William Shakespeare Biography


Personal Background

Only a few documents chronicle William Shakespeare's life, and thus, scholars have been forced to attempt a reconstruction of the playwright's years based on whatever official records have survived. Shakespeare's father moved to Stratford-upon-Avon from nearby Snitterfield sometime before 1557, when he married Mary Arden, the daughter of a prosperous farmer. John Shakespeare was a leather worker and merchant, who held several posts in local government after he settled in Stratford. After the couple married, they had eight children. William Shakespeare was the third child and the first son born to the couple. His baptism was recorded April 26, 1564, and although the exact date of his birth is not known, it is now celebrated on April 23, which is also the day on which he died in 1616.

Education and Marriage

Shakespeare's education is a matter of speculation, because no school records have ever been found; likely, he attended the local grammar school, King's New School, which was free. Shakespeare probably began school at the age of 4 or 5, as most boys did, in a school affiliated with the grammar school. At age 7, he would have transferred to King's New School, which emphasized a liberal arts education. Shakespeare would have learned Latin while at this school, since the study of Latin was central to most Elizabethan education. His education ended after grammar school, and Shakespeare did not attend university.

In November 1582, an 18-year-old Shakespeare married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway. Their daughter Susanna was baptized six months later. On February 2, 1585, twins, Hamnet and Judith, were also baptized. Hamnet died at age 11, but both Susanna and Judith lived to be adults, marrying, and providing Shakespeare with grandchildren.

Career Highlights

There are no definitive records of Shakespeare's life between the birth of his twins in 1585 and reference to his stage success, noted in a letter dated 1592, but it is thought that he went to London sometime around 1587 or 1588. Records indicate that Shakespeare appeared as an actor and as a playwright. He also made money as shareholder in an acting company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, and as such, he would have received a share of the gate receipts. But most actors and playwrights depended on patronage for their survival, and this was also true for Shakespeare. Eventually, Shakespeare became one of the owners of the Globe theatre, which was built in 1599. He later became an investor in the Blackfriars theatre, which opened in 1609. Shakespeare wrote many of his plays specifically for performance in these two theatres.

Shakespeare's Literary Works

Shakespeare was very casual about the publication of his works, apparently having little interest in saving his writings. The 1623 Folio contains most of Shakespeare's plays, but they were not published in chronological order and do not include the dates of their original composition. Instead, the best scholars can do is to examine the Quarto editions, published during Shakespeare's life, or references from contemporary letters or diaries and try to determine from those dates the possible timeframe for a play's first performance. After careful research, scholars have assigned probable dates of composition to Shakespeare's work, and those dates, used by the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare and adopted by other editors, including the editors of the Norton Shakespeare, will be used in the following discussion of the texts' probable dates of composition. In general, the plays before 1600 were histories and romantic comedies. After 1600, tragedies became the focus of Shakespeare's work, while the problem-comedies, such as Measure for Measure, were darker in content, exploring serious social and moral problems.

The first play written by Shakespeare is thought to be Two Gentlemen of Verona, first published in the 1623 Folio, but thought to have been composed in 1590-1591. The Taming of the Shrew was also first published in the 1623 Folio, but may have been written in 1592 or earlier. Next was The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (The Second Part of Henry VI), probably composed about 1594, followed by Richard Duke of York (3 Henry VI), first printed in 1595.

The first of Shakespeare's Latin plays followed; the revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus was first printed in 1594. The First Part of Henry the Sixth is often attributed to multiple authors and there are no printed editions prior to the 1623 Folio, but the play is thought to have been performed for the first time in 1594-1595. This is followed by The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, with a first printing in 1597, but probably first performed in 1592-1593.

Shakespeare turned to a different genre, and the long narrative poem Venus and Adonis was published in 1593, the first of Shakespeare's works to be published by Shakespeare. Plays belonged to theatre companies and were often printed irregularly, but the poet could publish his work without difficulty. This poem was followed by another long narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece, first published in 1594. Although The Comedy of Errors was not published until 1623, it presumably was written much earlier and was first performed in 1594. Love's Labour's Lost followed in 1594-1595, to be followed by Love's Labour's Won, which survives only in a small fragment.

In 1600, A Midsummer Night's Dream was printed, but it may have been performed as early as 1595, which is also thought to be the date of the composition of The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, first published in 1597. Both plays offer contrasting views of love and marriage. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second follows, but this play, whose abdication scene was said to have been deleted during the lifetime of Elizabeth I, was not printed until 1597. Although it was not published until 1623, The Life and Death of King John is usually dated at about 1596. Because of its perceived anti-Semitic content, The Merchant of Venice has been surrounded in controversy, but when it was first registered in 1598, its content simply reflected accepted views.

Shakespeare turned once again to history for inspiration with the composition of The History of Henry the Fourth (1 Henry IV), first printed in 1598. Comedy appeared next with the composition of The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1597-1598. Although not printed until 1600, Shakespeare probably wrote The Second Part of Henry Fourth immediately after he finished the first play in the sequence. But as he had done before, he penned a comedy after the historical play — this time, Much Ado About Nothing, probably composed in 1598, but soon followed by The Life of Henry the Fifth in 1599. Another history followed, but this time Shakespeare turned to early Roman history for inspiration. Although The Tragedy of Julius Caesar was not published until 1623, its composition is thought to be 1598-1599. With the composition of As You Like It, probably in 1599, Shakespeare recalls the influences of earlier pastoral poetry; however, this comedy marks the end of the playwright's light romantic comedies.

The year 1600 represents the beginning of a new phase in Shakespeare's compositions with the printing of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Twelfth Night, or What You Will follows a year later and marks a move toward darker comedies, with plots and characters who are often cruel rather than comic. With Troilus and Cressida in 1601-1602, Shakespeare turns to Greek antiquity and The Iliad for inspiration, although as usual, Shakespeare rewrites the story to suit his needs. Measure for Measure is another of Shakespeare's dark comedies, not published until 1623 but first performed in 1604. During the same period (1603-1604), he was also writing The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice and All's Well That Ends Well, a complex comedy that raises questions about accepted gender roles. With The Life of Timons of Athens, Shakespeare again turns to history, but this play, as with several others, was first published in the 1623 Folio.

The History of King Lear or The Tragedy of King Lear, first printed in 1607 — 1608, exists in two different texts, and are thus often published on facing pages or combined in one text. The composition of The Tragedy of Macbeth follows and is usually dated at 1606. At the same time, Shakespeare was writing his sequel to Julius Caesar, The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, probably 1607 — 1608, is thought to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and George Wilkins. With Coriolanus in 1608, Shakespeare again finds his source in Roman history.

After 1610, Shakespeare left London and returned to Stratford and semiretirement. But he continued to write plays, with The Winter's Tale (1609-1611), Cymbeline, King of Britain (1609-1610), and The Tempist (1611), largely composed in Stratford. Shakespeare's life as a playwright concluded with his creation of All is True or as it was also known, The Famous History of the Life of Henry the Eighth (1613), and Two Noble Kinsmen (1613-1614).

While writing his plays, Shakespeare was also composing sonnets, a format adapted by English poets from its Petrarchan origins. Although he probably began composing sonnets early in his writing career, evidence exists that Shakespeare continued revising his sonnets during the 1590s and through the early 1600s, finally publishing the entire sequence in 1609. The sonnet sequence was followed by "A Lover's Complaint," but probably composed earlier, as well (1602-1605) and a collection of occasional poems.

Although Shakespeare's authorship has been questioned, the man, as a playwright, was quite well known in Elizabethan London. A conspiracy to disguise the writer's true identity would have been difficult to sustain. In the end, it really does not matter whether the man we know as William Shakespeare composed the plays attributed to him or not. The plays exist for our enjoyment, and that is sufficient.