Shakespeare Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Shakespeare Surname Meaning

The name Shakespeare derived from the Middle English shakken, meaning “brandish” or  “shake,” and  speer or “spear.”  It would be a nickname for a spearman or a belligerent person.  Shakespeare was thus not necessarily a good name to have.  Hugh Shakespeare changed his name to Hugh Saunders at Oxford in 1487 “because of its base repute.

The spelling of the name had not settled down by the time of William Shakespeare.  In his lifetime and for many years after, his name could be spelt as Shakespear, Shakspeare or Shakspere – as well as Shakespeare.

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Shakespeare Surname Ancestry

England.  The first recording of the name was that of William Sakespere in the old charters of Gloucestershire in 1248.  He may have been the same William Sakespere who was hanged for theft in the same county in 1284.  By the 16th century, however, the Shakespeare name was to be found much more frequently in
Warwickshire than anywhere else.

The name first appeared in Warwickshire at Wroxall, with Elizabeth Shakespeare being recorded there in 1417.  John and Alice Shakespeyre were at Rowington nearby in 1464. In the next century this family was living at Mowsley End in Rowington.  Thomas Shaxpere held the manor until his death in 1591.  William Shakespeare was living at Knowle Hall in the 1760’s.

William Shakespeare.  In terms of William Shakespeare’s direct ancestors, the earliest probable candidate was Richard Shakespeare, recorded in 1535 as a tenant farmer at Snitterfield near Stratford.  He would have been William’s grandfather.  The story his son John gave that Richard and his father fought for Henry VII during the Wars of the Roses seems to have been a contrived one.  Richard died in 1561.

Richard’s son John moved to Stratford in 1551, prospered and married Mary Arden of the Arden gentry family at Park Hall.  However, John later fell on hard times and had to withdraw from public life in Stratford.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) had no direct descendants.  William’s sister Joan, who died in 1646, was the only member of his family whose known descendants continue to the present day.  Some suspect that William might have had an elder brother, John a shoemaker in Stratford.  But this line is unknown.

Other Shakespeares.  Outside of the playwright, one notable Shakespeare line – as reported in Burke’s Peerage – began with the marriage of Humphrey Shakespeare and Elinor Scale in 1649.  They lived in Ipsley in Warwickshire.

These Shakespeares remained in Warwickshire until the 19th century when two Baptist ministers, Benjamin and his son John Howard, made the move to London.  John’s son Geoffrey Shakespeare was the Liberal MP for Norwich in the inter-war years.  He was made a baronet in 1942.

Another Shakespeare line, commencing with the John Shakespear who married Martha Seeley in 1654, was London-based.  This family lived for many generations in Stepney:

  • John Shakepear was a London Alderman in the 18th century.
  • Sir Richard Shakespear saw service with the British army in India in the mid-19th century. 
  • while Captain William Shakespear, one of the last of the great Victorian explorers, made his name in Arabia where he was the first westerner to meet its ruler Ibn Saud.

There were also Shakespeare lines to be found at Kingswinford in Staffordshire and around Breedon-on-the-Hill and Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire.

In the 1881 census and again a hundred years later, Shakespeare was still primarily a name of the West Midlands and of Warwickshire in particular.

Caribbean.  David Shakespear, from the Stepney line, came to Jamaica as a merchant in the late 18th century and settled at Hodges Pen. Probably through him, there are Afro-Caribbeans who bear the name. Sly and Robbie is a Jamaican reggae group where the Robbie is Robbie Shakespeare. 

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Shakespeare Surname Miscellany

Shakespeare’s Spelling.  The name Shakespeare has been spelt in an astonishing variety of ways – including Shakspere, Shakespere, Shakkespere, Shaxpere, Shakstaff, Sakspere, Shagspere, Shakeshafte and even Chacsper. The name of John Shakespeare occurred 166 times in the Council Book of the Stratford corporation and it appeared to take sixteen different forms.

Shakespeare himself, in credited examples of his signature, always wrote “Shakspere.” However, in many formal documents and the printed signatures to the dedications of his poems and plays that bear his name, it generally appeared as Shakespeare.

Shakespeares in Wroxall.  The earliest mention of a Shakespeare in Wroxall occurred in 1417 when the Manor Court seized property formerly held by one Elizabeth Shakespeare, who had disposed of this contrary to the customs of the Manor.  Its new occupier subsequently disposed of part of the property, again without recourse to the manorial court, this, and the neglect of the property, led to its seizure by the manorial court.

In the next century there is a succession of records of Shakespeares in Wroxall, beginning with Isabella Shakespeare who was Prioress until about 1507.   Later, Richard Shakespeare was the Bailiff of Wroxall and his sister Joan the Sub-Prioress there.  Other members of the family settled in Rowington nearby.  J. W. Ryland in his Records of Wroxall Abbey and Manor noted that the Shakespeares in both places used identical seals, indicating their relationship.

The Shakespeares and the Ardens.  The Ardens of Park Hall were local gentry in Warwickshire, a long-established Catholic family who (it was said) had been given their land by William the Conqueror.  Richard Shakespeare, grandfather to William Shakespeare, was a tenant farmer of the Ardens, at the time of Robert Arden and his wife Agnes.  They had eight daughters, of which Mary Arden was the youngest.

Mary Arden was sixteen in 1556 when her father died.  He left her some money and some land in Wilmecote. This Mary married John Shakespeare and they became the parents of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s Descendants.  There are no direct descendants of William Shakespeare living today.  Shakespeare and his wife Anne had three children: Susanna, who was born in 1583, and the twins Judith and Hamnet, who were born in 1585. Hamnet, a boy, died in 1596 at 11 years of age.

Susanna married John Hall in 1607 and had one child, Elizabeth, in 1608.  Although Elizabeth was married twice (in 1626 to Thomas Nash and in 1649 to John Bernard), she never had any children.  Judith married Thomas Quiney in 1616 and had three sons, one of whom died in infancy.  The other two sons both died unmarried in 1639. 

Shakespeare in the 1881 Census

County Numbers Percent
Warwickshire    260    24
Staffordshire    210    19
Worcestershire    180    17
London     90     8
Elsewhere    350    32
Total   1,090   100

The largest numbers recorded were in Dudley (98) and Birmingham (62) in Warwickshire and in Kingswinford (69) in Staffordshire.

Captain William Shakespear in the Arabian Desert.  From 1909 until his death in 1915, Captain William Shakespear was the British Political Agent in Kuwait. During that time he became an experienced desert traveller, getting to know the bedu and joining them in hunting with his own salukis and falcon Shalwa.  He gradually extended his travelling and made seven separate expeditions into the Arabian interior.

He became a close friend of Ibn Saud, then the Emir of the Nejd at that time.  It was Shakespear who arranged for Ibn Saud to be photographed for the first time. Ibn Saud had never seen a camera before. Captain Shakespear was in fact a keen photographer and would record his desert explorations.  These photographs are amongst the best known early images of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, part of an important collection of images from a bygone era.

In March 1914, Shakespear began a 2,900-kilometer journey from Kuwait to Riyadh and on to Aqaba via the Nafud Desert, which he mapped and studied in great detail, the first European to do so.

Later in 1914, the British Government asked him to secure Ibn Saud’s support for the British-Indian Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force which had just taken Basra.  The next year Ibn Saud’s army went into battle against the army of Ibn Rashid.  Shakespear, despite Ibn Saud’s protests, stayed as an observer and tragically met his death, hit from a distance by one of the enemy’s shots, at the Battle of Jarab.

Ibn Saud was deeply saddened by the loss of his friend’s life.  When asked later in life if he could name the greatest European he had ever met, he replied without hesitation ‘Captain Shakespear.’

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Shakespeare Names
  • William Shakespeare, born in Stratford-on-Avon in 1564, was the famous playwright.
  • Captain William Shakespear was a Political Agent in the Middle East in the early 1900’s and the first westerner to meet the Arabian ruler Ibn Saud.
Shakespeare Numbers Today
  • 4,000 in the UK (most numerous in Warwickshire)
  • 1,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)
Shakespeare and Like Surnames

These are the names of some literary giants.  If you are interested in the name behind the literary figure, please click on the surname below.

AustenEliotJoyceTennyson
BurnsFitzgeraldKeatsThackeray
ByronHawthorneShakespeareWilde
DickensHemingwayShelleyYeats

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