Am I correct to assume there is a feud between academics considering Shakespeare's social origins? I understand that he was probably born as a member of the working classes (or even the Elizabethan underclass), but his skill might suggest something equivalent to what is portrayed in the film Anonymous, where Shakespeare was a noble who wrote under the name of a commoner. What is the state of this debate? What sources could I read that summarize it?

  • Are you referring only to Shakespeare's social origins (i.e. the social class of his parents), to the status he achieved as actor, shareholder and playwright, or to both?
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 13, 2019 at 18:27
  • What does "lower classes" mean here? His father was an alderman and businessman his mother the daughter of a landowner. Mar 14, 2019 at 0:43
  • See S's family origins : "His parents were John Shakespeare, a successful glover originally from Snitterfield in Warwickshire, and Mary Arden, the youngest daughter of John's father's landlord, a member of the local gentry." Thus, his parents were not aristocrats, but neither "proletarian". Mar 14, 2019 at 14:55
  • @ChristopheStrobbe I am referring to his origins. As I understand it, there are those who believe that Shakespeare knew too much (Latin, possibly Greek, the geography of Italy etc.) for being the son of a peasant.
    – Mike M
    Mar 14, 2019 at 19:05
  • As I showed in my answer, Shakespeare was not the son of a peasant. The claims that "Shaskepeare knew too much" are unprovable.
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 14, 2019 at 19:22

1 Answer 1


There are a number of official and legal documents concerning William Shakespeare's parents, especially his father John.

If you define lower class as "employed in low-paying wage jobs with very little economic security" and include poor farmers, then William Shakespeare's father didn't belong to the lower classes.

There is also a relatively large number of official documents that mentions William Shakespeare, e.g. his marriage licence from 27 November 1582, the marriage bond from the following day, the Langley Writ from November 1596, showing that he had changed his residence in London, and a number of documents about purchases of real estate.

There are also two drafts of an application for a grant of arms to John Shakespeare (both dated 20 October 1596: first draft, second draft). According to the article about the first draft,

The granting of a coat of arms to John Shakespeare would have bestowed an outward show of “gentility” on all of his descendents. In the complicated social hierarchies of early modern England, a coat of arms did not establish gentility, but merely confirmed it. This was a great social step upwards, and one to which, it has been shown, many actors aspired.

(William's name isn't mentioned in these drafts, but it is assumed that he commissioned these drafts on behalf of his father.)

William Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of Robert Arden, who owned a farm in Wilmcote. The blog post Michael Wood and “Mary Arden: a Tudor Life” (2 February 2015) quotes Professor Christopher Dyer:

"We know that Robert Arden, Mary Arden’s father, was already a person of some substance when he paid 6s 8d to join the Stratford Guild in 1517."
[In 1538] "Robert was playing a prominent role in the religious fraternity at Aston Cantlow, which would suggest an important person in village society."

The blog post also mentions Robert Arden's will:

We know quite a lot about Robert Arden’s finances because he made a will, and the inventory of his goods survives. Mary was named as his executrix. It shows him to be relatively affluent, as well as showing how his house was furnished.

I think this also shows that Mary Arden wasn't lower class in the sense cited above.

There is no evidence that William Shakespeare belonged to the nobility. The theory that the works attributed to William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford, was written by someone else is known as the "Shakespeare authorship question". The Wikipedia article List of Shakespeare authorship candidates currently lists 87 candidates, one more far-fetched than the other. Mainstream Shakespeare scholarship doesn't accept these theories.

The film Anonymous (2011) proposes a version of the theory that Shakespeare plays were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550 - 1604). Some inconvenient facts related to his candidacy include his death in 1604 (some eight to ten years before Shakespeare's last plays were written) and the fact that his surviving poems don't come close to the level of Shakespeare's poetry. One of the arguments for this "Oxfordian theory" is that Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays attributed to him because he didn't have sufficient knowledge of court life, unlike Edward de Vere. The film contains many factual errors and prompted a reaction from a number of Shakespeare scholars. See for example the YuoTube video 'Anonymous' - Prof Carol Rutter & Prof Stanley Wells discuss the Shakespeare authorship question (posted by the University of Warwick in November 2011; 25 minutes).

A word of warning to those who want to read about Edward de Vere: most biographies currently on the market were written by supporters of the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship. For a biography that wasn't written by an "Oxfordian", see Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford by Alan H. Nelson, Liverpool University Press, 2003.

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