Did Shakespeare leave Stratford-upon-Avon after a run-in with the local authorities or did he leave to pursue a literary career?
It is a wonderful conceit to imagine Will Shakespeare, the boy from sleepy Stratford-upon-Avon, the glover’s son with at most a grammar school education, turning up in London with a folio of brilliant, finished plays under his arm and becoming instantly so popular that all the other playwrights in London were jealous of him. However, even the Bardolaters must concede that Shakespeare could not have been an instant success.
Legend has it that Shakespeare left Stratford-upon-Avon after a run-in with the local magistrate and landowner, Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote. According to Shakespeare’s first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, writing in 1709:
He had, by a Misfortune common enough to young Fellows, fallen into ill Company; and amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of Deer-stealing, engag’d him with them more than once in robbing a Park that belong’d to Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that Gentleman, as he thought somewhat too severely; and in order to revenge that ill Usage, he made a Ballad upon him. And tho’ this, probably the first Essay of his Poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the Prosecution against him to that degree, that he was oblig’d to leave his Business and Family in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter himself in London.
Times were tough in the years after Shakespeare’s marriage. Not only were harvests failing and food prices rising, but persecution of Catholics, led in his parts by Lucy, had redoubled and targeted Shakespeare’s Arden relatives. In such times, one can indeed imagine that a young man, trying to feed a growing family, or rebelling against persecution, might fall foul of the local authorities, though it would be a very foolhardy young man indeed who would circulate a scurrilous ballad and invite even more trouble. Apart from the tales circulating a century after his death, there is no evidence that Rowe’s story is true, nor does it reflect well on Shakespeare, especially in the eyes of the Bardolaters, who prefer to find other reasons why he left Stratford.
Some biographers, for example, have claimed that he left to escape a loveless marriage. However, whatever Will might have felt for his wife, marriage in Elizabethan times was more about familial duty and economic security than love and passion. In marrying a pregnant Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare was living up to his responsibilities as he did when he returned to her in his retirement. It is therefore not likely that he would abandon her just because he had fallen out of love with her.
The more romantically inclined biographers would like to believe that he left in order to pursue a literary career, but the very concept of a literary career would have been totally foreign to him and his community. If any resident of Stratford-upon-Avon even thought of a writer, they would think of a rich and idle courtier writing sonnets as a pleasant pastime. The professional writer was only just beginning to emerge at that time and it was a profession generally restricted to university graduates who could barely eke out a living at best, much less support a family. It was certainly not an aspiration for the son of a struggling, small-town businessman with three children to feed. Nor is it likely that Shakespeare left Stratford simply to fulfil a long held ambition to become a wandering player, a profession that offered even less means for supporting a family.
However we might discount the details of Rowe’s story, one aspect does ring true, that Shakespeare left Stratford under extreme duress. Whether we think of Shakespeare as the secular saint of the Bardolaters, or a man like any other, it is unlikely that he would have left his wife and three small children on a whim. If Shakespeare was indeed attracting unwelcome attention, he would have been a liability to his family and it would have been in their best interests that he should go far away and somewhere he could remain anonymous, such as a big city like London.
Another popular legend about Shakespeare did not come from Rowe, but was first introduced by Samuel Johnson in the preface to his 1765 edition of Shakespeare’s Plays.
In the time of Elizabeth, coaches being yet uncommon, and hired coaches not at all in use, those who were too proud, too tender, or too idle to walk, went on horseback to any distant business or diversion. Many came on horse-back to the play, and when Shakespeare fled to London from the terror of a criminal prosecution, his first expedient was to wait at the door of the play-house, and hold the horses of those that had no servants, that they might be ready again after the performance. In this office he became so conspicuous for his care and readiness, that in a short time every man as he alighted called for Will Shakespeare, and scarcely any other waiter was trusted with a horse while Will Shakespeare could be had. This was the first dawn of better fortune.
This romantic legend sees Shakespeare arriving in London, poor and friendless, so desperate to get into the theatre he is prepared to carry out the menial task of holding the patrons’ horses outside the playhouse. Was his great genius somehow recognised by one of those theatre-goers, perhaps the young Earl of Southampton himself who became his patron? Or did the impresario, impressed by Will’s persistence and patience in holding those horses in all conditions, invite him into the playhouse and one day overheard him declaiming his own verse as he plied a broom? Such images might make for sweet children’s stories, but the truth would be much more prosaic.
There is one route between Stratford and The Globe that has been noted by some biographers but little explored, a route so direct that it might well have been overlooked as too unromantic. I would argue that Shakespeare went to London, not with a portfolio of plays under his arm, but clutching a letter of introduction to London’s pre-eminent theatrical entrepreneur, James Burbage, the father of Richard Burbage. (see The Burbages: First Family of Theatre)
James Burbage built The Theatre, the first London playhouse where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s theatre company, first performed. His elder son Cuthbert would build and manage The Globe, while his younger son Richard performed Shakespeare’s greatest roles. Since Richard and Cuthbert were Shakespeare’s artistic as well as business partners for his entire known career, it is no great stretch to suggest that he began and ended that career with them.
James Burbage began his own theatrical career as a member of Lord Leicester’s Men, and there is evidence that the company played in Stratford-upon-Avon, which was only a dozen miles or so from the Earl of Leicester’s country seat of Kenilworth. As alderman it was John Shakespeare’s duty to view all plays before they could be shown to the public so it is possible that he met Burbage in that capacity. Given his later career, as a child Will must have loved seeing the plays so we can imagine John taking him along and introducing him to the players. There is also another connection. One of John Shakespeare’s business associates in Stratford was a William Burbage. He may have been related to James and could have facilitated a meeting.
So when the Shakespeares needed to get Will out of Stratford it is conceivable that William Burbage and John Shakespeare between them came up with the plan to send him to The Theatre to work for James Burbage and learn a trade that they may have had good reason to believe would suit him.
And there is one more link. Many biographers argue that as Shakespeare knew their plays so intimately, he must have spent some time with the Queen’s Men, the country’s premier playing company. James Burbage was in an ideal position to introduce Shakespeare to the company, for not only did they play at The Theatre, their leading sharers, namely John Laneham, William Johnson and Richard Wilson, had all been Lord Leicester’s Men with him.
If Shakespeare did go straight to The Theatre when he went to London, he could have had no better entrée into the world he would make his own.
© Pauline Montagna 2015
Herbert Berry (edited by) The First Public Playhouse: The Theatre in Shoreditch 1576–1598, McGill-Queen’s University Press (1979)
Germaine Greer, Shakespeare’s Wife, Bloomsbury Publishing (2007)
Michael Wood, In Search of Shakespeare, BBC Worldwide (2003)