Born in 1530, and outwardly an aspirational middle class gentleman of impeccable credentials, John Shakespeare, father of William, was actually a man of secrets.
Of farming stock, and raised against a background of country Catholicism, John had moved to Stratford in an attempt to better his lot. He gained some prestige almost instantly by marrying Mary Arden, whose family name was much respected in rural Warwickshire. He also became a successful Glover, constable of Stratford, Chamberlain in charge of the town's property and finances, and a year after William's birth he was appointed Alderman. He would rise to the rank of Bailiff, which carried with it the powers of a Justice of the Peace and later became Chief Alderman.
So on the face of it an acceptable member of Elizabethan society. But in the parlance of our times, John Shakespeare was also a dealer.
Not that he traded narcotics, but he did trade illegally in the hottest currency of the day, wool. The wool industry at this time was a state monopoly and the transference of material strictly controlled. John looks to have been quite successful in his illegal trade as a "brogger," using the money to buy property.
William uses many terms familiar from the wool trade in his works, so it is likely he was familiar with his father's activities. Accompanying his father on deals would also have brought him into contact with exactly the kind of shadowy amoral figures who would later populate his plays.
Throughout William's childhood, John seems to have fallen foul of the government's paid informers. When William was eight his father went before the courts on two charges of illegal wool dealing.
John might have been instrumental in first exposing William to the power of the stage. Coventry, just a day's ride away from Stratford, was then England's third largest city and the place where the Coventry Mysteries were performed.
Simple, often earthy and crude in a Farrelly brothers way, the Coventry Mysteries were Christian folk dramas largely taken from the New Testament. They were written specifically for their audience - unsophisticated ordinary folk - and drew large audiences. William seems to have a nostalgic affection for them later in life, and employed their people-pleasing style in his own works.
John's prosperity seems to have hit an iceberg in the winter of 1576-7. There was a crisis looming in the wool industry, and John began to skip public duties. The government became more punitive in its treatment of Catholics, with fines handed out to those who refused to attend Protestant church services. John also refused to pay a levy imposed on the town for strengthening the local militia presumably to fight off the much anticipated Catholic threat from overseas.
In 1578 John and Mary begin to strategically dispose of their land and property, the equivalent then of moving cash out of the country and into a Swiss bank account. Then, later that year, tragedy struck when William's seven-year-old sister Anne died.
At this time, John seems to bow out of public service, attending only one council meeting in ten years. He accumulates debts, over which he is sued by creditors. William is forced to leave school early. John, the once popular and successful Stratford citizen, seems by act of will or necessity to be opting out of the increasingly Protestant society.
It is thought that around this time John, perhaps as reaction to what he may have seen as petty government persecution, experienced a renewal or rekindling of his Catholic faith.
In April 1757 men working in Shakespeare's Henley Street birthplace found a handwritten testament of faith dating from around the time of Edmund Campion's mission to England. Each page of the testament was signed by John Shakespeare. John would later appear on lists of "obstinate papists," alongside more notorious Catholic sympathizers, for excusing himself from Protestant communion on the grounds of debt.
In the year of his own son Hamnet's death, William would take his father to London to try and acquire the status of gentleman for John. In Elizabethan times this badge of social advancement was acquired by trumpeting the past loyalty and achievements in the family's history.
Twenty years earlier John had made his own application, which had gone no further. With William's help the family finally gained a coat of arms beneath which appears the motto "Not without right." In the year that he lost his only grandson the coat of arms afforded him some immortality at least.
John may never have learned to write, but was educated enough to be able to read and conduct his affairs at the height of his powers in Stratford. Compelled by the danger of his times to facilitate the changes on his town demanded by central government, he seems to have done so with a gentle hand, something which would have been obvious and of irritation to Protestant modernizers. While his sympathies may have been more open than his son's there is a shared sense between them of being forced to operate between two worlds.
He died in 1601.
|©MayaVision International, 2003 (site credits) (site feedback)