William Shakespeare Biography


Personal Background

Many scholars have speculated about the life and career of William Shakespeare. People interested in studying England's foremost dramatic poet need to distinguish between facts and beliefs about his life. Sparse and scattered as 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 37 plays that scholars ascribe to him. This concise review covers some of these records and some speculations about his life.

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon in England. His baptism occurred on Wednesday, April 26, 1564 (this is in keeping with the usual Elizabethan practice of baptizing children three days after their birth). His father was John Shakespeare, tanner, glover, dealer in grain, and town official of Stratford. His mother, Mary, was the daughter of Robert Arden, a prosperous gentleman-farmer. The family lived on Henley Street. Recent research into John Shakespeare's life suggests that Shakespeare was raised Catholic. As the son of a local businessman, Shakespeare probably attended King's New School, the local grammar school, where he received a good education. There is evidence that due to his father's declining fortunes, Shakespeare was unable to complete his schooling and was subsequently required to help with the family business.

Under a bond dated November 28, 1582, William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway were married. Much speculation has arisen as to the happiness of that marriage, and it is widely thought that Shakespeare may have been forced to marry Anne Hathaway because she was pregnant. The birth of their daughter, Susanna, six months later, supports this theory. Researchers have also noted that Shakespeare left Hathaway his "second best bed" in his will as evidence of their unhappy marriage. Susanna's baptism took place in Stratford in May 1583. One year and nine months later, their twins, Hamnet and Judith (named after the poet's friends Hamnet and Judith Sadler), were christened in the same church. Hamnet died in 1596 at age eleven.

The years between 1585-1592 are referred to as "the seven lost years" because we have few records of Shakespeare's life during this period. The absence of any factual information makes these years a rich source of speculation. Some speculate that Shakespeare may have been a soldier for a time. Much of this theory is based upon evidence from his plays and the attention he gives to the themes of corruption in the army in Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. Recent research has suggested that Shakespeare left Stratford for Lancashire in northern England. There, he may have worked as an actor and tutor in a noble household. Eventually, he traveled to London with his fellow actors.

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, the Heralds most likely granted this request, for 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. This evidence suggests that Shakespeare was now a wealthy man who wanted social recognition of his status.

In May 1597, Shakespeare purchased New Place, the outstanding residential property in Stratford at that time. Since John Shakespeare had suffered financial reverses prior to this date, William must have achieved success for himself.

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