Life and times

19th century watercolour painting by Charles Cattermole showing Shakespeare leaving Stratford-upon-Avon on the Clopton Bridge © RSC Collection

Very little is known for certain about William Shakespeare. What we do know about his life comes from registrar records, court records, wills, marriage certificates and his tombstone in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.

William Shakespeare was baptised on 26 April 1564 at Holy Trinity in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Traditionally his birthday is celebrated three days earlier, on 23 April, St George's Day.

William's father, John Shakespeare, was an affluent glove maker, tanner and wool dealer who owned property in Stratford. For a number of years he played a prominent role in the municipal life of the town. He served on the town council and was elected bailiff (mayor). However, around 1576 John Shakespeare was beset by severe financial difficulties and he was forced to mortgage his wife's inheritance.

William's mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a prosperous farmer, Robert Arden, who had left her some land in Wilmcote, near Stratford. John and Mary Shakespeare had eight children: four daughters, of whom only one (Joan) survived childhood. William was the eldest of the four boys.

William almost certainly went to one of Stratford's 'petty' or junior schools where he would have learnt his letters with the help of a hornbook. From the age of seven or thereabouts, he would have progressed to the King's New School with the emphasis would have been on Latin, it being the international language still of Europe in the 1500s. Shakespeare probably left school at the age of 14 or 15.

In 1582, when he was 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. She was twenty six. Anne was the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, Richard Hathaway of Hewlands Farm in nearby Shottery. Their first child, Susanna, was born in May 1583. Twins, Hamnet and Judith, were christened in February 1585.

From 1585 until 1592, very little is known about Shakespeare. These are generally referred to as 'The Lost Years'. But by 1592 we know that he was in London where he was singled out by a rival dramatist, Robert Greene in his bitter deathbed pamphlet, A Groats-worth of Witte.

Plague broke out in London in 1593, forcing the theatres to close. Shakespeare turned to writing poetry. In 1593 Shakespeare published an erotic poem, Venus and Adonis, dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, a young courtier and favourite of Queen Elizabeth.

Shakespeare's earliest plays included Henry VI Parts I, II & III, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Titus Andronicus. The sonnets were also written about this time, though they were not published until 1609.

In 1594, Shakespeare became a founding member, actor, playwright and shareholder of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Richard Burbage was the company's leading actor. He played roles such as Richard III, Hamlet, Othello and Lear. Under James VI/I, the company was renamed The King's Men. They performed at court more often than any other company.

Whereas John Shakespeare had lost a fortune, his son managed to amass great wealth in his lifetime. In 1597, he bought New Place, one of the largest properties in Stratford. In 1598, he is listed as a resident of Chapel Street ward, in which New Place was situated. In 1601, when his father died, he may also, as the eldest son, have inherited the two houses in Henley Street. In 1602 Shakespeare paid £320 in cash to William Combe and his nephew John for roughly 107 acres of land in Old Stratford. He also bought a cottage and more land in Chapel Lane. In 1605, for £440, Shakespeare bought a half-interest in a lease of many tithes which brought him an annual interest of £60. When he died in 1616, he was a man of substantial wealth.

Shakespeare's elder daughter, Susanna, married a physician, John Hall in Stratford in 1607. Their only child, a daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1608, the year in which Shakespeare's mother died. Judith Shakespeare married a vintner, Thomas Quiney in 1616. They had three sons: Shakespeare Quiney, who died in infancy; Richard (1618-139) and Thomas (1620-1639).

Sometime after 1611, Shakespeare retired to Stratford. On 25 March 1616, Shakespeare revised and signed his will. On 23 April, his presumed birthday, he died, aged 52. On 25 April, he was buried at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.

Shakespeare's widow, Anne, died in 1623 and was buried beside him. Shakespeare's family line came to an end with the death of his grand-daughter Elizabeth in 1670.

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, John Heminge and Henry Condell (two actors from The King's Company) had Shakespeare's plays published by William Jaggard and his son, Isaac. This first folio contained 36 plays and sold for £1.


(Image above shows a 19th century watercolour by Charles Cattermole showing Shakespeare leaving Stratford-upon-Avon on the Clopton Bridge © RSC Collection)

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