A Schoolmaster in the Country – Part 1

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A schoolmaster in the country – Part I


John Aubrey the 17th century gossip, recorded in 1681 that he had heard that Shakespeare was a schoolmaster in the country. It is one of those tantalising remarks that is completely without supporting evidence, but may be true, and should be considered.

Aubrey wrote: 

Though, as Ben Jonson says of him, that he had but little Latin and less Greek, he understood Latin pretty well, for he had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country—from Mr Beeston.

Aubrey’s source was William Beeston, an actor himself and the son of Christopher Beeston who worked alongside Shakespeare as an actor and manager. The source is a good one but William Beeston, when he relayed his memories to Aubrey, was an old man close to the end of his life. Aubrey is clearly fuzzy on some details which we know to be untrue. Hie asserted, for example, that his father was a butcher, whereas he was a glover by trade. Nevertheless, assuming that William Beeston overheard some remark about Shakespeare being ‘a schoolmaster in the country’ when he was young, we should not discount it as a memory. It does sound authentic.

This rather casual remark has intrigued people for centuries and there has been a long search for a possible location.

One point to make is that he had nowhere near the qualifications of the men who had taught him at Stratford. The education that he did have was no more than a foundation in literacy. He had not attended university. Nevertheless he was an extremely bright young man and would have been quite suitable as a usher, or teacher of young children. He would not have been paid very much either, so it is more likely that he ventured on this career when he was quite young.

A natural course for William to follow was to undertake an apprenticeship in his father’s shop. Perhaps he did this and there are references in the language of his plays to show that he well understood the tools and materials of the trade. But perhaps, like his younger brothers Gillbert and Edmund he found that he had no interest in the trade and may have felt that he was destined to a higher purpose. Work as a schoolteacher was not then, as it is now, especially well paid, but it was a living. 

Titchfield has been put forward as one of the places where Shakespeare may have done his stint as a teacher. The connection with the earl of Southampton is proven and both families remained adherents to the Roman church. During the period that Shakespeare was writing poems for his patron, 1593-1594, the theatres were closed and William Shakespeare was effectively out off work. A plausible case can be made for Shakespeare coming to Titchfield. I will come to this in Part II.

 Various locations have been suggested. Berkeley Castle has been proposed and Beauchamp Court, the house of Sir Fulke Greville, only 12 miles from Stratford. The Arden family had a distant kinship to the Grevilles, so there is some argument for this. Both suggestions are conjecture only; there is no supporting evidence.

Some sort of case can be made for Lea, near Preston in Lancashire. Lancashire seems an unlikely location but John Cottam, one of Shakespeare’s schoolmasters and a man with strong catholic inclinations, came from a family not 10 miles from the seat of the local grandee, Sir Alexander Hoghton Hoghton made a will, executed on 3 August 1581, that bequeathed his players costumes and musical instruments to his half-brother Thomas, and failing that, to Sir Thomas Hesketh, knight. He further willed that ‘the said Sir Thomas to be friendly to unto Fulk Gyllom and William Shakeshaft now dwelling with me, and either to take them into his service or else to help them to some good master, as my trust is he will.”

This intriguing document offers a link between plays and a man called William  Shakeshaft, who could, in an age where people were less particular about names, be synonymous with Shakespeare. By itself that means means little. Hoghton and his family were devout Catholics and it does not strain belief to consider that Sir Alexander may have asked Cottam to recommend a suitable young man to tutor his children. Suitable in this case meant Roman Catholic. Any young man with a university education in 1580 was more likely to be a protestant and the search for a suitable tutor may have been conducted outside those circles.

Of some interest too is Hoghton’s apparent interest in plays and performance. Is this where the 16 year old Shakespeare learned the rudiments of his craft? And to make this connection even more intriguing, this Shakeshaft was passed on to the service of Sir Thomas Hesketh, who may have recommended the promising youngster to his own neighbour and patron, Henry Stanley, the fourth earl of Derby, whose  son founded Lord Strange’s Men, one of the leading professional groups of the day. Ferdinando Strange’s players included such luminaries as Will Kempe, Thomas Pope, John Heminges, Augustine Phillips and George Bryan – all of whom became close colleagues of William Shakespeare. The circumstance is probably too great to resist.

If we entertain the Lancashire position as a possibility we must confine ourselves to the date between 1580 and 1582. In the summer of 1582 William Shakespeare was in Stratford actively courting Anne Hathaway, and a few months later they were married.

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