A Schoolmaster in the Country – Part II

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A schoolmaster in the country – Part II


And what of Titchfield? Could Shakespeare have worked in the village as a schoolmaster?? Possibly. There is evidence which can fit the known facts.

The earls did employ schoolmasters. The disreputable Nicholas Udall (garnering some fame as the author of Ralph Roister Doister) was there until 1545. He was succeeded by Hierom Colas, a Frenchman who was believed to be a spy and whose arrest was ordered in 1550, after the death of the first earl. Alban Langdale was safety employed during the reign of Queen Mary and Swithun Wells seems to have spent many years there before moving to Monkton Farliegh in 1576.

Times were becoming more perilous for catholics and priests and schoolmasters were high visibility targets. Was there an opening for a less prominent figure?

If we go back to the period before he married, it is not improbable that a recommendation from the Hoghtons of Heskeths would carry some weight with the Southamptons. If he went down to Titchfield early, say 1581, then the window is very limited, because he was certainly back in Stratford when he was wooing Anne Hathaway in 1582. And he stayed in his home town for at least three years after that. After the baptism of his twins in 1585 there is no record of Shakespeare until he materialises in London in 1592, as the author of the Henry VI history plays and the target of Robert Greene’s attack in a Groatsworth of Wit. This is a period of seven years.

The vacuum has driven people to fill it. They have him working as a lawyer, travelling to Italy, following a career as a soldier. The truth is perhaps more prosaic.

On his return to Stratford in 1582 he was stuck by family commitments for at least three years, possibly more. He may have worked with his father or, as is also plausible, worked in a law office. Circumstances may set him on this humdrum path that was to be his lot in life., but whether he was working as a provincial lawyer or working with his father, something must have happened to alter the course of his life.

The Queen’s Men played in Stratford in 1587 and it was in that year that one of their actors, William Knell, was killed in a fight at Thame in Oxfordshire. We don’t know if the dates fit but if it were the case that sometime after performing at Thame and setting up at Stratford encountered a bright young man who showed some promise, then it does make a plausible scenario that they could have recruited him on the spot. A reasonable, if uncertain income was on offer and if he were confident in himself, a promising career. William Shakespeare became an actor at the age of 23. He must have calculated that he would be able to send money home to support his wife and children, and everything we know about the later Shakespeare tells us that he was careful in money matters. He may have known someone in the acting company and was confident in the assurances he received. The company, in turn, must have appreciated a promising new talent. Neither side would have given much thought to the writing of plays at this date.

The case for having Shakespeare coming to Titchfield when he was a stripling is probably very weak. The prospect of him fetching up in Titchfield during the so-called ‘lost years’ (1585-1592) seems unlikely to me, but others may take a different view. However, a strong case can be made for 1593-4. In 1592 the London players were forced to tour because an outbreak of plague caused the authorities to close the theatres. The epidemic lasted two years and touring was not profitable for any long period of time. by 1593 the players companies were in difficulties and on the point of collapse. William Shakespeare had a wife and children to support in Stratford and would have been desperate for income. The earl of Southampton certainly came to the rescue in 1593 by offering his patronage to Shakespeare. What that patronage meant in concrete terms is not clear, but there may have been some payment to the struggling poet, possibly, if we draw upon examples that we know of, as much as £30. This would have been quite enough money to maintain William and his family for a year.

We can also conjecture that the earl offered William Shakespeare a job as a schoolmaster at Titchfield. As discussed above, he met many requirements for the position, and while there could have composed his two great poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

In 1594 the theatres re-opened and two companies of players were officially licenced. One of them, in which Shakespeare was a principal, was The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare was able to resume his career in the theatre and he became hugely successful. 

Were it not for Aubrey’s recorded observation late in the 17th century, nobody would be speculating about his possible career as a schoolmaster. Nevertheless, there was an opportunity for him to work as a schoolmaster in Titchfield in 1593-4.

There is also a surviving building in Titchfield. The late Ken Groves established that the half timbered house opposite the old abbey was used as a school house and, moreover, was built in the 15th century. Therefore we may suppose that Shakespeare if he worked as a schoolmaster in Titchfield, lived in this building.

Nothing that I have written here brings us close to any definitive statement. There is evidence that can connect Shakespeare to Titchfield but it is circumstantial.

Further reading on Shakespeare and Titchfield can be found in:

Ken Groves. The Trio and William Shakespeare’s Erudition. 2019. In print from www.magicflutepublications.co.uk

Stewart Trotter. Love’s Labours Found. 2002. ISBN: 978-1-873953-35-6. Out of print but available second hand from Amazon.

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