In the mid-sixteenth century, William Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, moved to the idyllic town of Stratford-upon-Avon. There, he became a successful landowner, moneylender, glove-maker, and dealer of wool and agricultural goods. In 1557, he married Mary Arden. John Shakespeare lived during a time when the middle class was expanding in both size and wealth, allowing its members more freedoms and luxuries as well as a louder voice in local government. He took advantage of the change in times and in 1557 became a member of the Stratford Council.
This event marked the beginning of his illustrious political career. By 1561, he was elected one of the town’s fourteen burgesses and subsequently served successively as constable, one of two chamberlains, and alderman. In these positions, he administered borough property and revenues.
In 1567, he became bailiff—the highest elected office in Stratford and the equivalent of a modern-day mayor. Town records indicate that William Shakespeare was John and Mary’s third child. His birth is unregistered, but legend pins it on April 23, 1564, possibly because it is known that April 23 is the day on which he died 52 years later. In any event, his baptism was registered with the town on April 26, 1564. Little is known about his childhood, although it is generally assumed that he attended the local grammar school, the King’s New School.
The school was staffed by Oxford-educated faculty who taught the students mathematics, natural sciences, logic, Christian ethics, and classical language and literature. Shakespeare did not attend university, which was not at all unusual for the time. University education was reserved for wealthy sons of the elite, mostly those who wanted to become clergymen. The numerous classical and literary references in Shakespeare’s plays are a testament, however, to the excellent education he received in grammar school (and to his ability as an autodidact).
His early plays in particular draw on the works of Seneca and Plautus. Even more impressive than his formal education is the wealth of general knowledge exhibited in his works. His vocabulary exceeds that of any other English writer by a wide margin. In 1582, at the age of eighteen, William Shakespeare married the twenty-six-year-old Anne Hathaway.
Their first daughter, Susanna, was baptized only six months later—a fact that has given rise to speculation concerning the circumstances surrounding their marriage. In 1585, Anne bore twins, baptized Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare.Hamnet died at the age of eleven, by which time Shakespeare was already a successful playwright. Around 1589, Shakespeare wrote his supposed first play, Henry VI, Part 1. Sometime between his marriage and writing this play, he moved to London, where he pursued a career as a playwright and actor.
Although many records of Shakespeare’s life as a citizen of Stratford—including marriage and birth certificates—have survived, very little information exists about his life as a young playwright. Legend characterizes Shakespeare as a roguish young man who was once forced to flee London under suspect circumstances perhaps having to do with his love life. But the little written information we have of his early years does not necessarily confirm this characterization. In any case, young Will was not an immediate and universal success. The earliest written record of Shakespeare’s life in London comes from a statement by the rival playwright Robert Greene.
In his Groatsworth of Witte (1592), Greene calls Shakespeare an “upstart crow…[who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.” While this is hardly high praise, it does suggest that Shakespeare rattled the London theatrical hierarchy even at the beginning of his career. It is natural, in retrospect, to attribute Greene’s complaint to jealousy of Shakespeare’s ability, but of course we can’t be sure. With Richard III, Henry VI, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus under his belt, Shakespeare was a popular playwright by 1590.* The year 1593, however, marked a major leap forward in his career.
By the end of that year, he secured a prominent patron in the Earl of Southampton and his Venus and Adonis was published. It remains one of the first of his known works to be printed and was a huge success. Next came The Rape of Lucrece. Shakespeare had also made his mark as a poet and most scholars agree that the majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets were probably written in the 1590s. In 1594, Shakespeare returned to the theater and became a charter member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men—a group of actors who changed their name to the King’s Men when James I ascended to the throne.
By 1598, he was the “principal comedian” for the troupe; by 1603, he was “principal tragedian.” He remained associated with the organization until his death. Although acting and playwriting were not considered noble professions at the time, successful and prosperous actors were relatively well respected. Shakespeare’s success left him with a fair amount of money, which heinvested in Stratford real estate. In 1597, he purchased the second largest house in Stratford—the New Place—for his parents. In 1596, Shakespeare applied for a coat of arms for his family, in effect making himself a gentleman. Consequently, his daughters made “good matches,” marrying wealthy men.
The same year that he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, along with Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, and several other plays. Two of his greatest tragedies, Hamlet and Julius Caesar, followed around 1600. Hamlet is widely considered the first modern play for its multi-faceted main character and unprecedented depiction of his psyche. The first decade of the seventeenth century witnessed the debut performances of many of Shakespeare’s most celebrated works, including many of his so-called history plays:
Othello in 1604 or 1605, Antony and Cleopatra in 1606 or 1607, and King Lear in 1608. The last play of his to be performed was probably King Henry VIII in either 1612 or 1613. William Shakespeare lived until 1616. His wife Anna died in 1623 at the age of 67. He was buried in the chancel of his church at Stratford. The lines above his tomb—allegedly written by Shakespeare himself—read: Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.Blessed be the man that spares these stonesAnd cursed be he that moves my bones.*The dates of composition and performance of almost all of Shakespeare’s plays remain uncertain. The dates used in this note are widely agreed upon by scholars, but there is still significant debate around when and where he wrote most of his plays.