William Hart, William Shakespeare's brother-in-law, is an instructive example as to just how invisible to the historical record someone of non-gentry status can be during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Particularly when vital records of baptism, marriage and burial are incomplete (as they often are), it becomes all too easy for someone to slip out of the purview of future generations if they are not badly behaved – or unfortunate – enough to show up in court records, or sufficiently wealthy and respectable to serve as a local office holder.
Shakespeare's younger sister, Joan, married Hart in the late 1590s. The date is uncertain because the Stratford-upon-Avon marriage registers are incomplete for that decade. This is especially unfortunate as William Hart may have come from somewhere other than Stratford, information which would have been recorded in the marriage register. Certainly, ‘Hart’ (or its variants, ‘Harte’, ‘Hert’, ‘Herte’) is not one of those family names that recur in the records for sixteenth-century Stratford (unlike ‘Quiney’ or ‘Sadler’). There is a yeoman, Nicholas Hart, who – along with his wife Isabel – appears in various documents in 1558 and 1566 relating to the lease of land in Stivichall, circa seventeen miles from Stratford (Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon, DR10/785, DR10/796). However, the fact that after Nicholas's death (which occurred at some point before 1586) the lease passed to his widow would suggest that they had no male heirs and are therefore unlikely to be connected to William Hart (DR10/830).
Joan Shakespeare was five years William Shakespeare's junior, born in April 1569 and baptised on the 15th of that month (Schoenbaum 1975, p. 27). Assuming that Joan and William Hart's first child followed fairly quickly after their marriage (the eldest child, William, was born in August 1600), Joan would have been in her late twenties when she wed, at the upper end of the ‘normal’ age-range for making a first marriage in that period (MacFarlane 1980, p. 110). Three further children followed, at regular intervals, which speak to the fertility of both partners: Mary (born in 1603, and dying in 1607), Thomas (b. 1605), and Michael (b. 1608) (Schoenbaum 1975, p. 28).