Most biographical information about William Shakespeare's life and death derives from public instead of private documents: vital records, real estate and tax records, lawsuits, records of payments, and references to Shakespeare and his works in printed and hand-written texts. The historical record documents that Shakespeare was baptised on 26 April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England, in the Holy Trinity Church; at age 18 married Anne Hathaway with whom he had three children; and was an actor, playwright, poet, and theatre entrepreneur in London. Though more is known about Shakespeare's life than most other Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, because of his social status as a commoner, the low esteem in which his profession was held and the general disinterest of the time in the personal lives of writers, few personal biographical facts about Shakespeare survive. Nevertheless, hundreds of biographies have been written and more continue to be, most of which rely on inferences and the historical context of the 70 or so hard facts recorded about Shakespeare the man, a technique that sometimes leads to embellishment or unwarranted interpretation of the documented record.
William Shakespeare  was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a market town of around 1,500 residents about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of London. The town was a centre for the slaughter, marketing, and distribution of sheep, as well as for hide tanning and wool trading. The exact date of his birth is not known but has been traditionally taken to be April 23, 1564, which is also the Feast Day of Saint George, the patron saint of England. Shakespeare's baptismal record was dated 26 April 1564. He was the first son and the first surviving child in the family; two earlier children, Joan and Margaret, had died early.
He was the son of John Shakespeare, a successful glover originally from Snitterfield, and of Mary Arden, a daughter of the gentry. They married around 1557 and lived on Henley Street when Shakespeare was born in a house now known as Shakespeare's Birthplace. They had eight children: Joan (baptised 15 September 1558, died in infancy), Margaret (bap. 2 December 1562 – buried 30 April 1563), William, Gilbert (bap. 13 October 1566 – bur. 2 February 1612), Joan (bap. 15 April 1569 – bur. 4 November 1646), Anne (bap. 28 September 1571 – bur. 4 April 1579), Richard (bap. 11 March 1574 – bur. 4 February 1613) and Edmund (bap. 3 May 1580 – bur. London, 31 December 1607).
Shakespeare's father, prosperous at the time of William's birth, was appointed to several municipal offices and served as an alderman in 1565, culminating in a term as bailiff in 1568, the chief magistrate of the town council before falling on hard times for reasons unclear to historians beginning in 1576, when his son William was 12. He was prosecuted for unlicensed dealing in wool and usury, and mortgaged and subsequently lost some lands he had obtained through his wife's inheritance that would have been inherited by Shakespeare. After four years of non-attendance at council meetings, he was finally replaced as burgess in 1586.
Before being allowed to perform for the general public, touring playing companies were required to present their play before the town council to be licensed. Players first acted in Stratford in 1568, the year that John Shakespeare was bailiff. Before Shakespeare turned 20, the Stratford town council had paid for at least 18 performances by no fewer than 12 playing companies.
Most Shakespeare biographers qualify his attendance at the King's New School in Stratford with phrases such as "almost certainly" because all attendance records for the time have been lost, but Shakespeare's works exhibit detailed knowledge of the grammar school curriculum and none of the university life that is evident in university-educated playwrights such as Marlowe. Edward VI, the king honoured in the school's name, had in the mid-16th century diverted money from the dissolution of the monasteries to endow a network of grammar schools to "propagate good literature... throughout the kingdom", but the school had originally been set up by the Guild of the Holy Cross, a church institution in the town, early in the 15th century. It was further endowed by a Catholic chaplain in 1482. It was free to male children in Stratford and it is presumed that the young Shakespeare attended, although this cannot be confirmed because the school's records have not survived. Grammar schools varied in quality during the Elizabethan era, but the grammar curriculum was standardised by royal decree throughout England, and the school would have provided an intensive education in Latin grammar and literature—"as good a formal literary training as had any of his contemporaries" As a part of this education, the students were exposed to Latin plays that students performed to better understand the language. One of Shakespeare's earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors, bears similarity to Plautus's Menaechmi, which could well have been performed at the school. There is no evidence that he received a university education.
On 28 November 1582 at Temple Grafton near Stratford, the 18-year-old Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was 26. Two neighbours of Hathaway, Fulk Sandalls and John Richardson, posted bond ensuring that no legal impediments existed to the union. The ceremony may have been arranged in some haste; their first daughter, Susanna, was born on 26 May 1583, six months later.
After the birth of the twins, save for being party to a lawsuit to recover part of his mother's estate which had been mortgaged and lost by default, Shakespeare left no historical traces until he is mentioned as part of the London theatrical scene. Indeed, the seven-year period between 1585 (when his twin children were born) and 1592 (when Robert Greene called him an "upstart crow") is known as Shakespeare's "lost years" because no evidence has survived to show exactly where he was or why he left Stratford for London. However, it is certain that before Greene’s attack Shakespeare had acquired a reputation as an actor and burgeoning playwright.
Anecdotal traditions and theories
Several theories have been put forth to account for his life during this time, and a number of stories are given by his earliest biographers, including that Shakespeare fled Stratford after he got in trouble for poaching deer from local squire Thomas Lucy, or that he wrote a scurrilous ballad about him. Shakespeare's first biographer Nicholas Rowe recorded both these tales, stating that he wrote the ballad after being prosecuted for poaching by Lucy. Rowe later passed on a story that Shakespeare minded the horses for theatre patrons in London. There is no documentary evidence to support any of these stories and they all were recorded only after Shakespeare's death.
In his Brief Lives, written 1669-1696, John Aubrey reported that Shakespeare had been a "schoolmaster in the country" on the authority of William Beeston, son of Christopher Beeston, who had acted with Shakespeare in Every Man in His Humour (1598) as a fellow member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. In 1985 E. A. J. Honigmann proposed that Shakespeare acted as a schoolmaster in Lancashire, on the evidence found in the 1581 will of a member of the Hoghton family, referring to plays and play-clothes and asking his kinsman Thomas Hesketh to take care of "...William Shakeshaft, now dwelling with me...". Honigmann proposed that John Cottam, Shakespeare's reputed last schoolmaster, recommended the young man. "Shakeshaft" was, however, a common name in Lancashire at the time. A better documented, but still far from conclusive, link was established some 20 years later in Shakespeare's life: in the will of London goldsmith Thomas Savage, Shakespeare's trustee at the Globe Theatre, one of the beneficiaries was Hesketh's widow. Scope for further speculation is offered by records showing that Lord Strange's Men, a company of players linked with Shakespeare's early career in London, regularly performed in the area and would have been well known to the Hoghtons and the Heskeths. This would provide a neat explanation of Shakespeare's arrival on the London theatre scene when the troupe returned to the city, but no evidence to support this notion has been found.
An alternative theory is that Shakespeare may have joined Queen Elizabeth's Men in 1587, after the sudden death of actor William Knell in a fight while on a tour which later took in Stratford. As Samuel Schoenbaum puts it, "When the Queen's Men stopped in Stratford in 1587, they were short a man, William Knell having been lately killed in a brawl with a fellow actor. Maybe Shakespeare took Knell's place and thus found his way to London and stage-land." Shakespeare's father John, as High Bailiff of Stratford, was responsible for the acceptance and welfare of visiting theatrical troupes. However there is no direct evidence of Shakespeare's membership of the Queen's Men, so it remains speculation.
London and theatrical career
As a married man Shakespeare was ineligible to attend university and debarred from taking up a formal indentured apprenticeship in a trade with an established guild. But acting companies had so-called 'apprenticeships' which had much looser entry requirements. This is a possible clue to Shakespeare's route into the profession.
Most scholars believe that by 1592 Shakespeare was a playwright in London, and that he had enough of a reputation for Robert Greene to denounce him in the posthumous Greenes, Groats-worth of Witte, bought with a million of Repentance as "an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey." (The italicized line parodies the phrase, "Oh, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" which Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, part 3.)
By late 1594, Shakespeare was part-owner of a playing company, known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men—like others of the period, the company took its name from its aristocratic sponsor, in this case the Lord Chamberlain. The group became popular enough that after the death of Elizabeth I and the coronation of James I (1603), the new monarch adopted the company and it became known as the King's Men, after the death of their previous sponsor. The works are written within the frame of reference of the career actor, rather than a member of the learned professions or from scholarly book-learning.
The Shakespeare family had long sought armorial bearings and the status of gentleman. William's father John, a bailiff of Stratford with a wife of good birth, was eligible for a coat of arms and applied to the College of Heralds, but evidently his worsening financial status prevented him from obtaining it. The application was successfully renewed in 1596, most probably at the instigation of William himself as he was the more prosperous at the time. The motto "Non sanz droict" ("Not without right") was attached to the application, but it was not used on any armorial displays that have survived. The theme of social status and restoration runs deep through the plots of many of his plays, and at times Shakespeare seems to mock his own longing.
By 1596, Shakespeare had moved to the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, and by 1598 he appeared at the top of a list of actors in Every Man in His Humour written by Ben Jonson. He is also listed among the actors in Jonson's Sejanus: His Fall. Also by 1598, his name began to appear on the title pages of his plays, presumably as a selling point.
There is a tradition that Shakespeare, in addition to writing many of the plays his company enacted and concerned with business and financial details as part-owner of the company, continued to act in various parts, such as the ghost of Hamlet's father, Adam in As You Like It, and the Chorus in Henry V.
He appears to have moved across the River Thames to Southwark sometime around 1599. In 1604, Shakespeare acted as a matchmaker for his landlord's daughter. Legal documents from 1612, when the case was brought to trial, show that Shakespeare was a tenant of Christopher Mountjoy, a Huguenot tire-maker (a maker of ornamental headdresses) in the northwest of London in 1604. Mountjoy's apprentice Stephen Belott wanted to marry Mountjoy's daughter. Shakespeare was enlisted as a go-between, to help negotiate the details of the dowry. On Shakespeare's assurances, the couple married. Eight years later, Belott sued his father-in-law for delivering only part of the dowry. Shakespeare was called to testify, but remembered little of the circumstances. On this case see article 'Bellott v. Mountjoy'.
Various documents recording legal affairs and commercial transactions show that Shakespeare grew rich enough during his stay in London years to buy a property in Blackfriars, London and own the second-largest house in Stratford, New Place.
Later years and death
Rowe was the first biographer to pass down the tradition that Shakespeare retired to Stratford some years before his death; but retirement from all work was uncommon at that time, and Shakespeare continued to visit London. In 1612 he was called as a witness in a court case concerning the marriage settlement of Mountjoy's daughter, Mary. In March 1613 he bought a gatehouse in the former Blackfriars priory; In June Shakespeare's daughter Susanna was slandered by John Lane, a local man who claimed she had caught gonorrhea from a lover. Susanna and her husband Dr John Hall sued for slander. Lane failed to appear and was convicted. From November 1614 Shakespeare was in London for several weeks with his son-in-law Hall.
In the last few weeks of Shakespeare's life, the man who was to marry his younger daughter Judith — a tavern-keeper named Thomas Quiney — was charged in the local church court with "fornication". A woman named Margaret Wheeler had given birth to a child and claimed it was Quiney's; she and the child both died soon after. Quiney was thereafter disgraced, and Shakespeare revised his will to ensure that Judith's interest in his estate was protected from possible malfeasance on Quiney's part.
Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616, at the age of 52. He was married to Anne Hathaway until his death and was survived by two daughters, Susanna and Judith. His son Hamnet had died in 1596. His last surviving descendant was his granddaughter Elizabeth Hall, daughter of Susanna and John Hall. There are no direct descendants of the poet and playwright alive today, but the diarist John Aubrey recalls in his Brief Lives that William Davenant, his godson, was "contented" to be believed Shakespeare's actual son. Davenant's mother was the wife of a vintner at the Crown Tavern in Oxford, on the road between London and Stratford, where Shakespeare would stay when travelling between his home and the capital.
Shakespeare is buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was granted the honour of burial in the chancel not on account of his fame as a playwright but for purchasing a share of the tithe of the church for £440 (a considerable sum of money at the time). A monument on the wall nearest his grave, probably placed by his family, features a bust showing Shakespeare posed in the act of writing. Each year on his claimed birthday, a new quill pen is placed in the writing hand of the bust. He is believed to have written the epitaph on his tombstone.
|“||Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear,
|Ancestors of William Shakespeare|
- Bate 1998, p. 4; Southworth 2000, p. 5; Wells 1997, pp. 4–5
- Holderness 2011, p. 19.
- also spelled Shakspere, Shaksper and Shake-speare, as spelling in Elizabethan times was not fixed and absolute. See Spelling of Shakespeare's name.
- Potter 2012, 1, 10.
- Chambers 1930, II:1-2.
- Schoone-Jongen 2008, 13
- Potter 2012, 15.
- Schoone-Jongen 2008, 15.
- Potter 2012, 48; Bate 1998, 8; Schoenbaum 1987, 62–63.
- Bate, Jonathan (2008). "Stratford Grammar". Soul of the Age: the life, mind and world of William Shakespeare. London: Viking. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-670-91482-1.
- Honan, Park. Shakespeare: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 43.
- Baldwin 1944, 179-80, 183; Cressy 1975, 28, 29.
- Cressy, David (1975), Education in Tudor and Stuart England, New York: St Martin's Press, ISBN 0-7131-5817-4, OCLC 2148260, pp. 28-9.
- Baldwin 1944, 117; 663.
- Shakespeare: The Lost Years by E. A. J. Honigmann, Manchester University Press; 2nd edition, 1999, page 1.
- Ackroyd, Peter. Shakespeare the Biography. Chatto & Windus, 2005, pp. 97, 187; Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Shakespeare an Ungentle Life. Methuen Drama, 2010, p. 48.
- "The Lost Years," Shakespeare Time line, accessed 8 November 2006.
- Schoenbaum, 1987, pp. 110–111.
- Honigmann, E. A. J. (1985). Shakespeare: the lost years. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press. pp. 41–48. ISBN 0-7190-1743-2.
- Hotson, Leslie (1949). Shakespeare's Sonnets Dated. New York: Oxford University Press. OCLC 531743921., quoted in Schoenbaum, S. (1991). Shakespeare's Lives. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 544. ISBN 0-19-818618-5.
- Michael Wood "In Search of Shakespeare" (2003) BBC Books, ISBN 0-563-52141-4 p.80
- Chambers, E.K (1944). Shakespearean gleanings. OCLC 463278779., quoted in Schoenbaum (1991: 535–6)
- Schoenbaum (1991: 535–6)
- S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare, the Globe & the World, Oxford University Press, 1979, p.43.
- Pierce, Patricia, "Shakespeare and the Forgotten Heroes", History Today, Volume: 56. Issue: 7, July 2006, p.3.
- English Professional Theatre 1530-1660 by G. Wickham, H. Berry and W. Ingram, Cambridge U.P.; 2000, page 155. "as stage-players had no formal recognition as a Guild, this sort of training (was not) hedged around with the constraints of age and marital status imposed by the City on more formal kinds of apprenticeship"
- Schoenbaum, Samuel (1977). "The upstart crow". A Compact Documentary Life. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 151–158. ISBN 0-19-502211-4.
- Neilson, William (1915). "The Baconian question". The Facts about Shakespeare. New York: Macmillan. pp. 164–165. OCLC 358453. "Records amply establish the identity between Shakespeare the actor and the writer. ... The extent of observation and knowledge in the plays is, indeed, remarkable but it is not accompanied by any indication of thorough scholarship, or a detailed connection with any profession outside of the theater..."
- Greenblatt (2004: "The Dream of Restoration", 76–86)
- Article on Shakespeare's Globe Theatre Zee News on Shakespeare, accessed 23 January 2007.
- Ackroyd, p. 476.
- Honan, pp. 382–383.
- Honan, p. 326.; Ackroyd, pp. 462–464.
- Schoenbaum, 1977, pp. 272–274
- Honan, 387.
- His age and the date are inscribed in Latin on his funerary monument: AETATIS 53 DIE 23 APR
- Aubrey, John (1680). "William Davenant, Knight". Brief Lives. London.
- Cultural Shakespeare: Essays in the Shakespeare Myth by Graham Holderness, Univ of Hertfordshire Press, 2001, pages 152-54.
- Dowdall, John (1693). Traditionary anecdotes of Shakespeare: Collected in Warwickshire, in the year MDCXCIII (quoted in William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life by Samuel Schoenbaum (1975) ed.).
- Baldwin, T. W. (1944). William Shakespere's Small Latine & Lesse Greeke. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. OCLC 654144828.
- Bate, Jonathan (1998). The Genius of Shakespeare. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-512823-9.
- Bearman, Robert (1994). Shakespeare in the Stratford Records. Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-0-75-090632-6.
- Campbell, Oscar James, ed. (1966). A Shakespeare Encyclopedia. London: Methuen.
- Chambers, E. K. (1930). William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-811774-2.
- Ellis, David (2012). The Truth about William Shakespeare. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-74-864666-1.
- Holderness, Graham (2011). Nine Lives of William Shakespeare. London, New York: Continuum. ISBN 978-1-4411-5185-8.
- Lewis, B. Roland (1940). The Shakespeare Documents. Stanford, London: Stanford University Press, Oxford University Press.
- Loomis, Catherine, ed. (2002). William Shakespeare: A Documentary Volume. Dictionary of Literary Biography 263. Detroit: Gale Group. ISBN 978-0-7876-6007-9. Retrieved 2 March 2011.
- Potter, Lois (2012). The Life of William Shakespeare: A Critical Biography. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-20784-9.
- Schoenbaum, S. (1987). William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (Revised ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-505161-2.
- Schoone-Jongen, Terence (2008). Shakespeare's Companies: William Shakespeare's Early Career and the Acting Companies, 1577-1594. Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama. Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-6434-5. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
- Southworth, John (2000). Shakespeare the Player: A Life in the Theatre. Sutton. ISBN 978-0-7509-2312-5.
- Wells, Stanley (1997). Shakespeare: A Life in Drama. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-31562-2.
- Wickham, G. (2000). English Professional Theatre 1530-1660. Cambridge University Press.
- Wood, Michael (2003), Shakespeare, New York: Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-09264-0
- The Shakespeare Birthplace trust has an excellent discussion of Shakespeare's life on its website.
- A Warwickshire Lad by George Madden Martin
- The Internet Shakespeare Editions provides an extensive section on his life and times.
- The Stratford Guide A visitor Guide to Stratford Upon Avon. Has sections on Shakespeare's life, Attractions in Stratford and much more.
- The Shakespeare Resource Center A directory of Web resources for online Shakespearean study. Includes a Shakespeare biography, works timeline, play synopses, and language resources.
- Timeline of Shakespeare's life with links to pictures of documents along with historical events. This is part of the interactive PBS web site with other resources as background for the documentary In Search of Shakespeare with Michael Wood from the BBC.
- The Shakespeare Paper Trail with Documenting the Early Years and Documenting the Later Years are two sets of interactive articles written by Michael Wood to go with his BBC documentary In Search of Shakespeare
- Shakespeare's family tree
- The Literature Network discusses Shakespeare's biography, his plays, and the history of them. There are lists of all of his plays and the order in which they were written.
- Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to Shakespeare A comprehensive resource that includes historical information and background on Shakespeare's plays and in depth literary critiques.