Unknown Shakespeare records found in The National Archives

  • Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Twenty-one previously unknown documents concerning William Shakespeare's father John, discovered by Roehampton Professor Glyn Parry in The National Archives, throw new light on Shakespeare’s early life and developing political views.

Image - Unknown Shakespeare records found in The National Archives

Between the record of William's baptism in April 1564 and his marriage in December 1582 our knowledge of his life depends on records of his father's business career.

Previous accounts of John's career relied on manuscripts about his business deals, discovered over the last 150 years. They show that professional informers accused John Shakespeare of illegal money-lending and wool-dealing between 1569 and 1572, though scholars have assumed that he settled out of court during William's adolescence.

The 21 new documents show that two informers' cases caused John financial and legal trouble until about 1583, when William was nineteen. They include multiple writs against John and record his debts to the Crown, including one for £132, today valued at £20,000. His property remained at risk of seizure by the Crown, hampering his credit as an entrepreneur. These court cases therefore explain his withdrawal from Stratford civic life in 1577.

The documents also reveal a previously unknown political context for William Shakespeare's early life. Professional informers flourished across England in a corrupt system, which ultimately enriched the Queen and her courtiers. John Shakespeare's victimisation occupied the years William studied at Stratford-upon-Avon Grammar School.

His father's experiences and his studies at school combined to shape the playwright's later sceptical attitude towards power politics, highlighted in recent academic studies of his writings, and in Macbeth, King Lear and Cymbeline.

Glyn Parry, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Roehampton, said: “Very little is known of William Shakespeare's early life and the influences on his writing. These documents now confirm that legal action taken against his father by the Crown influenced his attitude to power politics.”

Dr Katy Mair, Head of Early Modern Records at The National Archives said “Professor Parry's discoveries are of the utmost importance to the historical and literary scholarship of Shakespeare studies, and will greatly enhance our knowledge of this period of Shakespeare's life. It is often believed that there are no new documents relating to Shakespeare left to be found, but Professor Parry has shown that there are still discoveries waiting to be made here in the reading rooms at The National Archives.”

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