William Shakespeare

Title page of the First Folio, by William Shakespeare, with copper engraving of the author by Martin Droeshout. Photo Credit- Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Title page of the First Folio, by William Shakespeare, with copper engraving of the author by Martin Droeshout. Photo Credit- Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

It isn’t known exactly when William Shakespeare was born, however he was baptised on 26th April 1564, In Stratford-Upon-Avon. Historians have estimated it to be the 23rd, and so his birthday is generally attributed to that day. William was the third of eight children and the eldest surviving son born to John Shakespeare, an alderman and Mary Arden, a wealthy land-owning farmer’s daughter.

Again details are sketchy about Shakespeare’s childhood; it is thought he received his education at Kings New School in the town. Shakespeare is not recorded as having attended any higher learning institutes; by aged eighteen he was married to Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior and pregnant with their oldest child, Susanna at the time of the marriage. As a result the Church agreed to forego the usual triplicate reading of the Banns, and they married at the end of November 1582. Susanna was born six months later, followed by twins Hamnet and Judith at the beginning of 1585. Sadly, Hamnet died at aged eleven from unknown causes.

Again, following the birth of the twins, there are little records or details concerning the movements and whereabouts of Shakespeare, except for a small record of his name in the “Complaints Bill” of a law case before the Queen’s Bench Court between Christmas 1588 and October 1589, until 1592 when mentions are made of him on the London Theatre circuit. Theories regarding his ‘Lost Years’ included that he was in Lancashire working as a teacher, or that he was evading a local landowner, Thomas Lucy, from whom he was suspected of deer poaching, and about whom Shakespeare is later credited with later writing a scathing ballad.

It is theorised that Shakespeare started writing seriously, before this time, his work was certainly known by 1592, as several of his works had been performed on stage. Playwright Robert Greene famously denounced Shakespeare’s work in the same year, in his “Groats-worth of wit”.
‘…there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.’ To all intents and purposes, he was slamming William’s work on the basis that he was not a university trained poet and writer.

However much the critics and other playwrights disliked Shakespeare, the theatre going public disagreed. By 1594, Shakespeare was popular both as a writer and an actor in London, and performed only by one company of players, including Shakespeare himself as the Lord Chamberlain’s men. By 1599, a partnership of this company built their own Theatre, the Globe, on the South Bank of the Thames. Shakespeare’s new found wealth enabled him to buy the second grandest house in Stratford, New Place in 1597. In 1603, the company was given a Royal Patent by James I and changed their name to the Kings Men. Shakespeare used his increased earnings to invest in real estate, which gave him a second income large enough for the most part to enable him to concentrate on his writing.

Despite his increase in fortune and fame, Shakespeare rarely visited Stratford and his family, except for the Lent Period. Instead, he remained in rented rooms near St Pauls Cathedral. Nicholas Rowe, writing in his biography of Shakespeare, noted that he withdrew from his acting career, from around 1608. It was at this point that Shakepeare moved permanently back to Stratford, however it was some years before he died. Rowe, later to become Poet Laureate gave Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare as the source of his information.

Despite his apparent retirement, there are still listings of his acting roles after this time, as well as a number of recorded visits to London for various legal and family issues. Notably, Shakespeare’s company bought the lease for the Blackfriars Theatre in 1608, and his name continues to appear in varying roles, however in 1609 to 1610 there was a plague outbreak in the city which forced the closure of the playhouses. Nothing further has been attributed to Shakespeare after 1613. The last three plays he wrote were collaborations, presumably with John Fletcher who succeeded him as house playwright for the Kings Men company.

William Shakespeare in death was as intriguing as in life. His death, supposedly again on 23rd April 1616, clashes with the record of his burial which some sources claim to have taken place on the 5th April, in the Holy Trinity Church. The manner of his death is unknown although later accounts claim he spent a time drinking copiously with Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, whereby he caught a fever to which he succumbed. His gravestone contains a curse to anybody who would dare to move his body.

His wife and daughters survived him, although his will written a month before his death, leaves the majority of his estate to Susanna, Anne received little in comparison. Both his daughters married but the Shakespeare line died with his granddaughter. It has often been theorised that Shakespeare’s marriage was an unhappy one, however aside from spending much of his time away from his family, and the scant mention in his will, William and Anne are buried together, and there are no solid reasons to suspect that their marriage was anything but happy.

Shakespeare was writing at a time when there was heavy Tudor and Stuart influence, and many of his plays and scripts reflect the times. Several of his most famous works are written with a certain Monarchical bias towards first Elizabeth and then later his patron James I. He is most noted for his interchangeable use of Iambic Pentameter with prose, and simple verse. Debate continues to rage about the authenticity of his work, many scholars claim he was inspired by Marlowe, others claim he wrote little if any of the work attributed to him at all. Other possible contenders have included Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and Francis Bacon. One theory, based upon the little documentary evidence of his life, is that Shakespeare himself is a fictitious person.

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford Photo Credit- http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford Photo Credit- http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

The most popular theory is that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Both men were playwrights at about the same time and were in acting troops, although de Vere managed the ‘Oxford’s Boys’ instead of performing. They also had similar poetry styles, especially the six-line pentameter stanzas. There are also significant similarities between the life of de Vere and Hamlet, so much so that some suggest it might have been an autobiographical play. The icing on the cake was de Vere’s nickname was “shake-spear” for his prowess in the tournament and his coat of arms. The cons to this theory are that Tudor aristocrats had no need to write under a nom de plume as writing was not beneath their station. Also de Vere died too early to complete the later plays. Could the student have taken over for the teacher? We will never know for sure.

Whatever the truth…. Shakespeare, love him or hate him, there’s no getting away from him… especially with that curse!
Phoebe