“”Few authors today write with such universal understanding that their
works will be popular with all types of people, and so successfully that their
work survives centuries. These authors posses qualities we can seldom identify
in their lifetimes. Yet we do know this — William Shakespeare was one of them.
William Shakespeare’s parents were John Shakespeare and Mary Arden.
John Shakespeare was born in 1529. His father was a small tenant farmer in
Snitterfield, near Stratford-upon-Avon. He became a successful glover and
trader, and owned civic office in Stratford. He was not born to the nobility,
but he did have some authority in the town. In 1596 he was given by the College
of Arms the right to a coat of arms and a crest. Doing that advanced his status
to that of a country gentleman. He would belong to the upper class of rural
society. That was the class just under the knights and the nobility to which the
country gentleman could be promoted if he made money in trade or the law and had
influence at court. His rise in authority began the year after he was married.
He became constable of Stratford, in charge of keeping the town safe. From 1561
to 1565, he was Chamberlain, responsible for the oversight and maintenance of
Corporation of Stratford property. In 1564, his name appeared on the list of
Capital Burgesses. He was likely a member for a number of years, just without
his name on the list. Capital Burgesses were the main English parliament
representatives for towns or boroughs. Later on, he was bailiff of the town,
and held many important positions throughout his life. William Shakespeare’s
mother, Mary Arden, was born to nobility, a wealthy family. She was the
youngest daughter of Robert Arden, also a country gentleman, of Wilmcote. He
left in his will to Mary the estate of Asbies in Wilmcote and six pounds,
thirteen shillings, and sixpence. Within a year of her father’s death, in 1557,
Mary married John Shakespeare.
William Shakespeare was the third child, born after Joan and Margaret
Shakespeare. Margaret died before William was born, and Joan died sometime
before 1569. William was born in 1564. His exact birth date is not known,
though it is known that he was baptized on April 26 in the Holy Trinity Church
of Stratford. His birthday could have been any of the four or five days before
that day. Traditionally, it has been said that he was born on the 23 of April,
the same day of his death and St. George’s Day, but this is more because of the
coincidence than based on fact. Gilbert Shakespeare was born in 1566, Anne was
born in 1571, Richard in 1574, and Edmund in 1580. This made William the eldest.
Little is known about William’s childhood. He was educated for free at
the local grammar school, and learned Latin and a little bit of Greek. His
plays suggest that he did not enjoy school, and it seems that he did enjoy
sports. Many different play companies came to Stratford to perform, and since
John Shakespeare was in charge of the theater at some times, it is almost for
sure that William saw many plays while he was growing up. This probably gave
him the background that he needed for writing plays. His family was well off
and he lived easily until he was fifteen. That year, his father began to lose
authority and money. William enjoyed the outdoors as a teenager, and was known
to go on long walks in the country. He met Anne Hathaway when he was seventeen,
probably on one of those walks. She was the daughter of Richard Hathaway and
lived at Hewland’s Farm, now known as Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. Anne was also
about 8 years older than William, an unheard of thing in the English countryside.
Yet they decided to be married soon afterwards, though William was a minor.
They received their marriage license on November 27, 1582, soon after Anne’s
father died. Curiously, their first child was born only six months later!
Susanna Shakespeare was born in late May of 1583. Twins, a boy and a
girl named Hamnet and Judith were born two years later. They were named after
a couple who lived nearby. Hamnet was William’s very good friend. The twins
were conceived in 1584, obviously, so Shakespeare must have been in Stratford at
the time. What happened to the next seven years? It is not known. Some think
that he was drawn to London for riches or to seek his fortune. However, there
is a different rumor. It is said that Shakespeare was arrested for poaching deer
in Charlcote Park, owned by Sir Thomas Lucy. As punishment, Shakespeare was
whipped, and as revenge he composed a nasty poem about Lucy. This doubled the
punishment, and caused Shakespeare to flee Stratford for London.
Some say that Shakespeare and his wife were estranged. My guess is that
they were still friends, but did not have any sort of romantic relationship. My
reasoning is that Shakespeare visited Anne at different times when the theaters
in London were closed, and did not just leave her completely, and when he bought
a new house, she moved there. Also, in his will, Shakespeare left Anne his
second best bed with the furniture. No one knows for sure what is implied by
the “second best bed” but another man in English history who wrote fondly of
his wife left her the second best bed as well, and I translate that as being a
good thing. Some say that they were not happy because all the other actors in
that theater in London lived with their wives during the working season, but
maybe Anne was content in Stratford with the children. It remains a mystery.
The most important part of Shakespeare’s career was his years in London.
No one is sure what he did until 1592, when a pamphlet stated that Shakespeare
wrote Henry VI in that year. The pamphlet was written by Robert Greene, a
writer for the combination of the Admiral’s and Lord Strange’s Men theater
groups at the Rose Theater in London. We do not know the exact order in which
the plays were written, but we do know the order of the types of plays. First
Shakespeare wrote histories and comedies, including the three parts of Henry VI,
The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus. Titus Andromecus was the first of
his plays to appear in print, in 1594.
During the years Shakespeare wrote the early plays, he was an actor in
a few different play groups. Two that are known are Sussex’ Men and Pembroke’s
Men.The exact times that he was in the play groups are unknown, but in 1594
Shakespeare probably became an actor and playwright for the Lord Chamberlain’s
company, and stayed there for the rest of his years in London. This was believed
to be the first play group that made him one of the partners, instead of giving
him a lowly job like those he had in all the other play groups.It was
probably because a fellow player recognized his great talent in writing.
Shakespeare probably did not act in any plays after he joined Lord Chamberlain’s
In 1596, while Shakespeare was in London, his son Hamnet died. A year
later, Shakespeare bought New Place, an important house in Stratford, and Anne
went to live there. A woman called The Dark Lady was referred to in some of
Shakespeare’s sonnets, which were probably written in the 1590’s. Shakespeare
obviously had an affair with her during that time period. She was said to have
an ill complexion, and dark hair, and there is evidence that her father was
Italian. The most probably candidate is Emelia Lanier, who was married to an
musician in the royal court. When her husband was off on an expedition to the
Azores with the Earl of Southampton, she was the mistress of Simon Forman, an
astrologer, and wrote a book of poems about how much she hated men. This is
good evidence that she was the Dark Lady because the Dark Lady was often
referred to as an ugly, unfashionable whore, teased by many men. She was also
said to be a mistress of a young actor in the King’s Men, who was Shakespeare’s
frien d. His plays were printed without his name until he wrote Love’s Labor’s
Lost in 1598.In that year, a man named Francis Meres published a book in
which he listed 12 of Shakespeare’s plays, and two of his poems, which tells us
that they had been written by 1598. In 1598 a man named Francis Meres published
a book with his opinions of plays, and listed twelve of Shakespeare’s plays.
That tells us that Shakespeare had at least that many written by 1598.In 1599
he became one of seven sharers of the Globe Theater. It was the biggest and the
grandest playhouse in London at the time.
In 1603, James I took over the company, and it was renamed the King’s
Men. In the first ten years of the 17th century, Shakespeare wrote his greatest
works. Included were Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear. It was those plays that
probably caused the King’s Men in the Globe Theater to be ranked first of all
of the play groups in London. In 1609, the company bought a theater called the
Blackfriars. This would come to be the company’s winter headquarters. The
residents who lived around the new theater enjoyed old fashioned romance and
historical plays, which influenced the company’s plays. During these years,
Shakespeare became rather wealthy and invested money in Stratford. He owned a
number of businesses there and had shares in many as well. Shakespeare probably
took many trips to Stratford in that time period to conduct business as well as
to make plans for his retirement. He was reaching the middle of his life, and
in his time, people did not often live to old age.
In about 1610 Shakespeare retired . Maybe he retired because of poor
health, or maybe he was tired of the busy, fast life he had in London. Or
possibly he had an urge to spend the last years of his life with his family,
whom he had neglected for so many years.In 1613, he bought the former
Blackfriars Monastery gate house. During that year, he began writing again. He
wrote Henry VIII and some other less known plays with a man called John Fletcher
who worked with the company. During the first performance of that play, two
cannons were shot, which were stopped by paper or “dummy shot.” The paper
caught fire, and it spread to the thatch above, setting the Globe Theater on
fire. No one was hurt, but the theater burnt down, and that ended Shakespeare’s
career on a bad note. He did not invest in the new Globe Theater being built,
and he went back to Stratford.
Shakespeare’s first daughter, Susanna, was already married to John Hall,
and in February of 1616, his daughter Judith married Thomas Quiney. It seems
that once his two daughters were settled, Shakespeare’s life began to wane. On
March 25, 1616, he signed his will. He was believed to have fallen deathly ill
around the time that the will was written. In his will he left his property to
Susanna, a large sum of money to Judith, money as well to many of his friends
from London, and he left his wife the second-best bed. Shakespeare died on
April 23, 1616, and was buried two days later. He was buried under the floor in
the Holy Trinity Church of Stratford. Shakespeare’s tombstone says the
Good friend for Jesus sake forebeare
To dig the dust enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stone
And curst be he that moves my bones.
The author of these lines is said to be Shakespeare himself. They mean to scare
off anyone who wants to dig up his grave.
Shakespeare wrote a total of 36 plays in his lifetime. The following is
a list of the plays:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
All’s Well that Ends Well
Antony and Cleopatra
As You Like It
Hamlet the Prince of Denmark
Henry IV (two parts)
Henry VI (three parts)
Love’s Labors Lost
Measure for Measure
Much Ado about Nothing
Romeo and Juliet
The Comedy of Errors
The Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Taming of the Shrew
The Winter’s Tale
Timon of Athens
Troilus and Cressida
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Venus and Adonis
The list of Shakespeare’s plays is very long, and this has led some to
believe that other authors wrote some or all of Shakespeare’s plays. This is
called the “authorship controversy.” The people who believe that Shakespeare
didn’t write the plays think that the author was the Earl of Oxford. They claim
that the portraits of Shakespeare the playwright do not look like those of
William Shakespeare. Another belief is that the Earl of Oxford always drew a
shaking spear as his signature, and that his nickname was Shake-Spear. All of
the different spellings of Shakespeare are also their evidence.The majority
of authorities believe that Shakespeare did write the plays, otherwise wouldn’t
it be widely known that Shakespeare was not really Shakespeare at all?
William Shakespeare was an educated genius, who spent his life doing
what he loved. It is said that he wrote so fast, he never spelled anything
correctly and didn’t use punctuation. Maybe that is why his writing is so
fresh, creative, and funny. He may not have been very interested in exact
details in his plays, in perfection, but somehow that is what he has achieved.
It is the lack of perfection that makes his works so understandable and
universal, and that will continue to be true for as long as his plays are in
1) Fido, Martin. Shakespeare. Maplewood: Hammond Publishers, 1978.
2) Brown, Ivor. Shakespeare and His World. New York: H.Z. Walck, Incorporated,
3) Ludowyk, E.F.C. Understanding Shakespeare. Cambridge: University Press, 1962.
4) William Aldis Wright. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Garden
City: Garden City Publishing Company, Incorporated.
5) Dawson, Giles E. The Life of William Shakespeare. United States of America:
Folger Shakespeare Library, 1979.