“Shakespeare – The nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God. “
– Laurence Olivier
The funny thing about Shakespeare is that as well known, famous, and everlasting he is, there is so much still unknown about him, scholars aren’t even 100% on his birth date. There are two primary sources about him where we draw our information from, his works and the legal documents that have survived.
What is known is that Shakespeare was born in 1564, most likely on 23 April. At the time, it was customary for babies to be baptised three days after they’re born, and church records show Shakespeare was baptised on 26 April. Born to John Shakespeare, a glover and leather merchant, and Mary Arden, daughter of an affluent farmer, William was one of eight children, with only five surviving to adulthood.
At school it is theorised he studied Greek mythology, Roman comedy, Latin, grammar, rhetoric, and ancient history which is no doubt where he got the inspiration and context for some of his plays. At age 18 he married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior in what was a shotgun wedding of sorts as Anne was three months pregnant at the time. Together they had three children, Susanna (1583), and twins Hamnet and Judith (1585). It is after their births that little is definitely known about Shakespeare, and what has been referred to by scholars as the “lost years”.
Shakespeare appears on records again in 1592 as a playwright and an actor. There is evidence of envy by fellow playwright Robert Greene who refers to Shakespeare as “…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 fac totum [Jack of all trades], is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”
1594 saw Shakespeare become a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of the most popular acting companies in London. A company which he remained a member of for the remainder of his career, and often playing before Queen Elizabeth I and her court. It was around 1595 that Shakespeare was wrote a lot of his plays, writing Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Merchant of Venice. These plays were very successful and as a result in 1597 Shakespeare bought the second largest home in Stratford, despite continuing to live in London.
With the Lord Chamberlain’s Men he helped established the Globe theatre in 1599, and in 1608 when King James came to the throne Shakespeare and the group were issued a royal licence dubbing them the King’s Men. During James’ reign, Shakespeare wrote his most popular plays about court and power including King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. From 1609-11 his sonnets were published and his First Folio of plays was published in 1623 though he did not survive to see this.
Aged 52 when he died Shakespeare died on 23 April 1623, his alleged birthday. No source explains how or why he died, and he described himself as being in perfect health only a month beforehand. A vicar, some 50 years later, wrote that a fever contracted after a night of drinking may have been the cause, not impossible, but no further evidence exists.
Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church two days after his death. His epitaph includes a curse which warns against moving his bones, which even during the restoration in 2008, were carefully avoided. The epitaph reads:
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
The memorial bust at the church in Stratford is considered one of the two authentic likenesses, approved by those who knew him. The second is an engraving by Martin Droeshout. This is probably the most famous likeness of the Bard, which was used on the title page of the First Folio publication in 1623.
There is so much more about Shakespeare and his life, family, and work that I haven’t mentioned. I’ve added a bunch of links and sources of where my info comes from, as well as some additional details I didn’t have room to include. Now that you’ve been introduced to the Bard, for the remainder of the month I will bring you posts about his plays, his sonnets, and fill you with a myriad of fun facts plus so much more!