Gardiner v. Shakespeare

     In 1596, William Gardiner, a justice of the peace, sued William Shakespeare ‘ob metum mortis’ – for fear of death – before the Judge of Queen’s Bench in Bankside, on the south shore of the Thames in London.
     Judge Gardiner demanded that the sheriff of Surrey haul Shakespeare and three co-defendants into court to post bond, which would be forfeited if they broke the peace.
     Gardiner sued the greatest artist in the history of the human race in retaliation for a similar complaint, ob metum mortis, which one of Shakespeare’s co-defendants, Francis Langley, had sworn against him.
     This Langley had opened the Swan playhouse that summer, where Shakespeare’s players may, or may not, have performed. After a quarrel whose origin has not been ascertained, Langley denounced Judge Gardiner as “a false, perjured knave.” The judge then tried to put the Swan out of business.
     Langley also had a beef with Gardiner’s stepson, William Wayte, who is described in a deposition as “a certain loose person of no reckoning or value, being wholly under the rule and commandment of the said Gardiner.”
     “This Gardiner was known and detested by many in the district,” according to Samuel Schoenbaum, America’s pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar.
     Gardiner became wealthy “through money-lending and sharp practice,” and by marrying a “prosperous widow,” then defrauding her brothers and sisters, Schoenbaum wrote in “Shakespeare: A Documentary Life.”
     “He made numerous enemies, including his own son-in-law John Stepkin. On his death-bed Stepkin darkly suspected that Gardiner was responsible for his fatal illness; was he not, after all, a sorcerer who kept two toads?”
     The outcome of this 414-year-old rhubarb is lost in the mists of time. The petition for sureties of the peace is one of two dozen or so documents that survive about Shakespeare, outside of his plays and poems. (A document from 1598 shows Shakespeare owed taxes on worldly goods valued at 5 pounds. He was reported as delinquent by tax collector Ferdinando Clutterbook.)
     The dueling lawsuits with the justice of the peace interest me for two reasons. One: why it is that we know more about these unsavory characters – Wayte, a loose person of no reckoning or value; and Gardiner, a toad-keeping perjured knave – than we do about William Shakespeare?
     And two, why it is that my own boss, William Girdner, founder and chief bottle-washer at Courthouse News Service, so stoutly maintains that he is no relation of William Gardiner?
     Let the record show that William Girdner is not only a lawyer, like Gardiner, he was also an English major. Girdner thus could be expected, on knowledge and belief, to exhibit the qualities of both professions: useless and reprehensible. Or is it prehensile? No matter.
     Shakespeare has been much on my mind of late. Not so much, though, that I remembered to write this in time for his birthday, which is observed on April 23.
     Perhaps that’s as it should be. We’re not sure when his birthday was. The more I find out about Shakespeare – and there’s not that much you can find out about Shakespeare – the more I am convinced that he was one of the few towering artists of humanity who was – how shall I say this? – sort of a normal guy. A polite fellow, well-meaning, would rather get along with you than not.
     Look at what happened to his fellow artists: Kit Marlowe murdered at 29 by spies. Thomas Kyd dead at 35, probably of poison, after prison and torture. Thomas Nashe dead at 33, also after prison. Ben Jonson thrown in prison with George Chapman, the translator of Homer – Jonson almost lost his ears. All of them in trouble for their writing.
     How is it that Shakespeare escaped? Elizabeth had nearly 200 people executed for suspicion of Catholicism, a sin of which Shakespeare also was suspected. His plays contain material enough to offend powerful people no matter what they believe. Talent and sparkling plays didn’t keep Marlowe, Kyd or Jonson out of prison. What did Shakespeare have that they didn’t – aside from more talent, which never has guaranteed anyone safety, at any time?
     I’m beginning to think that Shakespeare escaped because he was, aside from his stupendous talent, sort of a normal guy.
     Is it heresy to say this?
     So far as I can tell, Shakespeare never was accused of the faults attributed to some people I could mention.

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