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).

This week Sgt Alexander Blackman, late of the Royal Marines, publishes his memoir Marine A (Mirror Books, 2019). Blackman achieved notoriety as the soldier who fired a bullet into the body of his Taliban captive while quoting Hamlet. He was the first British soldier to be convicted of murder on a foreign battlefield. Read here about the deeper links between Marine A’s experience and Shakespeare’s tragedy of Hamlet, in an extract from an article ‘Hamlet in Helmand’ by Graham Holderness and Bryan Loughrey. The full article is published in Critical Insights: Hamlet, edited by Robert C. Evans (NY: Salem Press, 2019).

Image: Robert F. Carter

Hamlet in Helmand: Wild Justice (EXTRACT)

Graham Holderness and Bryan Loughrey

“Shuffle off this mortal coil you c***.

It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.”[1]

This is a quotation from the recorded speech of Sergeant Alexander Blackman of the British Royal Marines as he fired a bullet into the body of a captured Afghan insurgent in Helmand Province in September 2011.

Inside that quotation lies another much more familiar quotation, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil

Must give us pause. (3.1.67-9)

Sgt Blackman was identified not as a soldier who killed his prisoner, but as a soldier who quoted Shakespeare while doing so.

In September 2011 Sgt Blackman was on patrol in Helmand Province with 42 Commando Royal Marines, and came across a Taliban insurgent who, in the course of attacking a British forward post, had been mortally wounded by an Apache helicopter. MP Richard Drax, introducing a Parliamentary Debate in 16 September 2015, said:

Sergeant Blackman and his patrol were directed to an insurgent who had been fatally wounded by gunfire from an Apache helicopter. Horribly exposed in a known hotspot for enemy activity, they knew that other insurgents were in the area. They dragged the fatally wounded man to cover.[2] 

The Apache is equipped with the M230 chain gun, which fires six-hundred-and-twenty-five 30 mm rounds, each capable of piercing an armoured vehicle, a minute. Blackman and his comrades pulled the fatally wounded (or dead) man out of sight of a surveillance balloon. The whole operation was filmed via a helmet camera worn by one of the Marines who accompanied Sgt Blackman. The audio component of the video recording (the former was publicly released in 2013, the latter in 2017), shows clearly that the Marines debated whether or not to administer first aid, and tried to keep their actions shielded from the sight and surveillance of other army personnel. They also show that Blackman shot the insurgent with a 9mm pistol, admitted that he had “just broke the Geneva Convention”, and enjoined secrecy on his comrades – “obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas.”

A year later, five Marines were charged with murder. Charges were dropped against two, and proceeded with against three, including Blackman. A court-martial found Blackman alone guilty of murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment (minimum ten years) and discharged in disgrace from the Marines. He lost his appeal, though his sentence was reduced from ten years to eight. He was the first British serviceman to be convicted of the murder of an enemy combatant on a foreign battlefield.

Following Blackman’s conviction, support for the Marine sprang up from various quarters, both within the military and the general public, producing a press campaign, social media support groups and petitions to have him released, or his sentence reduced. In 2017 Blackman’s conviction was reduced from murder to manslaughter with diminished responsibility, the “disgrace” stigma was removed from his dismissal, and he was released from prison.   

There are two interpretations of this complex and difficult case. The court-martial convicted Blackman of murder, a verdict supported by senior military officers, the court-martial judicial system, the Ministry of Defence, and implicitly the House of Commons. Within this perspective Blackman acted both illegally and dishonourably, since it was his duty under the Geneva Convention to protect the wounded prisoner.  

The opposing argument, which is one of mitigation rather than defence, was the basis for the campaign of public support for Blackman. At his trial Blackman admitted that he had shot the man, but claimed that he believed him to be already dead. In the audio recording, several of the soldiers offer the opinion that he was already dead, supporting Blackman’s contention. He had tried to take out his anger on a corpse, he claimed, and felt deeply ashamed of his actions.  

There is however a third way of interpreting this incident, via the Shakespeare play alluded to in Blackman’s battlefield citation. The context of the quotation is of course Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and the prince’s meditations on suicide. Hamlet, however, is not a play about eschatology, but a play about revenge and justice: in particular about whether they can ever be the same thing. We can infer that this aspect of Hamlet was very much in Sgt Blackman’s mind from his subsequent remark, addressed to the dead or dying prisoner: “It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.”

This follow-up remark is not of course a quotation from Shakespeare, but it certainly operates as a citation, by irresistibly invoking Hamlet’s prior justification, confided to Horatio, for killing Claudius:

Does it not, think’st thee, stand me now upon
He that hath killed my king and whored my mother,
Popped in between th’election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage – is’t not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is’t not to be damned
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil? (5.2.64-71)

Horatio implicitly agrees: “Why, what a king is this!” In the same vein one of Sgt Blackman’s comrades endorses the validity of his talionic assertion – “It’s nothing more than you would do to us” – with the laconic “I know.”

Nothing you wouldn’t do to us. “In Afghanistan”, observed Richard Drax in the Parliamentary Debate, “the enemy were clever, motivated, difficult to identify, ruthless and cruel. Torture and death faced those who fell into their hands”. (Hansard Column 339WH)  Hamlet’s list of charges against Claudius amounts to an insistent protestation that in this case revenge and justice are perfectly aligned: “is’t not perfect conscience / To quit him?” (5.2.70) The Royal Marines might well have been engaged in a very similar effort of self-justification.

“Revenge,” wrote Francis Bacon, “is a kind of wild justice.” (Bacon 9). Revenge is no more a part of the modern judicial system than it was in Shakespeare’s day. But it remains, over 2000 years after the Sermon on the Mount, an obstinately enduring element of popular culture.

Hamlet is sent by his father’s ghost on a mission of revenge; but he interprets it as one of justice. Most analysts of the play have agreed with him. Sgt Blackman was also sent, it could be argued, by his political leaders, on a mission of revenge, for the atrocity of 9/11. The 2001 invasion by the Anglo-American coalition was triggered by the Taliban government’s refusal to surrender Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists, and expel Al-Qaeda from their territory. The coalition was joined in due course by NATO and United Nations forces. But notwithstanding the political motivation of the war, in common with all other military personnel involved in this campaign, Sgt Blackman was expected to operate within the parameters of British and international justice. As Colonel Bob Stewart, former UN Commander in Bosnia, said in the Parliamentary Debate:

… the law is clear. Servicemen and women have a duty and a right to kill the enemy, until that enemy comes under their control—de facto, a prisoner. Once the enemy is under control, they have a responsibility to care for that person. In this case, clearly, Marine A did wrong by killing, or assuming he was killing, someone. That is against the law of armed conflict and the Geneva convention. (Hansard Column 355WH)

There was no space then within this sphere of responsibility for the kind of “wild justice” permissible in Hamlet, and indeed advocated by the revenge-based plot of thousands of popular films.

Filming the event via a helmet-mounted camera made it a form of theatre. Quoting Shakespeare inside such a theatrical environment renders the action a kind of performance. Clearly the Marine who did the filming never expected his little play to gain an audience; rather it was staged for his own private satisfaction. But once the film was released – fully in audio and partially in video – it became nothing less than a revenge tragedy played out among the cornfields of Helmand.

In legal terms, the distinction between drama and real life is absolute. In real life you cannot “poison in jest” (3.2.220): murder is murder. In the initial trial, according to the army, the courts and the MOD, Sgt Blackman murdered a man he should have saved. To Blackman’s supporters, a soldier who had been pushed beyond the limit by the terrible circumstances into which we ordered him made a vindictive but justifiable error of judgement. They stood on the principle that on occasion that which belongs inside the theatre may, even should, be permitted to operate outside it. In the event the law was found to concur with this principle of poetic justice.

Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. “Revenge”. The Essays of Francis Bacon. London: George Sawbridge, 1696.

House of Commons Hansard, 16 September 2015. [Available at] https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2015-09-16/debates/15091640000001/SgtAlexanderBlackman(MarineA) [Accessed 20 September 2018)

[1] From transcript of the ‘Helmand Province Incident’ audio recording, published by The Guardian, 25 October 2013. [Available at]  https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/oct/25/royal-marines-court-martial-video-transcript [Accessed 20 September 2018]. The video recording was released in 2017 and is accessible on Youtube. [Available at] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKxCZxPmvN8 [Accessed 20 September 2018].

[2] Richard Drax, MP. House of Commons Hansard, 16 September 2015. Column 339WH.

This highly original new book by a leading Shakespeare expert and cultural critic argues controversially that the ‘samurai Shakespeare’ of the Japanese cinematic and theatrical masterpiece-makers Akira Kurosawa and Yukio Ninagawa represents the greatest achievement of Japanese Shakespeare reproduction. Holderness argues that ‘samurai Shakespeare’ is both consistent with our own western engagement with Japan, and true to the spirit of Japanese culture. 

Shakespeare was an exact contemporary of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Yet when he was first imported into Japan, in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, the plays were performed in contemporary dress, not in the conventional British historical styles, and received as the modern counterpart of Ibsen and Shaw, Gorky and Chekhov.

Today in Japan the Edo past is lovingly preserved, reproduced and displayed. Almost 30 million international tourists enter Japan each year to visit the old capitals of Kyoto and Nara, drawn by the magic of Edo castles, ancient temples, swords and samurai, geishas and sumo, maple leaves and cherry blossom. At the same time Japan represents itself as a society of ultra-modernity, free from the burdens of the past. This book examines why and how early Japanese Shakespeare was assimilated to the modernising and westernising tendencies of the Meiji regime, and kept well away from that very recent but dangerous feudal past of Edo Japan to which at least some of the plays should surely have been seen to belong.  

When Shakespeare was finally integrated with the Edo past, it was to a contradictory mixture of acclaim and condemnation. In 1957 Akira Kurosawa released his great film Kumonosujo, known in the west as Throne of Blood, where the plot of Macbeth, without Shakespeare’s language, is brilliantly relocated to feudal Japan, and which has been described variously as ‘the most complete translation of Shakespeare into film’ and as ‘not really Shakespeare at all’. Kurosawa followed Kumonosujo much later in 1985 with his samurai version of King Lear, Ran. In the theatre Yukio Ninagawa staged in 1980 what is perhaps the greatest ever Japanese production of Shakespeare, his Macbeth set in mediaeval Japan. Ninagawa produced The Tempest in an equally traditional style, as ‘A Rehearsal of a Noh Play on the Island of Sado’ (the island to which Zeami, the great playwright of Noh, was exiled). Across a period of 30 years (1957-1987) these great theatre and cinema artists finally resolved the conflicts between Shakespeare and Japan by setting the plays back into their own beloved but disputed past. These ‘Samurai Shakespeare’ productions were initially received in the west and in Japan with enthusiasm, though not without some critical reflection on the dangers of ‘exoticism’ and ‘orientalism.’

However, after this great florescence of ‘samurai Shakespeare’ (1957-1987), the theatre in Japan returned to its Shingeki roots, preferring modernity to tradition. The phenomenon of Edo Shakespeare became a definitive cultural moment, and many subsequent productions allude or pay homage to the work of Fukuda, Kurosawa and Ninagawa. However ultra-modern a Japanese Shakespeare production may be, it has had the facility to acknowledge the country’s own past as one of Shakespeare’s multiple global histories. At the same time ‘Samurai Shakespeare’ can be found alive and well in other Japanese media, especially Manga.

This is an important study of the complexity and contradictions of crucial cultural and historical moments in Japanese history, and in the relations between Japan and the West.


Introduction: Shakespeare and Japan

1          ‘Show me a samurai’: western admiration of Edo culture, 1890-1900.

2          Modernity and tradition in Japanese theatre 1900-1957.

3          Tsuneari Fukuda

4          Akira Kurosawa

5          Yukio Ninagawa

6          ‘Samurai Shakespeare’ in Japanese theatre 1980-2000.

7          Conclusion: Manga Shakespeare.

c. 256 pp. 12 illustrations, six of which in colour.