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Shakespeare's family

Updated Thursday, 27th October 2005
Peter Thomson describes Shakespeare's family life.

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The timbered house in Stratford-upon-Avon which is believed to be the birthplace of William Shakespeare. The birthplace of William Shakespeare

At least three – possibly four – of Shakespeare’s younger siblings beat the odds by surviving into adulthood. Gilbert (1566-1612) earned his living as a haberdasher, never married, and is believed, on fairly flimsy ground, to have spent his leisure time in rough company. Richard (1573-1613) is a blank, and Edmund (c.1580-1607), if he was ever a legitimate part of the family, was one of those late pregnancies that get the neighbours talking. He became an actor, a struggling one, and fathered a short-lived ‘base-born’ (illegitimate) child in the year of his death in London.

Joan (1569-1646) is the only one who figures significantly in Shakespeare's biography. She married William Hart, a hatter, and had at least three sons, one of whom outlived her. In his will, Shakespeare left her £20 and the life-tenancy of the Henley Street ‘birthplace’ for a peppercorn rent. He also left her his own ‘wearing apparel’, presumably as hand-me-downs for her sons. With the exception of Edmund, they were all lifelong Stratfordians. Moving around the country was not encouraged in the England of Elizabeth I, since local parishes feared the cost of paying the charges for improvident incomers, and Shakespeare’s footloose life in London would certainly have been a talking-point in the homes and streets of Stratford.

It is unlikely that John Shakespeare (c.1529-1601) was an easy father, and possible that his wife Mary (c.1537-1608) felt that she had married beneath her – the Ardens were better connected than the Shakespeares. Making and selling gloves in Stratford, John Shakespeare was already one of the town’s fourteen principal eldermen when William was born, elected an alderman the next year (1565) and appointed to the top civic post of bailiff in 1568. By 1571 he was applying – unsuccessfully – to the College of Heralds for a coat of arms. The children of a small-town go-getter would have been under pressure to excel, or at least to behave well. But something went wrong for John Shakespeare during the second half of the 1570s. In 1578 he was excused payment of the poor-relief tax, and in 1580 he forfeited his wife’s property in Wilmcote because he was unable to pay the mortgage.

The Shakespeare family, then, was in decline as William approached adulthood. It was in the late summer of 1581 that Anne Hathaway, a spinster seven or eight years older than William, discovered she was pregnant with his child. He did the decent thing, perhaps under pressure from her insistently respectable brother Bartholomew, by obtaining a licence to marry her. We have no idea whether he ‘loved’ her. Their daughter Susanna was born in May 1582, and the likelihood is that the young couple started married life in his parents’ home in Henley Street. They were probably still there in January 1585 – along with Gilbert, Richard, Joan and (possibly) Edmund – when the twins, Judith and Hamnet, were born. Not a relaxing household for a young man who had discovered in himself an unlikely urge to write. But at least, in Hamnet, he had a son, and with him the promise of self-perpetuation which is the theme of the first sixteen sonnets. Without the confidence that ‘His tender heir might bear his memory’ (Sonnet 1), Shakespeare might not have left Stratford when he did.

We do not know when he left, nor with what high hopes. And neither do we know how often he returned to share with Anne the responsibilities of parenthood. The challenge of bridging the gap between a literary life in London, with its necessary quest for aristocratic patronage, and family life in Stratford was a formidable one, and the chances are that Shakespeare ducked it. The sonnets are courtly: Anne and the children were dyed-in-the-wool provincial. Was Shakespeare in Stratford to see Hamnet die in 1596? Probably not: child-deaths were rapid, and the journey to and from London slow. The kindest thought is that Shakespeare’s purchase of New Place (three storeys, five gables, ten fireplaces, two gardens and an orchard) in 1597, out of the proceeds of patronage and professional success in London, was designed to liberate Anne and their two daughters from the constraints of living in Henley Street; a material compensation for the death of the son and brother. Shakespeare did not stay there long. He had plays to write, people to meet.

Susanna, as things turned out, was the good sister and Judith the bad one, though neither of them lived at ease. Susanna married with due ceremony a Cambridge graduate; Judith, without even a legal licence, married a Stratford bully-boy. Shakespeare approved of Susanna’s husband, John Hall, a conscientious and prosperous doctor. He did not approve of Thomas Quiney, and took steps to protect Judith from the consequences of marrying him. In his will (he died two months after Judith’s unsanctioned wedding, which might, like his own, have been a ‘shotgun’ arrangement), he left her £100 in discharge of her marriage portion, £50 conditional on her surrendering to Susanna her ownership rights of a cottage in Chapel Lane – he probably suspected that Thomas Quiney would sell it over her head – and the interest on £150 if she should be still alive in three years. Also he left her his 'broad silver gilt bole’.

To Susanna, he left New Place, the two houses in Henley Street which his father had knocked together, all his land in Old Stratford, Welcombe and Bishopton, the Chapel Lane cottage (by reversion from Judith) and his London property in the Blackfriars. Hamnet would have inherited all this, had he lived, and it is obviously possible that Shakespeare found it difficult to forgive Judith for being the surviving twin. Certainly the will does not conform with modern ideas of even-handed parenthood. On the evidence we have, the sonnets included, it would be difficult to mount a strong argument that Shakespeare got much joy out of family.


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