Adventures in the Skin Trade

Was William Shakespeare a Metropolitan Intellectual or a Provincial Butcher Boy?

Shakespeare the Deer-stealer

Announcing his discovery as to the exact location of Shakespeare’s tenure in Bishopsgate, historian Geoffrey Marsh depicts him as part of an Elizabethan Notting Hill set.

“Within a few years of migrating to London from Stratford, he was living in one of the wealthiest parishes in the city, alongside powerful public figures, wealthy international merchants, society doctors and expert musicians. The merchants had connections across Europe and the doctors were linked to the latest progressive thinking in universities in Italy and Germany. Living in what was one of the power locales of London would have also enhanced Shakespeare’s status as he developed his career, sought a family coat of arms and planned to buy an impressive and expensive house in Stratford. It’s the equivalent of today’s Notting Hill businessmen, living alongside artists, particularly musicians”.

At the time Shakespeare was a tenant of the Company of Leathersellers. Many early biographical traditions about Shakespeare, such as the famous deer-stealing legend, identity him as a boy from an agricultural trading family, who worked with livestock; who turned up in London looking for a job; and who set to work applying the skills he had learned in the management of domestic animals. In a later book, The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753), it was asserted that ‘Shakespear, driven to the last necessity, went to the playhouse door, and pick’d up a little money by taking care of the gentlemens’ horses who came to the play’. The author traced this story back to William D’Avenant, who claimed he was Shakespeare’s godson (and even perhaps his illegitimate son). Shakespeare is described as prospering in this business and expanding it, and so coming to the notice of the company, whose bosses brought him in as actor, and then writer.

Shakespeare’s first biographer Nicholas Rowe also has Shakespeare arriving in London’s theatre land as a poor young man.

It is at this Time, and upon this Accident, that he is said to have made his first Acquaintance in the Play-house. He was receiv’d into the Company then in being, at first in a very mean Rank; But his admirable Wit, and the natural Turn of it to the Stage, soon distinguished him, if not as an extraordinary Actor, yet as an excellent Writer. (Some Account of the Life of Mr William Shakespeare, 1709).

The story is further corroborated from another source. It appears in a letter of 1693, written by a Mr. Dowdall, who had visited Stratford, and was told by the elderly parish clerk that ‘this Shakespeare was formerly in this town bound apprentice to a butcher; but that he ran from his master to London, and then was received into the playhouse as a serviture, and by this means had the opportunity to be what he afterwards proved’.

The idea that John Shakespeare was a butcher, and that his son worked in the business, assisting in the slaughtering of animals, was set out in John Aubrey’s Lives of Eminent Men (1696), the source of many Shakespearean biographical traditions.  According to Aubrey’s notes, John Shakespeare was a butcher, and his son a butcher’s boy: ‘I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours that when he was a boy he exercised his father’s trade … When he killed a calf, he would doe it in a high style and make a speech. There was at that time another butcher’s son in this towne, that was held not at all inferior to him for a naturall wit, his acquaintance, and coetanean, but dyed young.’

Scholars have dismissed as impossible to believe the image of the young Shakespeare practising rhetoric while slaughtering livestock. Poetry and butchering? Literary greatness in a slaughterhouse? The great scholar Samuel Schoenbaum (William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, OUP, 1977), for instance insisted that John Shakespeare could not possibly have been a butcher, because he was a glover who ‘served out his apprenticeship’, and indeed probably ‘undertook an apprenticeship of at least seven years’. His son William would also have served the same seven-year apprenticeship. Nor could he have mixed trades that were legally kept separate: ‘stringent regulations governing the wholesomeness of meat kept the two occupations separate’.(p. 14) ‘Glovers, as we have seen, were restrained from looking after their own slaughter­ing’. (p. 60) John Shakespeare is certainly mentioned in various historical records as a glover: when he was sued for £8 in 1556; and when he set his mark on a bond in 1592. An early piece of tradition, dating to c. 1657, places John Shakespeare in his glover’s shop, a ‘merry-cheeked old man’ who spoke jovially of his famous son as someone he could always crack a joke with. (Schoenbaum, pp. 30-1)

Here Schoenbaum appears to be placing a barrier of solid historical facts between ‘Shakespeare and Son’, and the unpleasant trade of butchering. Clearly for him it is preferable to think of Shakespeare’s father as a respectable tradesman who served his apprenticeship and then worked in fine leather, a craftsman or artisan, rather than a mere tradesman, or even worse a slaughterman who slit the throats of squealing pigs and bleating calves. That merry-cheeked old man, standing in a provincial shop full of fine leather gloves, provides a safe and respectable haven for Shakespeare’s youth. As we have seen, Schoenbaum claims as fact what turns out to be more like prejudice. While claiming to disperse the gossip and rumour of tradition, and replace it with hard solid fact, he in fact weaves the facts together with inventions of his own. He does this with the confidence of academic authority, convinced that his critical and sceptical analysis of the historical records is much more substantial than some of the records he is analysing.

In fact, however, there is no evidence whatsoever that either John or William served any kind of apprenticeship; and much evidence that John Shakespeare did not restrict himself to one trade. Schoenbaum does not quote the regulations he cites as keeping trades separate, but refers to an old Shakespeare biography, Shakespeare’s Family and Friends (1911) as a reliable source of historical evidence. This earlier book mentions 16th century legislation that sought to maintain divisions of labour between trades such as skinning, butchery, tanning and working in leather. The existence of laws on the statute book is taken as evidence that they were scrupulously adhered to. Yet those laws existed precisely because people worked across different trades, resulting in a long history of competition and mutual recrimination between the craft guilds.

John Shakespeare was fairly typical of his time in having a finger in a number of economic pies. The historical records shows that he was a glover, but also a farmer (‘agricola’), a dealer in wool, and a tanner.  He is described in records of 1573 and 1578 as a ‘whyttawer’, one who prepared the hides of deer, calves and sheep to make white leather. (Schoenbaum p. 30) A man who made his living from farming, and from processing and selling animal skins and wool, might also have slaughtered and skinned and fleeced animals he himself reared. For his eldest son to assist him in his work would have been the most natural thing in the world. And if John Shakespeare had scrupulously adhered to the laws of the land, he would have stuck to his trade of glove-making, and not dealt in wool, or lent money at interest, and get into trouble with the law quite so often.

This analysis points us towards a particular view of William Shakespeare’s origins, which is that they were rural and bucolic, having to do with field and cattle-market; and that they involved the rearing and exploitation of animals, which were slaughtered for their meat and for their skins. It places him in a peasant environment, where agricultural divisions of labour were not yet well established. It locates him in a context of hard and unpleasant labour that entailed what many people today would think of as extreme cruelty to animals.

So little credence is given to the story of Shakespeare reciting poetry while slaughtering, not in my view because it is inherently improbable, but because academic critics and biographers simply cannot imagine so close an intimacy between intellectual and physical labours. Speaking of the memorial bust of Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, editor and critic John Dover Wilson insisted that he could not have looked like this: ‘This might suit well enough with an affluent and retired butcher, but does gross wrong to the dead poet’ (John Dover Wilson, The Essential Shakespeare: a Biographical Adventure, CUP 1932). It seems to have slipped Wilson’s mind that Shakespeare might well in his later years have resembled his father, who very likely was an ‘affluent and retired butcher’.

Yet this plebeian background is what produced the greatest dramatists of the age, butcher-boy Shakespeare and bricklayer’s son Ben Jonson. Closer to home in Stratford, John Shakespeare traded with a tanner called Henry Field, and took him to court for the price of some barley. Field’s son Richard was apprenticed to a London stationer, and then a printer, whose business he took over (together with his French wife) when his master died. This was the Richard Field who published Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis. The stink of tanning that surrounded these country boys in their youth, did not stop them from making these substantial and complementary contributions to the literature of the Renaissance. And although, as writer and printer, they worked of course in paper, it could be more than coincidental that their fathers’ trade backgrounds might also have included the manufacture of vellum and parchment from animal skins.

From Graham Holderness, Nine Lives of William Shakespeare (Bloomsbury 2011). For more adventures in the skin trade, see Graham Holderness, Meat, Murder, Malfeasance, Medicine and Martyrdom: Smithfield Stories (Edward Everett Root, 2019).

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