Little is known about Shakepeare’s life. There are some contemporary allusions to him as a writer, but not a lot to flesh out a portrait of him. Most of what we know is from official records – baptism, marriage, death, his will, various property and court records. In fact, for one of his station in life, the amount of factual knowledge available about Shakespeare is surprisingly large, but it seems disappointing, because you would expect one the world’s greatest poets and dramatists to have attracted greater contemporary comment and recognition.
William Shakespeare (also spelled Shakspere) was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, in 1564. His father, John Shakespeare, was a business man. In the 1560s John Shakespeare held various public offices in the borough, including alderman, but in the 1570s his businesses seem to have failed. His wife, Mary Arden, of Wilmcote, Warwickshire, came from an ancient family and was the heiress to some land.
The basic facts of Shakespeare’s life, gleaned from parish records are these. At the age of eighteen William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway of Stratford, who was eight years older than him. They had a daughter, Susanna, in 1583. Two years later, they had twins, Hamnet, a boy, and Judith, a girl. Hamnet died at the age of eleven. Shakespeare died on 23rd April 1616. Anne died seven years later.
It seems that Shakespeare left Stratford for London in about 1585 to pursue a career in the theatre. His family continued to live in Stratford and Shakespeare probably saw little of them for the next few years. It was said that his first job was holding the horses of people attending The Curtain theatre in Shoreditch. This theatre was owned by James Burbage, a theatrical impresario, and the father of Richard Burbage who became the most famous tragic actor of his day.
The first reference to Shakespeare in the theatrical world of London is a pamphlet written by Robert Greene, a playwright, on his deathbed in 1592.
“There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tyger’s heart wrapt 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 the country”.
Shakespeare is clearly the object of the sarcasms. Johannes Factotum means Jack-of-all-trades. All authors and playwrights before Shakespeare had been university people. Shakespeare may have enraged Greene by starting as an actor and daring to aspire to be a dramatist himself.
Shakespeare had some success as a poet in 1593 with his Venus and Adonis, and the following year with The Rape of Lucrece. Most artists survived by patronage. Shakespeare dedicated his first published poems to Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd earl of Southampton.
The theatrical companies themselves depended on the patronage of distinguished nobles, presumably to give them some protection from persecution by the authorities. The puritanical City of London, for example, was generally hostile to the theatre. The City authorities frequently tried to suppress the theatre, ostensibly on health grounds when there were outbreaks of plague. So London theatres were built outside the City limits to escape their authority. The Curtain was built in Shoreditch. The Globe was built on the other side of the Thames. The Fortune was built in Golden Lane.
For most of his career Shakespeare was involved in the most successful theatrical company of the day. This company had numerous various changes as its noble patrons changed over time. When Shakespeare joined, it was called the Lord Chamberlain’s Company of players after its patron Lord Hunsdon.
When James I came to the throne in 1603, the company’s name changed to the King’s Men. Whether or not Shakespeare began holding horses, he was soon an actor in the company. He began to write plays and became its principal playwright, He turned out two plays a year for twenty years and he acted in them himself. At some point he also became a shareholder. The company did well. Apart from Shakespeare himself, they had the best actor, Richard Burbage, and a theatre, the Globe, where they could put on their plays.
Plays were performed in the afternoon and almost all classes of citizens came, except the Puritans. The theatres were open-air. The theatre became more fashionable in the 17th century. In 1608 the King’s Men also put on their plays at The Blackfriars, a private indoor theatre for more select audiences. As their name implied, the King’s Men also performed at court for the king.
Shakespeare appears to have begun writing his own plays in the early 1590s. In his twenty year career in London, he wrote at least thirty eight plays. Only eighteen of them were published in book form during his lifetime. Thirty six were published in the First Folio of his works in 1623.
The plays are believed to have been written in this order: Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, Henry VI, Richard III, Richard II, Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew, King John, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, All’s Well that Ends Well, Henry IV, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V, Much Ado about Nothing, As you like it, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, King Lear, Timon of Athens, Pericles, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen.
For most of the last decade of the 16th century, Shakespeare was virtually the only significant playwright working. Greene, the bitter writer of the above attack on Shakespeare, died penniless in 1592. Christopher Marlowe, the other great Elizabethan playwright, died in 1593, Thomas Kyd in 1594. Their careers illustrate why the theatrical profession’s evil reputation in the City was not necessarily ill-deserved. Marlowe was imprisoned for a knifing in 1592. Then he was arrested for counterfeiting coins in the Netherlands. Then he and Kyd were arrested in relation to some papers found in the lodgings they shared. Kyd broke under torture and never recovered. Marlowe was freed and then died in a bar room brawl. The suspicion is that he had agreed to act as a spy for Lord Burghley, the Queen’s chief minister, and was then assassinated on the orders of Sir Walter Raleigh, to avoid Raleigh being implicated in whatever plot the papers had hinted at. Ben Jonson, who was younger than Shakespeare, was convicted of murder in 1598, after a duel with a fellow actor.
It is known that Shakespeare continued acting as well as writing. He was the Ghost in Hamlet. He had a part in a play by Ben Jonson, Every Man to his Humour, which he persuaded the company to put on. William Beeston, one of this fellow actors, said “he did act exceedingly well”.
He was sufficiently prosperous to apply for his own coat of arms.
For some time Shakespeare lodged with a French Huguenot family called Mountjoy, who lived in Monkwell Street in Cripplegate. (This is his Barbican connection). In May 1612, Shakespeare gave evidence in a family lawsuit.
In 1610, at the age of forty seven, Shakespeare retired to live at New Place, a large house in Stratford, which he had bought for the family in 1597. He wrote a will which has been preserved which contains a strange legacy giving his second best bed to his wife, Anne. He died on April 23 1616. Anne died seven years after Shakespeare.