Shakespeare For Fear of Death 2

  • Share on Tumblr

Photo: The Guardian

“England. Be it known that William Shakspere, Francis Langley, Dorothy Soer wife of John Soer, and Anne Lee, for fear of death…”.
King’s Bench, Controlment Roll, Michaelmas Term 1596, K.B. 29/234:

In the England of 1596 those fearful of “death or mutilations” could appeal to the judicial process to head off a potential attack. In operation, the likely malefactor(s) was required to post financial indemnities, subject to forfeit, if a bond to keep the peace was broken.

Though sound in theory, it was frequently used as a technique to burden an adversary by tying them up in inconvenient litigation and expense. The Shakespeare family was no stranger to the technique as John, William’s father, instigated such a writ in 1582. On that occasion it was against four men including Ralph Cawdrey, high bailiff of Stratford that year and therefore a Justice of the Peace – which may explain why it was not initiated at a local, Stratford town, level but in London.

The true adversaries in the writ of 1596 were William Gardiner, Justice of the Peace for Bankside, corrupt judge and vicious fraudster, acting through his step-son William Wayte, versus Francis Langley, theatrical impresario, builder of the Swan theatre, and all-round villain. This pair had been at each other’s throats for some time. Leslie Hotson, who unearthed this writ in 1931, and wrote about it in Shakespeare versus Shallow, also found an earlier suit initiated by Langley against Gardiner.

Countersuits, seeking to hit back at someone litigating against you, have always been a good source of income for the legal profession. This type of action is an established technique to raise the stakes in any legal battle. Often, parties in some way important to the target, financially or personally, will also be dragged in to make depositions just to maximize the inconvenience and throw pressure on the other party to the legal action. An indication of who is most important to the true object of the action comes in the order parties are named. Be named first, as Shakespeare was in this case, then the adversary probably considers you to be the most vulnerable to being embarrassed, threatened or inconvenienced by being drawn into the dispute.

The suit was aimed at causing Francis Langley as much financial distress as possible. With Langley’s Swan theatre just finished he needed it to start operating quickly and effectively, not just for profit but to cover its construction costs. The Swan is the likeliest, but not necessarily the only, tie to William Shakespeare. As to the two women named (Dorothy Soer and Anne Lee), it appears that at least one was a tenant of Langley’s on his Paris Garden site. The obvious, though as yet unproven, proposition is that the three named “employees” in the writ represented key businesses for Langley. However, there still remains genuine puzzlement over what Samuel Schoenbaum called these “four quite ill-matched names.”

That Shakespeare is named first has been attributed to his possibly lampooning Gardiner in The Merry Wives of Windsor. There the character Justice Shallow could, in the minds of some (including Hotson), be a caricature of Gardiner, with his stepson being the physical manifestation of the ninny Abraham Slender.

But money was then, and is now, nearly always at the bottom of this type of countersuit. Besides which, Gardiner was hardly a Justice Shallow, being at best little better than Langley himself.

It is possible that The Merchant of Venice contains a likelier parallel of both Gardiner and Langley in the shape of Shylock. Here is a man who usually charges interest, but whose real aim is to press for the penalty hoping the bond will be defaulted upon (a sharp and well proven business practice of both Langley and Gardiner).

For Shakespeare to be named first in this suit goes a long way to confirm that he was, in 1596, economically very important to Langley. Nor is it likely that this was just a “minor legal drama” as Schoenbaum described it. This was a fight to the commercial death through the courts over money. Gardiner once took suit to have a man’s ears “nailed to a post” – then a legal punishment – over this individual bearing witness against him in a case involving thirteen pounds.

These were nasty men who played for keeps and the how and why of William Shakespeare’s involvement tells us much about his own financial and business activities.

But that’s for the third and final part on Monday…

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


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.
  • william sutton

    David Fallow i’m half way through your thesis on Shakespeare’s finances. Would love to connect.

Download a free book written by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells about Shakespeare, Conspiracy & Authorship. Download the Book.


24 brilliant poems, inspired by Shakespeare's life and art, bound in an artisan stitched chapbook

get your copy now