Shakespeare: Actor, playwright, social climber

Old records just unearthed show the Bard was invested in gaining coat of arms

Shakespeare biography has long circled a set of tantalising my- steries: Was he Protestant or secretly Catholic? Gay or straight? Loving towards his wife, or coldly dismissive?

That the man left no surviving letters or autobiographical testimony has hardly helped, ensuring that accounts of his life have often relied on "one halfpenny worth of fact to an intolerable deal of supposition", as the late scholar C.W. Scott-Giles once lamented.

Only a few scraps of new material relating to Shakespeare in his lifetime have surfaced over the past century. But now, a researcher has uncovered nearly a dozen previously unknown records that shed clearer light on another much-discussed side of the man: the social climber.

The documents, discovered by Ms Heather Wolfe, the curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, relate to a coat of arms that was granted to Shakespeare's father in 1596, attesting to his and his son's status as gentlemen.

Considered with known records, Ms Wolfe argued, the documents suggest both how deeply invested Shakespeare was in gaining that recognition - a rarity for a man from the theatre - and how directly he may have been drawn into colourful bureaucratic infighting that threatened to strip it away.

Members of the public wearing masks of the "Bard of Avon" to mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, in Stratford-upon-Avon in central England, in April. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The new evidence "really helps us get a little bit closer to the man himself", she said. "It shows him shaping himself and building his reputation in a very intentional way."

Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro at Columbia University has seen Ms Wolfe's research, and said it helps illuminate what mattered to Shakespeare. "It's all about trying to figure out, what was he like?" Mr Shapiro said. "Any time we can substitute something solid for speculation, that's significant."

The new documents, he added, come with a nice bonus: They clearly refute sceptics who continue to argue - to the deep exasperation of most scholars - that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not actually the author of the works attributed to him.

He said: "It's always been clear that Shakespeare of Stratford and 'Shakespeare the player' were one and the same. But if you hold the documents Heather has discovered together, that is the smoking gun."

Ms Wolfe's discoveries began in the archives of the College of Arms in London, home to 10 heralds who are still charged with researching and granting coats of arms - arcane territory where many literary scholars might fear to tread.

"Looking through the minutiae of the College of Arms is, even for Shakespeare scholars, almost unbearable," Mr Shapiro said. "We really owe Heather a debt of gratitude for wading in."


It makes it abundantly clear that while Shakespeare was obtaining the arms on behalf of his father, it was really for his own status.

MS HEATHER WOLFE, the curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, on how the Bard worked to shape himself and build his reputation in a very deliberate way.

Ms Wolfe said she began wondering if there was not fresh material to find there when she looked through a book edited by historian Nigel Ramsay at University College London, with whom she curated an exhibition on heraldry at the Folger in 2014. On one page, she was startled by something she had not seen before: a sketch of the arms with the words "Shakespeare the player", or actor, dated around 1600.

A similar image with the same text - a copy dating from around 1700 - has long been known to Shakespeare scholars (as well as to authorship sceptics, who generally dismiss as unreliable any evidence dated after 1616, the year of the Bard's death). But this earlier one, from the College of Arms, seemed to have gone unremarked on.

Ms Wolfe started digging there and in other archives, and so far has gathered a dozen unknown or forgotten depictions of the arms in heraldic references called alphabets and ordinaries. "I just started finding them everywhere," she said.

Scholars have long known that Shakespeare's father, John, a businessman and justice of the peace in Stratford, had first made inquiries about a coat of arms around 1575. They have speculated that it was William who renewed the effort in 1596, on his father's behalf.

The new depictions Ms Wolfe has gathered are from the 17th century. More than half associate the arms with "Shakespeare the player", or with William, not John.

This material not only proves "that Shakespeare was Shakespeare", as Ms Wolfe wryly put it. It also, she argued, underlines the degree to which contemporaries saw the coat of arms as, in effect, being for William.

"It makes it abundantly clear that while Shakespeare was obtaining the arms on behalf of his father, it was really for his own status."

Mr Shapiro agreed. "All evidence suggests this was not about the father," he said, "but about how Shakespeare wanted to be seen."

Dr Alan Nelson, a retired professor at University of California, Berkeley, who has contributed to Shakespeare Documented, an online project curated by Ms Wolfe, said he found her case persuasive.

The new material "helps to confirm everything we know about the arc of Shakespeare's career and the way he understood himself in the context of his society", he said.

But not all of Shakespeare's contemporaries took his newly minted status at face value.

Ben Jonson mocked the Bard's arms in his 1598 play, Every Man Out Of His Humour, in which a country bumpkin is advised to buy arms with the motto "Not without mustard", a dig at Shakespeare's motto "Not without right". (Shakespeare's arms were yellow.)

A more threatening attack came in 1602 from Ralph Brooke, a herald at the College of Arms who had long been at war with his archrival William Dethick, who held the title Garter King of Arms. (At one point, Brooke reportedly warned Dethick, himself a notoriously violent man, that the Star Chamber would punish him by cutting off his ears.)

That year, Brooke drew up for submission to the Queen a list of 23 "mean persons" who had wrongfully been granted arms by Dethick, including "Shakespeare the player", as Brooke put it disparagingly. (Shakespeare was not the only one given a lowly job description: A man derided by Brooke as a mere "bookbinder", Ms Wolfe noted, was master of the Stationers' Company, the prestigious body that regulated the publishing industry.)

Among Dethick's records, Ms Wolfe found letters from outraged people whose arms had come under attack, and notes indicating some had withdrawn their claims.

While no record of Shakespeare's response survives, Ms Wolfe argues that the intense reactions of others suggest he must have known about the controversy, and likely took action to defend his status.

Some whose letters survive lived outside London, she noted. "They couldn't just approach Dethick, as Shakespeare could have."

Shakespeare may have held onto his arms, but the glory did not last. His son, Hamnet, had died in 1596. His last direct descendant, a granddaughter named Elizabeth Barnard, died in 1670.

Ms Wolfe said a colleague at the Folger pointed out something she has not seen any scholar discuss: The wax seal on Barnard's last will shows a fragment of the Shakespeare arms, just barely visible.

"She's dying, she's the last in the direct line, and the arms have faded," Ms Wolfe said. "It just seems touchingly symbolic."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'Shakespeare: Actor, playwright, social climber'. Print Edition | Subscribe