventies, well beyond the average span of his day, and Mary would outlive him by some seven years.
William was the third of their children to be born, but the first to live beyond childhood. A daughter, Joan, had been christened on 15 September 1558 by Roger Dyos, a Catholic priest driven from his post soon after Queen Elizabeth succeeded her Catholic half-sister Mary on the throne later that year. No record has been found of poor Joan's death or burial; but the fact that the Shakespeares christened another daughter by the same name eleven years later, on 15 April 1569, amounts to melancholy proof that the first Joan did not survive childhood, probably dying at the age of only one or two, as the register for the years 155960 is particularly sketchy. A second daughter, Margaret, was baptised on 2 December 1562 by the newly arrived Anglican priest, John Bretchgirdle, who also performed her funeral only four months later, in April 1563.
The Shakespeares' third child was himself lucky to survive infancy. William was less than three months old when the plague struck Stratford, imported from the slums of London by itinerant traders and vagabonds. 'Hic incepit pestis' reads the dread entry in the burial register for 11 July 1564, beside the name of Oliver Gunne, an apprentice only the twentieth person to be interred since 1 January, compared with 240 during the remaining five months of the year. It is a fair estimate that more than 200 souls or one in seven of Stratford's population were carried off by the grim disease, those most at risk being the community's youngest and oldest members. The records show that the plague claimed all four children of the Green family, neighbours of the Shakespeares in Henley Street. It seems highly likely that Mary, having already lost two daughters in their infancy, would have evacuated her firstborn son to the safety of her family home at Wilmcote, still occupied by her widowed stepmother, for the duration.
Already a burgess, an elected member of the council, her husband attended an emergency meeting that August, held alfresco to avoid the dangers of contagion. John Shakespeare contributed three shillings to a fund to assist victims of the plague, which did not abate until December, with the onset of the midwinter cold. By then, the turn of the year 1564-65, Shakespeare's father was a rising star of the Stratford council chamber.
On 30 September 1558, two weeks after the birth of his first child, the well-married glover had been sworn in (with Humphrey Plymley, Roger Sadler and John Taylor) as one of the borough's four constables, 'able-bodied citizens charged with preserving the peace'. Although proverbially stupid an Elizabethan tradition his son would immortalise in the characters of Constables Dogberry and Dull these local worthies, guardians of law and order, took on unenviable responsibilities in these unruly times. John Shakespeare would often have been called upon to break up drunken brawls, confiscate weapons from men made menacing by liquor, and give evidence against them in court. He was also responsible for policing the town's precautions against the ever-present threat of fire, and reporting to the church authorities any malingerers caught 'bowling, gaming or tippling' when they should have been at divine worship.
For a year Shakespeare's father evidently performed these duties efficiently enough, for 6 October 1559 saw him reappointed 'petty constable' despite a fine that April for 'failing to keep his gutter clean' and promoted to the equally unpopular role of 'affeeror', or 'assessor', the civic functionary responsible for assessing fines not laid down by statute. It was not long before his upward progress reached its first plateau, with his election as one of Stratford's fourteen burgesses, the bulk of the town council responsible for all administration, who met in the Guild Hall every morning at 9 A.M.
Whatever the effect of his public duties on the conduct of his business, John Shakespeare's fluctuating financial fortunes seem at first to have had little impact on his civic standing. His three-shilling contribution to the plague fund in the August following William's birth was followed by only sixpence the following month, at the end of which his name enters the municipal lists as a witness to a corporation order. Already he was the borough treasurer, a regular attender of council meetings, who presented Stratford's annual accounts for 1564 at a plenary meeting held on 1 March 1565. By July he had been elevated to alderman unembarrassed, it seems, by an order shortly thereafter to pay ?3 2s 7d 'for restitution of an old debt'. In mid-February 1566 the records show him again presenting the annual accounts, a citizen solid enough to stand bail that September for one Richard Hathaway father, as it happens, of his son's future bride. Each time he 'signed' the borough accounts, Shakespeare's father used as his mark an elegantly drawn pair of compasses, one of the tools of his trade.
As an alderman, John was entitled to attend church and all other public occasions in a black cloth gown trimmed with fur. He would also have sported a ring which evidently made a lasting impression on his observant young son. 'When I was about thy years, Hal,' brags Sir John Falstaff in 1 Henry IV, 'I could have crept into any alderman's thumb-ring.' The ring surfaces again in Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet, in Mercutio's resounding Queen Mab speech:
She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman.
As the Shakespeare family prospered, so it grew. A second son, Gilbert, was christened on 13 October 1566; like William he managed to survive infancy, living until 1612. Named after John Shakespeare's friend Gilbert Bradley, a fellow glover and council member, Gilbert Shakespeare appears to have followed his brother to London, where he is described in 1597 as a haberdasher of St Bride's, before returning to Stratford, where he seems to have fallen into undesirable company and occasionally foul of the law. The record of his burial, on 3 February 1612, four years before William, shows that he died adolescens, or unmarried.
In September 1567 we find their father being addressed for the first time as 'Mr Shakespeyr', a title of some considerable dignity. Another year, and he has been elected bailiff, or mayor, in his mid-thirties, in a three-way contest with Robert Perrot and Robert Salisbury held on 4 September 1568. On 1 October John presided over his first council meeting as bailiff, and five days later over his first Court of Record.
As an impressionable four-year-old, Shakespeare would now have seen a po-faced clutch of mace-bearing sergeants arrive at Henley Street early each day to escort his fur-trimmed father, with great ceremony, in a procession through the streets of Stratford to preside over the morning meetings at the Guild Hall. On Thursdays and fair-days the same parade would snake through the market and the fair, and on Sundays process solemnly to church, where the Shakespeare family now sat in the front pew. As bailiff, John Shakespeare shared with one other senior alderman the duties of Justice of the Peace: issuing warrants, hearing cases of debt and local by-law violations, negotiating with the lord of the manor. On Thursdays, after market, he would set the price of corn, and thus of bread and ale, for the following week, amid furious lobbying from bakers and brewers.In 1569, midway through John Shakespeare's year in office as 'the Queen's officer & chief of the town', there occurs the first recorded visit to Stratford by a travelling troupe of players. 'Can this be mere coincidence?' it has rightly been asked. 'The substantial sums payable to players had to be authorised and disbursed by the local council; and the father of a great playwright may well have evinced a special interest in and feeling for staged entertainment.' By virtue of his role as censor, moreover, the mayor and no doubt his family enjoyed the privilege of a private performance by the Queen's Players.
With civic honours came further commercial prosperity. On 4 November 1568 Mayor Shakespeare sold five hundredweight of wool to John Walford of Marlborough a debt he was still to be found pursuing more than thirty years later; and in 156870 he was recorded as the tenant of Ingon Meadow, a fourteen-acre estate two miles north-east of Stratford, in the parish of Hampton Lucy.
As his worldly success spread to the countryside of his and Mary's roots, to the very land farmed by his wayward brother Harry, John stepped down from Stratford's top job, choosing not to exercise his right to run for another term of office. Most likely, having achieved all he could by way of civic eminence, he deemed it more than time to return his attention to the family business. But he remained a respected elder of Stratford, his advice valued by the corporation, who in September 1571 elected him Chief Alderman and Justice of the Peace for the coming year, and ex-officio deputy to the new bailiff, his old friend and Henley Street neighbour Adrian Quiney, a mercer. In January 1572 the two rode together to London as ambassadors for the borough, deputed by their fellow councillors to report on parliamentary affairs affecting Stratford and represent its interests 'according to their discretions'.
During 1569, the year of the birth of the second Joan, John Shakespeare had mustered all his confidence to describe himself as 'Bailiff, Justice of the Peace, the Queen's Officer and Chief of the Town of Stratford' in his formal application to the College of Arms for the ultimate in self-made respectability: a coat of arms. This outward sign of his worldly success would set the seal, literally, on two decades of solid achievement.
But it was not to be not, at any rate, for another quarter of a century, until his increasingly successful playwright son reapplied on his father's behalf in 1596 to the College of Arms, then as now on the banks of the Thames at Blackfriars, directly opposite the Globe theatre. Then, at last, the Clarenceux King-of-Arms duly noted that John Shakespeare 'was a magistrate in Stratford upon Avon. A justice of the peace, he married a daughter and heir of Arden, and was good of substance and habileté.' But this first application in 1569 was declined by the authorities in London for reasons which are nowhere documented, if not difficult to surmise.
John Shakespeare's eldest son had been born in dangerous times. It was less than half a century since the Queen's father, King Henry VIII, had broken with Rome, despoiled and looted church landholdings and shrines, executed notables from Sir Thomas More to two of his own wives, including Elizabeth's mother.
The Elizabethan era was fast approaching its apogee a sustained period of military, political, scientific and cultural achievement without parallel in British history. But it was also an age of ferocious religious persecution. Herself a deeply devout and civilised woman, Elizabeth presided with apparent reluctance over the pursuit, torture and execution of papists, in sporadic purges of varying intensity. But it was a time for followers of the 'old' faith to tread carefully, to worship in corners for some, if necessary, to deny their faith or at the least 'equivocate'.
In 1757, a century and a half after John Shakespeare's death, a document of great significance was found hidden in the rafters of the family house in Henley Street by then occupied by Thomas Hart, a direct lineal descendant of William's sister Joan. Retiling Hart's roof was a team of workmen led by Joseph Moseley, a master-builder described as 'very honest, sober, industrious', who on 29 April came upon a small 'paper-book', or pamphlet, tucked between the old tiling and the rafters. Its six stitched leaves turned out to contain fourteen articles amounting to a profession of Roman Catholic faith.The document, which has become known as John Shakespeare's Spiritual Last Will and Testament, passed from Hart and Moseley to a local alderman, on to the eighteenth-century Shakespeare reliquary John Jordan and eventually (via the vicar of Stratford, James Davenport) to Shakespeare's eighteenth-century biographer, Edmund Malone. Having satisfied himself that it was genuine, though by now lacking its first page, Malone duly published it as an appendix to his 1790 edition of the Works.The document has since vanished 'a pity', in the understatement of one of the outstanding twentieth-century Shakespeare biographers, Samuel Schoenbaum, for the advanced techniques of modern scholarship might have answered 'several intriguing questions' regarding the script, the paper, the watermark, the handwriting and, of course, John Shakespeare's signature. Was it a cross or his characteristic mark of the glover's compass? Malone subsequently recanted his conviction that the document was genuine, and the hapless Jordan was accused of forgery; it took until 1923 for a diligent Jesuit scholar, burrowing around the British Museum, to come up with an uncannily similar Italian document, also dating from the sixteenth century.This was the 'last testament' of Saint Carlo Borromeo, the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, who died in 1584 and was canonized in 1610. Borromeo's 'Last Will of the Soul, made in health for the Christian to secure himself from the temptations of the devil at the hour of death' was composed during a virulent bout of the plague in Milan in the 1570s, said to have claimed 17,000 Catholic lives. His Testament, which became a mantra of the Counter-Reformation, was clearly the original of the English translation found hidden in what had once been John Shakespeare's roof.
How did it get there? In 1580 Borromeo was visited in Milan by a group of Jesuit missionaries, led by Father Edmund Campion, an English recusant who two years later would be tried and gruesomely executed for treason. Campion and his colleagues brought back with them to England numerous copies of Borromeo's testament, which was now circulating around Catholic Europe in huge quantities. 'Three or four thousand or more of the Testaments' were ordered from Rome by Campion and his colleagues, 'for many persons desire to have them.' Once back in England, Campion passed through the Midlands specifically Lapworth, just twelve miles from Stratford en route to Lancashire, where he was again to play a significant role in the life of young William Shakespeare.
Campion's host at Lapworth was Sir William Catesby, a relative by marriage of the Ardens, who was arrested and imprisoned in the Fleet for his pains. In Elizabethan England, Catholics literally risked their lives by admitting popish priests into their houses, whether to take their confession and celebrate Mass or merely to indulge in theological discussion. Policed by the Privy Council, who conducted periodic raids on secret strongholds of recusancy all over the country, adherence to the 'old' faith was a crime amounting to treason, and punishable by death. Elizabeth's reign saw almost 200 Catholics meet excruciating ends on the public scaffold. Just two years after her own death, Catholic apostasy reached its celebrated climax in the 1605 'Powder Treason', now better known as the 'Gunpowder Plot' whose leader was not Guy Fawkes, as legend would have it, but Robert Catesby, son of that same Sir William who invited Edmund Campion to visit Warwickshire in 1581.
An English translation of Borromeo's Testament, which finally came to light as recently as 1966, proved that the document faithfully attested by John Shakespeare was thus formulaic, but genuine beyond all doubt. A lifelong recusant as witnessed by his subsequent fines for non-attendance of church, even while still a prominent member of the Stratford community Shakespeare's father might well have been one of the furtive souls invited by Catesby, his Catholic wife's Catholic kinsman, to meet Campion at Lapworth, and to carry away one of the secretly made English translations imported by the thousand from Rome. If not, it was probably passed to him by John Cottom, then the Stratford schoolmaster, whose recusant brother Thomas was one of Campion's travelling companions.
Three years later, a new round of raids and persecution dogged Warwickshire Catholics after a rash attempt by a local fundamentalist, John Somerville, to assassinate the Queen. As the authorities descended in search of vengeance, the clerk of the council, Thomas Wilkes, bore witness to the urgent efforts of local recusants to 'clear their houses of all show of suspicion'. Somerville, who was captured and hanged en route to London, was married to Margaret Arden, a Catholic cousin of Shakespeare's mother. Perhaps this was the moment her husband felt it prudent to hide his copy of the Spiritual Testament up in the roof?
Aged seventeen when the Testament came into the family home, and twenty by the time his father felt obliged to hide it, the precocious William certainly seems to have absorbed its contents, whatever his personal reaction to them. The Testament's Item I acknowledged the possibility of being 'cut off in the blossom of my sins', a terrifying prospect catered for in Item IV: 'I, John Shakespeare, do protest that I will also pass out of this life, armed with the last sacrament of extreme unction: the which if through any let or hindrance I shall not be able to have, I do now also for that time demand and crave the same.' The words of the English translation find a direct echo in those of the Ghost of Hamlet's Father, written within a year of the death of the poet's:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhous'led, disappointed, unanel'd,
No reck'ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O, horrible, O, horrible, most horrible!
So appalled was John Shakespeare's son, in life as in art, by the fate of those who met their maker 'unaneled' that Hamlet even spares his father's murderer, his hated stepfather Claudius, when presented with the chance to kill him while at prayer. 'No!' he cries,
Up sword, and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is . . .
. . . about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't . . .
. . . that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As hell, whereto it goes.
No shriving time allowed, the Ghost of Hamlet's Father occupies an authentically Catholic version of Purgatory:
My hour is almost come
When I to sulph'rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself . . .
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
So soon after his own father's death, Shakespeare clearly shares Hamlet's sense of horror that his father's 'canonised bones, hearséd in death / Have burst their cerements'. The fate of unburied bones haunts his work to the terminal point of his own stark epitaph, still there today to chill the heart of the visitor to Stratford's Holy Trinity church, with its curse on him that 'moves my bones'.
Shakespeare's Catholic indoctrination in childhood ran deep, whatever the subsequent falling-off in his beliefs. For both father and son, throughout the poet's youth, the 'equivocation' so dear to the heart of the Porter in Macbeth was a necessary evil to survive amid the religious McCarthyism then dogging Warwickshire dissenters.
By the time he felt obliged to hide his Catholic Testament in the roof at Henley Street, Shakespeare's father was retired from active local politics, and celebrating the birth of his first grandchild by his son William. How it must have pained him, twenty years earlier, to fulfil his duties as Stratford's chamberlain by authorising the payment of two shillings to workmen charged with the task of 'defacing images in the chapel' Stratford's Guild Chapel, embellished with papist murals of the murder of Thomas à Becket, St Helena's Dream and the Day of Judgement and hitherto protected by the most powerful man in town, William Clopton, and his son, both Catholics.
But Clopton senior had died in 1560, and now his son had taken himself abroad. Given the political climate, the local council seized the moment to mutilate the heretical frescoes, in danger of bringing into disrepute a town so recently granted its royal charter. Two years later the council spent a further two shillings on the cost of dismantling the chapel's rood loft. And in 1571, John Shakespeare was present when his friend and successor as bailiff, Adrian Quiney, ordered the replacement of the chapel's stained-glass windows with clear panes, and the disposal of the popish capes and vestments still preserved in the chapel, if long since disused.
John Shakespeare may have disguised his religion well enough during his rise to civic eminence, like many fellow Catholics at that time of persecution. But this was an age of informers, well paid for their pains, who helped the authorities keep a close eye on countless pockets of papist defiance throughout the land. John's semi-concealed religious sympathies may well have been responsible for the College of Arms's otherwise mysterious refusal to grant him a coat of arms in 1569. They may also have played a role in the sudden, unwelcome development eventually to cut short the education of his five-year-old schoolboy son William that over the next few years, after two decades of sustained success, the former Mayor of Stratford's fortunes went into an abrupt and quite unexpected decline.