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Shakespeare and the Documents, Part 1:

Early Life:

Shakespeare's biography has long been a source of controversy. He's one of the greatest writers in the world, yet the first twenty-eight years of his life could be written on the back of a postage stamp. His reticence about himself in his works almost suggests a deliberate act of self-concealment as a person as well as an artist. What is particularly frustrating is that the ten years between his marriage and his emergence as a playwright in London have so far yielded only three documents: the birth of his children, and a court case in which he and his parents tried to recover family property lost when his father's business collapsed. So for more than half of his life - the years which made him - the biographer is forced to see Shakespeare through the eyes of those around him.

It is hardly surprising then, that in the public eye Shakespeare's biography is peculiarly controversial. Theories that he was really Marlowe, Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, still abound - more documentaries have been made about the authorship controversy than about the man himself. It has to be said that these are all groundless: the primary sources which show that the Stratford Shakespeare wrote the plays are incontrovertible. In fact, in the second half of his life Shakespeare is particularly well documented for his class and profession. But the fact that there is such a controversy at all tells us something important about the problem. Shakespeare's biography is not yet really convincingly anchored in his turbulent times. But a fresh look at the main documents, and the new finds, offers all sorts of interesting clues.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford upon Avon in 1564, only five years or so into the reign of Elizabeth I. The register of baptisms gives 26 April, so he was born maybe three or four days before. In case there be the slightest doubt, the playwright's colleagues in their commemoration volume of his plays after his death, confirm that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon was the author of the plays, and this is backed up by ample testimony from the same time including the poet's will, his funeral monument, and several testimonia from the next couple of decades. His mother was Mary Arden daughter of a well-off farmer in Wilmcote, and distant descendent of the Ardens of Park Hall, who were an important Catholic family in Warwickshire. William's father, John Shakespeare, a former farmer from Snitterfield, was a glover who rose to be alderman and then mayor of the town when William was a boy. John himself is particularly well documented, being named in dozens of documents, and recent finds have included fascinating evidence from government informers on John's illegal money lending and wool dealing.

1564 was an extraordinary time to be born. England was going through nothing less than a Cultural Revolution. In the previous twelve years, the state religion had gone from the hard-line Protestantism of Edward VI to the persecuting Catholicism of Queen Mary, and then back to Protestantism. The first ten years of Shakespeare's life saw an uneasy live-and-let-live before the crisis began to develop in the late 1570s, by which time he had left school. In the aftermath of the Armada (1588) the establishment triumphed, and by the turn of the century the Old Faith was reduced to a minority save in certain areas such as Lancashire.

So Shakespeare's formative years were a time poised between two worlds, between the old and the new. How that translates at a local level we can see in the very rich documents which survive for his town and region. South Warwickshire was a strongly Catholic area, especially in the villages to the north of Stratford in the Forest of Arden, where both his parents were born to old farming families loyal to the Old Faith. Government spies' reports, astonishingly, show a dozen old priests from Queen Mary's day still working as vicars in Arden in 1585, one of whom may well have been the vicar who married William and Anne Hathaway. In Stratford, the town's corporation had many sympathizers with the Old Faith, among them several close friends and neighbors of the Shakespeares. During the time William's father served as constable, alderman and bailiff (mayor) the town officers delayed as long as possible before removing Catholic murals, glass and vestments; some wallpaintings were never destroyed. Perhaps even more significant, of the six schoolmasters employed by the corporation at the grammar school during Shakespeare's boyhood and youth, four were Catholic sympathizers. Simon Hunt, who probably taught Shakespeare, later became a Jesuit.

This fascinating local picture mirrors the national situation. It was a time of "no longer and not yet," half Protestant, half Catholic, and this is the key, I think, to Shakespeare's outlook. In his life in the family, in the town, at school, and at church, he grew up between two worlds. In the privacy of home the Old Faith may have been foremost. His grandfather Robert Arden's will of 1556 is strongly Catholic; his father John appears on a list of Catholic recusants in 1592; and even his daughter Susannah was summonsed for refusing to take Easter Communion as late as 1606 - a crucial document discovered fairly recently in the church court records in Maidstone. The Shakespeare family's story then begins to look like the tale of so many English people in the sixteenth century: caught between old and new, holding on to their affection for old England, while the state swept away a vast and resonant world of symbols of custom and belief, from fairies to prayers for the dead. By the end of Elizabeth's reign most of the country had conformed at least outwardly to the new faith. But by then of course Shakespeare was nearly 40. His life then spanned the great divide.

In this light Shakespeare emerges surely as a much more interesting and ambiguous figure, for whom concealment was not only part of his art but part, perhaps, of a deliberate pattern in his life too. It is intriguing, for example, that during 25 years of lodging in London, with as many as eight addresses indicated in our sources, he is never picked up in the church attendance lists, even in places where it was compulsory such as the Liberty of the Clink in Southwark where he lived in 1599 and maybe later. His one house purchase in London (for which the mortgage documents survive), which was made in 1613, after he had retired to Stratford - had been well known earlier to the government as a Catholic safe house.

"Shakespeare and the Documents: the sources for the bard's life"
by Michael Wood

Shakespeare and The Documents

Part 1: Early Life
Part 2: Career
Part 3: Religion

The Evidence

John Shakespeare's fine for wool dealing
Stratford Council records
Baptismal register, Stratford parish church
Shakespeare's summons
Marriage certificate
William Knell coroner's report
Coat of arms application
Burial of Hamnet Shakespeare
Shakespeare's will
Burial of William Shakespeare
In your state
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