2 – His father went mysteriously bankrupt
“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.” Escalus in Measure for Measure
We have spoken a little about Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, in the previous section about his religion, but he is worthy of a deep dive all of his own. John Shakespeare lived a life that would befit any play that his famous son wrote, with a fall from grace that equals any Shakespearean tragedy.
John Shakespeare was a wealthy and powerful man at the time that William was born: he was an alderman on Stratford’s town government, a bailiff – then an important role – and the town’s magistrate, before becoming Mayor of Stratford in 1566, when his eldest son was just four years of age. John made his money as a glove maker, but he had plenty of fingers in other pies. He earned far more money than could be expected of a humble glover, largely earned through property dealings, farming, selling wood and grains and, most controversially, money-lending. Usury was a serious business at the time and twice John found himself in court on charges of charging more than the accepted level of interest on loans.
Nevertheless, when William was a child, his father was one of the richest men in the region. He had bought the two adjoining houses to the one in which William was born and knocked them through, making a large home for the family, and he held various important municipal offices. His wife, Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden, was from the local gentry and together, they were something of a power couple. William went to the best school in town and wanted for nothing.
By the time of his adolescence, however, it had all started to unravel. By 1580 – when William was 14 – his father was largely absent from the town council and was eventually stripped of his position as an alderman, while John had also stopped attending church in order to escape his creditors. The elder Shakespeare essentially withdrew from the life of the town, taking no further interest in town affairs and only avoiding persecution because old friends on the council stuck by him. When William’s sister died at the age of 7 in 1578, John paid for a funeral – ostensibly to keep up appearances – but in other financial obligations, he failed.
John Shakespeare’s financial problems are well documented to historians: if there is one thing guaranteed to survive throughout the ages, it is financial records and gravestones, for there is nothing as permanent as death and taxes. How exactly he came to be in such straits, however, is a mystery. Nobody really knows how this once prominent businessman and pillar of the community came to so spectacularly fall from grace, especially when his son was out in the world making such a large name for himself.
Some historians suspect that John, having long supplemented his income via loaning money at high rates of interest, was defaulted upon by those whom he had lent to and thus fell to borrowing himself, creating a downward spiral from which he never emerged. Others have suggested that his position as a suspected recusant Catholic had made his positions in the civic life of Stratford untenable and that many of his previous business partners severed ties with him when he was tainted by the stain of popery.
There is a somewhat happy ending to the story. At the height of his powers, when William was just a child of five years old, John had applied to the College of Arms to be given an official Coat of Arms for the Shakespeare family. Soon after, however, he was unable to maintain the application and it lay dormant for over 25 years, while John endured his hard times back in Stratford. In 1596, when William had made his fortune in London and was at the peak of his powers, he managed to re-apply for the Coat of Arms of the Shakespeare family, and they were granted, allowing John to finally have the heraldry that he always wanted, just a few years before he finally passed away in September of 1601.