Friday, 14 September 2012

Young Shakespeare

It's easy to forget, as we witness the historical pageantry and high intrigue in many of Shakespeare's plays, that Will was a country boy at heart. Born and brought up in the rural market town of Stratford in Warwickshire, he would have fished and swum in the River Avon as a boy, helped his father sell gloves from his workshop on Henley Street, and no doubt watched the local farmers parade their livestock in and out of town on market days.

Tudor reenactors at Mary Arden's Farm, 2012
Although he lived in a town, the life of the countryside was always close at hand. Will Shakespeare was part of a large and lively family. He would have grown up helping relatives at harvest time, tending his mother's herb and vegetable garden, collecting eggs from hens and other fowl about the place, and maybe even throwing scraps to the greedy pigs. Much of the family food would have been home-grown and produced, the rest bought from the market or nearby farms. A Warwickshire town life for Will would have kept him close to the earth.

Will's mother was Mary Arden, who grew up in the mid-1500s on a farm near Stratford. Her deep knowledge of farming and country craft found its way into Will's plays, alongside a much-noted love of flowers and wild plants. Here's Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream: 
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxslips and the nodding violet grows,  
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.
Some Warwickshire dialect words creep into Shakespeare's work occasionally - such as 'Raddock' (a robin redbreast) and 'Urchin' (a hedgehog) - as though to remind us that this playwright is not simply aping a rural life, but has lived it himself, unlike many of the more urban playwrights of his time.
Of course, some of this may have been an instinctive grasping after memories of rural life whilst waist-deep in the dark and narrow streets of Tudor London. For we cannot pretend that Will had led a simple rustic existence as a young child. John Shakespeare was a respected citizen for at least the first decade of Will's life, not an uneducated farm labourer. Not only was he a member of Stratford town council - elected Mayor in 1568, no less - but John was also a glover, a potentially lucrative trade, who would have employed an apprentice or two in his workshop.
Will would undoubtedly have helped out on the market stall when John was short-handed. But I suspect his father had grander plans for his son, sending Will to the local grammar school rather than keeping him at home in the unpleasant stink of a glover's workshop, where animal skins were soaked in urine for weeks before being dried and stretched into shape. Instead of getting his hands dirty, Will became a young scholar rather than a craftsman's apprentice. At school, he learnt to read and write Latin, was taught the skills of rhetoric or public speaking, discovered a fascinating world of ancient myth and history, and most importantly began to develop a love for the English language - and its poetry in particular.

Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire
In my novel, The Queen's Secret, we meet Will Shakespeare at the age of eleven when he comes to visit nearby Kenilworth Castle with his father. This is mere speculation on my part, for we have no proof of his visit, only a few suggestive lines in his later poetry. But like many Warwickshire folk, he might well have travelled to Kenilworth that summer in order to see the Queen and her court, who were halting there on progress from London.
It must have been an incredible and perhaps life-changing experience for such a sensitive young boy, never before exposed to the reality of a monarch and a vast royal entourage. Shakespeare would later populate his plays with Kings, Queens, princes, noble courtiers and their servants - and fill out their characters with intimacy and understanding. Yet his plays never become stilted or too courtly, mere inventions of the mind, for through them runs the vibrancy of rural life, side by side with the drama of history.


  1. This was fascinating, thank you. I teach many of the plays, so it was great to fill in a bit of background.

  2. Thank you, Carol. There's plenty to say about Will's early life in Stratford, but of course blog entries are necessarily short. I'll no doubt return to this topic later, as I find it fascinating myself - not least because I know Stratford so intimately.


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