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William Shakespeare: father’s legal skirmishes shed light on bard’s early years

Sep 14, 2018 by

Newly found documents in the National Archives show the playwright’s father John was harassed by Crown informers, which may have influenced his attitude to power and class

Long-forgotten documents revealing how William Shakespeare’s entrepreneur father John was victimised by informers who wanted to extract money from him have been discovered in the depths of the UK’s National Archives.

Depicting events which are believed to have shaped the teenage Shakespeare’s attitude to power and morality, later explored in plays from King Lear to Macbeth, the 21 previously unknown documents were discovered by Professor Glyn Parry from the University of Roehampton, and are “of the utmost importance” to our understanding of the playwright, according to the National Archives’ head of early modern records, Dr Katy Mair.

Although William Shakespeare’s baptism is recorded in April 1564, and his marriage in December 1582, further details of the playwright’s early life have had to be gleaned from records of his father John Shakespeare’s colourful career, with previously uncovered manuscripts revealing that John had been accused of illegal moneylending and wool-dealing by professional informers between 1569 and 1572. Scholars have assumed the cases were settled out of court by 1573, but the newly found documents show that John – whose lines of work stretched from glover and leather maker to alderman, magistrate and more – was in financial and legal trouble until around 1583, when William was 19.

Writ of attachias to the Sheriff of Warwickshire to seize [the goods and chattels of] John ‘Shakespere’ of Stratford upon Avon.
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Writ of attachias to the Sheriff of Warwickshire to seize [the goods and chattels of] John ‘Shakespere’ of Stratford upon Avon. Photograph: Crown Copyright, courtesy of The National Archives

Parry, who is co-writing a book about Shakespeare’s life up until 1592, said that until he began digging into the National Archives, 150 years of research had produced fewer than 15 documents relating to John Shakespeare. He was “not happy” with the story that John had settled his prosecution for usury and wool-dealing out of court, around 1573, so delved into the National Archives’ list of Exchequer documents.

He began ordering boxes of documents down from the salt mines in Cheshire where little-used papers are sent for safe-keeping, and started going through the writs for Warwickshire, beginning with the dates of John’s court cases.

Source: William Shakespeare: father’s legal skirmishes shed light on bard’s early years | Books | The Guardian

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