1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > Reversal of Fortune of Shakespeare's Father

William Shakespeare
(Part 18)


Reversal of Fortune of Shakespeare's Father

It seems clear indeed from the facts of the case that, notwithstanding John Shakespeare's intelligence, activity, and early success, there was some defect of character which introduced an element of instability into his career, and in the end very much neutralized the working of his nobler powers. Faintly discernible perhaps from the first, and overpowered only for a time by the access of prosperity that followed his fortunate marriage, this vital flaw ultimately produced its natural fruit in the serious embarrassments that clouded his later years.

The precise nature of the defect can only be indicated in general terms, but it seems to have consisted very much in a want of measure and balance, of adequate care and foresight, in his business dealings and calculations. He seems to have possessed the eager sanguine temperament which, absorbed in the immediate object of pursuit, overlooks difficulties and neglects the wider considerations on which lasting success depends.

Even in his early years' at Stratford there are signs of this ardent, impatient, somewhat unheedful temper. He is not only active and pushing, but too restless and excitable to pay proper attention to necessary details, or discharge with punctuality the minor duties of his position.

The first recorded fact in his local history illustrates this feature of his character. In April 1552 John Shakespeare is fined twelve pence, equal to between eight and ten shillings of our English money now, for not removing the heap of household dirt and refuse that had accumulated in front of his own door. Another illustration of his want of thorough method and system in the management of his affairs is supplied by the fact that in the years 1556-57 he allowed himself to be sued in the bailiff's court for comparatively small debts. This could not have arisen from any want of means, as during the same period, in October 1556, he made the purchase already referred to of two houses with extensive gardens.

The actions for debt must therefore have been the result of negligence or temper on John Shakespeare's part, and either alternative tells almost equally against his habits of business coolness and regularity.

Another illustration of his restless, ill-considered, and unbalanced energy may be found in the number and variety of occupations which he seems to have added to his early trade of glover and leather-dealer. As his prospects improved he appears to have seized on fresh branches of business, until he had included within his grasp the whole circle of agricultural products that could in any way be brought to market. It would seem also that he added farming, to a not inconsiderable extent, to his expanding retail business in Stratford.

But it is equally clear that he lacked the orderly method, the comprehensive outlook, and the vigilant care for details essential for holding well in hand the threads of so complicated a commercial web.

Other disturbing forces may probably be discovered in the pride and ambition, the love of social excitement and display, which appear to be among the ground notes of John Shakespeare's character so far as it is revealed to us in the few facts of his history. His strong social feeling and love of pleasurable excitement are illustrated by the fact that during the year of his mayoralty he brought companies of players into the town, and inaugurated dramatic performances in the guild hall. It is during the year of his filling the post of high-bailiff that we first hear of stage plays at Stratford, and the players must have visited the town, if not, as is most likely, at the invitation and desire of the poet's father, at least with his sanction and support. In such cases the players could not act at all without the permission of the mayor and council, and their first performance was usually a free entertainment, patronized and paid for by the corporation and called the mayor’s play.

In all this John Shakespeare took the initiative, and in so doing probably helped to decide the future career of his son.

The notes of personal pride and social ambition are equally apparent. It is on record, for example, that soon after reaching the highest post of municipal distinction the poet's father applied to the heralds' college far a grant of arms. This application was not at the time successful, but it seems to have been so far seriously entertained that official inquiries were made into the family history and social standing of the Shakespeares.

But the remarkable fact is that such an application should have been made at all by a Stratford burgess whose position and prospects were so unstable and precarious as the events of the next few years showed these of John Shakespeare to be.

At the time of the application his increasing family must have enlarged his household expenses, while his official position, combined with his open and generous nature, his love of social sympathy, distinction, and support, would probably have led him into habits of free-handed hospitality and inconsiderate expenditure.

All this must have helped to introduce a scale of lavish domestic outlay that would tend directly to hasten the financial collapse in his affairs that speedily followed. And on finding things going against him John Shakespeare was just the man to discount his available resources, and, as the pressure increased, mortgage his future and adopt any possible expedient for maintaining the increased part and social consequence he had imprudently assumed.

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