Shakespeare – a farmer who cultivated words

WORDSMITH-WOOLSELLER William Shakespeare (1564-1616) from the title page of the First Folio, 1623, by Martin Droeshout.

NO writer in the English language ever had their life and times examined as much as William Shakespeare, a native of the rural Warwickshire market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, who went on to become the world’s greatest playwright.

With few known facts and little primary evidence, speculation by academics, impresarios, directors and eccentrics has created the various ‘lives’ of Shakespeare that so often go unquestioned.

Just as many theories discredit Shakespeare, painting him as an uneducated buffoon from a farming backwater who must have covered for an educated person more deserving of the title ‘the greatest English playwright’.

But there is one easily overlooked element to Shakespeare’s work which indelibly links him – and his plays – to Warwickshire: his use of that county’s unique vernacular throughout his work.

“Just as many theories discredit Shakespeare, painting him as an uneducated buffoon from a farming backwater.”

Much of the Warwickshire jargon in Shakespeare is the vocabulary that anyone who grew up in the parish of Stratford would have picked up from a very young age, and needed little formal education in.

Long before writing plays for the realm’s premier theatre company at London’s Globe Playhouse, William Shakespeare was born into a family like most in Warwickshire – one with strong farming connections, and rural language.

ARDEN AGRICULTURE Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden’s farm at Wilmcote, near Stratford-upon-Avon. (Photo: Elliott Brown)

Shakespeare’s Father, John, was at various times a leatherworker and glovemaker, and a wool dealer who served as an alderman on the local council. His mother Mary Arden’s family farmed for centuries in the Stratford region.

Although by the time Shakespeare was born his family were ‘townies’ living on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, both sets of his grandparents were farmers.

The Shakespeares had been tenant farmers on land owned by the Ardens, but there is plenty of evidence Shakespeare’s father broadened the family interests away from the graft of running farms to a more genteel, lucrative and often illegal income as a landowner, agricultural trader and money-lender.

And although he went on to achieve literary fame, his son William also followed his father’s rural buying and selling footsteps for his entire life.

If Shakespeare picked up an early education on the rural landscape from an array of older family members, by the time he was a trader in his own right, the language of cropping and grain selling, animal husbandry and wool sales, and the production of food and clothing from grain, fibre and hide, well and truly completed his knowledge of all things farming.

That’s not to say he poured this experience into his popular entertainments. Rather, like inconvenient seedlings throughout his work, they ‘crop up’.

Paul Englefield.
RURAL HEARTLAND Warwickshire crops and sheep (Photo: Paul Englefield).

It was historian Michael Wood who underlined Shakespeare’s use of the term ‘hayd land’ in Henry IV Part 2 in his series In Search of Shakespeare. Referring to a strip of land left uncultivated when a Warwickshire ploughman turned his plough around, London typesetters unfamiliar with the original term inserted it as ‘hade land’ in printed versions of the play.

Like Wood, Scott McCrea, in his book The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question, identified another piece of rural slang: “In Antony and Cleopatra, Scarus’s simile of ‘the breeze upon her, like a cow in June’ makes little sense until it’s understood that breeze means stinging gadfly in Warwickshire.”

Other researchers see reflections of a significant rural event – The Midland Revolt – in Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy Coriolanus. The infamous 1607 uprising saw thousands protest from Northamptonshire to Warwickshire and Leicestershire, unhappy at the latest round of Enclosure Acts that locked farmland away from common use.

The grain shortages in Coriolanus have parallels with the revolt, although any of the alternative authors suggested for Shakespeare’s plays – such as Cambridge graduate Christopher Marlowe – could have strung the contemporary reports of the Midland Revolt into a play; whereas if you really seek to claim Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays, you’re going to have to prove the Kent-born dramatist knew a swathe of Warwickshire slang; and not just workaday words easily picked up in any market square, but practical farmers’ trading terms, the kind that typesetters got wrong in the 17th century and citified actors misinterpret to the present day.

You’ll also need to show how a great writer of tragedies like Marlowe was savvy enough to use these words to comic effect.

FLEECE FACTS Shorn wool in an English shearing shed.

Shakespeare didn’t require any special education to include the discussion on the price of sheep in Henry IV Part 2 between his comic characters Silence and Shallow. Nor did he have any problem accurately portraying the correct price of wool when a shepherd in The Winter’s Tale attempts to calculate the value of his fleeces:

“Let me see: every ‘leven wether tods; every tod yields pound and odd shilling; fifteen hundred shorn. What comes the wool to?”

One of the earliest eyewitness accounts of Shakespeare’s dual literary-farming legacy in Stratford-upon-Avon came in 1708, when London actor and theatre manager Thomas Betterton visited.

Almost a century after the town’s most famous son had died, there was no sign of the tourist mecca that Stratford-upon-Avon would become. For a chunk of the interim period, including the Civil War, plays had been considered sinful and anyone who had anything to do with them treated as scum.

Betterton recounted what he found to dramatist, poet and Shakespeare editor Nicholas Rowe, who used it to write the first biography of the Stratford Shakespeares in 1709 – the basis for much of the later research on the subject of William Shakespeare.

Engraving of William Shakespeare's funerary monument in Stratford from the first volume of Nicholas Rowe's 1709 edition of his works. Gerard Van der Gucht
WOOL BALE? Engraving of William Shakespeare’s funerary monument by Gerard Van der Gucht  from the first volume of Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of his works.

Whether it was a case of Betterton’s bad memory, or an oversight by engraver Gerard Van der Gucht, there was no quill or parchment in the engraving in Rowe’s book of the only visible remnant of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1709 – the monument and bust of the playwright in the town’s Holy Trinity Church.

Instead, there is what appears to be either a bag of grain, or a wool bale.

This yawning gap between a man who wrote plays and poems, many of which became pre-eminent in the English language, who never went to university and cannot be proven to have attended school – yet also made a significant living as a land and agricultural commodities trader – has always been too great for many in the British establishment.

By 1725, when another image of the Shakespeare bust appeared, someone had added a quill and parchment to the monument. Those who seek to separate Shakespeare the playwright from Shakespeare the farmer use this mysterious action as evidence that he did not write the plays that forever made his name.

“It’s hard to overlook the academic snobbery aimed at a non graduate who had airs above his station.”

I have something in common with William Shakespeare. I hale from a small farming community and, after we moved off the land, I went on to become a writer. Apart from one year at university, where I started an Arts degree, my tertiary education consisted of vocational training in the performing arts, which was undoubtedly more than Shakespeare received.

WRITER'S CUSHION? Shakespeare's monument as it appears today, with quill and parchment (Photo: Tom Reedy).
WRITER’S CUSHION? Shakespeare’s monument as it appears today, with quill and parchment (Photo: Tom Reedy).

Nobody knows for sure how Shakespeare got to London and took up acting and writing. There are missing years when he cannot be found trading in Warwickshire’s farming records, but his name – or a version of it – appears in a terse review by playwright and Cambridge graduate Robert Greene, who attempted to put a young upstart in the London theatre scene of the 1590s in his place.

Alluding to a line in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 3: “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide”, Greene wrote:

“…for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.”

You have to hand it to Greene – his ticking-off of the young Shakespeare is witty. Not only does he call the younger dramatist a ‘Jack of all trades’, the use of ‘Shake-scene’ cements exactly who this ‘Jack’ is.

Greene also shows off his knowledge of Latin, his audience being university graduates, whose ‘feathers’ he accuses Shakespeare of using to call himself a serious playwright, although it’s hard to overlook the academic snobbery aimed at a non-graduate who had airs above his station.

When I lived, studied and worked in the United Kingdom, I encountered the same competitive spirit. A vocational education in theatre practice was never enough to get me work on a stage or a studio, whereas declaring my country roots landed me a job in rural media in a flash. I suspect what has been in place ever since Greene’s put-down of Shakespeare is the pathway of entitlement that runs from Oxbridge straight to the West End.

Whenever British playwrights made a splash without a university education – the likes of Joe Orton, John Osborne and Tom Stoppard – there was a chorus from the establishment reminiscent of Robert Greene’s begrudging comments.

But William Shakespeare is an inspiration to this former farm boy who also became a writer, because he will forever wear the crown over the likes of Greene, having employed nothing but his ‘owne conceit’; and despite adding more than 1700 words to the English language, he also remembered those of his childhood landscape.


He remains an unsurpassed Jack of all trades who was a master yarn spinner, which, as anyone from the country will tell you, is exactly how they breed them in the bush.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s book Merely Players.


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