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The life of William Shakespeare

 
Shakespeare was baptised in Holy Trinity, parish church of Stratford upon Avon, on 26th April 1564, the third child of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden.  The date of his birth is uncertain, but rumour developed in the 18th century that he was born on 23rd April, St George’s Day.  There is no evidence to support this, but given his baptism date, it is likely he was born between 21st and 23rd April, in Henley St, Stratford upon Avon, in part of a building now known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

By the time Shakespeare’s father married Mary Arden, some time between 1556-8, he had established himself as a successful glover and whittawer (a dresser of light-coloured leather).  He bought a house and garden in Henley Street in 1556, and continued to buy property in the town.  The couple’s first child, Joan, was born in September 1558 and probably died in infancy.  A second child, Margaret, baptised in December 1562, was buried the following April.  A year later Mary gave birth to William.  At the time of his birth Stratford was in the grip of a devastating plague outbreak which killed one in eight of the town’s population.  Mary and John would go on to have five more children: Gilbert (1566-1612), another Joan (1569-1646), Anne (1571- 1579), Richard (1574-1613) and Edmund (1580-1607).

Birthplace

 
John Shakespeare had risen through the ranks to become one of fourteen burgesses of Stratford.  In 1565 he became an alderman and in 1568 he was elected bailiff for the year, one of the highest offices in the town. In spite of this rapid professional expansion and success, by the end of the 1570s John Shakespeare was in financial difficulties.  In 1578 he mortgaged some of his wife’s inheritance, which he lost in 1580.  He stopped attending council meetings after 1576, and was replaced as alderman in 1586.  In 1592 his name appeared on a list of nine people wanted by the authorities for recusancy, that is, refusing to attend church.  His excuse was listed as ‘for feare of processe for Debtte’.  Some scholars have concluded from this that John was attempting to conceal his secret Catholicism, and in 1790 a bricklayer claimed to have found a manuscript in the roof of Henley St detailing John Shakespeare’s commitment to Catholicism.  However doubts remain about its authenticity, and even if it were genuine, there is no reason to assume William shared his father’s Catholic convictions.

During John Shakespeare’s tenure as bailiff, two theatre companies visited Stratford, and there is every reason to suppose that William would have attended these performances as other children did.  During the period that William was in continuous residency in Stratford, at least thirteen different visits by companies of players provided him with the opportunity to experience live dramatic theatrical performances in the town.

 King’s New School

 
No records survive of Shakespeare’s education, but it is widely assumed he attended King’s New School, Stratford; a successful grammar school.  During his schooling he would have learned a huge amount of Latin literature and history; he would have read Cicero, and Seneca, Virgil and Ovid, and the comedies of Plautus and Terence.  The teaching methods of the time would have ensured he was trained in the arts of composition, rhetoric, and memory.

Shakespeare probably left school at around the age of 15, and several options would have been open to him, including becoming an apprentice in his father’s glove trade.  Many rumours place Shakespeare in Lancashire after leaving school, either as a school teacher or as a servant and player in a wealthy household.  However if we rely on the evidence, all we know for certain was by 1582 Shakespeare was in Stratford, marrying Anne Hathaway at the age of 18.  Anne was nine years older than William, and pregnant by the end of the summer 1582; the marriage was performed after only one reading of the banns, rather than the usual three, a sure sign that it was rushed in order to conceal a pregnancy.  Six months after the marriage, on 26th May 1583, Susanna Shakespeare was baptised, followed on 2nd February 1585 by twins Hamnet and Judith.  After the birth of the twins, up until 1592, details of Shakespeare’s life are sketchy.  One rumour which has passed down through the centuries is that he was caught poaching deer from Sir Thomas Lucy’s estate at Charlecote, and was forced to escape to London to avoid prosecution.

The next documented evidence we have about his life is from a pamphlet printed in London in 1592 by Robert Greene, or possible Henry Chettle, who attacks Shakespeare as an ‘upstart Crow’ and a ‘player’.  Whatever Shakespeare had been involved with between 1585 and 1592, it is clear that by 1592 he was known as an actor, and in addition, according to the pamphlet, a playwright.  No evidence remains of how skilled Shakespeare was as an actor. He is named as first in a list of Principle Actors in the first folio of 1623, and also appears in the lists of actors in Ben Jonson’s Workes in 1616.

It is possible Shakespeare had joined the Queen’s Men.  They performed in Stratford in 1587 and their repertory included plays which would later serve as sources for Shakespeare’s own plays, including The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III and Henry V.  By 1592 Shakespeare had almost certainly completed his Henry VI cycle, and The Taming of The Shrew also dates to this time. Between 1592 and 1594 the theatres were closed due to the plague.  While they were closed it was tradition for the theatre companies to tour the provinces. However the publication of Venus and Adonis in 1593, dedicated to the earl of Southampton, suggests Shakespeare was continuing to write.  By 1594, with the reopening of the playhouses, Shakespeare was writing all his plays for the newly-formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Payments to the company for their court performances over Christmas 1594 name Shakespeare, Will Kemp, and Richard Burbage as the leading actors; highlighting their pre-eminence among the company’s players.  From 1594-5 the Chamberlain’s Men performed The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Shakespeare’s plays were now also starting to appear in print.  Over the next two years he wrote The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado about Nothing, but in 1596 Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died, and many scholars see his subsequent outpouring of grief in plays like Twelfth Night and Hamlet.

Birthplace

 
Shakespeare’s continued success as a playwright enabled him to purchase New Place in Stratford in May 1597.  It was reputed to be the second biggest house in the town, with five gables, ten fireplaces, two barns, two gardens and two orchards.  The prices was in excess of £120.  He made many of his investments in Stratford rather than London. In May 1602 he paid the hefty sum of £320 for 107 acres of land in Old Town, Stratford; and the year before he had acquired a cottage in Chapel Lane in order to extend New Place. By 1605 he was able to pay £440 for a share in the tithes of Stratford, bringing in £60 a year. So in less than ten years Shakespeare had made enough money from the playhouses to invest almost £900 in his home town, over £90,000 in today’s terms.

Shakespeare continued to live in London during this period.  In 1596 he was living in the parish of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, and by 1599 he had moved to the parish of the Clink, close to the site of the newly built Globe Theatre on Bankside.  The Globe had been constructed and built by the Chamberlain’s Men, and the first play performed there, soon after its opening in 1599, was Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. With the accession of James I in 1603 the Chamberlain’s Men were elevated to new heights when the king became their patron. For the king’s entry into London in 1604 Shakespeare and other players were each given four and a half yards of red cloth, possibly so they could march in the royal procession.  The newly-formed King’s Men performed regularly at court; between 1604 and 1605 they had played over eleven different plays for the king, including Measure for Measure, Othello, The Merchant of Venice and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The Globe

 
From 1605-6m Shakespeare produced some of his greatest tragedies; King Lear, Macbeth, Timon of Athens and Antony and Cleopatra.  Records of Shakespeare’s friends and family provide other suggestions about his life at this time.  Augustine Phillips, a fellow sharer in the King’s Men, died in 1604, leaving‘my ffellowe william Shakespeare a Thirty shillings peece in gould’  It is reasonable to assume that his fellows in the theatre company were among his closest friends. William Barksted, a minor playwright, wrote warmly of Shakespeare as ‘so deere lov’d a neighbor’

During this time his daughter Susanna married the doctor John Hall.  Shakespeare’s younger brother Edmund came to London to become a player, but only a year later both he and his infant son were dead. In 1608 Shakespeare became a grandfather when Susanna gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth.  By 1609 almost half of Shakespeare’s plays had appeared in print, and the King’s Men had acquired the lease to the Blackfriars Theatre, an indoor playhouse which was far smaller than the Globe, but offered a much greater scope for stage devices and machinery, as well as music.  It also charged much higher admission prices than the Globe. This new playhouse presented some technical challenges for Shakespeare, which he responded to in The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest between 1609-11.

By 1613 Shakespeare had invested in London property, buying the gatehouse of the old Dominican priory in Blackfriars, close to the new theatre. It was large enough for him to let part of it out, and it was probably here that he now resided whenever he was in London.  In June of the same year the Globe theatre burnt down during a performance of Henry VIII.  The shareholders decided to rebuild it, with each sharer contributing between £50 and £100.  However by the time Shakespeare made his will in 1616 he was no longer a shareholder in the Globe, and it is likely he decided to end his involvement in the playhouse at the time it burned down.

Holy Trinity, Stratford upon Avon

 
Where Shakespeare spent the final years of his life is uncertain.  There is no evidence he retired to Stratford.  In November 1614 Thomas Greene, Stratford’s town clerk from 1603 to 1617, who repeatedly refers to Shakespeare as his cousin, was in London and noted that, Shakespeare ‘commyng yesterday to towne I went to see him howe he did.’  In January 1616 Shakespeare drafted his will, and in April of the same year he died.  What Shakespeare died from is unclear.  John Ward, a clergyman living in Stratford in the 1660s recorded that ‘Shakespear, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted’  He was buried two days later in Holy Trinity; inside rather than outside, since his ownership of Stratford tithes made him a lay rector.  The epitaph, possibly written by him, and warning future generations to leave his bones where they lie, was inscribed on the grave, though the grave may not originally have been where the stone is now placed.  Anne lived until 1623 (she was buried on 8th August) but her tombstone makes no mention of her husband.

 Shakespeare memorial, Westminster Abbey

 

Sources: Multiple, including Park Honan; Peter Holland.  See Useful Reading. For more on Shakespeare and the Globe see some earlier posts.

 

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