Many books present facts, reasonable suppositions, traditions, and speculations concerning the life and career of William Shakespeare. Taken as a whole, these materials give a comprehensive picture of England’s foremost dramatic poet. Tradition and sober supposition are not necessarily false because they lack proof of their existence. However, readers interested in Shakespeare should distinguish between facts and unfounded beliefs about his life.
From one point of view, modern scholars are fortunate to know as much as they do about a man of middle-class origin who left a small country town and embarked on a professional career in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century London. From another point of view, today’s scholars know surprisingly little about the writer who has influenced the English language and its drama and poetry for more than three hundred years.
Sparse and scattered as the facts of his life are, they are sufficient to prove that a man from Stratford by the name of William Shakespeare wrote the major portion of the thirty-seven plays that scholars attribute to him. Here is a brief look at the known facts of Shakespeare’s life:
Although no one knows the exact date of Shakespeare’s birth, he was baptized on Wednesday, April 26, 1564. His father was John Shakespeare, tanner, glover, dealer in grain, and a town official of Stratford; his mother, Mary, was the daughter of Robert Arden, a prosperous gentleman farmer.
Under a bond dated November 28, 1582, Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway entered into a marriage contract. The baptism of their eldest child, Susanna, took place in May, 1583. One year and nine months later, their twins, Hamnet and Judith (named for the poet’s friends, Hamnet and Judith Sadler), were christened.
Early in 1596, Shakespeare, in his father’s name, applied to the College of Heralds for a coat of arms. In 1599, Shakespeare applied for the right to combine (quarter) his coat of arms with that of his mother.
In May 1597, Shakespeare purchased New Place, the finest residential propertyin Stratford at that time, indicating that he must have achieved success for himself by then.
In July 1605, Shakespeare purchased half the annual tithes, or taxes, on certain agricultural products from parcels of land, receiving income from his investment, and almost doubling his capital. In 1612, Shakespeare’s testimony was recorded in a court dispute between Christopher Mountjoy, in whose household Shakespeare had roomed, and Mountjoy’s son-in-law. Shakespeare was left five pounds in the will of John Combe, a friend and fellow resident of Stratford, who died on July 12, 1614.
On March 25, 1616, William Shakespeare revised his last will and testament. He died on April 23 of the same year, and his body was buried in the Stratford church. These records and similar ones prove the existence of William Shakespeare in Stratford and in London during this period. Similarly, the evidence establishing William Shakespeare as the foremost playwright of his day is positive and persuasive:
Robert Greene’s Greenes groats-worth of witte, bought with a million of repentance, in which he attacked Shakespeare, a mere actor, for presuming to write plays in competition with Greene and his fellow playwrights, was entered in the Stationers’ Register on September 20, 1592.
In 1594, Shakespeare acted before Queen Elizabeth, and in 1594–95, his name appeared as one of the shareholders of the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, a famous acting troupe. Francis Meres, in his Palladis Tamia (1598), called Shakespeare “mellifluous and hony-tongued” and compared the excellence of his plays with those of Plautus and Seneca.
Shakespeare’s name appears as one of the owners of the open-air Globe Theatre in 1599. On May 19, 1603, he and his fellow actors received a patent from James I designating them as King’s Men. Late in 1608 or early in 1609, Shakespeare and his colleagues purchased the indoor Blackfriars Theatre and began using it as their winter location.
One of the most impressive of all proofs of Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays is the First Folio of 1623, with the dedicatory verse that appears in it. John Heminge and Henry Condell, members of Shakespeare’s own acting company, stated that they collected and issued the plays as a memorial to their fellow actor.
Certainly the most diligent of scholars does not know and cannot explain many things about Shakespeare’s genius and career. However, the facts that do exist are sufficient to establish Shakespeare’s identity as a man and as the author of the thirty-seven plays and the poems and sonnets that reputable critics acknowledge to be his.