A brief biography of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 (baptised) – Died 23 April 1616)
William Shakespeare’s parents were John and Mary Shakespeare (nee Arden) and William was the third child of eight. The two siblings – born before William – died during infancy.
At the time of William’s birth, his parents were quite wealthy and John Shakespeare was elected Mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1568, the highest elective office. He was previously an ‘ale taster’ and a bailiff on the town council. It was because of his father’s status as Mayor that William went to the local grammar school. John Shakespeare is said to have been a local businessman who worked in tanning (leatherwork) and with white leather to make items like purses and gloves. John sometimes was described as a glover (glove maker) and a leather-worker by trade, working from the family home. He also dealt in grain.
John Shakespeare was at some point likely to have been involved in some illegal activities, such as selling wool without a licence and also lending money with interest added. If found out, both of these activities would have resulted in heavy fines and may have been the cause of John falling on hard times. Probably due to this and around 1578, William was removed from school. John’s fortunes later revived which coincided with the success of William, and John was granted a coat of arms five years before his death, probably at the instigation of his playwright son. This entitled him to use the honorific “Gentleman”, conventionally designated by the title “Master” or its abbreviations “Mr.” or “M.” prefixed to his surname.
Mary was the youngest of eight daughters and born to her father Robert and his first wife Mary Arden. She inherited her father’s farm when she was about 19, when her father died. She was also the executor of her father’s will. The farm is now called Mary Arden’s House, in Wilmcote, Warwickshire. Her father was the landlord of John Shakespeare and it is probable that they first knew each other due to this connection.
Mary married John Shakespeare in 1557, when she was in her late teens or early twenties. The Arden family had been prominent in Warwickshire from before the Norman Conquest. Mary was from a family of status with her ancestors having connections in society, such as Thomas Arden, who fought in the thirteenth century civil war for the Barons and Simon de Montfort, Robert Arden who fought in the War of Roses and John Arden who served on the court of King Henry VII.
The Shakespeare family
Actual birthdays were not registered during this era, however, according to the Book of Common Prayer, it was required that a child be baptised on the nearest Sunday, or Holy Day, following the birth, unless the parents had a specific reason not to do so. Another view is that infants were baptised three days following their birth. The date of Shakespeare’s birth is, customarily set as the 23rd of April 1564. This date is the Feast Day of St. George, the Patron Saint of England. John and Mary Shakespeare lived in a fairly large house in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon and it is fair to assume that this was the location of William Shakespeare’s birthplace. The true birthday of the Bard cannot be certain but from an Englishman’s point of view what better choice than on St. George’s Day. The same birth date principle also applies to the dates relating to each of his brothers and sisters.
Birth timeline of the Shakespeare family
1558 15th September – Joan, the first child of John and Mary (only surviving two months)
1562 2nd December – Margaret (she died one year later)
1564 26th April (a Wednesday) – William (died 1616 aged 52 )
1566 13th October – Gilbert (died 1612 aged 46)
1569 – Joan (died 1646 aged 77)
1571 28th September – Anne (1579 died aged 7)
1574 11th March – Richard (died 1613 aged 39)
1580 3rd May – Edmund (died 1607 aged 27)
The above dates represent the approximate births of the brothers and sisters.
William Shakespeare and school
As well as literature, much of the studying at Shakespeare’s school (King Edward VI School) would have been in Latin, particularly historical work. Much of the studies involved translation which would teach them good sentence construction, good prose and the art of rhetoric. Learning from some of the original Latin and Greek examples would have no doubt helped William in his later career as a playwright. Only boys went to school as girls were taught by tutors in groups. The school day was quite long and children were allowed home for lunch. Boys were taught at the school from the ages of about 6 to 16, although William probably left school when he was about 14.
After School and getting married
William left school at around the age of 14 which was most likely due to his father’s loss of income and stature in society. There is much speculation as to what William did having left school but there is nothing definite recorded apart from his falling in love with Anne Hathaway. He was aged 18 when he married 26-year-old Anne on 28th November 1582, when she was three months pregnant. This was not unusual for this period in history, as approximately one in three women were pregnant when marrying. Although Anne was the ‘average age’ for marriage, William was much younger. Some speculate that William wrote poetry in his early romancing of Anne, with one sonnet having a pun on Anne Hathaway in the last rhyming couplet.
Born around 1555/1556, Anne outlived her husband by seven years, dying in 1623. Anne Hathaway is believed to have grown up in a small village just to the west of Stratford-upon-Avon. She is assumed to have grown up in the farmhouse that was the Hathaway family home, which is located at Shottery and is now a major tourist attraction for the village. Her father, Richard Hathaway, was a yeoman farmer. He died in September 1581 and left Anne the sum of £6 13s 4d to be paid “at the day of her marriage”.
William and Anne’s children
William and Anne had three children: Susanna (baptised 26th May 1583 – 11th July 1649), and twins Hamnet (baptised 2nd February 1585 – buried 11th August 1596) and Judith (baptised 2nd February 1585 – buried 9th February 1662).
From Stratford to London
The last record of Shakespeare living in Stratford before going to London was in 1585. The first record of him in London was in 1592 where he was mentioned in theatre. These years are often referred to as the ‘Lost Years’.
Actor and playwright in London
As a member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (a playing company or company of actors), Shakespeare owned a share (about 12.5%) in The Globe Theatre. Richard Burbage played most of the lead roles, including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, while Shakespeare himself performed some secondary roles. By 1603, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had become one of the two leading companies of the city and was subsequently patronised by James I. Subsequently, Shakespeare had shares in the Blackfriars Theatre.
Before The Globe, the company of actors performed in “The Theatre” where Shakespeare would have first joined the company. The Theatre was dismantled and re-built as The Globe. Shakespeare would have first started as an actor before becoming a playwright.
Was Shakespeare popular in his own time?
It is likely that Shakespeare inspired both positive and negative reactions to his work, and two of these are mentioned below.
Dramatist Robert Greene compared Shakespeare “to an upstart crow” saying he was “beautified by the feathers of other writers”. It is thought that this statement meant that Shakespeare didn’t have the academic background or education of other fellow playwrights, and not that he stole their work.
Francis Meres wrote about Shakespeare comparing him to Ovid, which was a significant compliment – (Ovid being a Roman poet who is best known as the author of three major collections of poetry). Meres also wrote the first critical account of the poems and early plays of William Shakespeare. This list of Shakespeare’s plays is an important source for establishing their chronology.
Shakespeare buys property in Stratford-upon-Avon
It is fair to say that Shakespeare was not poor. Shakespeare bought a house in 1596 called New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon for sixty pounds (£60 was the recorded amount but the legal system at the time usually only showed half the value). At the time this was the largest residential property in Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare was associated with London for much of his life, and tradition states that he retired to Stratford-upon-Avon in his later years, though he still visited London as late as 1614. He bought the house in 1597 but didn’t move into it until 1610.
Legend has it that Shakespeare died on his birthday but his actual birth date is not accurately known and this can therefore not be confirmed. During his lifetime he had applied for a coat of arms and this had been granted making him legally a ‘Gentleman’ and this is published in documents along with those relating to his burial.
It is famously recorded that Shakespeare left “the second best bed” to his wife. The second best bed was in fact the marital bed as the ‘best bed’ was kept for visitors.
The work of William Shakespeare
Shakespeare produced most of his known work between 1589 and 1613. His surviving works consist primarily of about 38 plays and 154 sonnets. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright. The rest as they say is history.
National Portrait Gallery: William Shakespeare attributed to John Taylor
oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1600s
“This is the only portrait of him that has any claim to have been painted from life. It may be by a painter called John Taylor who was an important member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company. The portrait is known as the ‘Chandos portrait’ after a previous owner. It was the first portrait to be acquired by the Gallery in 1856.”
Images copyright Nation Portrait Gallery
Article editor Neil Cheesman who you can follow on Twitter @LondonTheatre1 and on Facebook
Primary sources of information from the following:
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
National Portrait Gallery
Monday 14th January 2013