Today William Shakespeare’s life is discussed and debated almost as much as his plays and poems are—so much so, in fact, that a handful of his biographical tidbits (like the fact he left his wife their “second best bed”) have long since become general knowledge. But the lives of all the other members of Shakespeare’s family remain relatively little known—including the fact that William’s father, John, was once appointed official ale-taster of Stratford-upon-Avon.
John Shakespeare was born in Snitterfield, a small village in Warwickshire, England, sometime around 1530. The Catholic son of a local farmer, he moved to nearby Stratford-upon-Avon in 1551 to open a store selling the wheat, wool, leather and other commodities produced on his father’s farm. His relationship with his future wife, Mary Arden (William’s mother), was probably already well established by the time John moved to Stratford; although it’s unclear when the couple first met, the Shakespeares had long used the Arden family’s land to graze their livestock, so it’s presumed that John and Mary had known each other most of their lives. Given that the Ardens were wealthy and aristocratic, however, it’s likely that Mary’s family would not have been too happy about her relationship with John, but they were nevertheless married in 1557.
Despite being relatively poorly educated and unable to write (he used a drawing of a pair of compasses as his signature), John was reportedly an accomplished craftsman and an ambitious businessman, so that by the time he and Mary married he had already expanded his business in Stratford to begin trading in handmade gloves and high-quality leather, owned two houses, and, according to some records, had even begun operating as a moneylender. With his business now flourishing—and no doubt buoyed by Mary’s family’s connections to the aristocracy—the Shakespeares soon became one of Stratford’s foremost families, and John was appointed to one of the most important public offices in the town: official ale-taster.
It might seem like a bizarre job (or a brilliant one, for that matter) today, but in Elizabethan England ale-tasting—or “conning,” as it was also known—was an important and highly-respected occupation. Since Medieval times, towns across England had appointed official “conners” to test the strength and quality of all locally-brewed ale to ensure that it was sold for a fair price, and would therefore raise an appropriate amount of taxable revenue. The job ultimately carried a considerable amount of responsibility—conners were required to swear an oath, and were given the power to lower the price of ale they deemed to be of poor quality, and to report breweries that were sub-standard or engaged in fraudulent, underhanded practices.
Not all the beer the conners tasted would have passed the test, however, and in the days before preservatives and strict hygiene rules, beer would frequently spoil, making the job of tasting it not always the most pleasant (nor the safest) of tasks. What’s more, as if being obliged by oath to take a mouthful of spoiled ale wasn't bad enough, according to at least one account of the job the sugar content of ale was originally tested by pouring some of it out onto a wooden bench and sitting in it while wearing leather breeches—as the ale was warmed by the conner’s behind, it would become sticky and adhere to the leather, with the ale containing the most sugar producing the stickiest puddle (although this technique is thankfully now thought to be apocryphal).
John Shakespeare was appointed official ale-taster of Stratford in 1556, around the time of his and Mary’s marriage. It’s not known how long he held the post, but it was the first of many high-ranking positions he went on to hold in the town: he was made a borough constable (essentially an early policeman) in 1558; he became an affeeror, responsible for doling out penalties for crimes not on the statute books, the following year; by 1561 he was borough chamberlain; in 1565 he was made alderman; and, in 1571, Chief Alderman.
John’s rise from the son of a tenant farmer to Chief Alderman of Stratford understandably changed his family’s prospects—as alderman, his children were granted a free grammar school education, so that when William was born in 1564 he was guaranteed the best education available to him—but unfortunately, John’s success soon came to an end. For reasons that remain unclear (but likely involve the increasing persecution of Catholics in Elizabethan England), from the late 1570s onwards the Shakespeares began experiencing a period of steep decline, both professionally and personally. John’s application for a family coat of arms was mysteriously declined, and growing financial troubles led to him being fined for failing to show up to a court hearing in 1580 and he was eventually stripped of all his civic duties. Anne Shakespeare, the family’s seventh child, died in 1579 at just 7, and in 1582 the family undoubtedly became the subject of local scandal when 18-year-old William brought home 27-year-old Anne Hathaway, who was three months pregnant with his child; the pair were promptly married, and Anne gave birth to Susanna Shakespeare, William’s eldest child, the following year.
Despite the scandal, however, it was William’s success as a playwright in London that eventually improved his family’s fortunes—two years after his theatrical troupe, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, performed for Elizabeth I, John was finally granted his coat of arms, and, although he never returned to public office, his business eventually began to recover. He died in 1601, at about the age of 70.