Shakespeare in Stratford and London: Ten Eyewitnesses Who Saw Nothing - Part 2
by Ramon L. Jiménez
William Camden was the most eminent historian and antiquary of the Elizabethan age, and was deeply involved in the literary and intellectual world of his time. He knew Philip Sidney, was a valued friend of Michael Drayton, and is said to have been a teacher of Ben Jonson. His most famous work was Britannia, a history of England first published in Latin in 1586. It was translated, and frequently reprinted, and he revised it several times before his death in 1623. Another of Camden’s books was Remaines Concerning Britain, a series of essays on English history, English names and the English language that he published in 1605. Camden wrote poetry himself, and in the section on poetry, he referred to poets as “God’s own creatures.” He listed eleven English poets and playwrights who he thought would be admired by future generations—in other words, the best writers of his time (Remaines 287, 294). Among the eleven were six playwrights, including Jonson, Chapman, Drayton, Daniel, Marston, and William Shakespeare.
Two years later, in 1607, Camden published the sixth edition of his Britannia, which by then had doubled in size because of his extensive revisions and additions. He arranged the book by shire or county, with his description of each beginning in the pre-Roman period and extending to contemporary people and events. With Camden’s interests and previous work in mind, it is surprising to find that in this 1607 edition, and in his subsequent editions, in the section on Stratford-upon-Avon, he described this “small market-town” as owing “all its consequence to two natives of it. They are John de Stratford, later Archbishop of Canterbury, who built the church, and Hugh Clopton, later mayor of London, who built the Clopton bridge across the Avon” (Britannia 2, 445). In the same paragraph, Camden called attention to George Carew, Baron Clopton, who lived nearby and was active in the town’s affairs.
There is no mention of the well-known poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, who had been born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, whose family still lived there, and who by this date had returned there to live in one of the grandest houses in town. Elsewhere in Britannia, Camden noted that the poet Philip Sidney had a home in Kent. We know he was familiar with literary and theatrical affairs because he was a friend of the poet and playwright Michael Drayton (Newdigate 95), and he noted in his diary the deaths of the actor Richard Burbage and the poet and playwright Samuel Daniel in 1619.i He made no such note on the death of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1616.
It might be suggested that Camden was unfamiliar with the Warwickshire area, and wasn’t aware that one of the leading playwrights of the day lived in Stratford-on-Avon. But could this be true? In 1597 Queen Elizabeth had appointed Camden to the post of Clarenceaux King of Arms, one of the two officials in the College of Arms who approved applications for coats of arms. Two years later, John Shakespeare, William’s father, applied to the College to have his existing coat of arms impaled, or joined, with the arms of his wife’s family, the Ardens of Wilmcote (Chambers 2:18-32). Some writers have asserted that William Shakespeare himself made this application for his father, but there is no evidence of that. What is likely is that William paid the substantial fee that accompanied the application.
The record shows that Camden and his colleague William Dethick approved the modification that John Shakespeare sought. However, in 1602 another official in the College brought a complaint against Camden and Dethick that they had granted coats of arms improperly to twenty-three men, one of whom was John Shakespeare. Camden and Dethick defended their actions, but there is no record of the outcome of the matter, and the Shakespeare coat of arms, minus the Arden impalement, later appeared on the monument in Holy Trinity Church. Because of this unusual complaint Camden had good reason to remember John Shakespeare’s application, and it is very probable that he had met both father and son. At the least, he knew who they were and where they lived.
William Camden had another occasion to come in contact with the Shakespeares. In the summer of 1600, when the famous Sir Thomas Lucy died, Camden bore Lucy’s coat of arms in the procession and conducted the funeral at Charlecote, only a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon (Malone 2:556). Thomas Lucy knew the Shakespeares also. When he was justice of the peace in Stratford-upon-Avon, John Shakespeare was brought up before him more than once. John may even have attended Lucy’s funeral, but it seems likely that William was too busy to go. During 1600, seven or eight of William Shakespeare’s plays were printed for the first time and, according to most orthodox scholars, in the summer of 1600 he was hurrying to finish up Hamlet.
So, even though William Camden revered poets, had several poet friends, and wrote poetry himself, even though he knew the Shakespeares, father and son, and even though he mentioned playwrights and poets in his books and in his diary, he never connected the Shakespeare he knew in Stratford-upon-Avon with the one on his list of the best English poets.
Camden, William: Remains Concerning Britain (1605); Ed. R.D. Dunn. Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1984
Camden, William. Britannia (6th ed. 1607 ) Trans. by Richard Gough. London: Printed
for John Stockdale, 1806. v. 2, 445.
i Camden’s Diary appeared in Camdeni Vitae, a life of Camden published in 1691 by Thomas Smith. The Diary is online at http://e3.uci.edu/~papyri/diary/, where the entries can be seen in the months of March and October under the year 1619.
Newdigate, B.H. Michael Drayton and his Circle. London: Basil Blackwell & Mott.
Corrected Edition, 1961.
Malone, Edmond: The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare. Third Variorum
Edition. Vol 2. James Boswell, ed. London: R.C. & J. Rivington, 1821.
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Note: William Camden was a friend and associate of Francis Bacon.