William Shakespeare’s parents were John and Mary Shakespeare – respectable, middle-class parents who lived in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. Shakespeare’s parents had eight children, five of whom survived to adulthood. William was the third child and their first son. William Shakespeare and his younger brothers were fortunate enough to be able to have a grammar school education, where they were introduced to the disciplines of mathematics, Latin, Greek, law and classical history.
William’s father, John Shakespeare (1531-1601), was the son of Richard Shakespeare, a farmer from the village of Snitterfield, five miles from Stratford. John Shakespeare was ambitious; at the age of 20, not content with a life of farming he moved to the urban centre of Stratford. Four years later he married Mary Arden (1537-1608). It is thought Shakespeare’s parents may have known each other from childhood, as John’s father was a tenant farmer on land owned by Mary’s father.
Mary’s family had a distinguished history and could trace itself back to the Norman Conquest. Thomas Arden had fought in the 13th Century civil war; Robert Arden, the War of the Roses, and John Arden was one of Henry VII’s courtiers. Mary, the youngest of eight children of Robert Arden, may have been thought to have married ‘beneath’ herself – a daughter of the landed class marrying the son of a tenant farmer – but we do not know anything about her family’s attitude to her marriage.
By the time William was born in 1564 John Shakespeare had progressed far in the political life of Stratford. A year after his marriage, at the age of 26, he was elected ale taster, responsible for ensuring that inns, shopkeepers, butchers, bakers and other traders were observing the regulations regarding weights and measures and prices. In 1588 he was given the position of borough Constable, and from there progressed to burgess and chamberlain. At that stage, he was enjoying the title ‘Goodman Shakespeare.’ He became an alderman – a town councilor – in the year that his eldest son was born. He was appointed High Bailiff in 1568, a highly responsible position equivalent to mayor, which effectively put him in charge of all public business. And now he was called ‘Master’ Shakespeare.
There is evidence that John Shakespeare was a closet Catholic. There is a document, believed to be genuine, found in the attic of his house in Henley Street – a tract signed by John, in which he pledged to remain a Catholic ‘in my heart’ for the rest of his life.
The Shakespeare family were granted a coat of arms in 1596: it is thought that it was the influence of William Shakespeare that brought that about. It is likely that both William Shakespeare’s parents – John and Mary – were illiterate. John used a pair of glover’s compasses as his signature and Mary used a running horse.