Nostalgia: Bard’s early literary brilliance

King Edward VI Grammar School on Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon also known as Shakespeare's school.
King Edward VI Grammar School on Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon also known as Shakespeare's school.

Both of William Shakespeare’s parents, John and Mary, were illiterate, but neither were poor. Starting out as a tenant farmer, John moved to the nearest town, Stratford-upon-Avon, which was then in the 1550s with 1,500 inhabitants about the same size as Scarborough, to become a glover (his son’s many references to hides and skins for making shoes, aprons, bags as well as gloves, indicates a close knowledge of the industry).

John climbed swiftly up the borough’s hierarchy, first ale-taster, then constable, assessor, treasurer, one of the Stratford’s 14 elected burgesses, alderman, justice of the peace and finally, five years after the birth of his eldest son, William, in 1564, bailiff or mayor. However, though now qualified to be addressed as “Mister” or “Maister”, John’s application for the badge of a respectable gentleman, a coat of arms, was rejected. Here was the first sign that William was brought up in a Catholic household, a place of acute danger for anyone starting life in the early reign of a Protestant Queen Elizabeth.

Shakespeare’s literary contemporaries, such as Ben Johnson, marvelled that he was such an accomplished, well-informed author for someone who had not been to university; but, from the age of five to 15, William had the educational grounding of a decade of relentless grammar schooling. At Stratford’s grammar school, young William was force-fed Latin until he was as well versed in Classical literature as a modern graduate. In fact, such were the universities of the time, mere training places for professions in the law, theology and medicine, or finishing academies for the gentry, that Shakespeare lost nothing of relevant value by missing them. His vocabulary was about 20,000 words, five times that of an average contemporary literate.

Though like his father young William was probably a secret Catholic, his public education would have been Protestant. At all grammar schools teachers were then required by the Queen’s injunctions to conform fully and strictly to the doctrines and practices of her established church.

Shakespeare’s formal education ended abruptly because his father’s business was failing and he was having to sell land to pay his debts. Also, in 1579, the growing local pursuit of clandestine Catholics was threatening the Shakespeare family. In these circumstances, the 15-year-old William was sent north to one of those refuges for Catholics – Lancashire – first to the household of the Hoghtons, then in that of the Heskeths of Rufford. There William “Shakeshafte” was both family tutor and part-time player of “interludes”.

Returning to Stratford three years later, William “Shagspere” hastily married a local 26-year-old “Anne Hathwey”, described as a “maiden” on the special marriage licence, though she was already several months 
pregnant. Was it a love-match? Was it the result of a careless indiscretion? Was the groom seduced by an older woman? We can never know, though dozens of biographers have been unable to resist the temptation to guess. After their first child, Susanna, two years later, Anne gave birth to twins, Hamnet and Judith.

By that time William had left behind his wife and children in Stratford and had begun a new career as actor-playwright in a company performing at James Burgage’s Theatre, the first custom-built playhouse in the world. Previously, outdoor plays were enacted in the courtyards of inns and Burgage’s Theatre was modelled on a similar plan. Inside a circular auditorium there was a raised, rectangular stage, flanked by two columns which supported a canopy known as “the heavens”. Above the canopy a thatched loft or attic was used for balcony scenes. Below the stage was a trap door to a storage area called “hell” and behind it a curtained recess was used as a changing room by the actors.

Richer members of the audience paid twopence to sit in the covered galleries arranged on three sides above the stage. The “groundlings” paid a penny each to stand in front of and below the stage. Those who could afford them were charged sixpence to sit in “boxes”, private, reserved places next to and on a level with the stage. Finally, very special guests might be allowed sometimes to sit on a stool placed at a corner of the stage. Scenery was minimal: it often consisted of no more than a bench or a royal throne. If the playwright insisted on a backcloth scene he had to paint it himself!

During his first five years in London, William wrote the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Titus Andronicus. But when plague struck the capital in 1592 and “all manner of concourse and public meetings”, which included bear-baiting and bowling as well as plays, were closed indefinitely by the Privy Council, London’s actors had no choice but to tour the provinces. All that is except Shakespeare. He risked the plague and eked out a living writing lengthy narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, for publication.

It was about this time that William acquired a powerful, wealthy patron, the young earl of Southampton. And his reputation was now sufficient to incite the jealousy of Robert Greene who, dying of syphilis, described him as “an upstart crow”, not the “Swan of Avon”. However, the event that had the greatest impact on Shakespeare was the death of his only son Hamnet at the age of 11 in 1596.

The only good news of that year came from the College of Arms which accepted the Shakespeare claim to a family coat, 30 years after it had been first refused. William had become the son of a gentleman and the suspicion of Catholic recusancy which had dogged his family was now lifted. The following year he celebrated this enlargement of riches and status by buying the best house in Stratford, New Place, for his family. With 10 rooms, two orchards, two gardens and two barns, this “grete house” was a bargain at £60.

After James Burbage died in 1597, his two sons, Richard and Cuthbert, were unable to renew the lease on the land where their Theatre stood. Rather than allow the landlord to pull down the building, the brothers dismantled it plank by plank and, under the cover of night, ferried it across the Thames to a new site on the south bank of the river. Two years later, this new theatre opened as the Globe. With a capacity of up to 3,000, the Globe now offered Shakespeare a new home for his plays and a substantial share in its profits.

[to be continued]