Shakespeare and the Pantomime Cat

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“Could not you be contented, as well as others, with the legend of Whittington…” The Knight of the Burning Pestle, by Beaumont & Fletcher, 1613

The legend is that young Will Shakespeare, like a pantomime Dick Whittington, left his poverty-stricken family, walked to London and won his fortune entirely through his own efforts.

I would propose that this description applies to neither man.

One early reference to the “legendary” Whittington was in a play entered at Stationer’s Hall in February 1605: The History of Richard Whittington, of his lowe byrth, his great fortune.

The real Richard Whittington (c.1350 – 1423) born the third son of a knight, was apprenticed to a London mercer. He became one of the wealthiest in the land through trading in cloth and lending money. Childless on his death, he left most of his wealth to charitable causes.

There is no credible evidence of any cat.

Throughout the twentieth century most writers have supported the idea that the Shakespeare family fell into poverty. One heavily quoted incident used to justify this notion is a court entry of 1586 that states John Shakespeare had nothing to be “distrained”, i.e. capable of seizure to ensure court attendance. Yet in 1889 J. O. Halliwell-Phillips observed:

“There can be no doubt whatever that the words …. Johannes Shackspere nihil hahet unde distringi potest [John Shakespeare had nothing able to be distrained] – are not to be taken literally, and that they merely belong to a formula that was in use when a writ of distringas failed in enforcing an appearance…”

Here Halliwell-Phillipps was stating that this was not in fact an actual sign of poverty. Yet many later scholars have chosen either not to pay attention to this caveat or simply took the words at face value.

This issue has steadily moved from “indications” of poverty (E. K. Chambers, 1930) through “probability” (F. E. Halliday, 1964) to certainty.

However, Edgar Fripp (1861 – 1931) was an advocate for the simplest of all explanations for the financial fall of John Shakespeare – it never happened.

An earlier case had occurred in 1580 with John Shakespeare fined £40 for non-attendance in court when bound over to do so. Of this considerable sum, £20 was for his own failure to appear, and a further £20 for not bringing John Audley, a hatmaker of Nottingham, into court.

Early Modern legal practice in England relied heavily on guarantors indemnifying the Crown. This £40 fine has been used as evidence of poverty while still failing to explain how, if insolvent, he could have come up with this substantial amount! However, this consideration aside, Fripp showed how John Shakespeare and his co-guarantors could have defeated the Elizabethan court system with its own bureaucracy:

“On the day John Shakespeare was fined, the hatter John Audley was fined £70 – £10 for not bringing John Shakespeare into court; £40 for his own non-appearance ad inveniendum sufficientem securitatem de se bene gerendo [etc.]…- and £20 for his …non-appearance ad inveniendum sufficientem securitatem [etc.]… Simultaneously, Thomas Cooley of Stoke in Staffordshire (described as a yeoman) was fined £30 – £10 for not bringing John Shakespeare into court, and £20 for not bringing John Audley into court. Lastly, Nicholas Walton (a yeoman of Kidderminster) and William Lonley of Emley in Worcestershire (husbandman) were each docked £10 apiece for not bringing John Audley into court.”

The rationale behind all this cross guaranteeing was that the courts, based as they were on Church dioceses, had no central means of coordinating fines. Continuing on from the above quotation Fripp noted:

“The distribution of the security is striking – Stratford, Nottingham, Stoke, Kidderminster [/] Emley Lovett… are widespread. John Shakespeare and his two sureties, Audley and Cooley, were in three dioceses under separate jurisdictions, and the procedure for the getting of the fines imposed would be so complex that we may well doubt whether they were [ever] paid.”

In 2005 Peter Ackroyd in Shakespeare The Biography was a rare contrarian voice to the family poverty proposition

“It is unlikely he [John Shakespeare] was in any financial trouble.”[p.63]

But if the “financial fall” never happened where did John’s money go?

Moreover, why had the Shakespeare family’s behaviour undergone a radical change in late 1576? A change that resulted in the court cases discussed above.

There are sound, verifiable, financial reasons.

But sharing those is for another blog.

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David studied Law at Aberdeen University before embarking on a career in finance. Retiring in 2001, he pursued his interest in the arts studying at Plymouth College of Art & Design, Dartington College of Arts and the University of Exeter where he took his masters degree in Staging Shakespeare. He completed his Ph.D on the finances of the Shakespeare family in 2011.
  • Mark Johnson

    So when will the next post on this subject appear.  I’m intrigued.

  • Pam

    Interesting.  What do the archives hold other than this?  Coincidently the year Burbage raised a theatre.  Ironic that theatre was to make his son’s fame and fortune.

  • Shakespeare B Trust

    Very intriguing, David. We await your next blog…

  • Barnaart

    Hello, I think the next blog will answer your question perfectly… there’s a very good reason why late 1576
    is so important — it really changed everything about the public face
    the Shakespeare family subsequently presented to the world. Best, David.

  • Barnaart

    Hello, I think the next blog will answer your question perfectly… there’s a very good reason why late 1576
    is so important — it really changed everything about the public face
    the Shakespeare family subsequently presented to the world. Best, David.

  • Anonymous

    Hi David,
    John Shakespeare sold almost all the property his wife had inherited from 1576 onwards, and he doesn’t seem to have invested the money raised anywhere. Does this not indicate that he was in financial trouble?

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