Saturday, April 11, 2015

Like Father Like Son: We Know Little About Shakespeare’s Life, But What We Do Know Is Important

by Andrea Chapin

Most of William Shakespeare’s life is undocumented. Indeed, it was his “lost years” between 1585 and 1592 that compelled me to write The Tutor, my novel about a year in the life of Shakespeare. What was he up to between twenty-one, when he was living in Stratford with three children, and twenty-eight, when he emerged as an actor, playwright and poet in London? Was he a deer poacher in Stratford, horse handler for theaters in London, soldier, sailor, actor, musician? Was he a schoolmaster in the country? What perfect terrain, I thought, for a fiction writer.

There is as much speculation as to what Shakespeare was doing during those lost years as there is about what sort of person he was: kind or selfish, faithful or promiscuous, teetotaler or boozer? We know Shakespeare’s poems, sonnets, and plays. We know dates in his life: christenings, weddings, and deaths chronicled in church and town records. But we know little about his personality.

Scholars often warn against interpreting any of his writing as autobiographical. He left no letters—though there’s a story that many years after his death, in the late 1700s, several baskets of letters and papers with Shakespeare’s name on them were destroyed by a farmer who did not know their importance. The scant quotes from fellow poets and playwrights possibly give some clues as to Shakespeare’s knowledge and his character. Robert Greene, in a penny pamphlet, wrote a snarky gibe in a passage assumed to be about Shakespeare:
..for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey
And in the preface to the First Folio, in Ben Johnson’s laudatory “Eulogy to Shakespeare” where he praises the Bard’s spectacular genius, Johnson remarks that Shakespeare knew “small Latine, and lesse Greeke…”

With all the worry about what we don’t know about Shakespeare, what I found perhaps most interesting when researching him is what we do know about him—especially the facts about his father.

John Shakespeare married up: Mary Arden was from gentry, a prominent land-owning family, whereas John Shakespeare was from the yeoman class, his family tenant farmers on Arden land. John left the life of farming, moved to Stratford and became a glove maker, probably starting as an apprentice. He did well enough to purchase a house on Henley Street in 1551 and another house
nearby in 1552. Records show that in the years after John’s marriage to Mary in 1557, he traded goods, including wool, malt and corn, and dealt in moneylending.

As John expanded into several businesses, he also embarked on a career within the Stratford town government:

1557: Ale-taster—Stratford was known for its brewing.

1561: Chamberlain of the Borough of Stratford, where he presided over the town council.

1565: Alderman—a position that brought with it a free education for his boys at Stratford’s grammar school.

1568: Bailiff of Stratford—equivalent to a mayor.

1570: Chief Alderman—top position in the town. During 1570, John sought the title of “gentleman” by applying for coat of arms—a symbol of his rise in the world. From Yeoman to Gentleman was a big leap. But John was denied the coat-of-arms—perhaps because during this same year John was accused of Usury for lending money at 20% and 25% interest. Perhaps there were other reasons.

From 1578 on: Documents show that when William is around 14 something went terribly wrong with John Shakespeare’s business and civic life. He incurred debts and fines, failed to show up for court dates and for church (for which he was fined). He started to lose property and even lost his wife’s large farm. Finally, he was removed from the town’s Board of Alderman. Was it illegal business dealings? Was he a Catholic? Was he sick? Again, there’s only been conjecture—no one knows why.

Intelligent young men from humble backgrounds did receive scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge at that time. Christopher Marlowe, who went to Cambridge, was the son of a cobbler. But if that son had to go to work because his father for some reason was out of work, then no such university was in sight.

John Shakespeare was clearly a very ambitious man. Perhaps a Johannes factotum—a Jack-of-all trades. Like father like son. Shakespeare was not content only to act, but he published poetry, had his plays produced and became part owner of a theater company and a theater, so he made money from every ticket sold (the way his father made money on the wool he sold and the money he lended—a percentage). As Shakespeare became successful in London, he purchased property. He bought Sir Clopton’s house in Stratford, a large house with ten fireplaces, far grander than the house on Henley Street where he grew up. And he applied for and was granted a coat of arms.

Robert Greene does not say the heart of a “bunny” or “mouse” in his snide remark about Shakespeare, but gives him the heart of a tiger—an animal that is aggressive, powerful, and controlling—who by his own conceit is the only “Shake-scene” in the country. In play after play, Shakespeare’s plots deal with the rise and fall of great men. Who, in a child’s life, is the greatest and most powerful person? His father. And who would know better about that “vaulting ambition” Shakespeare attributes to Macbeth, than Shakespeare himself.

Sources: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare by James Shapiro; 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro; Shakespeare Unbound: Decoding a Hidden Life by Rene Weis; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt; Shakespeare of London by Marchette Chute; The Age of Shakespeare by Frank Kermode; and Shakespeare: The World As Stage by Bill Bryson.


Andrea Chapin has acted professionally, touring Germany in Edward Albee’s Seascape. She has been an editor at art, movie, theater, and literary magazines, including The Paris Review, Conjunctions, and The Lincoln Center Theater Review, and has written for More, Redbook, Town & Country, Self, Martha Stewart Living, Marie Claire, and other publications. Chapin is also a writing teacher and private book editor. The Tutor,her first novel, was published by Riverhead Books in the US in February and last month by Penguin Books in the UK.

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  1. I think that "tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide" is a reference to a line from one of the Henry VI plays, a reference to Queen Margaret, the wife of Henry. :-)

  2. Fascinating post, Andrea and I like your thought about his father as an example of a man who rose only to fall. Sounds like a great book!

  3. Andrea, this was fascinating. I'd never heard the story about the farmer burning the baskets of papers with Shakespeare's name on them. How sad, if true.


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