NOTE: This is the third installment of Irene Pollin’s blog series on William Shakespeare.
In 1587, at age 25, Will Shakespeare went to London. He was forced to leave Stratford after his father John’s successful career as a business man and local elected official came to an end. Much was due to John’s unwillingness to convert; he remained a Catholic despite the enforcement of the Protestant faith by both Queen Elizabeth and King James. In 1592, John was fined for not attending church.
As the eldest son, it was up to Will to help his immediate and extended family. All he had ever done was work for his father. Fortunately, his father’s business and community activities gave him a broad experience. He was unable to be a glover in London due to the tight control of the local guild but he did know money lending and how to make political connections. His father had at various times been elected ale-taster, chamberlain, alderman and mayor. Also, fortunately, as the son of an upper middle class family, he had received a good grammar school education where he sometimes dabbled in poetry.
But once in London, where could he earn money quickly? Other than being a glover, where could he find work? He took many low-level jobs but found his way into the theater which was quite popular at time and strongly supported by both Queen Elizabeth and King James. He joined a group of playwrights that was producing as many as a play a week, not unlike some of the current weekly television episodes. He was getting paid for his writing as well as some acting. Understanding business, he joined other actors and writers as a partner in the company.
Having grown up in a politician’s home, Will understood how to make important high-level contacts. In 1593, he dedicated some poems to the Earl of Southampton who was so taken with Will, that he became his patron for the rest of his life. Southampton was close to King James and although he never met Shakespeare, he was influential in recommending him to court.
When Shakespeare died in Stratford in 1616, he was known locally as a successful
business man, owning the largest house in the town and other real estate. He had also acquired a Shakespeare family crest. As the eldest son, he regained the respect and financial security that his father had lost. Was this more important to him than his reputation as a playwright and poet?
How strange, four hundred years later, we view him as one of the greatest poets in the English language. Which would he have preferred?