"Scrooge of Stratford"- K. Duncan-Jones

The following is excerpted from “Shakespeare, Scrooge of Stratford,” by Katherine Duncan-Jones, originally published in The New Statesman, March 26, 2001, itself an excerpt from her book, Ungentle Shakespeare.  Duncan-Jones is an orthodox Shakespearean and a confirmed Stratfordian. Was this the man who wrote “he who steals my purse steals trash?”  (Italics are mine.)

It is notoriously unwise to attempt to identify a writer’s views with those of his characters, and especially so in the case of a dramatist, who must animate many different and opposing viewpoints while being personally present in all of them or none.  Perhaps we should not be too shocked, therefore––and yet, to be honest, it is shocking––to discover that Shakespeare himself gave little or nothing to “Poor Tom.”

Evidence for this turns up throughout the documentary record. Four references to him as a tax-defaulter, first in the City of London, then in Southwark, in 1596-1600, show that he habitually failed to pay the parish dues that supported abandoned babies, the aged and the infirm.  This can be explained away.  The busy and successful playwright may never have been at home in his lodgings when the tax collectors called, and perhaps he spent so little time there that he did not feel obliged to assist the local poor.  Certainly he does not seem to have established a long-term connection with a parish church in London.  Harder to explain or condone is his citation in 1599 as a hoarder of 80 bushels of corn and malt in the outbuildings of his five-gabled mansion, New Place.  This was a period of near-starvation for the poor of Stratford after three bad harvests in as many years.

By the end of the century, some of Stratford’s more public- spirited citizens seem to have felt that the wealthy player-poet should be compelled to do more for the needy of his native town.  An old husbandman, Thomas Whittington, made a will in which he bequeathed to “the poor of Stratford” a sum of 40 shillings “that is in the hand of Anne Shakespeare wife unto Master William Shakespeare, and is due debt unto me.”  The “scriptor” of this will was the town’s faithful curate and assistant schoolmaster, William Gilbard, . . . and it was probably he who devised this rather unusual bequest. . . .  It suggests that Shakespeare’s wife, Anne, had been left short of money, and had turned for help to Whittington; and it also suggests that both Whittington and Gilbard felt that [William], now a major landowner in the neighbourhood, had to be coerced into diverting some of his wealth to charitable ends.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Though it is true that Shakespeare’s name lives on . . . in Stratford, there is no evidence that he was concerned, when alive, to ensure it did so through direct acts of munificence.  This becomes painfully apparent in the debate about “enclosures” that clouded the last couple of years of Shakespeare’s life.  The process of “enclosing” land––of surrounding fields with hedges and ditches and turning them over to pasture for sheep––had been going on piecemeal since the late Middle Ages.  As the historian Joan Thirsk explains: “To enclose land was to extinguish common rights, thus putting an end to all common grazing.”  The consequence of enclosure, if insufficient common grazing was left for local cottagers, was poverty and “depopulation.”

One of Shakespeare’s friends, a wealthy Stratford landowner called William Combe, was planning in 1614-15 to “enclose” some of his lands in Old Stratford and Welcombe.  Thomas Greene, a kinsman of Shakespeare’s and an attorney, was passionately determined to oppose Combe’s plans, and sought repeatedly to enlist Shakespeare’s support.  This is one of the best-documented episodes in the playwright’s life, and it is not a pretty tale.

Shakespeare steadfastly refused to oppose Combe’s plans.  The affair seems to have caused a falling-out between him and Thomas Greene.  Although Greene was both a kinsman and a very old friend, neither he nor his children (the eldest tellingly named William and Anne) were mentioned in Shakespeare’s will.  Thomas Combe, on the other hand, nephew and heir to the would-be encloser, was given the valuable and highly symbolic bequest of Shakespeare’s sword.

No attorney in this period would forget to ensure that a wealthy testator left something to the poor.  So it was with Shakespeare, who left £10 “to the poor of Stratford.”  However, this bequest was almost immediately followed by a bequest to his attorney, suggesting that it was indeed in response to his prompting, and not spontaneously, that the bequest to the poor was made.  It is rather striking that the attorney himself, Francis Collins, was left the larger sum of £13 3s 6d.  Collins had performed major services for Shakespeare.  The poor, perhaps, had not, though he must have employed a number of servants and menials, none of whom rates a mention in the will.  Men possessed of such wealth and property as Shakespeare was would have hoped to be warmly remembered by the local poor.  [Particularly considering that his own family had spent a good twenty years in a similar situation.]  A common bequest, for instance, was for new gowns to be given to poor men to the number of the dead man’s age––in Shakespeare’s case, 51––to be worn on the day of his funeral. There was also often provision for the poor to enjoy food and drink on that day. This doesn’t seem to be something that the dying playwright wanted to consider.

Originally published on 26 March 2001 in the issue “How the rich rule politics again.”

20 thoughts on “"Scrooge of Stratford"- K. Duncan-Jones

  1. Ms. Hughes,
    From Preface to Duncan-Jones “An Ungentle Life,” from whihc above is extract:
    “There is also a wealth of contemporary allusions to Shakespeare as a player and poet, and to his writings, both poems and plays. Indeed, this material is so abundant that I have not attempted to cite all of it.”
    Clearly, there is no SAQ with Ms. Duncan-Jones, as much as you might like to imagine one.

  2. Clearly she is using the traditional orientation of the name and assuming the name and the person are the same. Those of us who have investigated and particularly have read Price at the very least would say this is not an automatic a priori assumption.

  3. Ken, There’s nothing a prioiri about Stratford = Shakes. Rather, it’s a very reasonable conclusion based upon the wealth of contemporary material that Duncan-Jones refers to. Oxfordianism, however, is a priori, since as yet there is not a single piece of actual evidence for Oxford, just inference, speculation, guess, surmise, and an internally contradictory premise that he had to remain anonymous, while in same breathe you offer Webb, Putteham, and Meres to tout his literary bona fides, which together with his published works, makes him anything but anonymous.

  4. Who said anything about Oxford? I have always agreed with Price and others that there is something wrong about the biography in terms of a *personal literary trial* from the man demonstrating that he was a writer by profession. I am not going over well worn arguments again over this. There may be some good reason why the man left virtually no personal literary mark as did his contemporaries. Perhaps he was a Salinger type. Perhaps he did have syphilis and was withdrawn and ashamed of it. I don’t know. History does not tell us why there is no glimpse of the man who for 20 years was at the very center of the London literary scene and was embroiled in several ways in potentially fierce comments on prominent figures in the Royal court. There is something off. The signatures are a mess.
    All we really have is the life of a businessman. There is no insight whatsoever on the mind behind the works. None. And allusions to the name of the writer, like reviews written by critics, are NOT a ” wealth of contemporary material”. Its jibber jabber and every traditional biography admits they have no clue about the man or what made him tick. Well he could have. Maybe he did this. Its speculated that..Talk about “surmises”.
    Personally I think there is a “wealth of material” tying Shakespeare to Oxford. Look only at the Bedingfield letter. Influence patron. I don’t know. But its there.
    You tell me something. Why did Shakespeare put more hendiadys in Hamlet than in nearly all his other plays combined? And why does Oxford use them so much. Why is Shakespeare so fond of a literary device (murder in the figurative) that is attributed by the OED to Shakespeare in 1593 (V&A) but Oxford uses at 23 in a far more mature fashion and should have first modern attribution. But the Strats would steal everything from Oxford, even this.
    As Dylan said in “Visions of Johanna”, “but these Visions of Johanna, they have conquered my mind.” These things are just the tip of the iceberg that puzzle me. But don’t go there. Nothing to see. Move along now.

  5. P.S. I am NOT saying Oxford wrote Shakespeare.I AM saying it sure looks like there is some connection between the two.
    One other thing. I don’t think traditionalists even begin to understand the man because they remove his work from historical context. You might read this and ask, why did he do this and how did he do this and how does this frack with the the traditional lineage of the plays. It turned me around forever.

  6. Ken, “Some connection between the two.” Do you mean between Ox and Shakes, or between Ox and the works?
    Given size of corpus and diversity of the language, I don’t find it the least bit unusual that some of Shakespeare’s words appeared before he used them. Cherry picking a few here and there proves very little.
    Likewise, some of the similarities between CC and Hamlet are, indeed, striking. But Shakes could have read the book as easily as Ox. Simply put, we don’t know that Ox actually read CC, just as we don’t know that Shakes did, and even if he had, was it the source for Hamlet playing upon death and sleep (a hoary old metaphor) and dreaming. Like John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10, c 1609. Did Oxford write Donne, too?
    In Psalms, death is described as the “sleep of death” (Ps. 13:3). In God’s predicted judgment of Babylon, they will “sleep forever and not awake” (Jer. 51:39, 57). Here we see that the Israelites associated death with sleep. This metaphor is also evident in Greek mythology.
    Which brings us back again to main question: There is no actual evidence connecting Ox to canon. If I am wrong, if you have found some, and by that I don’t mean speculation and inference, please correct me. And if you claim there is no actual evidence for Stratford, I’d be happy to offer a few compact paragraphs that show otherwise. Of course, you will immediately attempt to explain away whatever I offer, which is telling in itself. Doubters/Oxfordians, have spent volumes trying to explain away the actual evidence for Shakes, even more time than they spend trying to invent evidence for Ox.
    What a difficult position to be in.

    1. Could we call these chaps by their names and not Ox and Shakes? All it takes is a few more strokes on the keyboard. We at least can give them the dignity they deserve and that Oxford at least has been denied for so long. One of the problems we have in understanding Oxford and his friends is the immense respect the English had for their peers. Americans have nothing similar for anyone. Until we make an effort to understand these folks we’re never going to get the story straight.

  7. Ox and Shake. I spent over ten years with Kathman, Ross, Reedy, Nelson and the rest who were way ahead of no nothings like Shapiro and Greenblatt, etc on the authorship subject. Since you’re on this site, you might read some of Stephanie’s work on historical context. You might agree. You might disagree. Was Richard III partly written as a blast at Robert Cecil? Its a credible theory since no one knows for sure why he wrote the play and mangled history as he did, as entertaining and a tour de force it is. But it would change our perception of the author from the fringes if it were true. You didn’t read Desper’s piece, did you? Your loss. So I have no desire to go over well trodden ground again. Have a good life.

  8. Ken,
    Your own words betray you and capture, in a nutshell, the Oxie dilemma. You write, “Was Richard III partly written as a blast at Robert Cecil? Its a credible theory since no one knows for sure why he wrote the play and mangled history as he did.” Since “no one knows for sure,” Oxies think that gives them the right to make up anything they want and deem it “credible.” Don’t you see the problem here?

  9. When you offer me a fact, a document, any evidence that Will of Stratford owned a book, researched a book, how he used or found his resources,or was anywhere near a book in his lifetime, then we can talk. Its called a personal literary trail. Then you can tell me all about Will’s wonderful meeting with Campion that Greenblatt lays out in a *biography*. Then we can talk more about “speculation”. Still didn’t read Desper, did you? Raises very interesting questions. As do Stritmatter and Kositsky on Tempest.

  10. Ms. Hughes,
    I see. We Colonials do not give the Peers of England “the dignity they deserve and that Oxford at least has been denied for so long.”
    No emotional commitment here to your dear sweet misunderstood Lord Oxford. You sound exactly like Dr. Stritmatter, who dolefully lamented elsewhere that Oxford gave us “a kingdom of the imagination in which the complexes and trauma’s of his life’s experience and reading could be represented, bequeathing it to an unknown and often vulgarly ungrateful world–a world that still does not want to acknowledge the psychological price Oxford paid for what he represents dramatically.”
    Tres triste. Tres, tres triste.

  11. Nonsense! This has nothing to do with Americans as colonials, it has to do with having respect for the creators of the language we speak today, whoever they may be. To you the Earl of Oxford may be someone to treat as a cartoon, but that is not appropriate here. If you disagree with statements made here, you are welcome to frame your responses in a polite and collegial manner. If not, then you can take your arguments elsewhere.

  12. There is a word for Mr. Hackman. The proper term is troll. Mr. Hackman, for whatever reasons, has decided to troll this site looking for a fight. He has chosen a post from 3 years ago on a subject excessively well worn.. Rather than honestly, with let’s say, one of your articles on historical context, such as your assertion that Richard III was written with Cecil in mind, and engaging in a true dialogue about it, he chooses instead to do otherwise.

    He is not a novice and he knows full well that books have been written on this subject, most ostensibly Diana Price’s “Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography” and most recently Stanley Wells “Shakespeare Beyond Doubt…” It might behoove him to read Price’s article in the Tennessee Law Review on an important aspect of the subject, which introduces some of the most pertinent and original perspectives on the signatures on the acting company documents, part of the “wealth of information” misinterpreted by scholars such as Duncan Jones for centuries or he can read Price’s response to Wells here http://shakespeare-authorship.com/?page=reviewbeyonddoubt

    He knows full well that this discussion has been dealt with in infinite detail on boards such as HLAS and The Shakespeare Fellowship.

    To bring it up here, in this manner and in this fashion has very little to do with the ostensible subject at hand, and everything to do with Mr. Hackman’s character, or lack thereof. My suggestion is he take his small minded agenda somewhere else, for engaging him is a waste of time.

  13. Ken,
    Sorry that you are so offended. I’ve merely taken what you (and Ms. Hughes) wrote and pointed out some of the problematic aspects thereof, like your “nobody knows,” so we’ll make something up that fits the Oxie narrative, then call it a “credible theory” because it fits the Oxie narrative. . . .

  14. I have nothing to say to you. I am not interested in your opinion or engaging you. Go to a forum that wants to deal with this, confront Price or others, or write your own book about it. Why you trolled this site is beyond me.

  15. You will notice my post was from 2013. This issue for me has been beaten to death. I took a quick look and most online forums seem not to be around except HLAS which is a shell of its former self. Most hard core Strats and Anti Strats have moved on to bigger venues, books, stage and TV forums, etc. I suggest you look for places that still want to go over this particular aspect of the material. If you believe you have something original to contribute, your thoughts will be welcome.

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