Twenty-one previously unknown documents concerning William Shakespeare’s father John, discovered by Professor Glyn Parry from the University of Roehampton in The National Archives, throw new light on his son’s early life and developing political views. Between the record of William’s baptism in April 1564 and his marriage in December 1582 our knowledge of his life depends on records of his father’s business career.
Previous accounts of John’s career relied on manuscripts about his business deals, discovered over the last 150 years. They show that professional informers accused John Shakespeare of illegal money-lending and wool-dealing between 1569 and 1572, though scholars have assumed that he settled out of court during William’s adolescence. The 21 new documents show that two informers’ cases caused John financial and legal trouble until about 1583, when William was nineteen. They include multiple writs against John and record his debts to the Crown, including one for £132, today valued at £20,000. His property remained at risk of seizure by the Crown, hampering his credit as an entrepreneur. These court cases therefore explain his withdrawal from Stratford civic life in 1577.
The documents also reveal a previously unknown political context for William Shakespeare’s early life. Professional informers flourished across England in a corrupt system, which ultimately enriched the Queen and her courtiers. John Shakespeare’s victimization occupied the years William studied at Stratford-upon-Avon Grammar School. There he read the Latin literature of the late Roman Republic and early Empire, which criticized those who bent the law to enrich themselves under monarchs. His father’s experiences and his reading therefore combined to shape the playwright’s later sceptical attitude towards power politics, highlighted in recent academic studies of his writings, and in Macbeth, King Lear and Cymbeline.
Glyn Parry, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Roehampton, said: “Very little is known of William Shakespeare’s early life and the influences on his writing. These documents now confirm that legal action taken against his father by the Crown influenced his attitude to power politics.”
Exchequer, Office of the Queen’s Remembrancer, Writs, Original Series. Writ of capias to Sheriff of Warwickshire to seize John ‘Shackispere’ of Stratford upon Avon, in the foresaid county, Glover, wherever he was in the sheriff’s bailiwick, to keep him in safe and secure custody and to produce him before the Barons of the Exchequer in first return of Easter Term (1572), to answer to certain articles in an information already exhibited before the Barons. Dated ’12 February 1572’, [the ‘sealing day’ when all writs for that Hilary Term were sent out, its real date was its ‘return’ date of the first return of the following Easter Term. This writ was not meant to be taken literally, but was part of an elaborate formal procedure]. This writ concludes by referencing to the Queen’s Remembrancer’s Memoranda Roll of Hilary Term 1572, rotulet 225, which mentions the Merchants of the Staple’s monopoly over wool dealing.
Exchequer, Office of the Queen’s Remembrancer, Writs, Original Series. Writ of attachias to Sheriff of Warwickshire to seize [the goods and chattels of] John ‘Shakespere’ of Stratford upon Avon, in the foresaid county, Glover, John Locke[ly] and Richard Courte, also of Stratford, and their bodies, wherever they were in the sheriff’s bailiwick, to keep them in safe and secure custody and to produce them before the Barons of the Exchequer at Westminster in the ‘Crastino’ of the Lord’s Ascension (the beginning of Trinity Term 1572), to answer to the Queen for diverse transgressions, contempts and offences by them formerly done, and to receive the appropriate punishment. Dated ‘3 May 1572’, [the ‘sealing day’ when all writs for that Easter Term were sent out, its real date was its ‘return’ date of the first return of the following Trinity Term. This writ was not meant to be taken literally, but was part of an elaborate formal procedure]. This writ concludes by referencing the Queen’s Remembrancer’s Memoranda Roll of Hilary Term 1572, rotulet 68, [where James Langrake’s original information against John Shakespeare and Lockely was recorded].
Exchequer, Office of the Queen’s Remembrancer, Writs, Original Series. Writ of attachias to Sheriff of Warwickshire to seize [the goods and chattels of] John ‘Shakispere’ of Stratford upon Avon, in the foresaid county, Glover, and his body wherever found in the bailiwick, to keep him in safe and secure custody and to produce him before the Barons of the Exchequer in the first return of Hilary Term, to answer to the Queen for diverse transgressions, contempts and offences by him formerly committed, and to receive the appropriate punishment. Dated ’28 November 1575’, [the ‘sealing day’ for Michaelmas Term, but its real date was the first return of the coming Hilary Term]. It references the same Hilary Term 1572 rotulet 225 as above].
Dr Katy Mair, Head of Early Modern Records at The National Archives said “Professor Parry’s discoveries are of the utmost importance to the historical and literary scholarship of Shakespeare studies, and will greatly enhance our knowledge of this period of Shakespeare’s life. It is often believed that there are no new documents relating to Shakespeare left to be found, but Professor Parry has shown that there are still discoveries waiting to be made here in the reading rooms at The National Archives.”
“Professor Parry’s research shows that the renewed focus on non-literary archives and manuscripts will continue to lead to new discoveries and to a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s family background and life,” said Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, and curator of the online repository Shakespeare Documented (www.shakespearedocumented.org). “We are thrilled to include his finds in Shakespeare Documented.”
Images, transcriptions, and descriptions of the newly-discovered John Shakespeare documents will soon be included in Shakespeare Documented, www.shakespearedocumented.org, the largest and most authoritative collection of primary-source materials documenting the life of William Shakespeare. The website—a multi-institutional collaboration convened by the Folger Shakespeare Library—brings together all known manuscript and print references to Shakespeare, his works, and additional references to his family, in his lifetime and shortly thereafter. The website’s more than 500 references, found in roughly 400 print and manuscript documents including the 20 new documents from The National Archives, provide a rich portrait of Shakespeare as a professional playwright, actor, poet, business man, and family man who lived in both London and Stratford-upon-Avon.
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