If you've been following this series, "Laid-Back Shakespeare," you know we've spent some time on the story of the coat of arms, the heraldic device that meant so much to William Shakespeae and his father John and that would allow them to move up to a position among the gentry.
This is the sixth post in the series.
Theoretically the rank of "Gentleman" was an honor given because of family and service to the nation, but it was actually bought: you paid off someone to get it, in other words. Even so, there were standards you had to meet.
Over twenty years after John had applied to the College of Heralds for the rank of gentleman and didn’t get it, his son had moved on up to become a successful London playwright, actor and theatrical businessman. William Shakespeare felt he was in a position to try for the prize again.
The application was renewed. In 1596 Sir William Dethick, Garter King-of-Arms, granted the Shakespeare family a coat of arms, a rough sketch of which is shown above.
It has the items one might expect to find on such a device, a falcon, a spear, etc.; it was simple but it would do the job. Both father and son could now stop signing their names as Mr. Shakespeare and each could sign as Mr. Shakespeare, Gentleman – and Will, at least, did.
There had been some criticism that lately honors had been given out to too many types of people; riff-raff had to be kept out. In awarding the rank, Garter Dethick mentioned the Shakespeare connection to the Arden family, an ancestor of which had performed “valiant service to King Henry II of famous memory.” There is no historical evidence of any Arden doing anything of the kind, but perhaps Garter was simply trying to defend his decision for Shakespeare – who had paid well for the honor – and to avoid any future criticism. In addition, Dethick went on, the father, John, had served as bailiff, which meant he had been a Queen’s officer, and that was true.
Take another look at the sketch above. There are two lines scribbled at the bottom: they give a glimpse into the squabbles and rivalries that went on in the granting of such honors.
It seems that Garter, Sir William Dethick, was a contentious sort, but he may have met his match in the York Herald, Peter Brooke, who obviously felt granting such an honor to a commoner like this Shakespeare person was a huge mistake.
He wrote at the bottom of the sketch: “Shakespeare the player. By Garter.”
A whole world of Elizabethan custom, tradition, class, prejudice, rivalry, whathaveyou, is summed up in those two lines.
What Brooke is saying is this: “This guy is an ACTOR, for God’s sake! You don’t grant a coat of arms to actors.” Which was certainly, for the most part, true.
It’s difficult for us in our 21st century to realize the low esteem in which theatrical people, and the theatre generally, were held. There was then, to many, something shameful about this type of work.
It’s fascinating to note what his son-in-law, Dr. John Hall, wrote when Our Will retired to Stratford. Dr. Hall kept very careful records, noted down just about everything that happened, in his medical practice as well as in the daily goings-on of his family. He found himself now living with William Shakespeare, the greatest playwright who ever lived. And what he wrote about his famous father-in-law was – nothing, not a word. Hall was a Puritan.
He was probably simply embarrassed: perhaps he thought, all right, so he made a lot of money down there in London, but it was not respectable work.
The other line the York Herald wrote on the sketch, “By Garter,” was his way of saying, “It was Dethick who was responsible for this; I had nothing to do with it.”
For the final version of his coat of arms, Will Shakespeare wrote the words, in Old French, “Not Without Right.” I take this to mean: “My dad and I struggled for years to get to this place. We’re here and we have a RIGHT to be here – get used to it!”
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