05 December 2011

The shady side of the Stratford man

The 1596 writ charging Shakespeare with making death threats, discovered in Britain's National Archives by the Canadian scholar Leslie Hotson in 1931. The second of the four entries is the one relating to the playwright.

Excerpts from an interesting article about the Stratford man from an article in The Smithsonian:
There is not the least shred of evidence that anybody, in the early years of the Shakespeare cult, bothered to travel to Warwickshire to interview those in Stratford who had known the playwright, even though Shakespeare’s daughter Judith did not die until 1662 and his granddaughter was still alive in 1670. The information that we do have lacks credibility, and some of it appears to be untrue...

But this only makes it all the more remarkable that scholars of Shakespeare have chosen to pretty much ignore one of the very few new documents to emerge from the National Archives over the last century. It is an obscure legal paper, unearthed from a set of ancient sheets of vellum known as “sureties of the peace”, and it not only names Shakespeare but lists a number of his close associates. The document portrays the “gentle Shakespeare” that we met in high school English class as a dangerous thug; indeed, it has been plausibly suggested that it proves he was heavily involved in organized crime...

"Be it known," the Latin text begins,
that William Wayte craves sureties [guarantees] of the peace against William Shakspere, Francis Langley, Dorothy Soer wife of John Soer, and Anne Lee, for fear of death, and so forth. Writ of attachment issued by the sheriff of Surrey, returnable on the eighteenth of St Martin [November 29, 1596].
The scholar who unearthed the document—an indefatigable Canadian by the name of Leslie Hotson, best remembered today as the man who first stumbled across the records of the inquest into the highly mysterious murder of Shakespeare’s fellow playwright, Christopher Marlowe—uncovered a squalid tale of gangland rivalries in the theatrical underworld of Queen Elizabeth’s day...

Shakespeare was obliged to begin his career on a lowly rung, working for disreputable theater people—which, at that time, was generally regarded as akin to working in a brothel... Most biographers suggest his first employer was Philip Henslowe, who became wealthy as much from his work as a brothel landlord as he did as a theatrical impresario. Nor was the playwright’s next boss, Langley, much of a step up. Langley, as Hotson’s minutely careful research shows, had made much of his fortune by crooked means, and was the subject of a lengthy charge sheet that included allegations of violence and extortion... Langley’s most dangerous opponent was William Wayte, the man who accused Shakespeare of threatening him...

Biographers who have made mention of the writ’s discovery since Hotson made it in 1931 have tended to dismiss it. Shakespeare must simply have got caught up in some quarrel as a friend of Langley’s, they suggest–on very little evidence, but with the certainty that the author of Hamlet could never have been some sort of criminal... This seems almost willful distortion of the evidence, which seems fairly unambiguously to show that the playwright—who is named first in the writ–was directly involved in the dispute....

There is plenty of evidence elsewhere that Shakespeare was somewhat less than a sensitive poet and entirely honest citizen. Legal records show that him dodging from rented room to rented room while defaulting on a few shillings’ worth of tax payments in 1596, 1598 and 1599... That Will Shakespeare was somehow involved in the low-life rackets of Southwark seems, from Hotson’s evidence, reasonably certain... It is tempting to speculate, however, whether the profits that paid for such an opulent residence came from Will’s writing–or from a sideline as strong-arm man to an extortionist.
More at the Smithsonian, where the relevant sources are listed.  And this sentence: "There is not the least shred of evidence that anybody, in the early years of the Shakespeare cult, bothered to travel to Warwickshire to interview those in Stratford who had known the playwright" is worth discussing in detaiil in a blogpost separately at some future time.


  1. I'm very interested in the mythological greatness (stature; positive or not) of semi-modern historical figures: Franklin, Shakespeare, Saint Nicolas, Hitler, Washington, Lincoln, etc. Funny how only a few centuries or as little as decades can cause people to forget all the bad or all the good someone has accomplished because of what they are slowly morphed into.

  2. @anon.
    A few decades indeed. Look at the circus surrounding Bill Clinton's shenanigans w. Monica Lewinsky. He was dragged through the mud of a public spectacle (okay, so he was a lying cad) and impeached for what amounts to something thousands of people do everyday. Whereas John F. Kennedy - a known philanderer given to having the secret service herd his harem out of the grotto before the Missus showed up - has been pretty much deified despite doing the same thing. Double standard or tunnel vision?

  3. @Anonymous--Double standard or tunnel vision?

    Neither. Changing standards, in the case of JFK vs. Clinton--both on the part of the GOP (the tactics they were willing to use to damage a Democratic president) and on the part of the media (what was considered OK to publish). And the public too, I suppose. These days we get a kick out of seeing our heroes knocked off their pedestals. There's been plenty of that retrospectively with JFK, BTW.

    And remember that our host is an Oxfordian; he believes it wasn't Shakespeare who wrote the plays attributed to him, so he's not displeased to see the bard charged with low behavior.

    --Swift Loris

  4. Why anyone would want to interview Shakespeare's surviving relatives in the decades after his death is beyond me. No one would be interested in doing so - celebrity as we understand it didn't exist. Indeed even in the 1660's 'Shakespeare' was seldom acted and those plays that were performed were usually rewritten to improve them for Restoration audiences.

    By the way the article referenced is so badly written as to lose credibility.

  5. I find it interesting that we know so much more about the lives of other artists than we do about Shakespeare. Michelangelo, for instance, died in 1564, the same year Shakespeare was born, yet we know quite a bit about his life. There are lots of artists, even from centuries before Shakespeare, whose lives are well-documented.

    The only reason I can think for why no one bothered to learn more about Shakespeare when he was alive or shortly after his death is because he was not considered to be noteworthy: Kind of lends credence to the idea that he didn't write all those plays.

  6. The reason we know so much abut Michelangelo is that he was considered to be the greatest artist of his lifetime - DURING his lifetime. He had two biographies written while he was still alive, the best-known of which is from Giorgio Vasari's "Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, from Cimabue to the Present" (usually shortened to "The Lives"). He received commissions from Popes and some of the most powerful people of his day, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous.
    Theatre people, on the other hand, were generally regarded as barely a step above prostitutes, beggars and other "disreputables". Would you expect contemporary scholars or historians - let alone the general populace - to know (or even care) about someone from such a field? They would have been laughed out of their academies!

  7. It kind of explains why Shakespeare left London for the sticks and never wrote another play - he had to git out of town before someone waxed him.

  8. This seems eminently possible to me. I imagine actors, playwrights, beggars, prostitutes, circus folk, and street performers of all kinds were heavily involved with crime (both organized and unorganized). It was a hardscrabble life. Whatever confidence game or thuggery put food on the table was probably appealing.

  9. So, I just finished "Contested Will" by James Shapiro (professor of comparative literature at Columbia). He is pretty certain that Shake-spear of Stratford wrote the plays attributed to him. He pretty much destroys any possibility that de Veres wrote the plays - among other things, de Veres wrote plays under his own name (none performed in the past 4 centuries) so it's fairly unlikely that he would have published the best of them under someone else's name. Also, the author of the plays stopped writing for the Globe after it burned down (many years after de Veres died). Also, de Veres was a pathetic jerk, so hard to believe he could have written any of the plays. And Ben Johnson, the second best playwright of the age, loved Shakxpere, thought he was amazingly clever, and never for a second even hinted that he didn't write the plays. Also, the last few plays have been shown to be collaborations which it's not easy to believe de Veres, a blue blood, would have been willing to participate in with peasants.


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