William was the third child and oldest son of John and Mary Arden Shakespeare. Two sisters, Joan and Margaret, died before he was born. The other children were Gilbert, a second Joan, Anne, Richard, and Edmund. Only the second Joan outlived William.
Shakespeare's father was a tanner and glovemaker. He was an alderman of Stratford for years. He also served a term as high bailiff, or mayor. Toward the end of his life John Shakespeare lost most of his money. When he died in 1601, he left William only a little real estate. Not much is known about Mary Shakespeare, except that she came from a wealthier family than her husband.
Stratford-upon-Avon is in Warwickshire, called the heart of England. In Shakespeare's day it was well farmed and heavily wooded. The town itself was prosperous and progressive (see Stratford-upon-Avon). The town was proud of its grammar school. Young Shakespeare went to it, although when or for how long is not known. He may have been a pupil there between his 7th and 13th years. His studies must have been mainly in Latin. The schooling was probably good. All four schoolmasters at the school during Shakespeare's boyhood were graduates of Oxford University.
Nothing definite is known about his boyhood. From the content of his plays, he must have learned early about the woods and fields, about birds, insects, and small animals, about trades and outdoor sports, and about the country people he later portrayed with such good humor. Then and later he must have picked up an amazing stock of facts about hunting, hawking, fishing, dances, music, and other arts and sports. Among other subjects, he also must have learned about alchemy, astrology, folklore, medicine, and law. As good writers do, he must have collected information both from books and from daily observation of the world around him.
MARRIAGE AND LIFE IN LONDON
In 1582, when he was 18, he married Anne Hathaway. She was from Shottery, a village a mile (1.6 kilometers) from Stratford. Anne was seven or eight years older than Shakespeare. From this difference in their ages, a story arose that they were unhappy together. Their first daughter, Susanna, was born in 1583. In 1585 a twin boy and girl, Hamnet and Judith, were born.
What Shakespeare did between 1583 and 1592 is not known. Various stories are told. He may have taught school, worked in a lawyer's office, served on a rich man's estate, or traveled with a company of actors. One famous story says that about 1584 he and some friends were caught poaching on the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy of Carlecote, near Warwick, and were forced to leave town. A less likely story is that he was in London in 1588. There he was supposed to have held horses for theater patrons and later to have worked in the theaters as a page.
By 1592, however, Shakespeare was definitely in London and was already recognized as an actor and playwright. He was then 28 years old. In that year Robert Greene, a playwright, accused him of borrowing from the plays of others.
Between 1592 and 1594, plague kept the London theaters closed most of the time. During these years Shakespeare wrote his earliest sonnets and two long narrative poems, 'Venus and Adonis' and 'The Rape of Lucrece'. Both were printed by Richard Field, a boyhood friend from Stratford. They were well received and helped establish him as a poet.
Until 1598 Shakespeare's theater work was confined to a district northeast of London. This was outside the city walls, in the parish of Shoreditch. Located there were two playhouses, the Theatre and the Curtain. Both were managed by James Burbage, whose son Richard Burbage was Shakespeare's friend and the greatest tragic actor of his day.
Up to 1596 Shakespeare lived near these theaters in Bishopsgate, where the North Road entered the city. Sometime between 1596 and 1599, he moved across the Thames River to a district called Bankside. There, two theaters, the Rose and the Swan, had been built by Philip Henslowe. He was James Burbage's chief competitor in London as a theater manager. The Burbages also moved to this district in 1598 and built the famous Globe Theatre. Its sign showed Atlas supporting the world. Shakespeare was associated with the Globe Theatre for the rest of his active life. He owned shares in it, which brought him much money. Meanwhile, in 1597, Shakespeare had bought New Place, the largest house in Stratford. During the next three years he bought other property in Stratford and in London. The year before, his father, probably at Shakespeare's suggestion, applied for and was granted a coat of arms. It bore the motto Non sanz droict--Not without right. From this time on, Shakespeare could write "Gentleman" after his name. This meant much to him, for in his day actors were classed legally with criminals and vagrants.
Shakespeare's name first appeared on the title pages of his printed plays in 1598. In the same year Francis Meres, in 'Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury', praised him as a poet and dramatist. Meres's comments on 12 of Shakespeare's plays showed that Shakespeare's genius was recognized in his own time. HONORED AS ACTOR AND PLAYWRIGHT Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603. King James I followed her to the throne. Shakespeare's theatrical company was taken under the king's patronage and called the King's Company. Shakespeare and the other actors were made officers of the royal household. The theatrical company was the most successful of its time. Before it was the King's Company, it had been known as the Earl of Derby's and the Lord Chamberlain's. In 1608 the company acquired the Blackfriars Theatre. This was a smaller and more aristocratic theater than the Globe. Thereafter the company alternated between the two playhouses.
Plays by Shakespeare were also performed at the royal court and in the castles of the nobles. After 1603 Shakespeare probably acted little, although he was still a good actor. His favorite roles seem to have been old Adam in 'As You Like It' and the Ghost in 'Hamlet'. In 1607, when he was 43, he may have suffered a serious physical breakdown. In the same year his older daughter Susanna married John Hall, a doctor. The next year Shakespeare's first grandchild, Elizabeth, was born. Also in 1607 his brother Edmund, also a London actor, died at the age of 27.
THE MERMAID TAVERN GROUP
About this time Shakespeare became one of the group of now-famous writers who gathered at the Mermaid Tavern located on Bread Street in Cheapside. The Friday Street Club (also called the Mermaid Clu was formed by Sir Walter Raleigh. Ben Jonson was its leading spirit. Shakespeare was a popular member. He was admired for his talent and loved for his kindliness.
Thomas Fuller, writing about 50 years later, gave an amusing account of the conversational duels between Shakespeare and Jonson: "Many were the wit-combats betwixt him and Ben Jonson; which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war; Master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow, in his performances. Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention."
Jonson sometimes criticized Shakespeare harshly. Nevertheless he later wrote a eulogy of Shakespeare that is remarkable for its feeling and acuteness. In it he said: Leave thee alone, for the comparison Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come. Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe. He was not of an age, but for all time! Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were To see thee in our waters yet appear, And make those flights upon the banks of Thames, That so did take Eliza, and our James!
DEATH AND BURIAL AT STRATFORD
Shakespeare retired from his theater work in 1610 and returned to Stratford. His friends from London visited him. In 1613 the Globe Theatre burned. He lost much money in it, but he was still wealthy. He shared in the building of the new Globe. A few months before the fire he bought as an investment a house in the fashionable Blackfriars district of London.
On April 23, 1616, Shakespeare died at the age of 52. This date is according to the Old Style, or Julian, calendar of his time. The New Style, or Gregorian, calendar date is May 3, 1616 (see Calendar). He was buried in the chancel of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford.
A stone slab--a reproduction of the original one, which it replaced in 1830--marks his grave. It bears an inscription, perhaps written by himself. On the north wall of the chancel is his monument. It consists of a portrait bust enclosed in a stone frame. Below it is an inscription in Latin and English. This bust and the engraving by Martin Droeshout, prefixed to the First Folio edition of his plays (1623), are the only pictures of Shakespeare which can be accepted as showing his true likeness.
John Aubrey, an English antiquarian, wrote about Shakespeare 65 years after the poet's death. He evidently used information furnished by the son of one of Shakespeare's fellow actors. Aubrey described him as "a handsome, well-shaped man, very good company, and of a ready and pleasant smooth wit."
Shakespeare's will, still in existence, bequeathed most of his property to Susanna and her daughter. He left small mementos to friends. He mentioned his wife only once, leaving her his "second best bed" with its furnishings.
Much has been written about this odd bequest. There is little reason to think it was a slight. Indeed, it may have been a special mark of affection. The "second best bed" was probably the one they used. The best bed was reserved for guests. At any rate, his wife was entitled by law to one third of her husband's goods and real estate and to the use of their home for life. She died in 1623.
The will contains three signatures of Shakespeare. These, with three others, are the only known specimens of his handwriting in existence. Several experts also regard some lines in the manuscript of 'Sir Thomas More' as Shakespeare's own handwriting. He spelled his name in various ways. His father's papers show about 16 spellings. Shakspere, Shaxpere, and Shakespeare are the most common.
Did Shakespeare Really Write the Plays? Since the 1800s there has been a steady effort to prove that Shakespeare did not write the plays or that others did. For a long time the leading candidate was Sir Francis Bacon. Books on the Shakespeare-Bacon argument would fill a library (see Bacon, Francis). After Bacon became less popular, the Earl of Oxford and then other men were suggested as the authors. Nearly every famous Elizabethan was named. The most recent has been Christopher Marlowe. Some people even claim that "Shakespeare" is an assumed name for a whole group of poets and playwrights.
However, some men around Shakespeare--for example, Meres in 1598 and Jonson in 1623--did recognize his worth as a man and as a writer. To argue that an obscure Stratford boy could not have become the Shakespeare of literature is to ignore the mystery of genius. His knowledge is of the kind that could not be learned in school. It is the kind that only a genius could learn, by applying a keen intelligence to everyday life. Some great writers have had even less schooling than Shakespeare.
The idea that Shakespeare's plays and poems were written by another is an interesting possibility. Although it was suggested as far back as the middle of the 19th century that Bacon was the author, this belief has diminished.
CHIEF KNOWN FACTS OF SHAKESPEARE'S LIFE
1564. Born at Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, probably April 23.
1582. License issued for his marriage with Anne Hathaway of Shottery.
1583. Daughter Susanna born
1585. Twins Hamnet and Judith born
1592. First alluded to in a book, by Robert Greene
1593. 'Venus and Adonis' published
1594. 'The Rape of Lucrece' published
1596. His son Hamnet dies
1596. His father is granted a coat of arms
1597. Purchases New Place in Stratford
1598. Is praised by Francis Meres, who mentions his poems and sonnets and names 12 of his plays
1603. He and his fellow players are honored by James I; appointed Grooms of the King's Chamber
1607. Daughter Susanna marries
1609. 'Sonnets' published
1616. Daughter Judith marries
1616. Dies April 23 and is buried April 25
I'm a classic poet that lived from 1-1616.
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