Was John Shakspere a dissident nonconformist?

In a book titled Shakespeare, Puritan and Recusant, published in 1897, author Thomas Carter makes a convincing argument that the apparent troubles brought on the Shakspere family beginning around 1576 were due neither to Catholicism nor debt, but to John Shakspere’s adherence to the radical Protestant line.  In other words, John Shakspere was what in the 1590s would be described as nonconformist or dissident.  In other words, he was the opposite of what we’ve been told.  Although this may leave a few problems unresolved, it makes a lot more sense than the Catholic theory.

Certain that Shakspere’s son was the great playwright, Carter also believes that John must have been literate, and even holds that certain fees paid him were to send him to London to observe a session of Parliament.  We needn’t go this far; greater certainty would lie with evidence from other towns of the literacy of men like Shakspere Sr. during this period of rapid change in levels of literacy.  The most likely may be the middle view, that the glover’s mark he used as a signature was an artisan’s tradition, not a symptom of illiteracy, so that Shakspere Sr. could read enough to manage his affairs, something according to Carter he did well enough throughout.  As for John’s son William, it’s evident that, whether or not he could read at any level, he was unable to write his own signature with ease, which would seem to put him out of the running as the author of Hamlet.

From the beginning, John Shakspere’s career path followed that of the rise of Protestantism and fell with the rise of government anti-Puritanism.  He came to Stratford in 1551, possibly on a wave of Protestantism when John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, Warwickshire’s Protestant overlord, came to supreme national power.  Dudley lost it when the Catholics came back in in 1553, but then in 1558, with the pendulum of power swinging back to the reformers, came Shakspere Sr.’s first steps up in Stratford town government.  His lifelong friend Adrian Quiney was the town’s first Bailiff under Elizabeth, while in 1564 “Chamberlains” Shakspere and friend Robert Wheler were paid to rid the town chapel of its Catholic symbols, the cross, the rood screen, and the images and pictures of the saints (69).

For twenty years John Shakespeare and his friends continued to serve in one capacity or another as leaders in the Stratford Council until the mid ’70s when it appears he lost interest in civic service, either from debt or recusancy.  Although his recusancy is a matter of record, Carter shows that Shakspere was neither bankrupt nor was he even in serious debt.  The land transaction that scholars have interpreted as a sale by a desperate bankrupt were, as Carter explains, standard moves made by recusants to shift ownership of land to a friend or family member to avoid having their property confiscated should they be condemned by the Ecclesiastical High Commission (94-106).

The word recusant is usually taken to mean Catholics who refused to conform, but in fact it simply means one who abstains from attending church out of protest.  It’s true that the majority of recusants were Catholic, but right from the start it was clear that for the Queen and many others, the complaint was less with the Catholic service than it was with Catholic politics.  As for religion, once the Armada was defeated and the Crown was no longer so worried about Spain, Elizabeth’s attention turned to the English dissidents who, if anything, were even more offensive to her personally in their demands, whether for a reformed Church or the freedom to worship as they pleased.

Having been made the Head of the Church by the actions of her father, Elizabeth took seriously the Act of Uniformity passed by Parliament shortly after her coronation that demanded allegiance to the (once again) reformed Service and Book of Common Prayer.  Seeing the empty churches as a personal affront, she put her “little black husband” Archbishop Whitgift in charge of forcing them back to church and the machinery of repression under the High Commission swung around toward the dissidents.  Thus was the Church of England born.  Shorn by the Star Chamber of opposition at both ends of the religious spectrum, it settled into what the proto-Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, etc., saw as a Catholic service in every respect but that Latin was replaced by English and the clergy were allowed to marry.

Carter sees this wave of repression, sparked by the uproar caused by the Queen’s threat to marry the Catholic French prince and her brutal treatment of John Stubbes for writing against it, as sweeping through Stratford in 1579, bringing strict reprisals from Westminster and forcing Shakspere Sr. and his reformist friends to retreat from the kind of involvement in civic affairs that could lead to serious trouble for them and their families.  As the records show, John was willing (and apparently able) to pay a heavy fine for not taking Episcopalian communion (118).  That John Shakspere retired from public life for twenty years, not because he was a Catholic, but because he was a dissident, makes a good deal of sense in almost every respect.

One issue that it doesn’t resolve is the matter of the Catholic handbook found by roofers in the eaves of the Henley Street house in 1757 (Schoenbaum 41).   This has been taken as evidence that John was a devout Catholic who hid the book out of concern that it might be found by some delegation of church commissioners.  Surely we can let go of this one.  It doesn’t affect the authorship thesis in any direct way.  Anyone could have hidden the book, such as an apprentice with rooms in the attic, concerned that his Master find him with such a dangerous item.  Another issue is the reason why William’s daughter Susannah was listed in 1606 by an ecclesiastical commission as a recusant (234-5) which Schoenbaum attributes to her being “popishly affected,” though it can just as easily be interpreted as an attempt to keep track of persons who failed to show up for communion so that they could be fined.

It does resolve other things.  There’s the problem of why John Shakspere’s neighbor, tanner Henry Field, clearly a staunch Protestant (having placed his son as an apprentice with the Huguenot printer Thomas Vautrollier), would name a devout Catholic in his will to act as his executor.  When seen as fellow Protestants, Shakspere and Field’s relationship makes better sense (even if John did take Henry to court once over a debt).

But the best proof comes from the plays, where advocates of a Catholic Shakespeare have a hard row to hoe.  Some of Shakespeare’s many Biblical references could have come from any Bible, but the prevalence of quotations, some almost word for word, from the 1560 Geneva Bible far outnumber them.  The very fact that there are so many Biblical quotes in Shakespeare while the Inquisition taught that it was a sin for a layman, not just to read the Bible, any bible, but even to own one, should be enough to quash the Catholic Shakespeare theory.  (The ability of theorists to cling to a notion, no matter how utterly it’s been proven false, never ceases to amaze.)

This prevalance in Shakespeare of quotations from the Puritan Bible, as Carter calls it, helps him with his Puritan Shakespeare theory, but not nearly so much as it helps Oxfordians with ours, for the Earl of Oxford spent the first eight years of his school career being tutored by one of England’s leading reform theologians, one who helped to create the also frequently quoted Book of Common Prayer, while the very Geneva Bible that Oxford purchased when he was nineteen, when presumably he was off on his own and no longer reliant on the books in his guardian’s library, is still to be found in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

10 thoughts on “Was John Shakspere a dissident nonconformist?

  1. I agree. John’s puritan recusancy is more plausible. Regarding the spritual testament allegedly found in the rafters, what no one else has pointed out (so far as I know) is that the roof would have to have been replaced at least three times before the testament was “discovered”. How did it go undiscovered all those times?

    1. One would think that the roof would have required previous work over the almost 200 years that elapsed between the book being stuck somewhere in the eaves and the repairs in 1757. In any case, the location of the book would be critical. The oak beams that they used back then were as strong as steel, so if it was lodged between two of them, it’s conceivable that it could have passed without notice. But this is a side issue and not really germane to the authorship, so it doesn’t really matter when it was put there or by whom.

    1. The only tie to John Shakspere is that the Henley Street house belonged to him during his lifetime, and the “thingy” or spiritual testament has been dated to during his lifetime.

  2. Thanks for mentioning that John Shakespeare was paid to alter the altar in 1564. I wish that some record of John Shakespeare’s final resting place would exist. I would love to know what the average Stratfordian of the time would have thought of him.

    1. But my dear fotoguzzi, that’s the point we’ve been making for so long, there weren’t any Stratfordians in those days, not in Stratford, not anywhere! Never mind, I know you meant inhabitants of Stratford. We don’t know much about John Shakspere, but we do know that he had several lifelong friends. If Carter is right, John was something of a leader among the non-conformists, enough so that he felt it incumbent upon him to show his disdain of the Episcopalian prelates by refusing to attend their service. I imagine that that made him rather a hero in the reform community, and that when his son struck it rich in London (who knew how), they were delighted when he had a monument placed in the local church with a bust that showed the old fellow grasping a wool sack. As for where he’s buried, perhaps beneath the slab bearing the stupid verse, which may have been meant for him, not his son.

  3. Very interesting indeed, the recusancy idea. Could this also relate to Shakspere’s troubles with the College of Heralds, and the “Not Without Right/Not Without Mustard” business?

    Tom Goff

  4. I can’t see that his recusancy played any part in the coat of arms incident either earlier or later. An ambitious John first applied for the coat of arms in 1569 when he was on his way up in the world. He was denied by the College of Arms because he didn’t have the kind of background that would justify it. In 1596, when William applied on behalf of his father, it was probably as part of the deal that allowed the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to use his name on title pages. It was probably easy enough at that time for someone connected with the Privy Council and the Company to slip a few pounds to the herald. The coat of arms enabled him to call himself a gentleman, which meant that he was protected from a variety of harms that could have caused the Company unwanted publicity.

    What seeing him as a protestant recusant does do is provide a solid reason why the family might welcome such a deal. That a connection to the Royal Acting Company provided funds wasn’t the only benefit. More important, it would also provide protection from the persecution of dissidents ordered by the Queen and promoted by Archbishop Whitgift in their campaign to establish the State Church along conservative episcopal lines.

  5. Could John Shakespeare have become an alderman without swearing the Oath of Supremacy – impossible for a Catholic to do without perjuring his soul and going to hell ? Could a non-Calvinist/ Catholic be a usurer ?
    Re his son – apart from the Geneva Bible, it is surely odd in the extreme for Catholic writer to include so many allusions to Cranmer´s Homilies and Nowel´s Catechism or to base so many plays on the works of Protestant writers like Arthur Brooke, Golding, Whetstone, Foxe et or to have collaborated with Protestant dramatists like Middleton, Fletcher, Anthony Munday etc And why was the 2nd Folio so heavily censored in Spain in 1632 ?

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