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Arms and the Man: Shakespeare Edition

Folger exhibit details playwright’s quest for a coat of arms

William Shakespeare was celebrated during his lifetime as a leading poet and dramatist. But by 1596, the Bard sought something more to cement his standing among the Elizabethan upper crust: A family coat of arms.

Acquiring the ultimate medieval status symbol was no small thing. It meant submitting one’s lineage for review by one of England’s three kings of arms and sometimes enduring brickbats and second-guessing. Within a few years of winning the grants of arms, a herald charged that the family was unworthy of the honor — describing Shakespeare with the derogatory term “player” — and claimed the insignia was a knock-off of an earlier design.

This upward-striving, sometimes catty side of 16th century life is brought into high relief in “Symbols of Honor: Heraldry and Family History in Shakespeare’s England,” an exhibit running through Oct. 26 at the Folger Shakespeare Library that brings the original drafts of Shakespeare’s coat of arms to the United States for the first time. Also featured are elaborate early English family trees and a heraldic alphabet of 11,000 coats of arms.

The show documents how heralds crisscrossed Britain examining real and aspiring nobles’ pedigrees, helping spawn an interest in genealogy that endures today. It also details the elaborate language and format of English ceremonial crests and the way kings of arms required arms-bearing families to justify their right to display their arms.

The heralds were hybrid census takers and brand consultants, charged with separating the elite from the riff raff by painstakingly assembling biographic material. They also were a quarrelsome bunch, as the Shakespeare incident revealed, policing guarantees that an individual’s arms were unique much in the way lawyers protect trademarks.

“Their role was to know people’s coats of arms and do tasks like looking at the fallen after a battle to identify them,” said Nigel Ramsay, senior research fellow at the University of Exeter who helped curate the Folger exhibit. “There are also books of improperly granted arms,  . . .  instances where a crest was granted to a fishmonger.”

At their best and most imaginative, the heralds produced work such as an elaborate parchment roll on display from the Free Library of Philadelphia that chronicles the 15th century King Edward IV’s royal ancestry all the way back to Adam, including the depictions of the resurrected Christ and Old Testament figures. The roll belonged to the king himself.

Armor is represented by a half-shaffron to protect the front of a horse’s head bearing the arms of the 16th century Duke of Brunswick. There also are formal grants of arms from past and present, including the 1976 honorary grant bestowed on Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, which includes elements of the Hampden and Sidney family designs.

The three drafts of Shakespeare’s family arms on display were prepared by a herald named William Dethick and are among only a handful of documents known to have passed under the playwright’s gaze. The final version, given to Shakespeare’s aging father John, hasn’t survived.

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