Was Hamnet Shakspere as Illiterate as his twin sister Judith Shakspere?
I have argued the profound illiteracy discovered in Shakspere’s family is yet another indication Shakspere wasn’t the author William Shakespeare. It isn’t proof positive, of course, but it raises many questions.
It’s simply unreasonable to suppose the man who devoted his life to the world’s greatest dramatic canon, a canon committed to improving the spiritual and mental condition of his audiences, wasn’t also interested in the literacy of his own offspring. Not to mention in control of it.
Shakespeare’s debt to Seneca and Plautus has long been acknowledge, but no one supposes he saw these plays in their original versions or knew the writers in the flesh. Consequently it is inescapable that Shakespeare knew dramatic works had both an oral and a written component. Those who would ignore this fact would do so at great risk to any of their conclusions about this remarkable man.
Shakspere’s close ties with Stratford assure us that he maintained a remarkable presence in that community, despite his commitment to London. It is yet another example of how Elizabethans managed their lives over considerable distances without the benefits of modern transportation and communication. Just as Thomas Jefferson thought nothing of a week’s ride to Philadelphia, Shakspere must frequently have spent many days a year traveling back and forth to Stratford.
I have offered in evidence extensive studies of the period, such as the lengthy investigation of English Elizabethan provincial society by Peter Clark, that proves many women were literate and more than a few became petty school teachers during Shakspere’s era. See: English Provincial Society From the Reformation to the Revolution Religion, Politics and Society in Kent 1500 - 1640
It was written by Peter Clark, Lecturer in Economic and Social History University of Leicester in 1977 and with index runs about five hundred pages.
Corroborating evidence is to be found in the only copy of q1 of Venus and Adonis to have survived. According to the inscription on the flyleaf that copy was owned by a rural woman who overlapped with Shakspere’s daughters, though born a generation later, Frances Wolfreston (1607-1676). Scholars know she owned an extensive library "rich in early poetry and plays [that] was auctioned in London on 24 May 1856." Frances was not a member of the peerage, but a daughter of the middle class.
Anne Gunter, said to have been a witch, was from even a more meager social status in a community at least as rural as Stratford. Yet she wrote a in a strong and graceful secretary hand, her confessions now mingled with the papers of King James I, who took a personal interest in her bazar case. (James Sharpe, The Bewitching of Anne Gunter)
Frances Wolfreston and her library, along with Anne Gunter and Peter Clark’s study of English provincial society, reinforces the point that Shakspere, had he been the author, simply shouldn’t have raised illiterate and bookless daughters. Susanna, Judith’s sister, could either draw or sign her name, but proved unable to identify her own husband’s notes when asked. A good token of her profound illiteracy. (Chambers) Neither woman left any surviving letters or books, whereas Edward Alleyn’s wife left many scribal letters to her husband. Alleyn founded a college with his estate, while Shakspere neglected to endow even the Stratford grammar school, located almost directly across the street from his dilapidated rooming house, New Place.
In any case, it has occurred to me biographers have suggestive evidence that not only was Judith Shakspere illiterate, but that her twin brother, Hamnet Shakspere, was also illiterate.
This suggestive evidence is circumstantial, since Hamnet died at age eleven and left us nothing tangible about his life. However that life should, in the normal course of human events, have been closely mirrored in the life of Judith, particularly at that early age.
Indeed the lost of a twin is a traumatic event and often motivates the survivor to carry on or "act out" the life of their lost brother or sister, as the case may be. Mary Sidney Herbert, for example, carried on the intellectual life of her late brother, Sir Philip Sidney, to name just one period case. (See Phillip’s Phoenix; Hannay)
Sociologists and developmental psychologists know this mirroring takes place much more closely between twins, even fraternal twins, than between ordinary siblings.
Since the Stratford free school was just across the high road from their cottage and since girls as well as boys were welcome in these period schools, if Hamnet had attended Judith would have also attended. Clark gives many examples of this and notes that beyond reading, writing and arithmetic, girls received instruction in household duties, like sewing, while boys were given vocational introductions to the more manly trades like cobbling, butchering and what Shakespeare called "arms," i.e., marshal arts.
Even if she hadn’t they would have passed the daily lessons back and forth at home by the hearth. Thus in the natural course of things Judith would have learned to read and write along with, if not beside, her twin brother Hamnet. This is particularly so in a household headed up by the writer of the world’s foremost dramatic canon, a writer who shows himself well versed about this modeling of fraternal twins.
I’ve said this before, but it is worth repeating. The connection between the words in a play and the lines spoken by the actors is an immediate one. Whereas the connection between the thoughts and writings of a historian or a philosopher are not nearly so obvious to their offspring.
So the expectation here is that children of playwrights would have an easier time in breaking the code and, thus, in learning to read and write than those in the home of literate persons who were not engaged in writing plays.
It is certainly true we don’t know where Shakspere was during the early period of the lives of his children, a period called "Shakespeare’s dark years." But from his obvious lifelong connection to Stratford we can be sure that he kept his hand in there as well.
Given what we know about his attention to Stratfordian affairs, as evidenced in the records, we can suppose that the education of his family would have been one of his first orders of business there....and particularly if he were the writer William Shakespeare.
Since we have established that literacy was growing among women, and indeed among all Elizabethans, scholars of these matters can no longer hide behind the claim that it simply was not normal or natural for Elizabethan women to learn to read and write. It was normal. Particularly in literate households and literate communities.
The petty schools were open to girls and as young women they frequently became teachers or schoolmarms, as we Yanks say, in these schools. Judith could have made additional pence by teaching, particularly by advertising herself as the poet’s daughter, just as Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke capitalized on her relationship to Phillip Sidney.
Shakspere left far more literary chores undone than Sidney, yet no where do we discover his daughters capitalizing on them, let alone ushering them into print. Stanley Wells, the dean of these studies of Shakspere and a man who has spent many years in Stratford, claims that Shakspere must have done much more of his writing at New Place than we now suspect. If so, his family and local cronies seem to have been blissfully ignorant of it.
Scholars know that Shakspere’s family made no claim to having been the offspring of the realm’s greatest writer. Indeed not even his burial record mentions it. Burial records frequently included a remark about the deceased profession, "shoemaker," "a poor man," "a tanner," and the like are commonplace entries in these primary records. Yet Shakspere’s just says "gent.," not "playwright" or "poet."
In any case, scholars have suggestive family evidence that Hamnet Shakspere, the only son of William Shakspere, was as illiterate as Judith, his twin.
This would be par for the course if Shakspere was merely an actor and a successful producer of plays, who had been a truant in his early education as Dr. John Ward discovered when he wrote he "was a natural wit, without any art at all; he frequented ye plays all his younger time." (Chambers)
According to Harrison the phrase "without any art at all" means without book learning, at least in the mouth of Joan La Pucelle, who says, "my wit [is] untrained in any kind of art."
Unless modern biology and psychology have missed something fundamental, there is no natural wit that would furnish the author with a knowledge of Joan Pucelle, the Maid of New Orleans, commonly called Joan of Arc, not to mention provisioning him with a similar detailed knowledge of the affairs of Henry VI, who had been dead then going on two centuries.
Indeed an exasperated Harrison writes, a few pages later, after fielding a string of esoteric allusions in Shakespeare’s text, "the excessive use of classical names in this passage is typical of Shakespeare’s early work." (CW, 116)
I hate to belabor the point, but again unless Stratfordians have discovered some other means for this booking learning in Shakespeare, we must conclude that the author wasn’t the artless rustic. If he was Dr. Ward was wrong and the record of his equally artless family is a huge stumbling block in the understanding of this man’s life.
The dilemma is that Shakspere does appear to have been an artless man who was a truant regarding his own educational life and the father of an equally artless brood. Now there is nothing uncommon about this if he was simply a producer or plays, particularly one with strong rural roots.
The strength of these roots can be glimpsed in his relationship with Hamnet Sadler, a struggling baker in Stratford. William named his son after Hamnet and Hamnet named his son after William. (Schoenbaum) Stronger evidence of a closer friendship between these young men cannot be imagined. The question is did the friendship endure? Shakspere, if he became Shakespeare, matured well beyond the limits of Sadler. Yet Hamnet Sadler is one of five men who witnessed Shakspere’s will and he is mentioned in the body as well.
Again this is entirely understandable if Shakspere was as Dr. Ward discovered a man without any art at all and a supplier of plays to the stage. (Cambers) On the other hand if William Shakspere became the author, his lifelong friendship with Sadler and not with George Chapman and Edward Alleyn is a marvel worth remarking about at length. What characteristics of mind and spirit could Sadler, a Stratford baker, have possessed to have served this great poet as a lifelong friend?
Ward tells us Shakspere died after a bout of drinking with London writers and this again would be perfectly ordinary whether he was a playwright or a producer.
The context that Stratfordians have dropped however, in incorporating this story about his death into their account of his life and times, is that if he died hard on the heels of a bacchanalia with "Drayton, and Ben Jhonson," then these two men, at the very least, would have known of his death.
This in turn means that the London stage would have known of it and thus counters Bate’s claim that Shakspere had removed himself from his London circle and thus wasn’t expected to have been eulogized by them upon his death. On the other hand if he was merely a supplier of plays and a producer of them, the lack of any mention of his passing in London is not too difficult to explain.
It is only awkward if Shakspere was Shakespeare. In this conceptuality we return to the questions why was Shakspere content to allow his daughters to live as illiterates?
Why were none of his books and papers found in Stratford?
How could a man "without any art at all" have been the writer William Shakespeare?
How could William Shakespeare been the lifelong friend of Hamnet Sadler?
I’m all ears if the Strats have conflicting evidence either within the family or within Elizabethan provincial society.
or and Old
essay on home
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