Shakespeare's Stratford Friends


Oxfordians constantly denigrate William Shakespeare of Stratford, often depicting him as a barely literate "grain merchant" or an "unlettered boob." Such character assassination is one of the more unpleasant aspects of Oxfordianism, but it's not challenged nearly as often as it should be. By the normal standards of literary historians, there is plenty of evidence for Shakespeare's friendship with such literary figures as Ben Jonson. Oxfordians, though, refuse to accept this evidence, insisting that it refers to the author "Shakespeare" and not to William Shakespeare of Stratford. So in this essay I'd like to consider another type of evidence -- namely, Shakespeare's known friends in Stratford. Surely we can tell something about a man by the company he keeps; we wouldn't expect an "unlettered boob" as densely ignorant as the man depicted by Oxfordians to associate habitually with cultured, educated men with connections to the nobility and court. Yet that's exactly what we find with William Shakespeare of Stratford. When Oxfordians have mentioned any of these friends of Shakespeare, they have done so only very briefly, and in the most unflattering contexts possible. I'm going to go into some detail about these people, to show what Shakespeare's friends were really like.

First, there's Richard Quiney. Quiney was very similar to William Shakespeare in social status, according to all the evidence we have. The fathers of the two men were friends and neighbors for nearly 50 years; as Edgar Fripp puts it in his biography Richard Quyny, John Shakespeare and Adrian Quiney "had much in common, and they climbed together, Quyny leading, the ladder of municipal promotion, from Taster to Constable, and thence to Principal Burgess, Chamberlain, Alderman, Bailiff and Capital or Head Alderman." The two men traveled to London on Stratford business in early 1572, when Adrian Quiney was Bailiff and John Shakespeare was High Alderman. Adrian Quiney was a mercer (a dealer in fine fabrics) and John Shakespeare was a glover, though they both had additional sources of income. As for Richard Quiney, he was a mercer by trade (like his father), and though he was fairly well-off, I can't find any evidence that he owned land, as Shakespeare did. Quiney's famous letter to Shakespeare is addressed "to my loving good friend and countryman, Master William Shakespeare." Quiney's son Thomas eventually married Shakespeare's daughter Judith, and they named their first son, born in 1617, "Shakespeare." The Quineys and the Shakespeares were close, in both friendship and social status, over a span of three generations.

The correspondence of Richard Quiney, which was preserved in the town archives by a fluke when Quiney died in office as Bailiff, provides an interesting snapshot of the life of one of Shakespeare's Stratford friends (who was, as I noted, very similar to Shakespeare in social class). This correspondence contains Quiney's famous letter to Shakespeare (in which he mentions that he is going to Court on business and may not be back that night). However, it also includes: a letter in Latin from Quiney's eleven-year-old son, in which the younger Quiney adapts a quote from Cicero's "Epistolae ad Familiares"; several letters from Abraham Sturley to Quiney, some entirely in Latin and others in English with passages in Latin, in one of which Sturley quotes Erasmus's Adagia and in another of which he alludes to Quiney's study of books; a letter in which Quiney's wife advises him to read Tully's Epistles; a letter from a representative of Sir Fulke Greville (father of the courtier and poet), sending Greville's "love" and inviting Quiney and his friends to spend Christmas with Greville at Beauchamp's Court; a letter from Quiney to an unidentified Privy Councillor; and lots of other interesting stuff. It is only by the purest luck that this cache of letters managed to survive to the present day, but it presents a picture of a man who, despite having no documented education (just like his "loving friend" William Shakespeare), seems to have been very well-read and to have been perfectly capable of interacting easily with the rich and powerful.

Next, let's take a look at Thomas Greene. He was also one of Shakespeare's closest friends in Stratford, to judge by the surviving evidence. He was living in New Place in 1609 and possibly for some time before, and in his diary he refers affectionately to "my cosen Shakespeare" numerous times around 1614. Three of his children were born in Stratford, and he named two of them "William" and "Anne," most likely after Shakespeare and his wife. Who was Thomas Greene? He was the son of Thomas Greene Sr., mercer, of Warwick, who in his will of 1590 left eighty pounds and a gray mare to Thomas Jr. In 1595 Thomas entered the Middle Temple (one of the four Inns of Court, the equivalent of law schools); his sureties (kind of like sponsors) were John Marston Junior and Senior, the future playwright and his father. In 1601 he accompanied Richard Quiney to London on Stratford business, where they tried unsuccessfully to see the Attorney General, Sir Edward Coke. (Coke was preoccupied because the Essex rebellion had just happened.) Greene was a close friend of Michael Drayton, the poet, and in 1603 he wrote a sonnet to Drayton which appeared in The Barons' Wars; in the same year he wrote a poem in honor of King James called A Poets Vision and a Princes Glorie. Drayton, in turn, later wrote an elegy for Sir Henry Rainsford, Greene's good friend and fellow Middle Templar who he often mentions affectionately in the same diary where he mentions Shakespeare. Some of Greene's papers managed to survive at Stratford, and they include Latin verses and some English jottings about the nature of love.

Greene's literary endeavors (at least those that were published) seem to have been confined to the period 1602-1603, when he was in London finishing up his formal studies at the Middle Temple. He was called to the Bar of the Middle Temple in October 1602, and in August of the following year he was appointed Steward (later called Town Clerk) of Stratford. He held this position for the next 14 years, during which time he negotiated a new town charter (in 1610), bought a lease of tithes (in 1609, as Shakespeare had done in 1605), and was heavily involved in the enclosure controversy of 1614-19, during which he wrote his famous diary in which he mentions Shakespeare. In 1617 he resigned his post and sold his house for 240 pounds and his tithes for 400 pounds, though he complained that he should have gotten more because of his long service to the town. He became a Reader at the Middle Temple in 1621, Master of the Bench in 1623, and Treasurer in 1629. He died in Bristol in 1640. Here we have a close friend of William Shakespeare's who also happened to be a published poet, a friend of Michael Drayton and John Marston, and an accomplished lawyer.

The final Shakespeare friend I'm going to mention is Thomas Russell. He was one of two overseers of Shakespeare's will, an honor which implies a close friendship. Russell was born in 1570, six years after Shakespeare; his father, Sir Thomas Russell, had been a Member of Parliament. Sir Thomas died when Thomas Jr. was four, and the boy was brought up by his mother and her second husband, Sir Henry Berkeley, in very comfortable circumstances. He was educated at Queen's College, Oxford, and in 1590 he married Katherine Bampfield. Unfortunately, Katherine and one of their two daughters died around 1595, after which Russell moved to Alderminster, about four miles south of Stratford. He certainly was familiar with Stratford around this time, since he sued a Stratford butcher, William Parry, for debt in 1596. In 1599 he began wooing Anne Digges, the widowed mother of Leonard Digges, (future Shakespeare eulogist) and Dudley Digges (future knight and Member of Parliament). Anne had a London house in Philips Lane, Aldermanbury, just around the corner from John Heminges and Henry Condell, and she also had an estate in Rushock, Worcestershire, a few miles from Heminges's birthplace of Droitwich. Unfortunately, Russell and Anne Digges could not get married right away because of the onerous conditions of her husband's will, but in 1600 she and her children moved in with Russell anyway, at his estate in Alderminster. In 1601 Russell tried to buy Clopton House, the largest house in Stratford, two years after Shakespeare had bought New Place, the second largest house in Stratford; but in the end William Clopton refused to complete the sale. In 1603, Russell finally married Anne Digges officially, and they divided their time between Alderminster and Rushock until his death in 1634. (Anne survived her husband by three years, even though she was 15 years older.)

Russell had plenty of friends and relatives in high places. The half-brother with whom he was raised, Sir Maurice Berkeley, became a prominent Member of Parliament, as did his (Russell's) stepson Sir Dudley Digges. One of his stepfather's good friends and neighbors was Sir John Harington, the courtier, godson of Queen Elizabeth, and author of The Metamorphosis of Ajax; Russell no doubt knew Harington well when he was growing up. Another family friend was Tobie Matthew senior, Dean of Christchurch at Oxford and Archbishop of York. Thomas Russell was at Oxford with Matthew's son, Tobie Matthew junior, and the two men maintained a friendship for many years after. Tobie junior was one of Francis Bacon's closest friends (Bacon called him "my alter ego" and asked for his advice in writing his Essays); he was also a friend of John Donne and a retainer of the Earl of Essex. Still another of Thomas Russell's friends was Endymion Porter, a courtier, patron of poets, and favorite of Kings James and Charles I; the two men's familes were close for years, and there survives a letter from Russell to Porter in which he offers to take in Porter's wife and children during a plague outbreak, promising to give them "fatherlike care." Russell himself was invited to be knighted at the coronation of King Charles I, but he refused the honor, preferring to pay a fine of 15 pounds instead.

Quiney, Greene, and Russell were just three of William Shakespeare's friends in Stratford, but they were representative of the type of people he associated with outside of London. The Combe family, with whom Shakespeare was friendly for many years, had lots of connections with the Inns of Court and other power centers in London, and Dr. John Hall, Shakespeare's son-in-law and friend, was another well-educated man with lots of connections. Given all this, do these seem like the type of crowd that an "unlettered boob" would hang around with? They were cultured men, conversant in Latin, at ease with both literary types and courtiers. Why would these people maintain such close friendships with the slobbering yokel depicted by Oxfordians? Could it be that William Shakespeare was not a slobbering yokel at all, but was himself a cultured man at ease with literary types and courtiers?

[A Note on Sources: Much of my information about Quiney comes from Edgar Fripp's biography Master Richard Quyny; about Greene, Part IV of Christopher Whitfield's four-part series "Some of Shakespeare's Contemporaries at the Middle Temple" (Notes and Queries, December 1966, pp.445-46); about Russell, Leslie Hotson's I, William Shakespeare; and for all three, Mark Eccles's invaluable Shakespeare in Warwickshire.]

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