Who was Shakespeare? What was life like in Stratford-upon-Avon and London when Shakespeare was alive?

Shakespeare before Sir Thomas Lucy by Thomas Brooks, 1857
Shakespeare before Sir Thomas Lucy in the hall of Charlecote. Oil on canvas by Thomas Brooks, 1857.
© RSC Theatre Collection – Image Licensing

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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.


John Shakespeare married Mary Arden, the daughter of Robert Arden, a farmer from the nearby village of Wilmcote. In 1556 John bought the main part of the house in Henley Street which is now known as the 'Birthplace' and their family, including William, grew up there (see photo). John's principal business was that of a glover, but he also traded as a wool and corn merchant, and he is recorded in 1570 as being involved in money-lending.


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 where the emphasis would have been on Latin, it still being the international language of Europe in the 1500s. Shakespeare probably left school at the age of 14 or 15.

Shakespeare’s plays reveal a detailed knowledge of the curriculum taught in such schools which were geared to teaching pupils Latin, both spoken and written. The classical writers studied in the classroom influenced Shakespeare's plays and poetry; for example, some of his ideas for plots and characters came from Ovid's tales, the plays of Terence and Plautus, and Roman history.

It is not known what Shakespeare did when he left school, probably at the age of 14, as was usual.


In 1582, when he was 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. She was 26. 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. Anne’s home, now known as Anne Hathaway's Cottage, still stands in the village of Shottery.

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 & IIIThe 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.


In Shakespeare's youth, Stratford was often visited by travelling troupes of professional actors. These players probably sparked his interest in the stage, and he may have entered the London theatre world though contacts made with them in Stratford.

We don't know when or why Shakespeare left Stratford for London, or what he was doing before becoming a professional actor and dramatist in the capital. There are various traditions and stories about the so-called 'lost years' between 1585 and 1592, a period for which there is virtually no evidence concerning his life.


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, his younger daughter, 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.

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