Many books have assembled facts, reasonable suppositions, traditions, and speculations concerning the life and career of William Shakespeare. Taken as a whole, these materials give a rather comprehensive picture of England's foremost dramatic poet. It is important, however, that persons interested in Shakespeare distinguish between facts and beliefs about his life.
From one point of view, modern scholars are fortunate to know as much as they do about a man of middle-class origin who left a small English country town and embarked on a professional career in sixteenth-century London. From another point of view, they know surprisingly little about the writer who has continued to influence the English language and its drama and poetry for more than three hundred years. Sparse and scattered as these facts of his life are, they are sufficient to prove that a man from Stratford by the name of William Shakespeare wrote the major portion of the thirty-seven plays that scholars ascribe to him.
No one knows the exact date of William Shakespeare's birth. His baptism occurred on Wednesday, April 26, 1564. His father was John Shakespeare, a tanner, glover, dealer in grain, and town official of Stratford; his mother, Mary, was the daughter of Robert Arden, a prosperous gentleman-farmer. The Shakespeares lived on Henley Street.
Under a bond dated November 28, 1582, William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway entered into a marriage contract. The baptism of their eldest child, Susanna, took place in Stratford in May 1583. One year and nine months later, their twins, Hamnet and Judith, were christened in the same church. The parents named them for the poet's friends Hamnet and Judith Sadler.
Early in 1596, William Shakespeare, in his father's name, applied to the College of Heralds for a coat of arms. Although positive proof is lacking, there is reason to believe that the Heralds granted this request, because in 1599, Shakespeare again made application for the right to quarter his coat of arms with that of his mother. Entitled to her father's coat of arms, Mary had lost this privilege when she married John Shakespeare before he held the official status of "gentleman."
In May 1597, Shakespeare purchased New Place, the outstanding residential property in Stratford at that time. Because John Shakespeare had suffered financial reverses prior to this date, William must have achieved success for himself.
Court records show that in 1601 or 1602, William Shakespeare began rooming in the household of Christopher Mountjoy in London. Subsequent disputes between Mountjoy and his son-in-law, Stephen Belott, over Stephen's wedding settlement led to a series of legal actions, and in 1612, the court scribe recorded Shakespeare's deposition of testimony relating to the case.
In July 1605, William Shakespeare paid four hundred and forty pounds for the lease of a large portion of the tithes on certain real estate in and near Stratford. This was an arrangement whereby Shakespeare purchased half the annual tithes, or taxes, on certain agricultural products from sections of land in and near Stratford. In addition to receiving approximately ten percent income on his investment, he almost doubled his capital. This was possibly the most important and successful investment of his lifetime, and it paid a steady income for many years.
Shakespeare was next mentioned in historical records when John Combe, a resident of Stratford, died on July 12, 1614. To his friend, Combe bequeathed the sum of five pounds. These records and similar ones are important, not because of their economic significance, but because they prove the existence of a William Shakespeare in Stratford and in London during this period.
On March 25, 1616, William Shakespeare revised his last will and testament. He died on April 23 of the same year. His body lies within the chancel and before the altar of the Stratford church. A rather wry inscription is carved upon his tombstone:
Good Friend, for Jesus' sake, forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here;
Blest be the man that spares these stones
And curst be he that moves my bones.
The last direct descendant of William Shakespeare was his granddaughter, Elizabeth Hall, who died in 1670.
In similar fashion, the evidence establishing William Shakespeare as the foremost playwright of his day is positive and persuasive. Robert Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, in which he attacked Shakespeare, a mere actor, for presuming to write plays in competition with Greene and his fellow playwrights, was entered in the Stationers' Register on September 20, 1592. In 1594, Shakespeare acted before Queen Elizabeth, and in 1594 and 1595, his name appeared as one of the shareholders of the Lord Chamberlain's Company. Francis Meres, in his Palladis Tamia (a work of criticism published in 1598), called Shakespeare "mellifluous and honey-tongued" and compared his comedies and tragedies with those of Plautus and Seneca in excellence.
Shakespeare's continued association with Burbage's company is equally definite. His name appears as one of the owners of the Globe Theatre in 1599. On May 19, 1603, he and his fellow actors received a patent from James I designating them as the King's Men and making them Grooms of the Chamber. Late in 1608 or early in 1609, Shakespeare and his colleagues purchased the Blackfriars Theatre and began using it as their winter location when weather made production at the Globe inconvenient.
Other specific allusions to Shakespeare, to his acting and his writing, occur in numerous places. Put together, they form irrefutable testimony that William Shakespeare of Stratford and London was the leader among Elizabethan playwrights. One of the most impressive of all proofs of Shakespeare's authorship of his plays is the First Folio of 1623, with the dedicatory verse that appeared in it. John Heminge and Henry Condell, members of Shakespeare's own company, stated that they collected and issued the plays as a memorial to their fellow actor. Many contemporary poets contributed eulogies to Shakespeare; one of the best known of these poems is by Ben Jonson, a fellow actor and, later, a friendly rival.
The question of authorship aside, Shakespeare had an illustrious career in London as both actor and playwright from the 1580s until the 1610s. He began by writing a series of history plays that were meant to chronicle England's past — an ambitious undertaking for a young man. During a forced closure of the theaters in 1592 because of an outbreak of the plague, Shakespeare wrote a long poem, Venus and Adonis. This was not his final effort at poetry: Over his career, he wrote a number of long poems, as well as a series of sonnets, which were popular in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare's sonnets were significant for their addressees (a young man and a dark lady), the subject matter, and the complexity of his metaphorical language.
Generally, the early part of Shakespeare's career was taken up, aside from history plays, with writing comedies. One exception, Romeo and Juliet, written in 1595 and 1596, is known as a broken-back play because its beginning is comic and after the murder of Mercutio, it takes on tragic tones. In addition, Shakespeare wrote a straightforward revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus. Until recently, this play was considered not up to the quality of his later plays, but its reputation has been reclaimed to some degree.
In 1599, Julius Caesar was likely the first play to be performed at the newly built Globe Theatre. At the time, England was concerned about questions of unclear succession and consequent civil strife because Queen Elizabeth had neither provided nor named an heir. It is no surprise then, that Shakespeare turned to ancient Rome and their problems with leadership and violence to explore current issues of concern.
During this period, from 1596 to 1604, Shakespeare continued to write comedies, but they gradually began to take on darker tones and, in fact, were not pure comedy but tragi-comedy. The darkness of his writing also took expression in a series of his greatest tragedies such as Hamlet (1600-1601), Othello (1604), King Lear (1605), Macbeth (1606), and Antony and Cleopatra (1606- 1607).
As Shakespeare's career came to an end, he began to write what are now called his romances. Harkening back to more traditional romance motifs of quests, magical events, and great lessons learned, these plays are concerned with questions of religion and show a recognition that it is a younger generation who will affect the future.
Shakespeare continued to write until 1613, but his works after the romances are often collaborations, reflecting his retirement from the fray. He'd earned the rest. In a career spanning three decades, William Shakespeare provided works that became the basis of the Western canon of literature and that resonate with meaning for audiences to this day.