William Shakespeare Biography


Family Background

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, a small town of about 1,500 people northwest of London. John Shakespeare, William's father, made his living primarily as a tanner and a glover but also traded wool and grain from time to time. John Shakespeare also served (although not at one time) as the town ale taster (inspector of bread and malt), a petty constable, city chamberlain, alderman, and high bailiff (like a mayor), the city's highest public office. Mary Arden, William Shakespeare's mother, brought a long and impressive family lineage to her marriage to John, one that traces itself back to William the Conqueror. In the mid-1570s, John Shakespeare's fortune began to decline mysteriously (some say it was because of his wife's Catholicism, although that claim is unsubstantiated), and it was largely mortgages made on properties Mary brought to the marriage that helped to sustain the family.

Education and Marriage

Shakespeare attended school in Stratford-upon-Avon. Although there are no records to prove his enrollment, critics accept it with considerable certainty. At school, Shakespeare would have studied reading and writing (in English as well as in Latin) and Greek and Roman writers including Horace, Aesop, Ovid, Virgil, Seneca, and Plautus. The extent to which he would have been familiar with the works of such ancient classics is unknown, but studying Shakespeare's plays and long poems suggests he had at least a degree of knowledge about them in their original forms, not merely translations.

In November 1582, at age 18, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, 26. Their first child, Susanna, was born the following May; twins, Hamnet and Judith, followed in 1585. Little information is available regarding Shakespeare's life from the time of the twins' birth until 1592 when he received his first public recognition as an upcoming young dramatist and actor in London. We know that at some point he left his family in Stratford, but we know few specifics. Critics hold several theories. One asserts that during the mysterious seven-year period Shakespeare worked as an assistant master of a grammar school. Another popular theory maintains Shakespeare worked as a butcher's apprentice during this time but ran away to London where he was received into the theater. Another theory holds that during the seven-year period, Shakespeare made a living as a deer poacher who was eventually sent away from Stratford as punishment. Other theories contend Shakespeare was a moneylender, a gardener, a sailor, a lawyer, or even a Franciscan. Unfortunately, though, none of these theories is any more likely than another; no one knows with complete certainty what Shakespeare did between 1585 and 1592. All we know for sure is that by 1592 he had arrived in London, leaving his family behind, and had begun what is perhaps the most successful literary career the world has ever known.

Life in London

Before the Great Plague of 1592-1593, in the time when Shakespeare first came to London, the city boasted several acting troupes. In 1558, when Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne, any gentleman could maintain a troupe of actors. By 1572, it became illegal for any nobleman below the rank of baron to maintain a troupe, although other companies could perform by obtaining a special license, which had many performance restrictions. Although this arrangement severely restricted the number of acting troupes, it extended governmental sanction to the remaining licensed companies.

When the Great Plague of 1592-1593 hit, closing the theaters and decimating the population of England, many acting companies dissolved, while others were forced to amalgamate with other troupes for survival. Two preeminent companies emerged in 1593, and they would rival each other for years. One company, The Lord Admiral's Men, was headed by Edward Alleyn with financial banking from Philip Henslowe. The other dominant troupe, The Lord Chamberlain's Men (the troupe in which Shakespeare was actor, dramatist, and shareholder, later renamed The King's Men when James I took the throne in 1603), was run by the Burbage family.

Acting troupes were organized under a shareholding plan wherein financial risk and profits were divided among those actors who had become part owners of the company by buying shares in it. The troupes, comprised entirely of men and young boys, employed about 25 actors. Roughly fewer than half of a troupe's actors were shareholders and not all owned equal shares, but those considered especially valuable to the company were encouraged to become shareholders since this ensured their continued service and loyalty. To become a shareholder, an actor had to put up a considerable sum of money; when he retired or died, the company paid the actor or his heirs for his share. Non-shareholding adult members of a company, however, were considered hirelings of the shareholders and worked under contracts promising them a weekly wage of about 5-10 shillings, although they were frequently paid less.

Shakespeare became a shareholding member of The Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1599. Scholars estimate that until about 1603 the average payment for a play was £6 (six pounds); by 1613 the price had risen to £10 or £12. In addition to his fee, the playwright was given all the receipts (minus company expenses) at the second performance (but remember, if the show was bad, there may not be a second performance). Once these fees were paid, however, the play was considered property of the troupe. Printers often pirated more popular works, and troupes sometimes sold publication rights during times of financial stress. Such publishing practices, combined with the fact playwrights, including Shakespeare, didn't write with the intention of preserving their plays but with the goal of making money, makes it difficult for scholars to pinpoint definitive texts. In Shakespeare's case, only about half of his plays were published during his lifetime.

In fact, it wasn't until 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death in 1616, that all his plays were assembled into one volume. This collection, referred to as The First Folio (because it was printed in folio format, the largest, most expensive, and most prestigious kind of book), included previously published plays as well as plays never before published. Some of the works in The First Folio can be traced to the author's original version of the text (including blotted lines and revisions), yet some were recreated from prompt books (annotated versions of the play script that contain detailed directions for the action, settings, etc.) or even the memories of the actors themselves (helping to explain some of the inconsistencies found in different editions of the plays).

Shakespeare's Work

Between the years of 1588 and 1613, Shakespeare wrote 38 plays. His dramatic work is commonly studied in four categories: comedies, histories, tragedies, and romances. In addition, Shakespeare wrote several Ovidian poems, including Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Shakespeare is also well known for his sonnet sequence written in the early 1590s, which is composed of 154 interconnected sonnets dealing with issues such as love, fidelity, mortality, and the artist's power and voice.

Although we commonly single out Shakespeare's work as extraordinary and deserving of special attention, at the time of the plays' performances they were typically dismissed as popular entertainment. Whereas Shakespeare's works are studied today as timeless masterpieces, the original audiences knew the plays were good but did not recognize them as exhibiting the apex of the dramatic art form. In fact, Shakespeare, despite all the attention his name has generated since the late eighteenth century, was not the most popular dramatist of his time. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's contemporary (and Britain's first Poet Laureate), and Christopher Marlowe, a slight predecessor to Shakespeare, were both commonly held in higher esteem than the man whose reputation has since eclipsed both of his competitors.

In fact, Shakespeare's reputation as Britain's premier dramatist did not begin until the late eighteenth century. His sensibility and storytelling captured people's attention, and by the end of the nineteenth century his reputation was solidly established. Today Shakespeare is more widely studied and performed than any other playwright in the Western world, providing a clear testament to the skills and timelessness of the stories told by the Bard.