Newly Discovered Documents Reveal Details of William Shakespeare's Early Years, Based on His Father's Financial Fall

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Newly discovered documents found in the UK's National Archives reveal that William Shakespeare's father was in deep legal and financial trouble for most of the Bard's childhood, according to The Guardian. The 21 documents, previously unknown to scholars, were discovered in the archives by University of Roehampton Shakespeare historian Glyn Parry during the course of his research for a book about the playwright's early life.

Records had previously shown that William Shakespeare's father, John, an entrepreneur, landlord, and occasional politician, was in trouble with the law during the playwright's youth. He was accused of illegal money lending and wool trading without a license (wool was highly taxed at the time, making it a valuable smuggled good) between 1569 and 1572, when the young William was between around 5 and 8 years old. Scholars assumed that John settled the cases out of court, but these new documents show that his legal woes lasted much longer—up until at least 1583—which no doubt contributed to William's worldview and the topics he wrote about in his plays.

Parry discovered the documents by poring over the National Archives' trove of historical material related to Britain's Exchequer, or royal treasury. He found record of John Shakespeare's debts and writs against him, including ones authorizing sheriffs to arrest him and seize his property for the Queen as punishment for his crimes. He owed a sizable sum to the Crown, according to these documents, including a debt of £132, or in 2018 dollars, about $26,300 (£20,000).


Writ of capias to Sheriff of Warwickshire to seize John ‘Shackispere’ of Stratford upon Avon
Crown Copyright, courtesy of The National Archives, UK

John Shakespeare's crimes against the Crown were reported by professional informants, known as "common informers," who, within the Exchequer system, were entitled to half of the goods seized from the person they helped convict. The system, unsurprisingly, was riddled with corruption, and informers would often attempt to extort bribes from their victims in exchange for not taking them to court.

John's legal jeopardy damaged his financial standing within the community where he had served as a constable, an alderman, and a high bailiff (a position similar to town mayor). The government could seize his property at any time, including wool he bought on credit or money he had loaned to other people, making him a risky person for people to do business with.

"So John Shakespeare fell victim to a perfectly legal kind of persecution, which ruined his business through the 1570s, and William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank," Parry explained to The Guardian. This no doubt influenced his view of power, social standing, and money, all subjects he would explore in detail in his plays.

[h/t The Guardian]

Can You Identify the Classic Novel by Its Opening Lines?

Annotations in Copy of Shakespeare's First Folio May Have Been John Milton's

GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images
GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images

It's a well-known literary fact that William Shakespeare had an enormous influence on "Paradise Lost" poet John Milton, and new evidence suggests that super fan Milton—who even wrote a poem called "On Shakespeare"—might have owned his idol's first folio.

The folio, which contains 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, was published in 1623—seven years after the Bard’s death. An estimated 750 first folios were printed, with only 233 of them known to have survived, including one with annotations written throughout it. As it turns out, those scribbles might be Milton's.

According to The Guardian, Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren believes that Milton wrote those important annotations. Scott-Warren read an article about an anonymous annotator written by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. The Folio copy in question has been stored in the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1944, and Bourne was able to date the annotator back to the mid-1600s. (Milton died in 1674.) It was Scott-Warren who noticed that the handwritten notes looked similar to Milton’s handwriting.

"It shows you the firsthand encounter between two great writers, which you don’t often get to see, especially in this period,” Scott-Warren told The Guardian. “A lot of that kind of evidence is lost, so that’s really exciting.”

If the writing does indeed belong to Milton, it’s not the first time the poet has left notes on another writer's work; he supposedly marked up his copy of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Life of Dante as well. Scott-Warren and Bourne plan to pair up to find out if Milton left annotations on any other notable works.

"It was, until a few days ago, simply too much to hope that Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare might have survived—and yet the evidence here so far is persuasive,” Dr. Will Poole, a fellow and tutor at Oxford's New College said. "This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times."

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