1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > Shakespeare's Father. His Early Prosperity.

William Shakespeare
(Part 17)


Shakespeare's Father. His Early Prosperity.

The poet's father was evidently a man of energy, ambition, and public spirit, with the knowledge and ability requisite for pushing his fortune with fair success in his new career. His youthful vigour and intelligence soon told in his favour, and in a short time we find him taking an active part in public affairs. He made way so rapidly indeed amongst his fellow-townsmen, that within five years after entering Stratford he is recognized as a fitting recipient of municipal honours; and his official appointments steadily rise in dignity and value through the various gradations of leet-juror, ale-taster, constable, affeeror, burgess, chamberlain, and alderman, until in 1568 he gains the most distinguished post of official dignity, that of high-bailiff or mayor of the town.

Within twenty years after starting in business in Henley Street he thus rises to the highest place in the direction of municipal affairs, presiding as their head over the deliberations of his fellow aldermen and burgesses, and as chief magistrate over the local court of record.

Three years later, in 1571, he was again elected as chief alderman.

There is ample evidence, too, that during these years he advanced in material prosperity as well as in municipal dignities and honours. As early as 1556 he had means at his command which enabled him to purchase two houses in the town, one in Henley Street with a considerable garden, and another in Greenhill Street with a garden and croft attached to it.

In the following year he married an heiress of gentle birth, Mary Arden of the Asbies, who had recently inherited under her father's will a substantial sum of ready money, an estate at Wilmcote, consisting of nearly 60 acres of land with two or three houses, and a reversionary interest in houses and lands at Snitterfield, including the farm tenanted by Richard Shakespeare, her husband's father.

Being now a landed proprietor and a man of rising position and influence, John Shakespeare would be able to extend his business operations, and it is clear that he did so, though whether always with due prudence and foresight may be fairly questioned. To a man of his sanguine and somewhat impetuous temper the sudden increase of wealth was probably by no means an unmixed good.

But for some years, at all events, he was able to maintain his more prosperous state, and his new ventures appear for a time to have turned out well. He is designated in official documents as yeoman, freeholder, and gentleman, and has the epithet "master" prefixed to his name; this, being equivalent to esquire, was rarely used except in relation to men of means and station, possessing landed property of their own. In a note to another official document it is stated that about the time of his becoming chief magistrate of Stratford John Shakespeare had "lands and tenements of good worth and substance" estimated in value at £500, and though there may be some exaggeration in this estimate his property from various sources must have been worth nearly that sum. And in 1575 he increased the total amount by purchasing two houses in Henley Street, the two that still remain identified with the name and are consecrated by tradition as the birthplace of the poet.

But this was his last purchase, the tide of his hitherto prosperous fortunes being but too clearly already on the turn. Having passed the highest point of social and commercial success, he was now facing the downward slope, and the descent once begun was for some years continuous, and at times alarmingly and almost inscrutably rapid.

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