Two Shakespeare Curiosities Explained (2004)

Shakespeare is listed in the Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer Residuum London accounts (E. 372/444), dated 6 October 1599, and a tax bill of 13s.4d. (13 shillings, four pence) is outstanding. According to Samuel Schoenbaum (William Shakespeare, A Documentary Life, 163), “The notation Episcopo Wintonensi in the left-hand margin indicates that the Court of Exchequer had referred the dramatist’s arrears to the Bishop of Winchester, whose liberty of the Clink in Surrey lay outside the sheriff’s jurisdiction. The natural inference is that Shakespeare now lived in the Clink, although it is a curious fact that his name has not been traced in any of the annual lists of residents of the Clink parish (St. Saviour’s) compiled by the officers who made the rounds to collect tokens purchased by churchgoers for Easter Communion, which was compulsory.”

The explanation of this “curious fact” is linked to another issue—a misinterpreted tradition. Traditions, of course, are based on hearsay, which is gossip, and cannot be confirmed by documentary evidence. The Shakespeare traditions, to recall but a few, are familiar enough: That his father was a butcher (Aubrey), that he was whipped for deer poaching (Davies), that he took care of gentlemen’s horses who came to the play (Rowe), that his first office was that of call-boy, or prompter’s attendant (Malone). While such traditions make for pleasant and amusing chatter, they must necessarily be taken cum grano salis.

One tradition at least is easier to accept. Aubrey tells us that Shakespeare “was wont to goe to his native County once a year.” Given the facts that the dramatist’s family remained in Stratford throughout his theatrical career, that he made numerous investments there, and then retired to New Place, this tradition takes on the aura of fact. But when did Shakespeare make that annual trip and how long did he stay?

It has often been stated that Shakespeare visited Stratford during the summer. That cannot be. During the summer London was swollen with tourists both native and foreign. Summertime, therefore, brought the largest crowds to the public theatres, and thus the greatest receipts to the actors. It is unthinkable that Shakespeare vacationed in Stratford during the summer.

In the fall, after the London crowds had dissipated, the players took to the road. Provincial touring records through the years, though scant, show plenty of dates in October, November, and December. By Christmas the players would be back in London preparing for performances at court. Winters, as is well known, were spent at the inn-yards. We know that Shakespeare’s company often performed at the Cross Keys.

During Elizabeth’s reign Lenten performances were extremely rare, given only to entertain a visiting grandee. Public performance was forbidden during Lent (though this prohibition was not always enforced). According to Henslowe’s Diary, the Earl of Sussex’s men played at the Rose from December 26, 1593 to February 6,1594, a date about two weeks prior to the beginning of Lent. There are no further entries in the Diary until Easter when Sussex’s and the Queen’s men played together. Easter marks the end of Lent. Lent, lasting from late February to early April is a season of snow and rain. Rain and snow, as theatre producers are well aware, keep people indoors.

It was during Lent 1600 that Will Kemp danced his famous morris from London to Norwich. The title of his pamphlet, Nine Days Wonder, which chronicled the 113-mile event, is a misnomer. In fact, almost four weeks elapsed from departure on February 21 to arrival on March 18. Kemp tells us the reason—that he experienced delays on account of snow, rain and mud. If Kemp had not yet cashed out his share in the company (he did so at some point in 1600), his absence would not be missed.

Examining the facts we have, it would appear that Shakespeare took advantage of the Lenten recess to visit Stratford. He could renew his relationship with his family and friends. The family was a large one. Shakespeare’s mother was one of the eight daughters of Robert Arden. Two of the daughters did not marry, so Shakespeare had at least twelve aunts or uncles on that side of the family. All of their children were his first cousins. Then there were uncle Henry, aunt Margaret, and their two children at Ingon on his father’s side. Considerble visiting to do.

At Stratford Shakespeare could transact business, buying land, houses, and a considerable share of the tithes. He could also renew acquaintances with his old friends and the various shopkeepers and tradesmen about the town, some of whom seem to have found their way into his plays. Did Shakespeare find his four-week stay in the country conducive to writing? Being a workaholic, he probably did.

And now we can finally understand why his name does not appear in the lists of residents of St. Saviour’s parish when the evidence of our senses says that he was living there. He never bought an Easter Communion token because he was in Stratford during Lent. He had flown the coop before the tax collectors darkened his doorstep.