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?
There are a number of official and legal documents concerning William Shakespeare's parents, especially his father John.
- The oldest document dates from 29 April 1552. See John Shakespeare's Midden Heap: Stratford Court Leet, view of frankpledge taken at Stratford-upon-Avon on the website Shakespeare Documented. John Shakespeare was one of three people in Stratford who were fined for allowing a midden heap to accumulate in Henley Street. Alan H. Nelson writes that, "Virtually all residents of Stratford incurred occasional fines for similar offenses."
- John Shakespeare identified as a glover on the website Shakespeare Documented shows a court document dated 17 June 1556 that identifies John Shakespeare as a glover in "Stretforde". There are various other documents that identify him as a glover (in 1575, 1579, 1580 and 1597). So there is no reason to doubt that he actually was a glover. The article points out that "evidence from at least 1572 establishes that he was clearly involved in wide-scale wool-dealing, an ancillary but highly profitable activity pursued by many glovers." Whatever "lower classes" means, John Shakespeare wasn't poor.
- Presentment at Stratford-upon-Avon’s court leet that John Shakespeare had bought a house in Greenhill Street from George Turner and a house in Henley Street that became part of the Birthplace from Edward West on the website Shakespeare Documented shows a court document dated 2 October 1556 that registers two purchases by John Shakespeare. The first is the purchase of a tenement (with a garden and a small enclosed piece of land) in Greenhill Street; the second is the purchase of a house and garden in Henley Street. More evidence that John Shakespeare wasn't poor in those days.
- John Shakespeare is fined in Stratford’s court of record for his failure to attend the last three sittings of the court in his capacity as taster on the website Shakespeare Documented shows a document dated 2 June 1557. The fine mentioned in the document implies that John Shakespeare had been chosen as one of the tasters, a type of officials, "whose principal duty was to ensure that bread and ale were sold at the official weights, volumes and prices as defined by statute – the assize of bread and ale – and to present at the local court those who had infringed the regulations." This is a type of local government position.
- John Shakespeare elected as constable, as recorded at Stratford-upon-Avon’s manorial court on the website Shakespeare Documented shows a document dated 30 September 1558 - proceedings of the manorial court. Robert Bearman writes, "John Shakespeare’s service as constable indicates that he had become part of a body of well-to-do business men involved in the town’s governance."
- John Shakespeare, as one of four affeerors, attests to the level of fines imposed at the manorial court on the website Shakespeare Documented shows a document dated 4 May 1561. Robert Bearman explains that an affeeror was "an official appointed to monitor the level of fines imposed at Stratford’s manorial court". John Shakespeare had previously acted in this capacity in 1559.
- The account of John Taylor and John Shakespeare, chamberlains of the Stratford-upon-Avon Corporation for the year Michaelmas 1561 to Michaelmas 1562 on the website Shakespeare Documented shows a document dated 24 January 1563. John Shakespeare had been elected as one of the two chamberlains of the Stratford-upon-Avon Corporation; their job was to keep the Corporation accounts.
- Parish register entry recording William Shakespeare's baptism on the website Shakespeare Documented shows a page from the parish registry of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. The parish registry entry recording William Shakespeare's baptism on 26 April 1564 is the earliest reference to his existence. The entry reads, "Guilielmus filius Johannes Shakspere", i.e. "William, son of John Shakespeare". Note that this date, as all dates mentioned here, is based on the Julian Calendar, since England did not switch over to the Gregorian Calendar until the Calendar Reform of 1752. (Late April in 1564 seems to correspond to early May on the Gregorian Calendar, see World Book Day.)
- Record of a meeting of the Stratford-upon-Avon Corporation when John Shakespeare was elected an alderman on the website Shakespeare Documented shows a page dated 4 July 1565 in the minute books of the council.
- John Shakespeare, on threat of distraint of his goods, is ordered to appear at the next session of Stratford’s court of record, as surety for Richard Hathaway on the website Shakespeare Documented shows a "charge of detinue" dated 11 September 1566.
- Precept issued by John Shakespeare, justice of the peace, to arrest Richard Walker and bring him before the next sitting of the court of record to answer to a plea brought against him, dated 9 December 1568, on the website Shakespeare Documented.
- Meeting of the Stratford-upon-Avon Corporation at which John Shakespeare was elected bailiff on the website Shakespeare Documented shows a page dated 4 September 1568 in the minute books of the Stratford Corporation.
- There are many other documents mentioning John Shakespeare, e.g. an accusation for usury (1570), his election as chief alderman on 5 September 1571, exchequer information about illegal purchases of wool in 1572, a document showing that John Shakespeare was "exempted from the obligation to pay a weekly sum for the relief of the poor" dated 19 November 1578 (which, combined with other documents, suggests that he may have had financial difficulties), etcetera. In September 1586, John Shakespeare was removed from the office of alderman. Expulsions were rare, but John Shakespeare seems to have missed many meetings. A document dated 1 March 1587 shows that John Shakespeare had incurred a large debt of £22 after standing surety for his brother. In 1590, John Shakespeare still held two properties in Henley Street, so the financial difficulties mentioned above don't imply he was poor. Then again, in 1592 it appeared that John Shakespeare had failed to attend church "for feare of processe for debtte".
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.
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.