1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > Moral Effects of Shakespeare's Father on his Son

William Shakespeare
(Part 19)


Moral Effects of Shakespeare's Father on his Son

This seems to have been the course actually pursued when pecuniary difficulties arose. During the three years that elapsed after his last purchase of house property his affairs became so seriously embarrassed that it was found necessary, if not to sacrifice, at least to jeopardize the most cherished future of the family in order to meet the exigencies of the moment.

In 1578 John and Mary Shakespeare mortgaged for forty pounds their most considerable piece of landed property, the estate of the Asbies. The mortgagee was a family connexion of their own, Edmund Lambert, who had married Mary Shakespeare's sister Joan. The subsequent history of this transaction shows haw bitter must have been the need that induced the Shakespeare to surrender, even for a time and their full control over the ancestral estate.

The next year, however, the pressure, instead of being relieved by the sacrifice, had become still mare urgent, and the only outlying property that remained to meet it was the reversionary interest in the Snitterfield estate. Under a family settlement Mary Shakespeare, on the death of her stepmother, would came into the possession of houses and land at Snitterfield almost equal in value to the Asbies estate. But in 1579 the Shakespeares found it necessary to dispose altogether of this reversionary interest. In that year it was sold to Robert Webb far the sum of forty pounds. The buyer was a nephew of Mary Shakespeare, being the son of Alexander Webb, who had married her sister Margaret. In thus applying to relatives or' family connexions in their need, and disposing of their property to them, the Shakespeares may have hoped it would be more easily regained should times of prosperity return.

The sacrifice of the remaining interests in the Snitterfield property afforded, however, only a temporary relief, quite insufficient to remove the accumulating burden of debt and difficulty which now weighed the Shakespeares down. The notes of the proceedings of the Stratford Corporation and of the local court of record sufficiently show that John Shakespeare's adverse fortune continued through a series of years, and they also enable us in part to understand how he bore himself under the changes in his social position that followed.

These changes begin in the critical year 1578. In January of that year, when his brother aldermen were called upon to pay a considerable sum each as a contribution to the military equipment to be provided by the town, John Shakespeare is so far relieved that only one half the amount is required from him. Later in the year we find him wholly exempted from the weekly tax paid by his fellow-alderman for the relief of the poor. In the spring of the following year, an a further tax for military purposes being laid on the town, he is unable to contribute anything, and is accordingly reported as a defaulter.

A few years later, in an action far a debt, a verdict is recorded against him, with the official report that he had no goods and which distraint could be made.

About the same time he appears to have been under some restraint, if not actually imprisoned for debt. And as late as 1592 it is officially stated, as a result of an inquiry into the number who fail to attend the church service once a month according to the statutory requirement, that John Shakespeare with some others, two of whom, curiously enough, are named Fluellen and Bardolph "came not to church for fear of process for debt."

In the year 1586 another alderman had at length been chosen in his place, the reason given being expressly because "John Shakespeare doth not come to the halles when they are warned, nor hath not done for a long time.

From this brief official record it would seem that under his reverse of fortune he was treated with marked sympathy and consideration by his fellow townsmen. For at least seven years after his troubles first began his fellow-burgesses persist in keeping his name in its place of honour on their roll, partly no doubt as a mark of respect far his character and past services, and partly it may be in the hope that his fortunes might improve and prosperous days return.

And, when at length he is superseded by the appointment of another in his place, this is done, not on the ground of his reduced circumstances, but simply because he voluntarily absents himself from the council, never attends its meetings takes any part in its affairs. This is a noteworthy fact illustrating still further John Shakespeare's character. The statement clearly indicates the kind of moral collapse that had followed the continuous pressure of material reverses.

The eager sanguine nature that had so genially expanded in prosperity was, it is clear, sorely chilled and depressed by adversity. He abandons the usual places of resort, withdraws himself from the meetings of the corporation, and ceases to associate with his fellow-burgesses. And, what is perhaps still mare noticeable, he gives up attending church and no longer even worships with his fellow-townsmen.

All this is the more significant because his circumstances, though seriously embarrassed, and for some years much reduced, were never so desperate as to compel him to part with his freehold property in Henley Street. In the darkest hours of his clouded fortune he still retained the now world-famous houses associated with the poet's birth and early years. There was no. adequate reason therefore why John Shakespeare should have so completely forsaken the usual haunts and regular assemblies of his fellow-townsmen and friends.

But it seems clear, as already intimated, that, while gifted with a good deal of native energy and intelligence, and possessing a temper that was proud, sensitive, and even passionate, John Shakespeare lacked the kind of fortitude and moral courage which enables men to meet serious reverses of fortune with dignity and reserve, if not with cheerfulness and hope. With the instinct of a wounded animal he seems to have left the prosperous herd and retired apart to bear his pain and loss in solitude and alone.

Nor apparently did he hold up his head again until the efficient support of his prosperous son enabled him to take active measures for the recovery of his alienated estate and lost position in the town.

By the middle far the last decade of the 16th century the poet’s success in his professions was thoroughly assured, and he was an the high road to wealth and fame. As actor, dramatist, and probably also as sharer in the Blackfriars theatre, he was in the receipt of a large income, and according to tradition received a considerable sum from the young earl of Southampton, to whom his poems were dedicated.

The son was now therefore as able as he had always been willing to help his father to regain the position of comfort and dignity he had formerly occupied. We find accordingly that in 1597 John and Mary Shakespeare filed a bill in Chancery against John Lambert for the recovery of the Asbies estate, which had been mortgaged to his father nearly twenty years before. There had indeed been same movement in the matter ten years earlier, on the death of Edward Lambert the mortgagee. His son John being apparently anxious to settle the dispute, it was proposed that he should pay an additional sum of twenty pounds in order to convert the mortgage into a sale, and that he should then receive from the Shakespeares an absolute title to the estate. The arrangement was not, however, carried out, and in 1589 John Shakespeare brought a bill of complaint against Lambert in the Court of Queen's Bench. Nothing further, however, seems to have been done, probably because Lambert may have felt that in the low state of the Shakespeare’s fortune the action could not be pressed.

In 1597, however, there was a change in the relative position of the litigants, John Shakespeare having now the purse of his son at his command, and a bill in Chancery was accordingly filed against John Lambert. The plea in support of the Shakespeares' claim was that the original conditions of the mortgage had been fulfilled, the money in discharge having been offered to Edward Lambert at the proper date, but refused by him on the ground that other sums were owing which must also be repaid at the same time. To this plea John Lambert replied, and there is a still further "replication" and part of the Shakespeares. How the matter was eventually decided is not known, no decree of the court in the case having been discovered. But the probabilities are that it was settled out of court, and, as the estate did not return to the Shakespeares, probably and the basis of the proposal already made, --that of the payment far an additional sum by John Lambert.

About the same date, or rather earlier, in 1596, John Shakespeare also renewed his application to the heralds' college far a grant of arms, and this time with success. The grant was made on ground that the history and position of the Shakespeare and Arden families fully entitled the applicant to receive coat armour. There can be no doubt that the means required far supporting these applications were supplied by the poet, and he would be well rewarded by the knowledge that in the evening of his days his father had at length realized the desire of his heart, being officially recognized as a "gentleman of worship."

And, what would now perhaps please his father still better, he would be able to hand on the distinction to his son, whose pr-fession prevented him at the time from gaining it on his own account.

John Shakespeare died in 1601, having through the affectionate care of his son spent the last years of his life in the ease and comfort befitting one who had not only been a prosperous burgess, but chief alderman and mayor of Stratford.

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