Will Shakespeare's Social Climb
“We’re movin’ on up to the east side,
To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Movin’ on up to the east side;
We finally got a piece of the pie.” (Theme song of “The Jeffersons”)
The story of Will and his father, John Shakespeare, is the story of two men who struggled to leave the low position they had been born into and to “move on up” to a higher class. To that degree they were both lifelong social climbers.
Let’s talk for a moment about social class in Elizabethan England. The rank both Will and his dad sought was “Gentleman.” That word did not then mean someone who held doors open for ladies. “Gentleman” was a legal rank. If you were born into it, you were fortunate. If you weren’t, if you were born into a lower class – as were both Will and his father – moving on up to that grade was extremely difficult.
John Shakespeare spent a good portion of his life trying, but he never made it.
The Elizabethan hierarchy was rigid, and carefully spelled out. The pecking order went like this: the Sovereign at the top, followed by Duke, Earl, Viscount, Baron and Knight. That was the nobility.
Below this came the rank the Shakespeare men aspired to: Gentleman. Legally, a gentleman was a person of good birth and independent means, and neither Shakespeare, pere or fils, fit that description. You could officially became a “Gentleman” when a coat of arms was granted to you by the College of Heralds.
As far as “good birth” was concerned, William Shakespeare knew well that if anyone were to investigate his family, the truth would come out: his father had begun life in a very low position – in fact, at just about the bottom of the barrel.
John Shakespeare had been a farmer, but not really. The word “farmer” implies someone with a farm; young John S. had been merely a share-cropper, a farm hand, working on a rich man’s farm. There had been no school in John’s home town, Snitterfield, so he was probably illiterate.
Not content with raising crops and pasturing herds, John left the farm and moved to Stratford to learn a trade and open a business. To work as a craftsman you had to spend seven years as apprentice; John did this to become a glover, a person who made and sold gloves and all kinds of leather goods.
Once more or less settled, he looked about for a bride. He aimed high. He began courting the daughter of the wealthy man whose farm he had worked: her name was Mary Arden. She was to become Our Will’s mother.
Shakespeare's dad really moved on up. The Ardens possessed one of the most important and respected names in Warwickshire. In ordinary circumstances, an illiterate farm hand would never have been considered by the Arden family. However, Mary’s father, Robert Arden, had eight daughters and he had to find husbands for them; John had a chance.
It would seem that Mary, the youngest of the daughters, had been her dad’s favorite: when she married Shakespeare she was provided with a large dowry. John not only improved his social standing by marrying into the Arden family, he greatly improved his financial situation too.
He opened a shop in town. He was now a tradesman, which meant he was a solid step above his former position: the lowest, laborer class. He also became active as a member of the town council. But he was not yet a “Gentleman.”
Was John Shakespeare’s son, William, able to make it to that exalted rank? Stay tuned. All will be revealed in future installments. :-)
1 year ago