William Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate the Bard’s complex views on power, monarchy and social status. But how he developed those ideas and what experiences may have influenced him are hard to figure out since we know almost nothing about his childhood and upbringing. Alison Flood at the Guardian reports that newly discovered documents relating to his father, John Shakespeare, however, show that legal and financial trouble with the government throughout the writer's teen years may have shaped the young playwright.
Shakespeare’s father was known to be a glovemaker, but he also worked as a wool-dealer and informal money-lender, occupations that got him in trouble with the law. Government informers accused him of illegal activity in those trades between the years of 1569 and 1572. It was long thought that the elder Shakespeare settled those accusations out of court by 1573, when his son would have been 9, but 21 newly discovered documents found by historian Glyn Parry of the University of Roehampton show the legal cases dragged on until his son was 19, meaning Shakespeare spent his formative years in a household facing constant legal and financial strife.
The trove of documents is incredible considering that prior to these finds scholars had tracked down a scant 15 documents associated with Shakespeare’s father. But Parry went deep, literally. For a new book he’s co-authoring on the Bard’s early life, he began requesting boxes of documents from the U.K.’s National Archives stored in a salt mine in Cheshire. He laboriously went through the materials related to the Exchequer, which are not indexed, searching for mentions of the elder Shakespeare.
“I had identified just over 100 possible boxes, and inside each box there could be between 100 and 1,000 writs and associated documents, depending on how many had survived,” he tells Flood. “Quite quickly I turned up one writ, then more, working through May into early June. In August I found more … It was very exciting to have an educated hunch pay off ... It’s a bit like that Christmas morning feeling as a child, unwrapping the box and finding the perfect, longed-for present.”
The writs and other documents show that the merchant remained in debt to the Crown for many years, and his belongings, business and property were at risk for seizure by the government. John Shakespeare's woes came at the hands of professional informers. Under the “common informer system,” non-deputized members of the public were empowered to accuse other people of illegal activity. If the accused was convicted and their goods seized, the informer split the purse with the Crown. This system led to a semi-professional class of informers, who were often crooked and self-serving. In many cases, those accused by informers settled quickly, but Parry tells Flood that for some reason John Shakespeare’s cases were not resolved post haste, dragging on for over a decade, likely ruining his credit and threatening his businesses. According to a university press release, the problems explain why John Shakespeare, who served a magistrate and alder, withdrew from civic life in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1577.
It also sheds light on the environment the younger Shakespeare grew up in. Such lessons would have been reinforced at school where he would have been studying authors like Horace, Livy and Tacitus who regretted the decline of morality and rule of law under the Roman Empire and spoke out against corrupt officials. “I think this laid the background for William’s understanding of politics in the period. He was sensitized to this kind of behavior,” Parry tells Jack Malvern at The Times.
The press release points to recent academic studies of Macbeth, King Lear and Cymbeline that further expose Shakespeare’s skeptical attitude toward power politics. “There’s a deep desire for justice and equity, not the strict letter of the law, that runs through all his writing, and a critical view of the pretensions of the mighty,” Parry tells the Guardian’s Flood.
Even more exciting, the new documents suggest that there is still more out there to be found that could illuminate Shakespeare’s early life. “It is often believed that there are no new documents relating to Shakespeare left to be found,” Katy Mair, head of Early Modern Records at U.K.’s National Archives, says in the release, “but Professor Parry has shown that there are still discoveries waiting to be made here in the reading rooms at the National Archives.”