Tuesday, December 28, 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.

32 comments:

Everyday Goddess said...

Wow, that is quite a mystery! Or if he had become bailiff, Will might not have become our Shakespeare, who knows what might have been.

ninotaziz said...

Dear Berowne,
How you manage to spin and marvel all this for us is truly a weekly delight - right up there next to unmentionable pleasures.

Brigid said...

Mysterious? I read the Catholic theory before, makes sense. But thankfully for all of us, the school was free. Anyway, you cant write if you have a perfect life. Great post.

kaykuala said...

That's just fascinating Berowne. Never knew. It was a pity having ascended so high it came down with a crash. Sad!

That Janie Girl said...

Okay, I'm impressed. Thanks for the history lesson! Enjoyable!

Berowne said...

My thanks to E. Goddess, ninotaziz, Brigid, kaykuala and That Janie Girl for some helpful comments. And happy new year to all!

Sioux Roslawski said...

I MUST know...How much is history and how much is YOUR story?

Well done!

Berowne said...

Dear Sioux: It's pretty much all history. I didn't make any of it up.

Nanka said...

This deserves a LOL!! Berowne. You did make a very interesting yarn and an enjoyable one too!!

Have a great end to this year and all good wishes throughout the New Year!!

Tess Kincaid said...

Perfect. I don't set up the photo prompts with Shakespeare in mind, really I don't.

kathew said...

Hmmm...could there have been chemicals used for whitening the gloves that possibly affected his health or mental faculties? Fascinating.
Two fingers snapping ~:-)

R. Burnett Baker said...

Berowne, I googled John (literally, on the keyboard!) and damn if it isn't true! I really must start reading more and reviewing my literature lessons of seasons past! But you take us beyond what's in the classroom. Thanks again for the education!!

Rick

Helen said...

In young Will's case, the apple did fall from the tree, rooted and flourished. I enjoyed this bit of history.

Tina said...

I LOVE history. This was fascinating. With all that the schools have us learn of Shakespeare, his dad's story is not one I'd heard before. Brilliant way to Magpie!

izzy said...

Very interesting! speculation is hard to live with
but I love what you did with this- Thanks.

Lyn said...

Thank God the school for young Will was free..All's Well That Ends Well!
What a command of history you have..wonderful information!

Mama Zen said...

This is fascinating!

Berowne said...

kathew: "Hmmm...could there have been chemicals used for whitening the gloves..."
You raise a good point. Scholars have mentioned that, since John Shakespeare's work was done more or less in his home, the use of all kinds of animal hides, plus the material for the whitening, must have created a permanent God-awful stink.

Berowne said...

Tess K. "I don't set up the photo prompts with Shakespeare in mind, really I don't."
I'm afraid that's the way they turn out once I get my hands on 'em. :-)

Marilyn said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this, a wonderful piece of history - history which i never knew of before so thank you.

Sue J said...

This is very interesting and I enjoyed reading it and learning something new. Thanks!

Joan Tucker said...

Thanks for this

hedgewitch said...

Fascinating. Now I'm going to spend the rest of the day trying to evolve a theory to account for John's sudden penury. Novels no doubt could be written. Speaking of which, the great Golden Era British mystery author and dramatist Ngaio Marsh wrote a book about finding a single white glove belonging to Shakespeare's son Hamnet and made by his grandfather. It was of course, something to die for. ;-)

Berowne said...

Hedgewitch: "...a book about finding a single white glove belonging to Shakespeare's son Hamnet and made by his grandfather."
Very interesting; thanks.

thingy said...

A mystery to be solved. Really interesting.

ds said...

You always teach so much, so well. Fascinating stuff. And this week, you may have sparked something, too. Thank you, Berowne. Happy New Year!

Elizabeth said...

Re your comment to kathewe,Berowne, the main constituent for softening and whitening leather was urine, so yes,that home would have been very smelly - a problem the Elizabethans dealt with by strewing the floors with herbs and liberal use of pot-pourries and tussie-mussies. x

spacedlaw said...

Interesting. The catholic theory might be the most credible one for those days.

Berowne said...

Elizabeth, WRKHS. (Who Really Knows Her Shakespeare.) :-)

Doc FTSE said...

Most interesting. Makes me wonder whether a "whittawer" is the origin of the English surname "Whittaker"

The Reason You Come said...

This was very educational, as well as entertaining. Thanks for the fun lesson! :)

Margaret Bednar said...

...fascinating. But that has already been said! History is best told in a story format and this is a lesson I will not forget. Thank you.

 
Blog designed by Blogger Boutique using Christy Skagg's "A Little Bit of That" kit.