The Lost Years

There is no documentary record of Shakespeare's activities from the birth of the twins, in 1585 until Robert Greene's complaint about him as an "upstart crow" in 1592. Biographers have therefore called these the lost years. In fact, there is nothing certain known about him from his birth in 1564 until 1592 except that he was married in 1582, fathered Susanna in 1583 and the twins Judith and Hamnet in 1585, and probably attended Stratford Grammar School. The lack of details has not stopped authors from inventing tales as to how Shakespeare got from Stratford, a young husband needing a way to support his growing family, to London as the man to be reckoned with in the entertainment business. A couple of these notions have some slight circumstantial evidence, but it must be said that no one really knows how it happened and that what follows is largely speculation.
The most commonly told story about Shakespeare leaving Stratford has it that he had to leave to escape prosecution for poaching deer on the lands of Sir Thomas Lucy, and that later he revenged himself on Lucy in The Merry Wives of Windsor who he portrayed as Justice Shallow. The story was started by a Gloucestershire clergyman name Richard Davies who, around 1616, wrote that "Shakespeare was much given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits, particularly from Sir ----- Lucy [Davies left out Sir Thomas' first name] who oft had him whipped and sometimes imprisoned and at last mad him fly his native country to his great advancement." In 1709 Rowe picked up the story in his __Acount of the Life__:

He had, by a Misfortune common enough to young Fellows, fallen into ill Company; and amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of Deer-stealing, engag'd him with them more than once in robbing a Park that belong'd to Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that Gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and in order to revenge that ill Usage, he made a Ballad upon him. And tho' this, probably the first Essay of his Poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the Prosecution against him to that degree, that he was oblig'd to leave his Business and Family in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter himself in London.

The Essay to which Rowe refers is not The Merry Wives, but rather various Stratford ballads sung at the unpopular Sir Thomas' expense. An example reported by the eighteenth century Shakespeare scholar George Steevens (yet nonetheless unlikely to be by Shakespeare) goes:
A parliament member, a justice of peace,

At home a poor scarecrow, at London an ass,

Is lousy is Lucy as some folks miscall it

Then Lucy is lousy whatever befall it...
and so it goes in the same vein. The local Stratford sentiment is sufficient to explain any anti-Lucy puns in The Merry Wives and this episode really has no other supporting evidence.
Supported by less evidence even than the Lucy episode, others have made various speculations about Shakespeare's activities during his last years in Stratford. Edmond Malone, greatest of eighteenth century Shakespeare scholars, impressed with Shakespeare's detailed knowledge of the law, speculated that he "was employed while he yet remained at Stratford, in the office of some country attorney..." (Poems and Plays, 1790). A nineteenth century antiquary (W. J. Thoms, 1859) found a William Shakespeare as a conscript in the low countries in 1605 and, once again, being impressed with the dramatists grasp of military minutia thought this must be the man.

More likely, Aubrey in his Brief Lives (1681) states that "...he had been in his younger yeares a Schoolmaster in the Countrey." and cites as his source William Beeston, son of Christopher Beeston who had certainly been one of the most important people in the London theater in his later life, and in his earlier life had belonged to the Lord Chamberlain's men and had acted with Shakespeare in Every Man in His Humour (1598). This is the closest we get to authoritative intelligence about Shakespeare during these years.
There is a theory, argued by E. A. J. Honigmann (Shakespeare: "The Lost Years" - 1985), that has Shakespeare located in Lancashire in the household of the powerful, Catholic Hoghton family. The link between faraway Lancashire and Stratford, as this theory has it, would have been Shakespeare's last schoolmaster John Cottom. The theory is based on rather circumstantial evidence found in a Hoghton will, asking his kinsman to take care of "...William Shakeshaft, now dwelling with me..." along with references to plays, play-clothes and musical instruments. The theory has it that Shakespeare was engaged by the Hoghtons as a schoolmaster on Cottom's recommendation (Cottom being a Lancashire native living near the Hoghtons) and then began, naturally, participating in their private theatricals, and then passed through the Stanleys (who had many holdings in Lancashire to Lord Strange's men, a theater company with which Shakespeare was definitely associated. The theory is presented convincingly in Honigmann's book, but cannot be demonstrated with certainty.
Other less believable spculations have Shakespeare holding horses outside theaters in London, or visiting Italy, based on his knowledge of things Italian, or being a runaway butcher, or a scrivener. Perhaps the most natural course of events was that--based on Aubrey--Shakespeare actually was employed in some sense at least as an usher or schoolmaster and being what he was, performed with his class and even constructed plays for them based on Plautus (The Menaechmi is the source for The Comedy of Errors, perhaps Shakespeare's first play). When a traveling theater company visited Stratford (as did the Queen's men in the summer of 1587, among them Will Kemp (often spelled Kempe), later one of Shakespeare's fellow householders in the Globe), perhaps they were short on personnel and pressed the eager local into service. He then may have shown them his budding dramatic work, told them he could work as a scrivener, impressed them with his quick wit and natural talent, and so he would have passed into the world of the Theater. We don't really know, but this seems a natural scenario.

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