More is known about Shakespeare than any other professional dramatist of his time. Some of the established facts are detailed below and further information may be found in the standard biographies and bibliographies. A useful summary is included in the General Introduction to the Complete Works, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).
A timeline is available at Terry Gray’s website Mr William Shakespeare and the Internet. If you are coming to Stratford with a group, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Education Department can arrange a lecture for you on Shakespeare’s life and times.
‘Shakespeare’s Stratford’ by Dr Pat Hughes, 1994.
William Shakespeare was born in 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon. Located in the centre of England, the town was (and still is) an important river-crossing settlement and market centre. The register of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church records Shakespeare’s baptism on 26 April. He is traditionally said to have been born on 23 April.
His father, John, trained as a glove-maker and married Mary Arden, the daughter of Robert Arden, a farmer from the nearby village of Wilmcote. John and Mary set up home in Henley Street, Stratford, in the house now known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace . John Shakespeare was a prominent citizen, serving on the town council for many years and becoming Bailiff, or Mayor, in 1568. Besides his craft as a glover, he traded as a wool dealer and was also involved in money-lending. John and Mary lost two children before William was born. They had five more children, another of whom died young.
Shakespeare’s School Room, King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon.
As the son of a leading townsman, William almost certainly attended Stratford’s ‘petty’ or junior school before progressing, perhaps at the age of seven, to the Grammar School, which still stands. The grammar school’s curriculum was geared to teaching pupils Latin, both spoken and written. The classical writers studied in the classroom influenced Shakespeare’s plays and poetry; for example, some of his ideas for plots and characters came from Ovid’s tales, the plays of Terence and Plautus, and Roman history.
It is not known what Shakespeare did when he left school, probably at the age of fourteen, as was usual. In November 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of Richard Hathaway, a local farmer. Her home, now known as Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, still stands in the village of Shottery, a mile from Stratford. At the time of their marriage William was eighteen and Anne was twenty-six. Their first-born child, Susanna, was baptised on 26 May 1583. Two years later twins followed, Hamnet and Judith.
THE ‘LOST YEARS’
We do not know when or why Shakespeare left Stratford for London, or what he was doing before becoming a professional actor and dramatist in the capital. There are various traditions and stories about the so-called ‘lost years’ between 1585 and 1592, a period for which there is virtually no evidence concerning his life. One tale tells how he was caught poaching deer in Charlecote Park, near Stratford, and went off to London to avoid prosecution.
A plausible early tradition claims Shakespeare was a schoolmaster for some years. When he was growing up, drama was a significant part of Stratford’s social life. Not only did local people put on amateur shows, but the town was visited regularly by London-based companies of actors and Shakespeare may have joined one of them. He probably arrived in London around 1586/7.
Map of London, from G. Braun and F. Hogenberg, Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572-c.1580.
Shakespeare’s reputation was established in London by 1592; in that year another dramatist, Robert Greene, was envious of his success and called him ‘an upstart crow’. Shakespeare’s earliest plays included the three parts of Henry VI, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Titus Andronicus.
Shakespeare’s first printed works were two long poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). These were both dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, a young courtier and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, who had become Shakespeare’s patron. Most of the Sonnets were probably written about this time, too, although they were not published until 1609.
1n 1594, Shakespeare joined others in forming a new theatre company, under the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain, with Richard Burbage as its leading actor. For almost twenty years Shakespeare was its regular dramatist, producing on average two plays a year. Burbage played roles such as Richard III, Hamlet, Othello and Lear.
GROWING SUCCESS: MAN OF PROPERTY
In 1596 Shakespeare’s father was granted a coat-of-arms, and it is likely that in this matter the dramatist took the initiative with the College of Arms in London. On his father’s death in 1601, he inherited the arms and the right to style himself a gentleman, even though, at the time, actors were generally regarded as rogues and vagabonds.
Shakespeare’s success in the London theatres made him wealthy and in 1597 he bought New Place, one of the largest houses in Stratford. Although his professional career was spent in London, he maintained close links with his native town. Further property investments in Stratford followed, including the purchase of 107 acres of land in 1602.
In 1598, the author of a book on the arts, Francis Meres, described Shakespeare as the best contemporary dramatist and mentioned twelve of his plays, including
The Merchant of Venice, 1600  (SCL 35.21).
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II and Henry IV, all of which date from the mid- to late-1590s.
Drama was a nation-wide activity in Shakespeare’s time but only in London were there buildings designed specifically for performing plays. Most public theatres were tall, roughly circular structures, open to the sky, with a cover over part of the stage and a roof running round the edge to protect the galleries. Performances took place in the afternoons, with the actors playing on a raised stage which projected halfway into the theatre. All the women’s roles were performed by boys. The audience, which either stood in the yard around the stage or sat in the galleries, represented a wide social mix of people.
THE GLOBE THEATRE
In 1599 the acting company with which Shakespeare was involved, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, built a new theatre, the Globe. Situated on the south bank of the Thames, in the suburb of Southwark, it is the theatre most closely associated with Shakespeare’s plays, and he was one of the shareholders in the enterprise. Two of his plays, Henry V and Julius Caesar, were almost certainly written during the year in which the Globe opened. In 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII, a fire broke out and destroyed the Globe, but it was rebuilt the following year.
JAMES I AND SHAKESPEARE’S LATE CAREER
When James I (James VI of Scotland) came to the English throne in 1603 he granted royal patronage to Shakespeare’s acting company, which thus became the ‘King’s Men.’ As had happened in the 1590s in Elizabeth I’s last years, Shakespeare’s plays were presented before the court in the royal palaces, as well as to audiences in the public theatres. In 1609 the King’s Men acquired an indoor theatre, the Blackfriars, to use in addition to the Globe.
Some of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies were written in the early 1600s, including Hamlet and, after James I’s accession, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. His late plays, often known as the Romances, date from c. 1608 to 1612 and include Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.
In 1623, seven years after his death, the First Folio, the first collected edition of his plays, was published. It contains thirty-six plays, about half of which had been published individually in his lifetime. Pericles, not included in the First Folio, has been accepted as his, and he is known to have collaborated with John Fletcher on The Two Noble Kinsmen and a lost work, Cardenio, as well as on Henry VIII which was included in the Folio.
LAST YEARS IN STRATFORD
Shakespeare’s elder daughter, Susanna, married John Hall a Stratford physician, in 1607, and gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, the following year. Shakespeare’s other daughter, Judith, married Thomas Quiney, a Stratford vintner, in 1616. (Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, twin brother to Judith, had died in 1596, aged eleven.)
From around 1611 Shakespeare seems largely to have disengaged himself from the London theatre world and to have spent his time at his Stratford house, New Place. In March 1616 he signed his will, in which he left substantial property and other bequests to his family and friends, including theatre colleagues in the King’s Men.
Shakespeare died in Stratford, aged fifty-two, on 23 April 1616, and was buried in Holy Trinity Church two days later. Within a short time a monument to him was put up, probably by his family, on the wall close to his grave.
His widow, Anne, died in 1623 and was buried beside him. Shakespeare’s family line came to an end with the death of his grand-daughter Elizabeth in 1670.