William Shakespeare, Gangster
You wouldn’t think it by looking at the long line of Shakespeare biographies on the library shelves, but everything we know for sure about the life of the world’s most revered playwright would fit comfortably on a few pages.
Yes, we know that a man named Will Shakespeare was born in the Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. We know that someone of pretty much the same name married and had children there (the baptismal register says Shaxpere, the marriage bond Shagspere), that he went to London, was an actor. We know that some of the most wonderful plays ever written were published under this man’s name–though we also know so little about his education, experiences and influences that an entire literary industry exists to prove that Shaxpere-Shagspere did not write, could not have written, them. We know that our Shakespeare gave evidence in a single obscure court case, signed a couple of documents, went home to Stratford, made a will and died in 1616.
And that’s just about it.
In one sense, this is not especially surprising. We know as much about Shakespeare as we know about most of his contemporaries–Ben Jonson, for instance, remains such a cipher that we can’t be sure where he was born, to whom, or even exactly when. “The documentation for William Shakespeare is exactly what you would expect of a person of his position at that time,” says David Thomas of Britain’s National Archives. “It seems like a dearth only because we are so intensely interested in him.”
To make matters worse, what does survive tends to be either evidence of dubious quality or material of the driest sort imaginable: fragments from legal records, mostly. The former category includes most of what we think we know about Shakespeare’s character; yet, with the exception of a couple of friends from the theatrical world who made brief mention of him around the time he died, most of the anecdotes that appear in Shakespeare biographies were not collected until decades, and sometimes centuries, after his death. John Aubrey, the noted antiquary and diarist, was among the first of these chroniclers, writing that the playwright’s father was a butcher, and that Shakespeare himself was “a handsome, well shap’t man: very good company, and of a very redie and pleasant smoothe Witt.” He was followed a few years later by the Reverend Richard Davies, who in the 1680s first wrote down the famous anecdote about Shakespeare’s leaving Stratford for London after being caught poaching deer on the lands of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote Park. Yet the sources of both men’s information remain obscure, and Aubrey, in particular, is known for writing down any bit of gossip that came to him.
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; the most recent research suggests that Shakespeare’s father was a wool merchant, not a butcher. He was wealthy enough to have been accused of usury–the loan of money at interest, forbidden to Christians–in 1570.
Read the rest on SmithsonianMag.com.