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Shakespeare and Justices of the Peace - 400 Year Old Connections

Ric Carlyon - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare is being celebrated around the world this year. While the exact date of his death is in doubt, what is known is that he had a close relationship with Justices of the Peace in his lifetime. He carried the principles of justice, and those who served it, into his most celebrated plays. He registers his disrespect for the system in his satire.

William grew up in the family household, Stratford-upon-Avon. His father, John,was very involved in community affairs becoming a trusted, level-headed civil servant. He began as the elected borough ale taster, responsible for ensuring that weights and measures and prices were observed by innkeepers, butchers, bakers and town traders.

Appointment followed as borough Constable - a position similar to an early police constable- and then in 1559 John became the officer responsible for assessing fines for offences carrying penalties not explicitly defined by the existing statutes of the time. This role led to his becoming a Burgess then a Chamberlain.

He would have been known by the title as a 'Goodman', then by 1564 John was an Alderman, a member of the Common Hall of Stratford. A few years later he was named High Bailiff, the present-day equivalent of Mayor in which capacity he presided at the sessions of the Court of Record and at council meetings.

Shakespeare, William: On 23rd April 1616 at his home, “New Place”, Stratford-upon-Avon, lateof the Globe Theatre, London, gent, poet, playwright and actor, of natural causes aged 52. Wife of Anne (nee Hathaway), father of Susanna, Judith and the late Hamnet. Son of the late John Shakespeare, Justice of the Peace. Funeral at Holy Trinity Church on April 25th followed by intermentin the church’s chancel.

William Shakespeare 1564 - 1616:thinglink.com

John Shakespeare, Justice of the Peace -Geni

John Shakespeare, through his office of Justice of the Peace, was a recruiter of troops to fight in the Northern Rebellion, a task William would later write into his plays through the character Robert Shallow.

William, until his early teens, would have been well aware of all his father’s duties. In his book, “Shakespeare: A Life”, Clarendon Press, 1998, Peter Honan, says “…in his plays we have very good evidence as to what William Shakespeare came deeply to understand, or signs of his intimate knowledge…”

Elizabethan Times 

Crime and punishment in small towns like Stratford-upon-Avon were dealt with by Justices of the Peace, appointed by the Crown. It was an unpaid office, undertaken voluntarily. Those seeking appointment were from the upper classes, often looking for personal recognition, a closer connection with local affairs or to reinforce stature in the community. Once appointed, their jurisdiction was wide, though more serious cases were supposed to be held over for travelling Judges on circuit. But local Justices of the Peace usually resolved matters so they did not look subordinate.

Those miscreants before the Justices of the Peace might have been accused of theft, begging, adultery, indebtedness, forging and fraud. All carried severe sentences: those guilty of theft of anything worth more than five pence could be hanged. So, too, could those found poaching game at night: similar daytime activities were not deemed capital offences. Many crimes in Shakespeare’s time resulted from abject poverty: desperate acts by poor people eeking a bare existence. Justices of the Peace in many towns also administered a “Poor Tax”, funds gathered from local landowners to help the needy and unemployed.

Justice of the Peace: Thomas Lucy 

William Shakespeare was acquainted not only with his father as Justice of the Peace but others and while all these have a direct bearing on his writings, some weren’t so cordial. Familiar legend has it that William was caught poaching on Sir Thomas Lucy’s Charlecote Park Estate on the fringes of Stratford-upon-Avon and prosecuted.

The indignant landlord Lucy was a Justice of the Peace, and he, himself, heard the case notwithstanding an obvious clash of interest. He sentenced Shakespeare to a flogging, which was carried out.

William retaliated with his pen, writing a satirical ballad making fun of his prosecutor:

Sir Thomas Lucy - Statue at Charlecote Park - Flickr

Shakespeare appears before Thomas Lucy, JP, by Thomas Brooks - W/P

“A parliament member, a justice of peace,
At home a poor scarecrow, at London an ass,
If lousy is Lucy as some folks miscall it
Then Lucy is lousy whatever befall it”.

Researchers say that this lampooning of His Lordship, some of which suggested his wife was unfaithful, got so uncomfortable for Shakespeare that the 23 year old fled to London seeking refuge. This episode left William with an unhealthy view of the justice system later reflected in some of his plays.

Shallow Plays Lucy? 

The theory is that Sir Thomas Lucy is the aged Robert Shallow, a character in both Henry IV Part 2 and Merry Wives of Windsor. In Henry, Justice Robert Shallow, with cousin and fellow squire Justice Silence, recruit soldiers for the royal army. The candidates are presented to Falstaff, named Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble and Bullcalf. Their names tell the story: all are poor men, dirty, dressed in rags: Shakespeare’s theme playing up the juxtaposition between the rich and the poor.

Falstaff puts one across Shallow which results in Shallow’s indebtedness, reducing him to the ranks of the destitute - which probably is exactly where the retaliatory Shakespeare would have liked to have seen Sir John Lucy, and all his likes, in real life. 

In Merry Wives the same theory is often repeated, that Robert Shallow is based on Sir Thomas Lucy, mainly because the plot begins with Falstaff poaching deer from Shallow’s estate. Sounds familiar! Falstaff admits his crime. Shallow threatens prosecution, but - lampooning the justice system again - Falstaff reminds Shallow of damaging, inside, knowledge he has and thus, despite his Guilty plea, avoids prosecution. The play then develops into Shallow’s promotion of Slender’s courtship and marriage to Anne Page of an upper-class family, possibly Shakespeare’s commentary on continuation of class differences.

Country Justices Shallow and Silence on stage painted by J. Coghan: c 1820 -W/P

Shallow’s Lines  

These well illustrate Shakespeare’s knowledge of Justices of the Peace. In Merry Wives Robert Shallow is described in a bit of puffery that he is not only a Justice of the Peace but a “quorum Justice”, one whose presence was necessary to constitute a bench that carried legal authority. Later Shakespeare describes Shallow as the county's principal justice—the "Custa-lorum" and that his three-hundred-year-old title as a local esquire is not merely the temporary designation granted by the state to justices during their tenure.

300 years, according to the Bard’s line, dates the title “Justice of the Peace” back to the 1300s and he’s correct. It’s generally accepted that this was the first use of the name for the office in a direction issued by Plantagenet Edward III in 1327. However, those who preserved the King’s peace, the origin of the office, were appointed even earlier in the time of Richard I.

Justice Shallow (left) with John Falstaff by H. C. Selous - W/P

Swallow also betrays himself as not quite the paragon of virtue in the office of Justice of the Peace. In Merry Wives he reveals he’d like to settle matters with Falstaff out or court, suggesting the sword.
And that, although aged and a Justice of the Peace, “…if I see a sword out, my finger itches to make one…”

Shakespeare reveals inside knowledge when he introduces the office of Armigero. Robert Shallow, self-importantly, stresses that he is a member of the armigerous gentry, a gentleman who, although not a peer, is entitled to bear a coat of arms. Shakespeare makes fun of the title, and the differentiation from the gentry when, through Shallow, he stresses that this “gentility”is entitled only through the derivation of the term "esquire" from "armiger”,an apprentice-knight who bore his master's armour, no more.

This may also be Shakespeare’s commentary on his father, John’s coat of arms. John applied for a family coat of arms several times between 1560 and 1590 but was turned down, perhaps because he had been accused of a few minor crimes as a businessman or, in hard times, he could not afford the cost of repeated applications. By 1596 William was well-known and renewed the submission. John was granted a coat of arms on the basis of his grandfather’s faithful service to King Henry VII! The motto was “Not Without Right”.

Depiction of John Shakespeare’s Coat of Arms -W/P

Justice of the Peace: William Gardiner  

Some scholars say the part of Swallow was not written to make fun of Sir Thomas Lucy at all, but to satirise William Gardiner, a ne’er do well accused of corruption, cheating (even members of his own family) and theft, with whom Shakespeare had come into strenuous conflict over Gardiner’s attempts to close the Swan Theatre.

Gardiner was also a Justice of the Peace -reinforcing those theories that Swallow is, in fact, Gardiner and that Shakespeare’s retaliation against him was alive and well, included in his plays. Whatever, Shakespeare lampooned the law, its processes and those locals administering it: Justices of the Peace.

Justice of the Peace: Sir Thomas North  

A contemporary of Shakespeare, Sir Thomas North, was a celebrated military officer and translator. He was also a Justice of the Peace. His translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives is recognised as one of the earliest masterpieces of English prose and a major influence in its development.

The work is a collection of biographies of Roman and Greek notables and became source-text for some of Shakespeare’s plays. The Bard drew materials for Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra and Timon of Athens, and in some, notably Antony and Cleopatra, he borrowed Thomas North’s prose putting it more or less word for word into blank verse. Shakespeare’s connection with this Justice of the Peace inspired at least four of his works.

North's translation, first published in 1579,
was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth

Other References  

In Henry IV Part 2 Jack Cade, a rebel leading revolt against the government has the lines critical of the system:


Rebels Lord Saye and Sele before Jack Cade- depiction of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, by painter Charles Lucy (1884) - W/P

“Thou hast appointed justices of peace, to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison; and because they could not read, thou hast hanged them; when, indeed, only for that cause they have been most worthy to live. Thou dost ride in a foot-cloth, dost thou not?”

And one more reference, probably better-known than all the rest: the Jaques’ melancholy soliloquy in As You Like It. Jaques was a nobleman who preferred the forest “…more free from peril than the envious court…” and cheered the exiles with his antics and with his philosophy he so magnificently expresses in this sonnet. In it, he likens the world to a stage and all the people taking their respective parts as actors.

Continuing a dramatic theme it speaks of life as if a play in seven Acts: seven stages as man progresses from infancy to the grave. One of these stages Shakespeare likens to the Justice. For all the lampooning, disrespect and satire of Justices in other plays, I think the Bard might be seen as sincere towards the Office in Jaques’ speech. Maybe a kind of balancing act?

“All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms. Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lined, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slippered pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side; His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.

Jaques depicted in "As you like It"
- Typhoo Tea Coupon 1937

So Shakespeare likens his fifth stage in life to the Justice: mature, corpulent, well fed, comfortably off, conscious of his (aging?) appearance and wise… “Full of saws…”, (sayings and maxims) “…and modern instances” (facts, cases).

The 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death will be celebrated this month in literary circles, and way beyond. Recent attendances at the pop-up replica of the Globe Theatre in Auckland have shown the continuing popularity of his plays. After more than 400 years Shakespeare is an institution. So, toois the office of Justice of the Peace which, as Shakespeare pointed out, is much older. The Bard came into personal contact with Justices of the Peace in his lifetime: they obviously left an impression on him, some better than others, and their characters live on in his plays.

RCC April 2016
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