The Young Shakespeare (pt 2)


The Boy Poet


Throughout this series – which I have decided to continue up until anniversary of Shakespeare’s death next April – the knowledge that Shakespeare was born into a  passionately Catholic family will prove to be a most significant travelling companion. Yet great masterpieces are rarely written in a church, & we must look elsewhere for the inspirations that would diffuse their mimesi all thro’ his majestic ouvre. To do that we must attempt a journey thro Shakespeare’s life, turning over most of the stones we come to, for it is only thro’ a professional litological dig that we may unearth the bones of our illustrious bard.

In April 1564, just as the season of spring was beginning to flood the British Isles with scent & colour, in a small market town in the British midlands called Stratford-Upon-Avon, a certain Mary Shakespeare (nee Arderne) has just given birth to a boy. Holding her hand is her husband, John Shakespeare, excited at the prospect of their baby boy, but nervous as to whether he would survive the rigors of infancy. Their first two swaddling baby girls had pass’d away before they could walk, & it would have been with doubtless trepidation that they scribbled their baby’s name in the Baptismal record of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, where on the 26 April 1564 we may read “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere.” It turned out that John & Mary had no need to worry, even when three months later the plague struck Stratford. But, by fate or by fortune baby Will survived the outbreak, & would eventually grow up into one of the finest young men in the kingdom.



Stratford Baptism records
Stratford Baptism records 1564

The first decade of his life saw John Shakespeare grow in power & affluence in their home town. In July 1565 he was elected one of the 14 alderman of Stratford, becoming chief bailiff between the autumns of 1568 & 69. It was on his watch that the Stratford corporation paid for its first ever set of travelling actors to perform in the town, the Queen’s Players. One can imagine the young Shakespeare observing the theatre for pretty much the first time, a lightning bolt of electricity which would sear his soul with the sheer of it all. Four years later, in 1573, the Earl of Leicester’s Players strolled into town, & were paid 6 shillings for their efforts. Their leader was a certain James Burbage, who would three years hencewards build one of the first permanent theatres in London.

A year later, Mr John Shakespeare was definitely well-off –  His profession, tradition holds, was a glover, while another anecdote that trinkled through time suggests he was a butcher. Whatever he did, however, he had made enough money by 1574 to pay Edmund & Emma Hall £40 for two freehold houses, complete with lovely tudor-style gardens & orchards. Still living at Henley Street, & the owners of properties which Mary had inherited, the Shakespeares were doing rather well for themselves.

Yew Tree - Whittinghame
Yew Tree – Whittinghame

It is in this very year of prosperity that the first official works of William Shakespeare came to light. He was ten at the time, an age where massive minds such as his should have been revealing their first glimmers of genius. If we see creative output as vegetation, Shakespeare’s would be something akin to the vast & ancient yew tree found on the Whittinghame Estate, East Lothian – with a tangled canopy of green & a root system spreading half a mile or more. Those roots stretch deep & far, & when analyzing the Shakespearean metaphysic, we must also follow his roots into his earliest, for as Wordsworth stated;


‘The Child is father of the Man.’


The Horn Book - an essential tool at Elizabethan schools
The Horn Book – an essential tool at Elizabethan schools

In all probabilty Shakespeare would have attended his local grammar school from the age of 5, & force fed a diet of endless Latin repetitions.  After analyzing the Ipswich Grammar School’s course of study held in the 1520s, John Churton Collins, in his essay ‘Shakespeare as a classical scholar’ (The Fortnightly Review 1903) declared Shakespeare would have studied the Roman writers Ovid, Plautus & Seneca. The boys would also be made to learn Greek in order to study the scriptures in their original forms. Lu Emily Hess Pearson, in her Elizabethans at Home, writes, ‘most boys were supposed to be drilled in the Bible until it became common knowledge to them.

A poet creates his talent through exercise, & understanding Shakespeare’s youthful knowledge of the Bible there are two ballads printed in 1574 that could well have been the product of this time. Accredited to a certain W.S., they are  both contain a number of  rather neat, but not amazingly written stanzas. The ballads are packed full of semi-quotations from the bible – in all essence it is a learning tool straight from the cloisters of academe. Printed in Cologne, they seem to have made their way to Germany in the hands of the Dutch spiritualist, Hendrik Niclaes, who printed many of his own poems at the same printers that year; including his Cantica & religious productions such as Exhortatio, Evangelium Regni & Epistola. He was the leader of a radical non-sectarian religious group known as the ‘Family of Love,’ who embraced both Catholics AND Protestants – the perfect group for the schismatic psyche of the Tudor state. Appealing especially to the intelligentsia of Elizabethan society, Margaret Healy, in her ‘Shakespeare, Alchemy and the Creative Imagination,’ highlights some of the possible influences of Niclaean teaching on Shakespeare.

We might look again in this context at the line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 124, which seems to designate religious martyrs (those who ‘die for goodness’), rather unheroically, as ‘fools of Time.’ One’s inner spiritual state was crucial, outward appearance was mere show (it is intriguing to recall the line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 102, ‘I love you not less, though less the show appear’, in relation to this). H.N. believed that through Christ & the Resurrection every man could become spiritually regenerated & godded with god or ‘deified’ (an odd word, which appears in A Lover’s Complaint, line 84).

urlTraces of the Familists in Shakespeare’s work indeed. Worshipping in secret, they would conceal their true beliefs while putting on a show of conformity for the outside world. If they were ever outed as a familist, they would stringently deny it, realizing it was better to briefly lie & stay alive in order to worship god rather than let pride lead them to the bonfire. Familism in England began to take hold in the 1550s, led by a certain Christopher Vittels, a former joiner, who had been a disciple of Niclaes in Delph (Holland). It was Vittels who translated Nicaels work into English, through which the Familist doctrine spread throughout England. William H. Brackney, in his ‘Historical Dictionary of Radical Christianity,’ tells us;

English adherents were drawn from the ranks of traders, clothiers, basketmakers, weavers, musicians, & other ‘mean people’ in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridge & Essex. Queen Elizabeth I issued a proclamation against Familism in 1580, but there were closet Familists at court under the Stuarts. By the 1590s, there were known underground Familist gatherings in East Anglia & the North of England.

Returning to that printers in Cologne in 1574, let us now imagine that through certain secret Familist channels, perhaps a cell in Stratford itself,  two poems written in English came into the possession of Henry Niclaes. Almost 450 years later, only single copies remain, housed in the Bodleian library doon Oxford (Bod6248), the first two stanzas from each poem are given here, Per W.S. Veritatis Amatorem. Anno. 1574.

A new balade or songe of the Lambes feast

(ESTC: S121843)


I Hearde one saye:

Coma now awaye /

Make no delaye:

 Alack / why stande yee than?

All is doubtlesse

 Inb redynesse /

 There wants but Gesse /

 To the Supper of the Lamb.

 For Hee is now blest // in verye deede /

Thats found ad Gest // in the Mariage-weede.


THE Scriptures all /

 Perfourmede shall

 Bee, in this my Call /

 Voyced-out by H.N. (than):

I am Gods Love/

 Com from above /

 All Men to move /

To the Supper of the Lamb.

For Hee is now blest // in verye deede /

Thats found ad Gest // in the Mariage-weede.




Another, out of goodwill



The Grace from God

     thea Father hye /

Which is of Mightes most a /

The Mercye eake from Christ our Lorde /

     And Peace from the holye Gost a /

Com to All // That now shall /

     In Love with us agree a /

And consent // With whole Intent /

     To the Loves Soscietee a.



LOVE the Lorde above al-thinge /

     Is the first Precept by name a:

Love thy Neyghbour as thy-selfe /

     The seconds lyke the same a.

Thus wee see // Love to bee,

     Written with Gods-his owne Hande a /

To geev us Light // And guyde us right /

     Eaven out of that darke Lande a.


A young genius at work (Motzart)
A young genius at work (Motzart)

Amongst all the fractious scholarly squabbling that surrounds the Shakespearean mythos, there’s one thing that everybody agrees on – the guy was pretty good. The best, even. Poetically, he was so far ahead of his peers – & everybody else ever since – that we should really assume one thing… this guy started early. Look at Tiger Woods: his dad first put a club in his hand at 2 years old & by the age of 8 he could shoot below an 80 – an effort millions of golfers across the planet could only dream of emulating. Child prodigies exist : & can also develop mature works of great genius. A classic example is Amadeus Motzart, who at 8 years old wrote his first symphony, At that same age Sylvia Plath had the following poem printed in the Boston Herald (1941):

Hear the crickets chirping.

In the dewy grass.

Bright little fireflies.

Twinkle as they pass.


We must remember that we are searching for England’s greatest poet at work, & his genius would have taken time to develop. But develop it inevitably did, & reading through the 1574 poems one can really feel the youth of their composer, but also the indescribable talent bursting to break out. When Joseph Walford Martin, in his ‘Religious Radicals in Tudor England,’ describes certain Elizabethan literary references as being ‘explicit in their charge that Familist at least incline toward Rome,’ then the possibility seems that the pro-Catholic Shakespeares, in fear of persecution but not wanting to conform to the Anglian church, were dabbling with this new-fangled ‘Familsm’ in the early 1570s. Throughout that decade, the writings of Henry Niclaeus were translated by Christopher Vettels & disseminate throughout England. The brains behind it all, according to popular feeling at the time, were Edmund Campion’s Jesuits, with whom the Welsh clergyman Meredith Hanmer (1543–1604) declared did ‘shaketh hands’ with their ‘brethren,’ the Familists, a ‘detestable’ society of ‘like antiquity… who say that God is hominified in them & they deified in God.’  

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