In my last blog, I promised more to come on “Shaking up Shakespeare.” Sorry about the delay but the more I thought about my basic question—“How could William Shakespeare know so much about the minds, thoughts, and activities of royalty and the people who surrounded them?” —the more I needed to know about him as a person?”
As I soon discovered, however, there was very little about his early years in Stratford on Avon but there was a lot about his father, John Shakespeare, who was a successful businessman, respected local politician, and at various times, an alderman and a mayor.
His businesses included making gloves, wool trading and money lending. He was also married to the daughter of a wealthy landowner and occasionally dealt in real estate.
Then, quite by accident, a photograph caught my eye. It was a picture of a beautiful, white, soft leather woman’s glove, opera length and heavily encrusted in multi-colored stones. Were these the type of gloves that John produced in his shop? Then I saw more pictures of men’s gloves intricately decorated with gold leaf. During that period in England, these gloves were enormously fashionable, particularly during Elizabeth and James’s reign—not only for royalty but also for members of the court and upper classes.
The glove workshop was attached to John’s house and all eight of his children were expected to work there. William worked there up to the time he left for London, around age twenty-five.
As the eldest son of a successful and well-connected local man, he attended a good Latin school and wrote some sonnets while there. Additionally, he was the grandson of a wealthy, well-known landowner on his mother’s side.
But, for me, the primary clue to Will’s background was his experience in his father’s workshop: not only learning how to make luxurious gloves but also getting to know the people who bought and wore them. Since these custom gloves required numerous fittings before completion, I can imagine the time spent with royal staff and possibly even the customers themselves. I can almost hear the many conversations and gossip that took place over the years between these groups.
Since he worked in his father’s shop until he left for London, he must have become acquainted with a number of people who were part of Queen Elizabeth’s court.
Did this intimate contact affect the way that Will saw his place in society? He was the eldest son of a very important man in his town. Was he possibly a “spoiled playboy” when he got an “older woman,” Anne Hathaway, pregnant? They quickly married and moved into his parent’s home. Was that a (potential) embarrassment for this highly regarded local family?
The scandal was manageable until his family got caught between the major religious transition that was taking place at the time, from Catholic to Protestant. Will’s family remained Catholic, ultimately causing his father to lose everything: his business as well as his political stature.
With so many people dependent on the income of John’s numerous businesses and government positions, and Will’s young family, by now expanding to three children, pressure was on the eldest son to find another source of income. He goes to London, but at age 25, what was he prepared to do?