08 Sept- 25 Oct 2003

William Shakespeare

For all his fame, William Shakespeare remains a mysterious figure, as little is known about his personal life. There are just two primary sources of information: his works, and various legal and church documents that have survived from Elizabethan times.

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, allegedly on St. George’s Day i.e. April 23, 1564. Church records from Holy Trinity Church indicate that he was baptized there on April 26, 1564. He was the third of eight children of John Shakespeare, a glover and leather merchant, and Mary Arden, a landed heiress. We know that John Shakespeare was a successful merchant, alderman and high bailiff of Stratford, during William’s early childhood. William probably attended the free grammar school in Stratford, which at the time had a reputation to rival Eton and although there are no records extant to prove this claim, Shakespeare’s knowledge of Latin and Classical Greek would tend to support this theory. We do not know how long William attended the school, but it is certain that he never proceeded to a university schooling, which has stirred some debate as to the authorship of his works.

At the age of eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior and pregnant at the time. Their first daughter, Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583. The couple later had twins, Hamnet and Judith, born February 2, 1585. Sadly Hamnet died at the age of 11.

For seven years, William Shakespeare disappears from all records, turning up in London circa 1592. He might have fled Stratford to avoid prosecution for poaching although there is also a rumour of him working as an assistant schoolmaster in Lancashire for a time. It is estimated that Shakespeare arrived in London around 1588 and began working as an actor and playwright.

In 1594 he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (called the King’s Men after the ascension of James I in 1603). With Will Kempe, a master comedian, and Richard Burbage, a leading tragic actor of the day, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men became a favourite London troupe, patronized by royalty and made popular by the theatre-going public. When the plague forced theatres to close in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare and his company made plans for the Globe Theatre in the Bankside district, becoming a partner and co-owner of this new theatre.

Shakespeare enjoyed great success in his own lifetime having many of his plays published and sold in octavo editions, or „penny-copies“ to the more literate of his audiences. Never before had a playwright enjoyed sufficient acclaim to see his works in print and sold as popular literature in the midst of his career. In 1596 he obtained a coat of arms and by 1597 he was prosperous enough to buy New Place in Stratford, the second largest house in town, to which he retired in comfort in 1611.

William Shakespeare allegedly died on his birthday in1616 and was interred at Holy Trinity in Stratford on April 25. In 1623, two fellow actors from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell, printed the First Folio edition of the Collected Works, which also contained Shakespeare’s sonnets. His family line came to an end with the death of his grand-daughter Elizabeth in 1670.

On his tombstone, William Shakespeare left this final piece of verse as his epitaph:

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare
To dig the dust enclosed here!
Blest be ye man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moues my bones.