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Researcher Unearths a Trove of New Shakespeare Documents

Archival papers show the Bard was interested in improving his social status

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smithsonian.com

There are many aspects of William Shakespeare’s world that modern readers might find confusing, such as the importance of heraldry. Earning—and being able to afford—an official crest was a sign that a family was respectable, and often came with the title of “gentleman.” “It’s an early form of brand management,” Heather Wolfe, a curator at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., tells Sadie Dingfelder at The Washington Post. “You pay a lot of money to get this logo created and you put it on everything.”

Shakespeare was not above the desire to raise his status either, as new documents uncovered by Wolfe show. It’s been known for a long time that Shakespeare’s father, John, made an application to the College of Arms, the body in charge of vetting families and granting arms. His son pursued the issue, Sylvia Morris at The Shakespeare Blog reports, eventually getting a coat of arms for his family in 1596 based on his great-grandfather’s military service and John Shakespeare’s tenure as Bailiff of Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Wolfe went digging through the archives of the College of Arms looking for more details about the Shakespeare family, uncovering a dozen new records relating to Shakespeare’s coat-of-arms application. Considering how little the world knows about the Bard, this is a bonanza for Shakespeare scholars.

Many of the documents refer to him as Shakespeare “the player” or “the actor,” more evidence that Shakespeare indeed wrote the plays attributed to him. “It’s always been clear that Shakespeare of Stratford and ‘Shakespeare the player’ were one and the same,” Columbia University Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro tells Schuessler. “But if you hold the documents Heather has discovered together, that is the smoking gun.”

Even more, the documents indicate that Shakespeare, like other men of his age, was interested in gaining social respect and legitimacy. “It makes it abundantly clear that while Shakespeare was obtaining the arms on behalf of his father, it was really for his own status,” Wolfe tells Schuessler.

Dingfelder writes that the Shakespeare crest includes a falcon holding a spear mounted on a yellow shield with a diagonal black stripe across it. In that stripe is another spear, with a tip that look looks almost like a pen nib. The motto underneath reads, “Non sanz droict” or "Not without right."

The granting of arms wasn’t without controversy. Morris writes that in 1602, an official at the College of Arms accused 23 people granted arms in the preceding few years of being “base persons” and not worthy of the honor. Shakespeare was singled out for being an actor, which was not a respectable occupation during his time. There is no evidence, however, that the arms were rescinded.

After the grant, Shakespeare began using the title “Gentleman,” and the crest appears on his monument at Stratford and is carved on a chair he and his wife Anne Hathaway owned. Schuessler also reports a bit of the crest can be seen on a wax seal used on the will of Elizabeth Barnard, Shakespeare’s granddaughter and his last direct descendent who died in 1670.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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