21 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.
A new context on Shakespeare's early life
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.”
Images, transcriptions, and descriptions of the newly-discovered John Shakespeare documents will soon be included in Shakespeare Documented
, 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.
(image copyright Rijks Museum)