William Shakespeare (also spelled Shakspere, Shaksper, and Shake-speare, because spelling in Elizabethan times was not yet fixed and absolute) was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England in April 1564. William was the son of John Shakespeare, a successful tradesman and alderman, and of Mary Arden, a daughter of the gentry. They lived on Henley Street. His baptismal record is dated April 26 of that year. Due to the fact that birth certificates were not issued during Elizabethan times, the first official record we have of Shakespeare is his baptismal record. Baptisms were normally performed within a few days of birth, thus a tradition arose that he was born on Sunday, April 23, but this has no historical basis. It is factual, however, that Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616. Legend has it that Shakespeare died of a fever, and although an outbreak of typhoid hit Stratford in 1616, the facts behind Shakespeare’s death remain a mystery.
The house in Stratford is known as “Shakespeare’s Birthplace,” although this status is uncertain. It is claimed that the poet was born in the room with the lattice windows. Shakespeare’s father was a prosperous glove maker and held many titles during his lifetime, including ale taster, chamberlain, alderman, bailiff (equivalent to mayor), and chief alderman. He was later prosecuted for participating in the black market in wool, and lost his position as an alderman. Some evidence points to possible Roman Catholic sympathies on both sides of the family—a danger under Elizabeth’s protestant rule.
William Shakespeare probably attended the Stratford Grammar School in central Stratford, which likely provided an intensive education in Latin grammar, and translating such authors as Cicero, Virgil, and Shakespeare’s beloved Ovid. It is presumed that the young Shakespeare attended this school because John Shakespeare’s position as alderman allowed his children a free education at the school. Unfortunately there are no surviving school records to corroborate. There is no evidence that his formal education extended beyond grammar school.
Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway (who was 26) at the age of 18, on November 28, 1582 at Temple Grafton, near Stratford. Two neighbors of Anne, Fulk Sandalls and John Richardson, posted bond that there were no impediments to the marriage. There appears to have been some haste in arranging the ceremony, as Anne was three months pregnant. After his marriage, William Shakespeare left few traces in the historical record until he appeared on the London literary scene. On May 26, 1583 Shakespeare’s first child, Susanna, was baptized at Stratford. A son, Hamnet, and a daughter, Judith, were baptized soon after on February 2, 1585. Hamnet died in 1596 at the age of eleven of unknown causes. Some suspect that his death was part of the inspiration behind The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c.1601), a reworking of an older, lost play. Susanna and Judith lived to ripe ages of sixty-six and sixty-one, respectively.
The late 1580s are known as Shakespeare’s “Lost Years” because no evidence has survived to show exactly where he was or why he left Stratford for London. One legend, long since thoroughly discredited, pronounces that he was caught poaching deer on the park of Sir Thomas Lucy, the local Justice of the Peace, and had to flee. Another theory is that Shakespeare could have joined Leicester’s or Queen’s Men as they traveled through Stratford while on tour. 17th century biographer John Aubrey recorded the testimony of the son of one of Shakespeare’s fellow players, placing Shakespeare as “a schoolmaster in the country.”
London and Theatrical Career
By the end of 1592, Shakespeare was an established playwright in London, receiving acclaim for such plays as Henry VI, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus. By 1598 Shakespeare had moved to the parish of St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate, and appeared at the top of a list of actors in Every Man in His Humour written by Ben Jonson. Shakespeare became an actor, writer, and finally part-owner of a playing company, known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men—the company took its name, like others of the period, from its aristocratic sponsor, the Lord Chamberlain. The group became popular enough that after the death of Elizabeth I and the coronation of James I (1603), the new monarch adopted the company after which it became known as the King’s Men.
In 1604, Shakespeare acted as a matchmaker for his landlord’s daughter. Legal documents from 1612, when the case was brought to trial, show that in 1604, Shakespeare was a tenant of Christopher Mountjoy, a Huguenot tire-maker (a maker of ornamental headdresses) in the northwest of London. Mountjoy’s apprentice Stephen Belott wanted to marry Mountjoy’s daughter. Shakespeare was enlisted as a go-between, to help negotiate the details of the dowry. On Shakespeare’s assurances, the couple married. Eight years later, Belott sued his father-in-law for delivering only part of the dowry. Shakespeare was called to testify, but remembered little of the circumstances. Various documents recording legal affairs and commercial transactions show that Shakespeare grew rich enough during his stay in London to purchase a property in both Blackfriars and London. In 1597, Shakespeare also purchased the second largest house in Stratford (called New Place). It is here that Shakespeare would eventually spend the last years of his life.
Shakespeare “retired” to Stratford in about 1610-11, although he still spent much time in London and attending to his company’s affairs. His retirement was not entirely without controversy; he was drawn into a legal quarrel regarding the enclosure of common lands. (Enclosure enabled land to be converted to pasture for sheep, but removed it as a resource for the poor.) Shakespeare had a financial interest in the land, and to the chagrin of some, he took a neutral position, making sure only that his own income from the land was protected. In the last few weeks of Shakespeare’s life, the man who was to marry his younger daughter Judith—a tavern-keeper named Thomas Quiney—was charged in the local church court with “fornication.” A woman named Margaret Wheeler had given birth to a child and claimed it was Quiney’s; she and the child both died soon after. Quiney was thereafter disgraced, and Shakespeare revised his will to ensure that Judith’s interest in his estate was protected from possible malfeasance on Quiney’s part.
Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 at the age of 52. He remained married to Anne until his death and was survived by his two daughters, Susannah and Judith. Susannah married Dr. John Hall. Neither Susannah’s nor Judith’s children had any offspring, and as such, there are no known direct descendants of the poet and playwright alive today. It was rumored, however, that Shakespeare was the real father of his godson, William Davenant.
Shakespeare is buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was granted the honor of burial in the chancel not on account of his fame as a playwright, but for purchasing a share of the tithe of the church for £440 (a considerable sum of money at the time). Shakespeare’s funeral monument rests on the wall nearest his grave, and shows him posed with quill and paper in hand. Each year on his claimed birthday, a new quill pen is placed in the writing hand of the bust. It was common in his time for graves in the chancel of the church to be emptied as more room was needed, with the contents removed to a nearby charnel house. Possibly fearing that his body would be removed, he is considered to have written the following epitaph on his tombstone:
Good frend for Jesvs sake forbeare,
To digg the dvst encloased heare.
Bleste be ye man ӳt spares thes stones,
And cvrst be he ӳt moves my bones.
Popular legend claims that unpublished works by Shakespeare may lie inside his tomb, but no one has ever verified these claims, perhaps for fear of the curse included in the quoted epitaph. Perhaps out of respect for the greatest playwright of all time.