For many, he is the pinnacle of English literature and the greatest writer the language ever produced. Though he lived more than 400 years ago, his works are still widely read and performed across the world today. He personally coined more than 1,700 words, phrases, and idioms that are commonly used in the English language today. Known as the Bard of Avon and sometimes considered the national poet of England, his surviving works include consist of approximately 39 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, as well as some works of uncertain authorship. William Shakespeare is one of the most well-read authors of the English language, yet much of his life is a mystery.
While it is known he was born in the town of Stratford on the River Avon, the date of his birth isn't exactly known. He attended a local grammar school, married a woman eight years his senior, and then had several children before disappearing from the historical record for seven years before showing up again as part of London's theatre scene, having worked his way up from merely acting to a playwright. He would spend nearly 30 years writing what have become some of the English language's most well-known works before retiring back to his hometown and dying at the age of 52. In the more than 400 years since, his works have been read, reread, and reinvented as plays, ballets, films, music, and art. His works continue to endure as they capture the imagination of successive generations.
The first record of the life of William Shakespeare is his baptism on April 26, 1564 in the market town of Stratford where his parents lived. His birthday has often been recorded as three day’s prior on St. George’s Day, but it is believed scholars may have confused this as his birthday as it was also the day he died. What is known is that he was born in Stratford sometime prior to April 26 to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden Shakespeare. One of eight children born to the couple, he was the oldest surviving son and one of only five of the eight who made it to adulthood.
The family Shakespeare was born into was considerably more well off than many of the other 2,000 residents of Stratford. His father was originally from Snitterfield and owned a thriving business as a glover by the time of William’s birth as well as owned several properties in town and had an illegal sideline in dealing in wool, which was highly regulated at the time. John Shakespeare held several prominent municipal offices including as an alderman, bailiff, and chief magistrate for the town council.
Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden Shakespeare, was the daughter of a gentleman farmer and a member of the Arden family that had been one of the most prominent families of Warwickshire since the Norman Conquest. She was the youngest of eight daughters and inherited two parcels of land as her dowry. John Shakespeare’s father Richard had been a tenant farmer on the land owned by Mary’s father. John and Mary Shakespeare most likely married around 1557, the year before the first of their first child, Joan.
By the age of seven, William Shakespeare was most likely enrolled at the King Edward VI School at Stratford, which was refounded in 1553 and is still in operation today. The school was free to all male children and there is evidence that Shakespeare and all his brothers attended the school. Classes were offered every day save Sunday with half days off on Thursday. The school provided an intense education in Latin grammar and literature so by the age of 10, Shakespeare would have been translating the works of authors like Cicero, Terrence, Virgil, and Ovid. He would have also been exposed to Latin drama and rhetoric.
Being that Stratford was a market town and that he had family connections in farms outside of it, scholars also believe that he was familiar with country life and nature, showing an intense knowledge of animals and plant life. He most likely engaged in outdoor sports like hunting and had access to the natural world. Stratford was also a center for the wool trade, hide tanning, and supplied malt for ale brewing. By the time he was 14, he would have left school, possibly to be apprenticed or learn his father's trade. However, other things happening in the Shakespeare family at the time might have changed this.
The future playwright’s life began to change dramatically around the age of 12 when his once prominent father began to fall on hard times. He lost his alderman position for non-attendance of meetings and was recorded in 1592 as staying away from the local church for fear he might be arrested for failure to pay debts. He was also prosecuted in the 1570s for usury and his illegal wool dealings. By the time Shakespeare was 30, his father’s debts and scandals had forced John Shakespeare to withdraw from public life completely.
There is some evidence that the teenage Shakespeare apprenticed as a glover under his father, and there are some - possibly apocryphal - stories about him getting caught poaching deer from the local lord’s property. When he was 15, his younger sister Anne, who was seven years his junior also died, the last of the three With his father in debt, the teenage Shakespeare may have felt more responsibility toward his mother, his brother Gilbert who was two years younger than him, his sister Joan who was five years his junior, his brother Richard who was 10 years younger than him, and his baby brother Edmund who was born when Shakespeare was 16.
Marriage and Lost Years
The next major event in Shakespeare’s life comes when he married Anne Hathaway in November of 1582. At the time, Hathaway was both eight years older than the 18-year-old Shakespeare and three months pregnant with his child - though it wasn’t unusual at this time for brides to be pregnant at the time of the wedding. The misspelling of Anne’s name in the original marriage documents, the fact that at 18 Shakespeare himself was still legally a minor at the time, the difference in social stature and age between the pair, and the fact that she gave birth to their first child six months after the wedding has led to much speculation among scholars.
Hathaway grew up in the village of Shottery outside Stratford, the daughter of a wealthy yeoman farmer who died when she was 25, the year before her marriage to Shakespeare. While there were many who did marry young at this time, those not of the noble class married later and woman like Anne, who had been orphaned, sometimes stayed at home until their late twenties to care for younger siblings who were still under age. The pair married in the diocese of Worcester instead of Stratford as this allowed them to marry after only one week of their marriage banns being announced in church rather than on three successive Sundays as was the general rule.
The day after she and Shakespeare married, two friends of Hathaway’s late father signed a surety of £40 to ensure there were no legal impediments to the wedding and to protect the bishop who had conducted the ceremony if the marriage ended up nullified. This meant that if Shakespeare abandoned his wife and any children from the marriage or it was shown that he was previously married the bishop did not have to assume financial responsibility for Anne and any children she had.
The couple’s first child, Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583 and was followed by twins - son Hamnet and daughter Judith - on Feb. 2, 1585. The twins were named after the Shakespeare’s neighbors, Hamnet and Judith Sadler. The writer was 21 years of age at the time. Later on that year, he was party to a lawsuit over his mother’s estate, which had been mortgaged to pay off his father’s debts. After that, Shakespeare largely disappears from the record until he shows up again in London in 1592 working as an actor and playwright.
This seven-year period is often dubbed the “lost years” by Shakespearean scholars and there is no firm evidence to explain what he was up to during this period. It is known that he must have gotten some work as an actor and playwright during this period because the first mention of him in the London theatre scene in 1592 alludes to the fact that he has already been writing and performing for at least a few years. He was also well known enough at this time to be attacked in print by another writer, Robert Greene who felt that Shakespeare, who was not educated at university, was putting himself above his station by trying to match wits with university-educated writers like Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, and Greene himself - who were part of the group known as the University Wits.
It is believed that Shakespeare began writing all three parts of Henry VI as well as a first draft of Romeo and Juliet prior to this mention in 1592. Some believe he may have written an Elizabethan play titled Locrine that linked the founding of London with the founding of Troy as portrayed in the Aeneid, which was published in one of the first collections of Shakespeare’s works. The work was first published sometime between 1585 and 1590. However, the play has also been attributed to Robert Greene and George Peele.
There are several unsubstantiated theories about what Shakespeare got up to between 1585 and 1592. Some believe that he was forced to flee Stratford after poaching deer from squire Thomas Lucy or that he wrote an unflattering ballad about the nobleman. Others believe that he started out minding horses for London theatre goers. In the late 1600s, it was suggested that he had served briefly as a schoolmaster in Warwickshire or Lancaster, possibly teaching in private homes. Others believe he joined Queen Elizabeth’s Men in 1687 as the group toured England that year. Actor William Knell had died during a fight on the tour prior to the troupe’s arrival in Stratford. Some believe he could have joined the troupe and followed them back to London either at their invitation or at his own volition after catching the acting bug.
It is known that Shakespeare’s father John would have been responsible for allowing theatre troupes into the city during his duties at bailiff as well, so this may have provided the young Shakespeare with an introduction to the world of theatre. In fact, John Shakespeare was the first bailiff of Stratford to allow theatrical troupes to perform in the city when he let the first group in around 1568. There is no direct evidence of what specifically brought Shakespeare to London or how he became involved in the London theatre scene, but it is known that by 1792 he had established himself there and would begin an at least 28-year career as an actor and playwright.
While we think of Shakespeare as a playwright, he was better known in his own day as a player or actor who owned a share of the acting troupe he worked for. By late 1594 he was a part owner of the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men who were named after their sponsor, Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon who was the first cousin of the queen. Carey’s mother, Mary Boleyn, was also a mistress of Henry VIII and many believe he was Elizabeth I’s half brother as well. Carey was in charge of court entertainment, so this troupe occasionally entertained at court. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were largely made up of former actors from the troupe known as Lord Strange’s Men who had dissolved earlier that year. The troupe was joined by impresario James Burbage who oversaw the company until his death three years later when his sons inherited the group. For the first three years of their incarnation, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men mainly performed at The Theatre in Shoreditch.
During the first three years of his work with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at The Theatre, it is known Shakespeare published two major works. His first poem, Venus and Adonis, was printed in 1593, and his first printed play Titus Andronicus also appeared. He also wrote several plays during this period including The Comedy of Errors, The Rape of Lucrece, The Taming of the Shrew, Love’s Labor Lost, King John, Richard II, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Romeo and Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Edward III, and Henry IV, Part One.
It is believed that Romeo and Juliet was performed sometime between 1591 and 1597, possibly at The Theatre while the first performance of his first published play Titus Andronicus happened not at The Theatre where Shakespeare was based by at The Rose in January 1594. Titus Andronicus was later performed by both the Admiral’s Men and Lord Chamberlain’s Men later that June, making Titus Andronicus the first of Shakespeare’s plays whose staging there is historical evidence to back up.
Later that same year, the first performance of The Comedy of Errors took place at Gray’s Inn Hall on Dec. 28. While Henry VI, Part 1 was most certainly performed by the end of 1597, there is no concrete evidence of it being staged until 1600 when it was acted at court. Likewise, there is some evidence that a rough or early version of Henry VI, Part 2 was staged as early as 1592 though the version we are most familiar with today wasn’t written until 1597. Some believe this is evidence that Shakespeare had earlier versions of all three parts of Henry VI that were in circulation before the versions that were first printed.
In 1596, Shakespeare’s father was finally granted the coat of arms he had long applied for, possibly as a result of the fact that his son was making the family name well-known. However, the irony was that there would be no one for John Shakespeare to hand this coat of arms down to as Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet died later that same year at the age of 11. Likewise, Henry Carey, the patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, died that year. His son George inherited the title Lord Chamberlain and, probably to the relief of Shakespeare and his compatriots, decided to keep funding the acting troupe his father had started Despite the disappointment that came the previous year, 1597 proved to be a life changing year for the writer. James Burbage, the impresario who ran the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, died in 1597 and his sons Richard and Cuthbert took over their father’s role, Richard as an actor and Cuthbert as a behind-the-scenes type.
The troupe had a falling out with the leadership of The Theatre and so by the end of the year were performing in the nearby Curtain Theatre. Shakespeare was making enough money at this point that he purchased his family a new home in Stratford called New Place - then the second-largest house in Stratford - and the previous year was recorded as living in the parish of St. Helen’s in Bishop’s Gate. The financial success of the troupe might also be why the Lord Chamberlain’s Men decided to invest in a theatre of their own - albeit in a less than conventional way.
Displeased with the way the business at The Theatre had been handled, the two Burbage Brother, their financial backer William Smith, a carpenter named Peter Street, and about a dozen workmen went to The Theatre on the night of Dec. 28, 1598 and began taking down the theatre’s beams and woodwork. After secretly dismantling The Theatre, they carried the wood across the river to Southwark where they were building a new playhouse to be called the Globe Theatre. The Globe opened in 1599 and would stand until 1613, the same year Shakespeare retired, when it burned down. The Globe was rebuilt in 1614 and lasted until the closing of the theatres during the Interregnum in 1642.
By 1598, Shakespeare’s reputation was enough that he not only received top billing in at least two plays he acted in that year but also his name started to be attached to the plays he had published. The fact that his name as an author was put on the title pages of his plays shows that he was famous enough that his name could entice people to purchase them. By 1599, Shakespeare had moved across the River Thames to Southwark, closer to the address of the Globe. It is said that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was the first play performed at the new Globe Theatre, but the first play there is evidence for being staged at the Globe is actually Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humour.
In 1603, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men became the King’s Men after newly crowned King James I of England took them on as a patron. In addition to the Globe, the troupe also took over the Blackfriars indoor theatre in 1608. However, the bubonic plague raged in London throughout 1609 and well into 1610, closing theatres for several months at a time. There is some evidence that Shakespeare may have continued to visit London on and off from 1608 until his official retirement around 1613, but he may have used Stratford as more of a home base than London during these later years.
By the 1600s, Shakespeare was living in rented rooms in London for most of the year but staying with his family in Stratford for periods when the theatres were closed. In addition to writing plays, he had invested his money in local properties earning him an income on grain, hay, wool, lamb, and other items grown on those properties. He had two tenant farmers working this land by 1607 and by 1613 had purchased an apartment in London that he also rented out. One of his last trips to London in 1614 involved him being a material witness in a civil case between his former landlord and the landlord’s son-in-law as Shakespeare had been party to the dowry negotiations at issue in the suit.
Retirement and Later Life
There are several reasons why Shakespeare may have chosen to retire to Stratford sometime between 1613 and 1614. He was in better fortunes and had more income to manage at Stratford and was earning money off of his published plays and poems. By now, he had a reputation as a sonneteer as well as a playwright. The fact that plague and Puritanical sentiment were closing down theatres for months at a time may have meant there was less business for a playwright in London. It was also in 1613 that a cannon misfire during a performance of his play Henry VIII led to the burning of the Globe to be rebuilt the following year. Younger actors were also coming into the fold and the aging Shakespeare was probably seeing fewer roles as an actor. Most of the core members of the troupe who had signed on when it began in 1594 had left by 1603 as well.
By 1612, it is believed Shakespeare was living more in Stratford than in London. In 1613, his daughter Susanna and her husband, Dr. John Hall, had sued a local man named John Lane for slander he had levied against Susanna and in 1614, Shakespeare and Hall were in London together on business for several weeks. A few weeks before the playwright died, his younger daughter Judith was also involved in a scandal. She was engaged to a tavern keeper named Thomas Quiney who had been charged with getting a woman named Margaret Wheeler pregnant.
She and the child died during the birth and Quiney was disgraced. It is believed Shakespeare left Judith’s interest in his estate out of his will either because he didn’t trust Quiney after this incident or to because she wouldn’t leave the man after the scandal. The will was written about a month before his purported death on April 23, 1616. His death at the age of 52 was considered young and he had described himself as being “in perfect health” the month before when he revised his will. There are some stories that he caught a fever or that the death was a result of heavy drinking with friends Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. He was buried at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford not because of his fame as a playwright but because he had purchased the honor for himself from the church.
Sometime around 1623, the Shakespeare family erected a funerary monument on the walls of the church which pictured him a writing instrument, possibly in conjunction with the publication of The First Folio that year. A quill pen is changed out every year in the statue. When the church was restored in 2008, a curse against anyone who would remove the writer’s bones was found on the stone slab over his grave. It is believed Shakespeare wrote it himself.
He was survived by his wife Anne, two daughters, and granddaughter Elizabeth Hall Barnard, who was his last known living direct descendant when she died 1670. However, there is some evidence that Shakespeare’s godson William Davenant was actually his natural child. Davenant was allegedly born to the wife of a vintner who worked at the Crown Tavern in Oxford, the halfway point between Stratford and London. The first mention of Davenant as Shakespeare’s biological child in the mid-1600s. Davenant was briefly England’s poet laureate in the period between the death of Ben Jonson and the defeat of Charles I.