That’s Not So Good Now

In the early years of Shakespeare’s schooling his father persevered in illegal dealings in wool and in money-lending. They were in a sense conventional offences, and not likely to injure John Shakespeare’s reputation in any significant way. They were noted in the public records but he continued with his normal civic duties, and at the beginning of 1572 he and Adrian Quiney travelled to London in order to represent their town at the lawcourts in Westminster. There was a dispute with the lord of the manor, the Earl of Warwick. A few months later John Shakespeare was in Warwick to attend a post-mortem on a local miller. Throughout this period he attended the requisite “halls” when the council met for business.

There is a pretty story concerning another journey, during which he might have been accompanied by his son. Elizabeth I was engaged in one of her periodic progresses when, in the summer of 1575, she arrived at Kenilworth Castle; this castle was only twelve miles from Stratford, and the dignitaries of the locality were no doubt asked to attend in honour of Her Majesty. The Earl of Leicester’s Men were here to entertain her, but there were also various masques and pageants, dramatic spectacles and games, performed before her. One of these theatrical interludes included the presentation of a mermaid and various nymphs upon an artificial lake, followed by Arion riding upon a dolphin. It was part of the general extravagance of allegory and classical reference employed on such occasions, but many of Shakespeare’s biographers have insisted that it inspired a reference in Twelfth Night to “Arion on the Dolphines backe” (54) and a speech by Oberon from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (504-6):

… thou remembrest

Since once I sat vpon a promontory,

And heard a Mearmaide on a Dolphins backe …

It is at least suggestive. And a pretty story does no harm.

It cannot be said that John Shakespeare’s fortunes in this period were in any way declining. In 1575 he purchased two houses, with gardens and orchards, in Stratford for £40. It seems likely that these were contiguous to the dwelling in Henley Street, which he could now enlarge for his ever-growing family. He had also purchased land in Bishopton and Welcombe, which he later bequeathed to his son. He had already leased a house to William Burbage, and had also stood surety for two debts incurred by Richard Hath-away. His relative affluence makes his subsequent conduct all the more puzzling.

At the beginning of 1577, he left the borough council precipitately and abruptly. He had been present at its deliberations for the last thirteen years; after this date, he reappears in “hall” only once. This strange withdrawal does not seem to have been prompted by personal animosities. Indeed he was treated by his erstwhile colleagues with patience and forbearance. He was excused the fines generally levied for being absent, and he remained on the list of aldermen for a further ten years. His gown of office was not confiscated or “deprived.”

Many reasons have been adduced for his decision, ranging from ill-health and a possible stroke to drunkenness. It is unlikely that he was in any financial trouble; he seems to have remained prosperous throughout his son’s time in Stratford. There has been speculation that he avoided paying certain rates, or was deliberately under-assessed upon them, for reasons of penury. But this may simply be a misunderstanding of the difference between rates in the borough, and rates in the parish, of Stratford. A far more likely cause has been found in his espousal of the old religion. The year before his withdrawal a grand ecclesiastical commission was established by the Privy Council to investigate the religious affairs of the nation. Among its ordinances was one established to inquire into “all singular, heretical, erroneous and offensive opinions,” and “to order, correct, reform and punish any persons wilfully and obstinately absenting themselves from church and service.”1 The members of the borough council were no doubt asked to expedite these matters, perhaps even to draw up lists of recusants who “obstinately” refused to attend church service. To whom else could the commissioners turn? And so John Shakespeare, recusant, absented himself.

Later that year Whitgift was nominated to be the new Bishop of Worcester, in which see Stratford lay. Whitgift was known to be assiduous in the pursuit and prosecution of those who held “erroneous and offensive opinions.” In the year of John Shakespeare’s resignation, he arrived in Stratford on a religious visitation to hunt out heretics. At that time, he must have requested the help of the Stratford council. But John Shakespeare had gone nine months before.

John Shakespeare’s position was all the more precarious because through marriage he had become part of the Arden affinity; in this period the Catholic, Edward Arden, was engaged in full feud with the Protestant Earl of Leicester, who had charge of the county and who sent sectarian preachers to Stratford. Any member of the Arden family, however removed, could become an object of suspicion. So the world of religious politics conspired against Shakespeare’s father and obliged him to withdraw from public life. His colleagues were reluctant to see his departure, but they understood his reasons. This can be no more than a guess, but it does at least make sense of his subsequent behaviour.

Shakespeare was thirteen at the time of his father’s relinquishment of public duty and honour. Any effect upon his son can only be supposed, but the boy was of an age when rank and status are important among his fellows. In such a small and deeply hierarchical society, it seems likely that he felt his father’s departure most keenly. When we try to measure his response it is best to trust the tale rather than the teller. The plays of Shakespeare are filled with authoritative males who have failed. That may of course be a definition of tragedy itself; in which case it will be one of the reasons for Shakespeare’s intense engagement with it. Many of the central male characters of his drama have been disappointed in the practical business of the world; we may adduce here Timon and Hamlet, Prospero and Coriolanus. This failure does not engender aggression or bitterness on the dramatist’s part; quite the contrary. It is invariably the case that Shakespeare sympathises with failure, with Antony or Brutus or Richard II. As his first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, put it of Wolsey in All Is True, “he makes his Fall and Ruin the Subject of general Compassion.”2 As soon as the male protagonists begin to lose their status, Shakespeare invests them with all the poetry of his being. It may be that John Shakespeare’s decline also became the context for his son’s preoccupation both with gentility and with the restoration of family honour. It will also help to elucidate, if not to explain, his unprecedented interest in the figure of the king. If the nominal head of the family has failed, it becomes quite natural to create an idealised patriarchy or an idealised relationship between father and son. In any case, Shakespeare himself made sure that he would never suffer his father’s failure.

In the course of the next four years John Shakespeare became enmeshed in further difficulties and negotiations. In 1578 he refused to pay a levy for six additional soldiers, equipped at Stratford’s expense. In the same year he did not attend the meetings on election day. He was not asked to pay the requisite fines for these offences. He was also involved in complicated land deals concerning some Arden property bequeathed to his wife. On 12 November he sold off 70 acres of Arden property in Wilmcote, the ancestral home of the Ardens, to Thomas Webbe and his heirs; the terms were that, after a period of twenty-one years, these lands would revert to the Shakespeare family. Thomas Webbe was a relative of some kind; Robert Webbe was Mary Arden’s nephew. Just two days later John Shakespeare mortgaged a house and 56 acres at Wilmcote to Edmund Lambert, Mary Arden’s brother-in-law. This was security on a loan by Lambert to Shakespeare of £40. The loan was to be repaid two years later, in 1580, when the property would be handed back to the Shakespeares. As it turned out Edmund Lambert never returned the house and land, citing various unpaid loans, and John Shakespeare sued him. It is a confusing history but the pattern is clear: the Shakespeares were selling land to relatives while arranging for its later reversion to them. In the following year they sold their portion of the property in Snitterfield, once belonging to Robert Arden, to their nephew.

The most plausible explanation for these complicated arrangements lies in John Shakespeare’s difficult position as a known recusant. Whitgift had made his visitation to Stratford, and the erstwhile alderman would soon be cited as one who refused to attend church services. One of the penalties of recusancy was the confiscation of land. An official report, published at a slightly later date, noted how recusants employed “preventions commonly … in use to deceive.” One subterfuge or “prevention” was detailed thus—“Recusants convey all their lands and goods to friends, and are relieved by those which have the same lands.” Others “demise their land to certain tenants.”3 The strategy is clear. A recusant such as John Shakespeare could convey his property to safe hands, to relatives rather than to “friends,” and thus avoid the prospect of confiscation. After an agreed interval the property was then returned. The conduct of Edmund Lambert, however, acts as a reminder that events did not always turn out as happily as they had been planned. His refusal to hand over the property at Wilmcote may lie behind some terse words from Horatio in Hamlet concerning “those foresaid lands / So by his father lost” (102-3). John Shakespeare was specifically “losing” lands once bequeathed to Mary Arden. It does not take an expert in marital relations to conclude that there was some unacknowledged tension between wife and husband, the inheritors of the Arden and Shakespeare names. As the example of D. H. Lawrence may suggest, these tensions may be bad for the child but good for the writer.

The whole imbroglio emphasises the increasing difficulty of John Shakespeare’s position, and no doubt the increasing anxiety of his family. The situation was compounded by the death in the spring of 1579 of Shakespeare’s sister. Anne Shakespeare was only eight years old. There is an item in the parish register concerning “the bell & paull for Mr. Shaxpers dawghter.” The sorrows of the Shakespeare family are not open to inspection.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!