A mini biography of Shakespeare from my King Lear Activity Pack currently in development for Zig Zag Publications
Shakespeare is a very elusive historical figure. We know him through his plays, however actual historical evidence of his existence is limited to a handful of legal documents including registers of births and deaths and contracts. There are six surviving signatures of Shakespeare that are included in four different legal documents. He spells his name slightly differently in each signature.
The paucity of historical evidence has led many people to believe that the William Shakespeare presented in most biographies is not the person who wrote the plays. A number of alternatives have been suggested including Shakespeare’s contemporary the playwrights Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon; the Earl of Oxford; and even Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway and Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England. It has even been suggested by Muammar al-Qaddafi that the Arab scholar Sheik Zubayr wrote the plays thus demonstrating how political Shakespeare studies is.
Many of the competing alternative authorship theories seem to be driven more by snobbery than historical evidence. Since the earliest publication of the first folio of Shakespeare’s collected works some people have refused to believe that someone from a mercantile background, in a provincial market town and without a university education could have written plays and poetry that are reckoned amongst the best ever produced. This lack of solid historical evidence has even led conspiracy theorists to suggest that Shakespeare worked as a spy for Elizabeth I. Personally I believe that the plays were written by the same person who shot president J F Kennedy, whoever she was.
Shakespeare’s Early Life
William Shakespeare’s birth in Stratford-upon-Avon was registered on 26 April 1564, but it is often suggested that he was born on 23 April, the feast day of St George, the patron saint of England. (His death in Stratford in 1616 was also on 23 April.) His father was registered as John Shakespeare, a wool merchant who held civic office in Stratford, first as the Ale Taster and later as Chamberlain of the Borough. John was married to Mary Arden who came from a wealthy family of landowners in Warwickshire.
Although no records exist regarding Shakespeare’s education it is generally agreed that he attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford. His education would have included Latin and Greek, including the study of classical literature. We do know, however, that William Shakespeare was withdrawn from school at the age of 14 as his father was facing financial problems. John Shakespeare ran a sideline as a money lender and was brought to court twice for charging interest above the 10% legal limit (apparently he charged 25% interest, somewhat below the rates charged by payday loan companies in 2017!) In 1578 John had got behind with his taxes and William did not continue his education.
At the age of 18, on 27 November 1582, William Shakespeare married the 26 year old Anne Hathaway. Just under six months later, on 26 May 1583, his first child Susanna was born. It has been suggested that this may have been a ‘shotgun marriage’, however there is no evidence for this. In his last will and testament Shakespeare’s bequest to his wife was the ‘second best bed’.
William and Anne had twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. Hamnet died at the age of 11 in 1596 during one of the frequent outbreaks of bubonic plague. It seems, however, that Shakespeare spent most of his working life as an actor and playwright in London whilst Anne stayed at home in Stratford to raise the children.
The Lost Years
Between leaving school in 1578 and Henry VI, Part 1 being performed at The Rose Theatre in 1592 we know very little about Shakespeare other than his marriage and the birth of his children. At some point he moved from Stratford to London and joined a company of players – a surprising move for the son of a merchant as actors were considered very low in the social scheme of things.
This lack of solid evidence has, again, led to some entertaining theories. Many of these arise from critics surprise about the range of knowledge that Shakespeare seems to demonstrate in his plays from an in-depth knowledge of legal matters and seamanship to astronomy, military matters and an awareness of Italian society. This has led to suggestions that Shakespeare either worked as a lawyer’s assistant or, more extravagantly, spent time in Italy. The answer is probably more prosaic and he either worked in his father’s firm or as a school teacher.
One interesting story, built on stories reported in the few years after Shakespeare’s death and some inventive reading of puns in The Merry Wives of Windsor, tells how Shakespeare fled Stratford for London after upsetting the local politician Sir Thomas Lucy by either poaching a deer from his estate or writing a satirical lampoon of him.
We do know that by 1592 he was in London and the writer Robert Greene, in his pamphlet ‘Groatsworth of Wit’ referred to the actor William Shakespeare as an ‘upstart crow’.
Shakespeare the player and playwright
Between 1592 and 1610 Shakespeare lived the life of a successful man. His plays were performed by the best group of players in the country; monarchs watched his plays; he part owned theatres; and, in 1597, he bought the second largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon for £60.
This is the time when the plays and sonnets were written, however only the sonnets and poems were published during his lifetime. Plays were to be performed rather than read and Shakespeare never imagined them surviving beyond the performances.
Shakespeare in retirement
In 1610, after nearly 20 years living and working in London, Shakespeare seems to have retired to his house in Stratford. He was a rich and successful man.
His last plays, including Cymbeline and The Tempest were first performed in 1611.
Shakespeare died at the age of 52 on 23 April 1616. There is a story that his death followed a night of heavy drinking with Ben Johnson, however he had made his Last Will and Testament on 25 March 1616, less than a month before his death, and this may suggest that he knew he was ill.