William Shakespeare Biography


Personal Background

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, northwest of London, to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. 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 in various offices, including high bailiff (like a mayor), the city's highest public office. 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.

Although there are no records to prove Shakespeare's enrollment in school, 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.

When William Shakespeare was 18, he 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. All we know for sure is that by 1592, Shakespeare had arrived in London, leaving his family behind, and had begun what is perhaps the most successful literary career the world has ever known.

Shakespeare's Life in London and His Work

In London, Shakespeare was actor and dramatist for The Lord Chamberlain's Men — later renamed The King's Men when James I took the throne in 1603 — one of two predominate acting troupes in London at the time (the other was The Lord Admiral's Men, headed by Edward Alleyn with financial banking from Philip Henslowe). In 1599, Shakespeare became a shareholding member of The Lord Chamberlain's Men.

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 also 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 comprised of 154 interconnected sonnets dealing with issues such as love, fidelity, mortality, and the artist's power and voice.

The First Folio

Because of the publishing practices of the time and the fact that playwrights, including Shakespeare, didn't write with the intention of preserving their plays but with the goal of making money, it is difficult 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 papers, yet some were re-created from prompt books (annotated play scripts) or even the memories of the actors themselves (helping to explain some of the inconsistencies found in different editions of the plays).

Shakespeare's Reputation as a Playwright

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. In fact, Shakespeare 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.

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.