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Newly found documents shed new light on Shakespeare’s youth

Cobbe's iconic portrait of William Shakespeare Portrait of William Shakespeare in the Cobbe Collection
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Newly discovered documents about Shakespeare’s father have thrown light on the playwright’s early life and how his political views were formed.

In total, 21 documents have been uncovered at the National Archives relating to Shakespeare’s father, John.

They reveal that John Shakespeare experienced financial and legal trouble caused by two government informers, when William Shakespeare was 19. The documents also include writs made against John and record his debts to the Crown, including one for £132, valued at £20,000 today.

Glyn Parry, professor of Early Modern History at the University of Roehampton, uncovered the documents.

He said: “Very little is known of William Shakespeare’s early life and the influences on his writing. These documents now confirm that legal action taken against his father by the Crown influenced his attitude to power politics.”

According to the university, professional informers “flourished across England in a corrupt system” that enriched the Queen and her courtiers.

“John Shakespeare’s victimisation occupied the years William studied at Stratford-upon-Avon Grammar School. There he read the Latin literature of the late Roman Republic and Early Empire, which criticised those who bent the law to enrich themselves under monarchs,” it said. “His father’s experiences and his reading therefore combined to shape the playwright’s later sceptical attitude towards power politics, highlighted in recent academic studies of his writings, and in Macbeth, King Lear and Cymbeline.”

Katy Mair, head of Early Modern Records at the National Archives, described the discoveries as “of the utmost importance to the historical and literary scholarship of Shakespeare studies”.

Images and descriptions of the newly discovered John Shakespeare documents will be included on Shakespeare Documented, a website of primary-source materials documenting the life of William Shakespeare.

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