Thursday, February 25, 2010

Magpie 46

This week's prompt reminds us of the very important part gloves played in the life of William Shakespeare.
This bumpkin from a country town, who had started out on life’s ladder on one of its lowest rungs, went on to become the most prominent playwright of the London theatre as well as the greatest figure in the history of English literature.
You don’t usually hear much about his dad’s career, but in its own way it too was amazing. John Shakespeare, an illiterate farm laborer, was driven and ambitious. His business -- making gloves -- became successful.

There was a need on the part of the English gentry for gloves, exquisitely made gloves, often of white leather, and John specialized in such items.
He was known as a “whittawer,” someone who whitened leather, but that was just one of the irons in his fire; he came to be what we would call an entrepreneur, involved in quite a number of money-making deals. He must have achieved, over the years, a certain degree of literacy.

And he began climbing the local social and political ladder. He was on the town council; one of the first positions the town gave him was as ale-taster – which sounds like a joke, but it was a serious position. Everyone drank ale (you shouldn’t drink the water), so it was important that it be of safe quality.
John S. went on to rise rapidly: from making gloves to chamberlain to alderman and right on up to the highest rank, bailiff. The bailiff was the equivalent of mayor of the town.
What a time that must have been for his son! 11-year-old Will must have stood in awe when his dad prepared to go to the guild hall. The bailiff didn’t just stroll to work; this was Elizabethan England, which meant ceremony. John Shakespeare would wear his expensive scarlet gown and official ring and would wait by the door for the arrival of two colorfully uniformed sergeants, who would then escort the mayor through the streets, the whole town watching in admiration.
John had moved on up; he could now apply, and he did, to the Court of Heralds in London to be granted the coat of arms that would make him a gentleman.
But he never got it. Something happened.
What happened is one of those fascinating Shakespearean mysteries. Young Will Shakespeare was 13 or so years of age and had to stand by and watch as his dad’s marvelous career crashed and burned. And no one today is sure why.
The records show that his parents began selling things, including the acres of land John had received as dowry, and before long they didn’t have anything else to sell. Shakespeare senior was unable to pay his debts. The man who had been mayor of Stratford didn’t go to church – although church attendance was a legal requirement for everyone – because his creditors could get at him there. He didn’t even pay the four pennies a week for poor relief, which he had always paid before.
There are theories. When it comes to the Shakespeare story, there are always plenty of theories.
John had become an alcoholic, and spent most of his time dead drunk – except there isn’t a shred of evidence for such a supposition. A gambler? No evidence. He had a stroke, a heart attack? Again, no such evidence. He was a secret Catholic who had decided to proclaim his religious belief openly (which would have been a fatal mistake, politically speaking, in that Puritan town as well as in Elizabeth’s Protestant England)? But that too is just a guess. Or perhaps he was the victim of a general recession -- sounds familiar – the market for beautiful gloves having dried up.

Fortunately for his son, young Will, the grammar school, the King’s New School of Stratford, one of the best schools of its kind in the country, was free.


willow said...

"Whittawer" caught my eye. My husband has the surname Whitaker in his lineage. I wonder if it derives from a similar occupation?

Molly Potter said...

I love this bit of social history centred round our great writery chap. Thank you - great post. How have you come to be so knowledgeable? I take it that it's a pet love.

Berowne said...

Well, I taught the subject for years; now it's just a hobby.

I like that phrase: "great writery chap." May I use it? :-)

Berowne said...

willow: "My husband has the surname Whitaker in his lineage. I wonder if it derives from a similar occupation?"

According to a scientific friend of mine named Google -- :-) -- Whitaker either came from "wheat acre" or "white acre." Interestingly, it seems there's a Whitacre in Warwickshire, Will Shakespeare's old stamping grounds.

Molly Potter said...

Go on then - yes I'll let you have that one!!!!!

Anonymous said...

This is very interesting... I find it fascinating that after all of this time, Shakespeare still reigns. My son has studied him quite extensively. Thanks for your continued posts! :) The Bach

Lyn said...

Indeed, a little known fact...John proved to be a bit ahead of his time, squandered the dowry on a chain of Chip and Ale establishments, couldn't pull it off!

Berowne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Everyday Goddess said...

That is quite a mystery.
Also surprising since it's so hard to keep scandalous events secret.
Was it easier way back when?

Berowne said...

The Bach: "Shakespeare still reigns. My son has studied him quite extensively."

Have you two made it to "gentleman" rank?

Berowne said...

Lyn: "...squandered the dowry on a chain of Chip and Ale establishments."

In all seriousness, Lyn, why publish such obvious nonsense? It was a chain of Starbucks.

lakeviewer said...

Love these bits of history. Did someone say Starbucks?

lakeviewer said...

re" previous comment
I pressed post before completing my response. Coffee came much later, right? Let's stick to the text.

Berowne said...

lakeviewer: "Did someone say Starbucks? Coffee came much later, right? Let's stick to the text."

Let's see now. When I wrote that John Shakespeare ran a chain of Starbucks, you took that seriously?

(Actually, he ran a chain of Kentucky Fried Chicken establishments.) :-)

Berowne said...

E. Goddess: "Also surprising since it's so hard to keep scandalous events secret.
Was it easier way back when?"

Well, they didn't have cable TV or right-wing radio -- luckily for them.

Ronda Laveen said...

I am really enjoying your Shakespeare series. And this is the first bit of info I've read about his father. I guess white gloves are the first luxury to go in a bad economy.

Anonymous said...

My son and I are pretty pretty close to gentlemen rank. My son will start working on his Doctor of Political Sciene soon and I have progressed to DOB (Doctor of Blogging). Actually, I'm retired but still working on staff at a real estate company. Your career sounds so rewarding. Looking forward to Shakes #6
:) The Bach

Berowne said...

Ronda: "I guess white gloves are the first luxury to go in a bad economy."

Yes, I gave them up quite a while ago.

Berowne said...

Thanks again, The Bach, for your continued interest.

Sandy said...

Very interesting!

Madame DeFarge said...

Just waiting till you start on Christopher Marlowe.

Berowne said...

Always good to hear from you, Sandy.

Berowne said...

Mme DeFarge: "Just waiting till you start on Christopher Marlowe."

Who he?

(Jes' kiddin').

Shakey said...

Some new stuff for me here about John S. Loving all of this. I think I should find out more! People expect me to know everything about Will and his family. I must keep your blog a secret from them!

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