Get Your Premium Membership

Shakespeare — Childhood, Education, and Marriage

by Sidney Lee


The father in municipal office.

In July 1564, when William was three months old, the plague raged with unwonted vehemence at Stratford, and his father liberally contributed to the relief of its poverty-stricken victims.  Fortune still favoured him.  On July 4, 1565, he reached the dignity of an alderman.  From 1567 onwards he was accorded in the corporation archives the honourable prefix of ‘Mr.’  At Michaelmas 1568 he attained the highest office in the corporation gift, that of bailiff, and during his year of office the corporation for the first time entertained actors at Stratford.  The Queen’s Company and the Earl of Worcester’s Company each received from John Shakespeare an official welcome.  On September 5, 1571, he was chief alderman, a post which he retained till September 30 the following year.  In 1573 Alexander Webbe, the husband of his wife’s sister Agnes, made him overseer of his will; in 1575 he bought two houses in Stratford, one of them doubtless the alleged birthplace in Henley Street; in 1576 he contributed twelvepence to the beadle’s salary.  But after Michaelmas 1572 he took a less active part in municipal affairs; he grew irregular in his attendance at the council meetings, and signs were soon apparent that his luck had turned.  In 1578 he was unable to pay, with his colleagues, either the sum of fourpence for the relief of the poor or his contribution ‘towards the furniture of three pikemen, two bellmen, and one archer’ who were sent by the corporation to attend a muster of the trained bands of the county.

Brothers and sisters.

Meanwhile his family was increasing.  Four children besides the poet—three sons, Gilbert (baptised October 13, 1566), Richard (baptised March 11, 1574), and Edmund (baptised May 3, 1580), with a daughter Joan (baptised April 15, 1569)—reached maturity.  A daughter Ann was baptised September 28, 1571, and was buried on April 4, 1579.  To meet his growing liabilities, the father borrowed money from his wife’s kinsfolk, and he and his wife mortgaged, on November 14, 1578, Asbies, her valuable property at Wilmcote, for £40 to Edmund Lambert of Barton-on-the-Heath, who had married her sister, Joan Arden.  Lambert was to receive no interest on his loan, but was to take the ‘rents and profits’ of the estate.  Asbies was thereby alienated for ever.  Next year, on October 15, 1579, John and his wife made over to Robert Webbe, doubtless a relative of Alexander Webbe, for the sum apparently of £40, his wife’s property at Snitterfield.

The father’s financial difficulties.

John Shakespeare obviously chafed under the humiliation of having parted, although as he hoped only temporarily, with his wife’s property of Asbies, and in the autumn of 1580 he offered to pay off the mortgage; but his brother-in-law, Lambert, retorted that other sums were owing, and he would accept all or none.  The negotiation, which was the beginning of much litigation, thus proved abortive.  Through 1585 and 1586 a creditor, John Brown, was embarrassingly importunate, and, after obtaining a writ of distraint, Brown informed the local court that the debtor had no goods on which distraint could be levied. On September 6, 1586, John was deprived of his alderman’s gown, on the ground of his long absence from the council meetings. 


Happily John Shakespeare was at no expense for the education of his four sons.  They were entitled to free tuition at the grammar school of Stratford, which was reconstituted on a mediæval foundation by Edward VI.  The eldest son, William, probably entered the school in 1571, when Walter Roche was master, and perhaps he knew something of Thomas Hunt, who succeeded Roche in 1577.  The instruction that he received was mainly confined to the Latin language and literature.  From the Latin accidence, boys of the period, at schools of the type of that at Stratford, were led, through conversation books like the ‘Sententiæ Pueriles’ and Lily’s grammar, to the perusal of such authors as Seneca Terence, Cicero, Virgil, Plautus, Ovid, and Horace.  The eclogues of the popular renaissance poet, Mantuanus, were often preferred to Virgil’s for beginners.  The rudiments of Greek were occasionally taught in Elizabethan grammar schools to very promising pupils; but such coincidences as have been detected between expressions in Greek plays and in Shakespeare seem due to accident, and not to any study, either at school or elsewhere, of the Athenian drama. 

Dr. Farmer enunciated in his ‘Essay on Shakespeare’s Learning’ (1767) the theory that Shakespeare knew no language but his own, and owed whatever knowledge he displayed of the classics and of Italian and French literature to English translations.  But several of the books in French and Italian whence Shakespeare derived the plots of his dramas—Belleforest’s ‘Histoires Tragiques,’ Ser Giovanni’s ‘Il Pecorone,’ and Cinthio’s ‘Hecatommithi,’ for example—were not accessible to him in English translations; and on more general grounds the theory of his ignorance is adequately confuted.  A boy with Shakespeare’s exceptional alertness of intellect, during whose schooldays a training in Latin classics lay within reach, could hardly lack in future years all means of access to the literature of France and Italy.

The poet’s classical equipment.

With the Latin and French languages, indeed, and with many Latin poets of the school curriculum, Shakespeare in his writings openly acknowledged his acquaintance.  In ‘Henry V’ the dialogue in many scenes is carried on in French, which is grammatically accurate if not idiomatic.  In the mouth of his schoolmasters, Holofernes in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and Sir Hugh Evans in ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ Shakespeare placed Latin phrases drawn directly from Lily’s grammar, from the ‘Sententiæ Pueriles,’ and from ‘the good old Mantuan.’  The influence of Ovid, especially the ‘Metamorphoses,’ was apparent throughout his earliest literary work, both poetic and dramatic, and is discernible in the ‘Tempest,’ his latest play (v. i. 33 seq.)  In the Bodleian Library there is a copy of the Aldine edition of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ (1502), and on the title is the signature Wm. She., which experts have declared—not quite conclusively—to be a genuine autograph of the poet.  Ovid’s Latin text was certainly not unfamiliar to him, but his closest adaptations of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ often reflect the phraseology of the popular English version by Arthur Golding, of which some seven editions were issued between 1565 and 1597.  From Plautus Shakespeare drew the plot of the ‘Comedy of Errors,’ but it is just possible that Plautus’s comedies, too, were accessible in English.  Shakespeare had no title to rank as a classical scholar, and he did not disdain a liberal use of translations.  His lack of exact scholarship fully accounts for the ‘small Latin and less Greek’ with which he was credited by his scholarly friend, Ben Jonson.  But Aubrey’s report that ‘he understood Latin pretty well’ need not be contested, and his knowledge of French may be estimated to have equalled his knowledge of Latin, while he doubtless possessed just sufficient acquaintance with Italian to enable him to discern the drift of an Italian poem or novel.

Shakespeare and the Bible.

Of the few English books accessible to him in his schooldays, the chief was the English Bible, either in the popular Genevan version, first issued in a complete form in 1560, or in the Bishops’ revision of 1568, which the Authorised Version of 1611 closely followed.  References to scriptural characters and incidents are not conspicuous in Shakespeare’s plays, but, such as they are, they are drawn from all parts of the Bible, and indicate that general acquaintance with the narrative of both Old and New Testaments which a clever boy would be certain to acquire either in the schoolroom or at church on Sundays.  Shakespeare quotes or adapts biblical phrases with far greater frequency than he makes allusion to episodes in biblical history.  But many such phrases enjoyed proverbial currency, and others, which were more recondite, were borrowed from Holinshed’s ‘Chronicles’ and secular works whence he drew his plots.  As a rule his use of scriptural phraseology, as of scriptural history, suggests youthful reminiscence and the assimilative tendency of the mind in a stage of early development rather than close and continuous study of the Bible in adult life.

Withdrawal from school.

Shakespeare was a schoolboy in July 1575, when Queen Elizabeth made a progress through Warwickshire on a visit to her favourite, the Earl of Leicester, at his castle of Kenilworth.  References have been detected in Oberon’s vision in Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (II. ii. 148-68) to the fantastic pageants and masques with which the Queen during her stay was entertained in Kenilworth Park.  Leicester’s residence was only fifteen miles from Stratford, and it is possible that Shakespeare went thither with his father to witness some of the open-air festivities; but two full descriptions which were published in 1576, in pamphlet form, gave Shakespeare knowledge of all that took place. Shakespeare’s opportunities of recreation outside Stratford were in any case restricted during his schooldays.  His father’s financial difficulties grew steadily, and they caused his removal from school at an unusually early age.  Probably in 1577, when he was thirteen, he was enlisted by his father in an effort to restore his decaying fortunes.  ‘I have been told heretofore,’ wrote Aubrey, ‘by some of the neighbours that when he was a boy he exercised his father’s trade,’ which, according to the writer, was that of a butcher.  It is possible that John’s ill-luck at the period compelled him to confine himself to this occupation, which in happier days formed only one branch of his business.  His son may have been formally apprenticed to him.  An early Stratford tradition describes him as ‘a butcher’s apprentice.’  ‘When he kill’d a calf,’ Aubrey proceeds less convincingly, ‘he would doe it in a high style and make a speech.  There was at that time another butcher’s son in this towne, that was held not at all inferior to him for a naturall witt, his acquaintance, and coetanean, but dyed young.’

The poet’s marriage.

At the end of 1582 Shakespeare, when little more than eighteen and a half years old, took a step which was little calculated to lighten his father’s anxieties.  He married.  His wife, according to the inscription on her tombstone, was his senior by eight years.  Rowe states that she ‘was the daughter of one Hathaway, said to have been a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford.’

Richard Hathaway of Shottery.  Anne Hathaway.

On September 1, 1581, Richard Hathaway, ‘husbandman’ of Shottery, a hamlet in the parish of Old Stratford, made his will, which was proved on July 9, 1582, and is now preserved at Somerset House.  His house and land, ‘two and a half virgates,’ had been long held in copyhold by his family, and he died in fairly prosperous circumstances.  His wife Joan, the chief legatee, was directed to carry on the farm with the aid of her eldest son, Bartholomew, to whom a share in its proceeds was assigned.  Six other children—three sons and three daughters—received sums of money; Agnes, the eldest daughter, and Catherine, the second daughter, were each allotted £6 13s. 4d, ‘to be paid at the day of her marriage,’ a phrase common in wills of the period.  Anne and Agnes were in the sixteenth century alternative spellings of the same Christian name; and there is little doubt that the daughter ‘Agnes’ of Richard Hathaway’s will became, within a few months of Richard Hathaway’s death, Shakespeare’s wife.

Anne Hathaway’s cottage.

The house at Shottery, now known as Anne Hathaway’s cottage, and reached from Stratford by field-paths, undoubtedly once formed part of Richard Hathaway’s farmhouse, and, despite numerous alterations and renovations, still preserves many features of a thatched farmhouse of the Elizabethan period.  The house remained in the Hathaway family till 1838, although the male line became extinct in 1746.  It was purchased in behalf of the public by the Birthplace trustees in 1892.

The bond against impediments.

No record of the solemnisation of Shakespeare’s marriage survives.  Although the parish of Stratford included Shottery, and thus both bride and bridegroom were parishioners, the Stratford parish register is silent on the subject.  A local tradition, which seems to have come into being during the present century, assigns the ceremony to the neighbouring hamlet or chapelry of Luddington, of which neither the chapel nor parish registers now exist.  But one important piece of documentary evidence directly bearing on the poet’s matrimonial venture is accessible.  In the registry of the bishop of the diocese (Worcester) a deed is extant wherein Fulk Sandells and John Richardson, ‘husbandmen of Stratford,’ bound themselves in the bishop’s consistory court, on November 28, 1582, in a surety of £40, to free the bishop of all liability should a lawful impediment—‘by reason of any precontract’ [i.e. with a third party] or consanguinity—be subsequently disclosed to imperil the validity of the marriage, then in contemplation, of William Shakespeare with Anne Hathaway.  On the assumption that no such impediment was known to exist, and provided that Anne obtained the consent of her ‘friends,’ the marriage might proceed ‘with once asking of the bannes of matrimony betwene them.’

Bonds of similar purport, although differing in significant details, are extant in all diocesan registries of the sixteenth century.  They were obtainable on the payment of a fee to the bishop’s commissary, and had the effect of expediting the marriage ceremony while protecting the clergy from the consequences of any possible breach of canonical law.  But they were not common, and it was rare for persons in the comparatively humble position in life of Anne Hathaway and young Shakespeare to adopt such cumbrous formalities when there was always available the simpler, less expensive, and more leisurely method of marriage by ‘thrice asking of the banns.’  Moreover, the wording of the bond which was drawn before Shakespeare’s marriage differs in important respects from that adopted in all other known examples. In the latter it is invariably provided that the marriage shall not take place without the consent of the parents or governors of both bride and bridegroom.  In the case of the marriage of an ‘infant’ bridegroom the formal consent of his parents was absolutely essential to strictly regular procedure, although clergymen might be found who were ready to shut their eyes to the facts of the situation and to run the risk of solemnising the marriage of an ‘infant’ without inquiry as to the parents’ consent.  The clergyman who united Shakespeare in wedlock to Anne Hathaway was obviously of this easy temper.  Despite the circumstance that Shakespeare’s bride was of full age and he himself was by nearly three years a minor, the Shakespeare bond stipulated merely for the consent of the bride’s ‘friends,’ and ignored the bridegroom’s parents altogether.  Nor was this the only irregularity in the document.  In other pre-matrimonial covenants of the kind the name either of the bridegroom himself or of the bridegroom’s father figures as one of the two sureties, and is mentioned first of the two.  Had the usual form been followed, Shakespeare’s father would have been the chief party to the transaction in behalf of his ‘infant’ son.  But in the Shakespeare bond the sole sureties, Sandells and Richardson, were farmers of Shottery, the bride’s native place.  Sandells was a ‘supervisor’ of the will of the bride’s father, who there describes him as ‘my trustie friende and neighbour.’

Birth of a daughter.

The prominence of the Shottery husbandmen in the negotiations preceding Shakespeare’s marriage suggests the true position of affairs.  Sandells and Richardson, representing the lady’s family, doubtless secured the deed on their own initiative, so that Shakespeare might have small opportunity of evading a step which his intimacy with their friend’s daughter had rendered essential to her reputation.  The wedding probably took place, without the consent of the bridegroom’s parents—it may be without their knowledge—soon after the signing of the deed.  Within six months—in May 1583—a daughter was born to the poet, and was baptised in the name of Susanna at Stratford parish church on the 26th.

Formal betrothal probably dispensed with.

Shakespeare’s apologists have endeavoured to show that the public betrothal or formal ‘troth-plight’ which was at the time a common prelude to a wedding carried with it all the privileges of marriage.  But neither Shakespeare’s detailed description of a betrothal nor of the solemn verbal contract that ordinarily preceded marriage lends the contention much support.  Moreover, the whole circumstances of the case render it highly improbable that Shakespeare and his bride submitted to the formal preliminaries of a betrothal.  In that ceremony the parents of both contracting parties invariably played foremost parts, but the wording of the bond precludes the assumption that the bridegroom’s parents were actors in any scene of the hurriedly planned drama of his marriage.

A difficulty has been imported into the narration of the poet’s matrimonial affairs by the assumption of his identity with one ‘William Shakespeare,’ to whom, according to an entry in the Bishop of Worcester’s register, a license was issued on November 27, 1582 (the day before the signing of the Hathaway bond), authorising his marriage with Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton.  The theory that the maiden name of Shakespeare’s wife was Whateley is quite untenable, and it is unsafe to assume that the bishop’s clerk, when making a note of the grant of the license in his register, erred so extensively as to write Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton’ for ‘Anne Hathaway of Shottery.’  The husband of Anne Whateley cannot reasonably be identified with the poet.  He was doubtless another of the numerous William Shakespeares who abounded in the diocese of Worcester.  Had a license for the poet’s marriage been secured on November 27, it is unlikely that the Shottery husbandmen would have entered next day into a bond ‘against impediments,’ the execution of which might well have been demanded as a preliminary to the grant of a license but was wholly supererogatory after the grant was made.