The personal history of William Shakespeare is somewhat a mystery. Though no birth records exist, church records indicate that a William Shakespeare was baptized at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564. From this, it is believed he was born on or near April 23, 1564, and this is the date scholars acknowledge as William Shakespeare’s birthday.
Located 103 miles west of London, during Shakespeare’s time Stratford-upon-Avon was a market town bisected with a country road and the River Avon. William was the third child of John Shakespeare, a leather merchant, and Mary Arden, a local landed heiress. William had two older sisters, Joan and Judith, and three younger brothers, Gilbert, Richard and Edmund. Before William’s birth, his father became a successful merchant and held official positions as alderman and bailiff, an office resembling a mayor. However, records indicate John’s fortunes declined sometime in the late 1570s. Scant records exist of William’s childhood, and virtually none regarding his education. Scholars have surmised that he most likely attended the King’s New School, in Stratford, which taught reading, writing and the classics.
William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway on November 28, 1582, in Worcester, in Canterbury Province. Hathaway was from Shottery, a small village a mile west of Stratford. William was 18 and Anne was 26, and, as it turns out, pregnant. Their first child, a daughter they named Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583. Two years later, on February 2, 1585, twins Hamnet and Judith were born. Hamnet later died of unknown causes at age 11. After the birth of the twins, there are seven years of William Shakespeare’s life where no records exist. Scholars call this period the “lost years,” and there is wide speculation on what he was doing during this period. One theory is that he might have gone into hiding for poaching game from the local landlord, Sir Thomas Lucy. Another possibility is that he might have been working as an assistant schoolmaster in Lancashire. It is generally believed he arrived in London in the mid- to late 1580s and may have found work as a horse attendant at some of London’s finer theaters, a scenario updated centuries later by the countless aspiring actors and playwrights in Hollywood and Broadway.
By 1592, there is evidence William Shakespeare earned a living as an actor and a playwright in London and possibly had several plays produced. By the early 1590s, documents show William Shakespeare was a managing partner in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an acting company in London. After the crowning of King James I, in 1603, the company changed its name to the King’s Men. From all accounts, the King’s Men company was very popular, and records show that Shakespeare had works published and sold as popular literature. The theatre culture in 16th century England was not highly admired by people of high rank. However, many of the nobility were good patrons of the performing arts and friends of the actors. Early in his career, Shakespeare was able to attract the attention of Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his first- and second-published poems: “Venus and Adonis” (1593) and “The Rape of Lucrece” (1594).
By 1597, 15 of the 37 plays written by William Shakespeare were published. Civil records show that at this time he purchased the second largest house in Stratford, called New House, for his family. It was a four-day ride by horse from Stratford to London, so it is believed that Shakespeare spent most of his time in the city writing and acting and came home once a year during the 40-day Lenten period, when the theatres were closed. By 1599, William Shakespeare and his business partners built their own theatre on the south bank of the Thames River, which they called the Globe.
With the exception of Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare’s first plays were mostly histories written in the early 1590s. Richard II, Henry VI (parts 1, 2 and 3) and Henry V dramatize the destructive results of weak or corrupt rulers, and have been interpreted by drama historians as Shakespeare’s way of justifying the origins of the Tudor Dynasty. Shakespeare also wrote several comedies during his early period: the witty romance A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the romantic Merchant of Venice, the wit and wordplay of Much Ado About Nothing, the charming As You Like Itand Twelfth Night. Other plays, possibly written before 1600, include Titus Andronicus, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. It was in William Shakespeare’s later period, after 1600, that he wrote the tragedies Hamlet, King Lear, Othello and Macbeth. In these Shakespeare’s characters present vivid impressions of human temperament that are timeless and universal. Possibly the best known of these plays is Hamlet, which explores betrayal, retribution, incest and moral failure. These moral failures often drive the twists and turns of Shakespeare’s plots, destroying the hero and those he loves.
In William Shakespeare’s final period, he wrote several tragicomedies. Among these are Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Though graver in tone than the comedies, they are not the dark tragedies of King Lear or Macbeth because they end with reconciliation and forgiveness.
Tradition has it that William Shakespeare died on his birthday, April 23, 1616, though many scholars believe this is a myth. Church records show he was interred at Trinity Church on April 5, 1616. In his will, he left the bulk of his possessions to his eldest daughter, Susanna. Though entitled to a third of his estate, little seems to have gone to his wife, Anne, whom he bequeathed his “second-best bed.” This has drawn speculation that she had fallen out of favour, or that the couple was not close. However, there is very little evidence the two had a difficult marriage. Other scholars note that the term “second-best bed” often refers to the bed belonging to the household’s master and mistress’—the marital bed—and the “first-best bed” was reserved for guests.
About 150 years after his death, questions arose about the authorship of William Shakespeare’s plays. Scholars and literary critics began to float names like Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere and Francis Bacon. Sceptics questioned how anyone of such modest education could write with the intellectual perceptiveness and poetic power that is displayed in Shakespeare’s works. However, the vast majority of Shakespearean scholars contend that William Shakespeare wrote all his own plays, pointing out that other playwrights of the time also had sketchy histories and came from modest backgrounds. They contend that Stratford’s New Grammar School curriculum of Latin and the classics could have provided a good foundation for literary writers. Today, his plays are highly popular and constantly studied and reinterpreted in performances with diverse cultural and political contexts. The genius of Shakespeare’s characters and plots are that they present real human beings in a wide range of emotions and conflicts that transcend their origins in Elizabethan England.