John Aubrey remarked that Shakespeare “had been in his younger I yeares a Schoolmaster in the Countrey.” In the margin the diarist writes “from Mr. Beeston,” who was in certain respects a reliable source; William Beeston, actor, was the son of one Christopher Beeston, who had been a player in Shakespeare’s own company in the writer’s lifetime. Aubrey interviewed him towards the end of his life, but it seems to be an authentic piece of information. It would not be at all unusual for a clever young man of fifteen or sixteen to be employed as an “usher” or teacher for younger children.
There is some allusive contemporary evidence also. In one of a trilogy of plays published in 1606 and entitled The Return to Parnassus, a character based upon Shakespeare, Studioso, is parodied as a “schoolmaster” who teaches Latin to children in the country. The reference would have no point if it were not based upon prior information. There are so many references to schoolmasters and school curricula in his plays, far more than in those of any contemporary, that one scholar has been moved to describe Shakespeare as “the schoolmaster among dramatists.”1 In his plays, too, the quotations and references often derive from passages that were used by masters as illustrations of grammatical rules. When he was laughing at Holofernes the master, perhaps he was also laughing at his own old self. But, if the tradition is correct, the inevitable question then arises. Where in the “countrey” was the young Shakespeare a schoolmaster?
Various locations have been suggested, from Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire to Titchfield in Hampshire. His schoolmastering has also been placed closer to home, under the patronage of Sir Fulke Greville of Beauchamps Court twelve miles from Stratford; Greville, the father of the poet of the same name, was a local dignitary who took a great interest in matters of education. He was also related to the Ardens. It is interesting conjecture, but conjecture still.
In more recent years, in any case, the favoured locale for Shakespeare’s career as a young teacher has become Lancashire. The omens are good. Turn first to the last will and testament of a local grandee, Alexander Hoghton, of Hoghton Tower and Lea Hall near Lea in that county. Hoghton’s wife was a devout Catholic, and his brother was in exile as a result of his espousal of the old faith. In this will—executed on 3 August 1581—he leaves his musical instruments and players’ costumes to his half-brother, Thomas Hoghton, with this proviso.
And yf he wyll not keppe and manteyne playeres, then yt ys my wyll that Sir Thomas Heskethe, knyghte, shall haue the same Instrumentes and playe clothes. And I most herteleye requyre the said Sir Thomas to be ffrendlye unto ffoke Gyllome and William Shakeshafte nowe dwellynge with me, and eyther to take theym unto his Servyce or els to helpe theym to some good master, as my tryste ys he wyll.2
Ever since this will was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century (and later given prominence in a publication of 1937) it has provoked a great deal of interest and controversy. If the reference is indeed to William Shakespeare, why is his name spelled in so peculiar a fashion? Why at the early age of seventeen has he been singled out in this pronounced manner? In a subsequent part of the will he was also left 40 shillings a year; he is named among forty other household servants, but the bequest does suggest some form of special recognition. How had he come to deserve this? If he had already spent two years in Hoghton Tower, of course, his remarkable gifts would already have become apparent. If we leave aside these doubts and misgivings, however, then we have a description of the young Shakespeare as an actor in a Catholic household where he may have been introduced as a schoolmaster. It is an intriguing possibility.
Many scholars disagree. The movements of the young Shakespeare have become the subject of serious debate, related to the vexed question of his religious allegiances. Was he actually a crypto-Catholic or even a sympathiser with and friend of Catholics? Was he ever in the north of England at all? There can be no certainty in these matters.
But, if the account is accurate, there are further ramifications. The Hoghton and Hesketh families were very well acquainted with the household of the earls of Derby, who exercised enormous influence in Lancashire. In his history plays Shakespeare emphasises the truth and loyalty of the Stanleys, the surname of the Derby family, in defiance of the facts of their actual conduct—in Richard III Sir William Stanley tears the crown from the villainous king’s prostrate head—and it is widely believed that Shakespeare composed epitaphs for two members of the same household. Lord Strange (Ferdinando Stanley, the fifth earl of Derby) was a Catholic or crypto-Catholic nobleman of great wealth and power. He patronised a group of players known naturally enough as Lord Strange’s Men. Some biographers have enrolled Shakespeare in this acting company during the time that he dwelled at Hoghton Tower. Lord Strange’s Men toured the country and were also well known in London. With one deft explanation we can move the young Shakespeare from provincial schoolmastering to the stages of the inn-yards in the capital.
It may be convenient, but it is not necessarily unlikely. There is a long tradition in the Hoghton family that Shakespeare served them in some capacity. This in itself is by no means conclusive, but it is bolstered by other evidence. In the immediate vicinity of the Hoghtons of Lea Hall, near Preston, lived the Cottam family; the Hoghtons and the Cottams, both Catholic, were thoroughly intimate. One of the members of that family, John Cottam, has already entered this history as Shakespeare’s schoolmaster in Stratford. Cottam is mentioned in Alexander Hoghton’s will as his “servant.” It seems to be more than coincidence. What would be more natural than that Cottam should recommend his most brilliant pupil, also a Catholic, to be schoolmaster to the Hoghton children? Alexander Hoghton was named by an apostate priest as one of the Lancastrian gentry who kept “recusants as schoolmasters.”3
So, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, the young Shakespeare may have journeyed away from home. Once you understand the Catholic network of late sixteenth-century England, it seems to be an entirely sensible and explicable course of action. The connection between Lancashire and Stratford-upon-Avon has already been observed, with four out of five schoolmasters at the New School coming from that most strongly Catholic of all English counties. It has been calculated that “nine out of the twenty-one Catholic schoolmasters executed under Elizabeth were Lancastrians.”4 Thomas Cottam, the Jesuit priest and brother of John Cottam, stayed in secret at the house of Alexander Hoghton’s cousin, Richard Hoghton; Edmund Campion, the Catholic missionary and proselytiser, in the spring of 1581 visited Hoghton Tower, where he left certain books and papers. He never had the opportunity of reclaiming them, the gallows preventing him. There are deep affiliations here which cannot at this late date be properly or fully recovered.
From the evidence of his will Alexander Hoghton also employed “players.” It has been objected that “players” may simply mean musicians, but the reference is ambiguous. In any case actors were often required to perform music. It may also be significant that schoolmasters in this period were supposed to teach their charges the art and practice of music. There are some lines in The Taming of the Shrew (367-9) that reveal this connection:
And for I know she taketh most delight
In Musicke, Instruments, and Poetry,
Schoolemasters will I keepe within my house …
The young usher would also have been expected to teach Latin from the dramatic passages of Plautus and of Terence. It is easy to see how Shakespeare’s rhetorical and theatrical gifts might find expression in such an atmosphere. There was a Catholic tradition of plays written for schoolboys, exemplified by Campion himself, who wrote a devotional school-play entitled Ambrosia. Fulke Gillam, mentioned with “William Shakeshafte” in Hoghton’s will, came from a family of pageant masters who organised the mystery plays at Chester. So the young Shakespeare was entering a world of Catholic dramaturgy, rehearsed and performed clandestinely in the halls of the Lancastrian recusant gentry.
After the death of Alexander Hoghton, the young Shakespeare might then have been recruited into Sir Thomas Hesketh’s company of players at Rufford Hall. Both Hoghton Tower and Rufford Hall had banqueting halls, with a screen and a dais, where plays were performed; Hesketh also possessed a stage orchestra, complete with “vyolls, vyolentes, virginals, sagbutts, howboies and cornets, cithron, flute and tabor pypes.”5 It has often been remarked how intimately and precisely Shakespeare in his plays traces the life of noble households, with their servants and their banquets. We may be able to find a source for that knowledge in the noble families of Lancashire, well known throughout England for their local power and authority in an area where the majesty of the Crown was only a distant reality. Was it here that the young man acquired that gentility of manner and address that so impressed his contemporaries?
Once again there is a tradition in the vicinity, dating from the early nineteenth century, of Shakespeare living and working in Rufford Hall. In this house, too, there is a Tudor tapestry that depicts the fall of Troy; in The Rape of Lucrece the heroine inspects “a peece of skilfull painting, made for Priams Troy” (1366-7). At a later date Shakespeare helped to choose, as one of the trustees of the Globe Theatre, a native of Rufford itself.
If Hesketh recognised the extraordinary abilities of the young actor (and possibly, even at this early age, already an aspiring dramatist) it is likely that, according to the injunctions of the will, he recommended Shakespeare “to some good master”—namely Lord Strange and his well-known company of talented players. It should be noted here that Lord Strange’s Men performed at least two of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. Everyone agrees that Shakespeare must have had some full and proper training as an actor before emerging, fully armed, upon the London stage in 1592, when he is described as “excelent in the qualitie he professes.” Every actor in the professional companies had some apprenticeship or previous training. Why could this not have been achieved by Shakespeare with Strange’s Men?
A stray piece of research serves to deepen, if not necessarily to strengthen, the picture. Fifty years ago two Shakespearian scholars, Alan Keen and Roger Lubbock, discovered a copy of Hall’s Chronicles which had been heavily annotated in an unknown hand. Hall’s Chronicles was an indispensable source book for Shakespeare’s history plays, but this particular copy has an independent interest. The annotations have been made in a youthful hand, and display “sympathy with Hall’s patriotic enthusiasm and fury at his anti-Catholicism”;6 there are also notes and marginal comments on such matters as the resignation of Richard II. A graphologist, inspecting this handwriting, has concluded that the letterings “indicate the probability that Shakespeare and the annotator were the same man, but do not by any means prove it.”7 None of this would be of the slightest consequence were it not for the fact that Keen and Lubbock, pursuing their investigations, discovered that this particular volume was in the joint or communal possession both of Thomas Hoghton and of Thomas Hesketh.
A chronology of the salient events in the summer and autumn of 1581 will create a context for the young Shakespeare. Edmund Campion was arrested on 16 July, and was taken to the Tower for torture on 31 July. On 5 August, two days after Alexander Hoghton had made his will, the Privy Council issued an order for the search of “certain books and papers which Edmund Campion has confessed he left at the house of one Richard Hoghton in Lancashire.” Richard Hoghton was then arrested. Could it be that Alexander Hoghton had made his will because he knew by then that he might be arrested and that perhaps he did not expect to live for very long? On 21 August the Privy Council congratulated the loyal magistrates of Lancashire for seizing Campion’s hosts and for taking “certain papers, in Hoghton House.”
On 12 September Alexander Hoghton died in what appear to have been suspicious circumstances. Then, at the close of this year, Sir Thomas Hesketh—to whom Hoghton had recommended “Shakeshafte”—was consigned to prison on the grounds that he had failed to curb the practice of the Catholic faith amongst his servitors. All of his friends and retainers would naturally come under renewed suspicion from the queen’s emissaries. The net of suspicion was being drawn tightly over these Lancastrian households, and it was perhaps high time that the young Shakespeare made a convenient departure. By the summer of 1582, at the very latest, he is to be found once more in Stratford.