Shake it II - Ob metum mortis

In 1930 Shakespearean scholar and literary detective Leslie Hotson stumbled on two highly interesting documents, both being writs of attachment issued to the sheriff of Surrey. In the first, from early November 1596, a certain Francis Langley seeks protection: "Be it known that Francis Langley craves sureties of the peace against William Gardiner and William Wayte for fear of death, and so forth." In the second, from late November the same year, William Wayte returns the favour: "Be it known that William Wayte craves sureties of the peace against William Shakspere (!), Francis Langley, Dorothy Soer wife of John Soer, and Anne Lee, for fear of death, and so forth." (The writs were originally in legal Latin, translations by Hotson.)

"For fear of death." Ob metum mortis in the original. Now these are what today would be called restraining orders. F.E. Halliday's A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964 explains them thus: "Anyone craving sureties of the peace made oath before a justice that he stood in fear of his life or some bodily hurt, whereupon a judge would order the sheriff of the county concerned to attach the alleged threatener and make him enter a bond to keep the peace." Quite serious stuff, then.

So, this William Wayte feared for his life. And what he feared was that William Shakespeare would kill or seriously injure him. Shakespeare, being mentioned first in the writ, was therefore also considered the biggest threat.

Who are these people? What do we know of them? Wayte, Gardiner, Langley, Soer, Lee? What does Shakespeare have to do with them? This is where it gets really interesting. Let's start with William Gardiner who is nothing less than a justice of the peace and the former High Sheriff of Surrey and Sussex. And a right bent one to boot, of this there can be no doubt whatsoever. William Wayte is Gardiner's stepson and obviously his enforcer when it comes to his shady dealings. Wayte does Gardiner's dirty work for him.

Langley was originally a goldsmith who in 1589 bought Paris Garden on the Bankside. Which is where Londoners went to watch the popular pastime of bear-baiting and other unsavoury things. Like plays. This is because the Bankside was in Southwark and therefore not in the City of London. You couldn't have theatres within the walls of the City, that was illegal. Theatres were quite immeasurably immoral. Like brothels really. So no wonder the theatres often operated as brothels as well, or the theatre owner had another building right next to his theatre where pleasures of the flesh were on offer to the gent what wanted a bit of nook. Well, entertainment's entertainment like, innit? Anyway, the officials of London had no jurisdiction in Southwark. Therefore that's were the underworld and the demi-monde tended to congregate and ply their trade. In 1594 Langley started building a new theatre, The Swan, in Paris Garden. The Swan was finished and ready for use sometime in 1596. Which is what connects Langley to Shakespeare. Theatre owner - playwright, right? But Dorothy Soer and Anne Lee? Who on earth were they? How do they enter the picture? Nothing beyond their names is known of them.

Halliday calls Langley a "financier". His wikipedia article describes him, very generously, as a "theatre builder and theatrical producer". Peter Ackroyd, in his Shakespeare biography, sees the man in a slightly bleaker light: "It is perhaps worth noting that Langley himself enjoyed a somewhat dubious reputation as a money-broker and minor civic official who had managed to accumulate a large fortune; he had been charged by the Attorney General, in no less a tribunal than the Star Chamber, of violence and extortion." William Ingram's biography of the man (A London Life in the Brazen Age) is even franker as to his little "business pursuits". So there we have it. Langley was a thug and a king pin of thugs. He was a money-lender, a brothel-keeper and maybe worse (his brother-in-law worked for the sinister spy master Walsingham and that's how he got his appointment as a government official!). The role of Dorothy Soer and Anne Lee seems to become clear. What else can they be than brothel workers? Why else would they be involved with Langley in a spat with Wayte and Gardiner? They can hardly have been theatrical workers, that would make no sense whatsoever. But the brothel angle would. All the sense in the world. If they were punks, drabs or bawds, to use the parlance of the day, that would be another matter indeed.

Obviously there was a turf war going on. Gardiner wanted in on the action. Langley wasn't having none of it. Gardiner sent in his enforcer Wayte. And Langley? Did he counter with his enforcer, the even nastier bully boy Will Shakspere? The mind boggles a bit. Ever so slightly.

Shakespeare a thug? An enforcer? A common criminal? Oh dear.

1596 was a most curious year for Shakespeare. In August he buried his only son Hamnet. A few days later he received his coat of arms, making him officially a gentleman. Shakespeare the gentleman enforcer? Curiouser and curiouser.

But the Langley connection does seem to explain things. Around that time Shakespeare suddenly seems to have a great deal of money. He buys the second finest house in Stratford for £60 - a huge sum. In 1599 he owns a share (10 or possibly 12%) of the newly erected Globe. These are not trifling sums. Certainly not the sort of money one makes with one's quill, however brilliant a craftsman one happens to be. How does he get it? Well if he's in cahoots with Langley, if he takes his just cut of the immoral earnings of prostitutes, if he's in on all of Langley's other grimy rackets, squeezing everyone within sight, that would explain it.

It's not the sort of explanation Shakespearean scholars long for. Usually biographies sort of skate around Langley and Wayte. They shouldn't. Whatever the truth there's a story there. And a jolly good one at that. It may not be pretty. It may even change the way we have to see Shakespeare, irrevocably, but it does have to be addressed honestly and seriously. Anything else would just be cowardice.

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