William Shakespeare was believed to have been born on 23rd April 1564 in Stratford upon Avon to John Shakespeare and his wife Mary. His exact birth date is unknown but as he was baptised at Holy Trinity Church three days later on the 26th it is assumed he was born just days before. William grew up on Henley Street in a house where his father, a Glover, also traded from. Shakespeare was an incredibly lucky child as he escaped the plague which claimed the lives of many children in the 1560’s.
William Shakespeare’s baptism record on view at Holy Trinity Church
John Shakespeare had alongside his glove trade he was also involved in the local council starting as an ale taster and working his way up to alderman and high bailiff. In an account book of the Stratford Corporation it is noted that John had made payments to the Queens players and John would have most likely attended these performances taking his family along as well for the show, giving William Shakespeare his first taste of theatre.
As John Shakespeare was also an alderman within the Stratford council William was able to attend the King’s New School where he learnt Latin and the tales of Ovid, which would influence his later writings. John Shakespeare fell on hard times by taking financial risks and he soon fell into debt. In 1576 John Shakespeare resigned from the town council in disgrace and William had to leave his education behind.
Part of the King’s School where Shakespeare attended
William Shakespeare after leaving his education incomplete most likely had to help within the family business in order to keep the family home. At the age of 18 William was married to the 26 year old Anne Hathaway. William was one of only three men under the age of 21 who married in his time. It was a hasty marriage though as Anne was already three months pregnant. The Chancellor of the Worcester Diocese allowed the marriage banns to be read only once instead of the usual three.
Six months later Anne gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, who was baptised on 26th May 1583 and two years later Anne gave birth to twins Hamnet and Judith who were baptised on 2nd February 1585.
After the birth of the twins in 1585 there are no records of Shakespeare until he appears in London in 1592 with the one exception where his name appeared in a complaints bill of a law case in the Queen’s Bench. There are many theories as to what Shakespeare did during these seven years including that he travelled north where he was employed as a tutor, he travelled to Italy either on a pilgrimage or as a spy, there is also the possibility that William joined an acting company as they passed through Stratford upon Avon. We will never really know what Shakespeare did in this time as many of the tales came after his death.
In 1592 William Shakespeare appears in London as an established actor where he is referenced in ‘Groats-Worth of Wit’ by the playwright Robert Greene who wrote
‘there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country’
It appears that Greene was critising William for his writing saying that he was acting above his station as an actor and trying to match the achievements of other writers such as himself and Christopher Marlowe. An apology was issued three months after Greene’s death by Henry Chettle, Greene’s editor.
At the time Shakespeare was already gaining popularity with plays such as Henry VI, Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors. These plays were normally performed by Pembroke’s Men. This early success halted when the plague caused the playhouses to close their doors. Many acting companies took to the road however; Shakespeare it appears stayed behind in London and wrote poetry, in particular, the highly successful Venus and Adonis. It was during this time that William caught the eye of the Earl of Southampton who was just about to turn 21 and he soon became Shakespeare’s patron.
In 1594 the London playhouses reopened and Shakespeare returned and joined Richard Burbage and William Kempe at the Lord Chamberlain’s Men formally Lord Strange’s Men. The company although under the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain was owned by the actors who all became shareholders. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed for Queen Elizabeth I on many occasions. Shakespeare wrote all his plays during this time exclusively for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men including Richard II, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet.
In October 1596 William Shakespeare spurred on perhaps by his father’s fall from grace when he was a child reapplied for a coat of arms on behalf of John Shakespeare it was granted to the Shakespeare’s. Three years later another application was made to combine the Shakespeare coat of arms with the Arden coat of arms.
Shakespeare’s coat of arms above the door at the birthplace
In August 1596 William’s only son, Hamnet, died aged 11. The cause is unknown. It is unknown as well whether Shakespeare returned to Stratford for his funeral but the following year Shakespeare bought New Place, the second largest house in Stratford. Shakespeare paid just £60 for the house, which was considered cheap for the day. In 1598 Stratford Council ordered an investigation into the hoarding of grain. A bad harvest had caused the price of grain to increase as well as an increase in illegal trading. New Place was surveyed and it was recorded that the house contained ten quarters of malt. Around the same as other households in the area including the schoolmaster and vicar.
New Place once the second largest home in Stratford, now demolished
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed in The Theatre, Shoreditch. They briefly moved to Curtain Theatre in 1597. On 29th December 1598 following ongoing disputes with The Theatre’s landlord, Giles Allen, who owned the land in which The Theatre stood. Burbage and his brother Cuthbert along with the acting company and workmen dismantled The Theatre and transported it across the river to Southwark where it was rebuilt as The Globe Theatre. Five members of the acting company including William Shakespeare were offered the chance to become shareholders for the cost of £10. As well as performing Shakespeare’s plays The Globe Theatre also played work by Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe.
The modern day Globe Theatre situated yards away from the original plot
William Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men became embroiled in the Essex Rebellion of 1601 when they were commissioned by some of Essex’s supporters to put on Richard II in the hope that the scenes of Richard being overthrown would inspire the audience to overthrow Elizabeth. The company were investigated and learnt that they had been offered 40 shillings to put on the play, which was more than their normal fee and so they agreed. The company went unpunished as it was clear that they had no further involvement in the plot and they even performed for Elizabeth at Whitehall the day before Essex was executed.
With the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 the Lord Chamberlain’s Men became the King’s Men and fell under the patronage of King James I.
In 1604 Shakespeare was living close to St Paul’s Cathedral as a tenant of Christopher Mountjoy. Mountjoy was a wig maker and his apprentice Stephen Bellott wanted to marry Mountjoy’s daughter. Shakespeare acted as a negotiator when details of the dowry were being sorted out. The couple married but eight years later Bellott attempted to sue his father in law for failing to pay the dowry in full. William Shakespeare was called to testify in court but records show that he said that he remembered little of the events.
Back in Stratford in 1605 Shakespeare purchased shares in the tithe leases for £440 which gave him and his family an income from grain, hay, wool, lamb and many other items. In 1607 Shakespeare went on to purchase farmland of 107 acres for £320. Shakespeare was becoming a prominent businessman within Stratford and it appears he invested his money in order to support his family.
In 1609 the London theatres were once again closed as the plague again spread throughout the city. It is believed that Shakespeare had decided to retire to Stratford around this time. He still made frequent visits to London for business including the above court case regarding his former landlord. After 1610 Shakespeare wrote less only completing The Tempest, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII and the lost play of Cardenio. Three of these plays were collaborations with John Fletcher who would succeed Shakespeare as the playwright for the King’s Men.
In March 1613 Shakespeare finally purchased a London home, after living in rented accommodation throughout his time in the city. Shakespeare bought an apartment in a gatehouse that was part of the former Blackfriars priory. Although Shakespeare was living back in Stratford at this time he leased the apartment out to John Robinson.
William Shakespeare signed his will on 25th March 1616; he left most of his estate to his eldest daughter Susanna who had married the local doctor, John Hall. His other daughter Judith married a local winemaker, Thomas Quiney. The day after Shakespeare had signed his will Quiney had been found guilty of fathering an illegitimate son and was ordered to do public penance. This incident led to Shakespeare altering his will to ensure that Judith’s portion of his will was protected. Shakespeare also left his second best bed to his wife Anne. It is believed that the second best bed is in fact the marital bed and the best bed was kept for guests. Therefore the sentimental value was more significant.
William Shakespeare died on 23rd April 1616, aged 52. The cause was unknown as it was said that he was in perfect health. However, years later it was rumoured that Shakespeare caught a fever after drinking with Ben Johnson and Drayton. Another theory was that Shakespeare died after a cerebral haemorrhage which would suggest either a blow or fall to the head or an ongoing illness.
William Shakespeare was buried two days later at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford with his epitaph carved into a stone slab warning of anyone who thought of disturbing his bones. It reads;
‘Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare,
To dig the dvst encloased heare.
Bleste be man spares thes stones,
And cvrst be he moves my bones’
The curse protecting the bones of William Shakespeare
A monument was placed years later with an effigy of Shakespeare writing. It is believed that the monument was installed before the publication of the first folio in 1623.
William Shakespeare’s monument overlooking his grave.