Who Is William Shakespeare?

We know remarkably little about the life of William Shakespeare, the greatest English playwright and incomparable Renaissance writer. He was baptized on April 26, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is located approximately 100 miles northwest of London. He was, therefore, likely born several days prior to his baptism (his birth date is traditionally given as April 23rd, or Saint George’s Day). William was the oldest surviving child of John and Mary Shakespeare. The Shakespeares previously had two daughters -neither of whom survived. The Shakespeares later had five more children along with William: Gilbert, Richard, Edmund, and two younger sisters -Anne (who died at age seven) and Joan.

Copper engraving of Shakespeare completed for the First Folio by Martin Droeshout, seven years after the death of Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s father, John, was a prosperous leatherworker (a “glover”) who eventually became a local politician in Stratford. John was first appointed an alderman and then he became the town bailiff (akin to a modern city mayor). Shakespeare’s mother, Mary, descended from the Arden family, a prominent farming and landowning family. As the son of a prominent businessman and official, young William likely attended the Stratford grammar school where he would have been required to memorize the Latin classics.

In 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway of the nearby village of Shottery. She was already pregnant with their first-born -a common scenario for the time. Anne was 26 and William was 18 at the time of their marriage. After their first child, a daughter named Susanna, the Shakespeares had twins in 1585: Judith and Hamnet (who died at age 11). The Shakespeare family died out in the coming years leaving no direct Shakespearean descendants. The years before Shakespeare appeared in the London (1585-1592) are something of a mystery. The English poet Nicholas Rowe compiled the first 18th century edition of Shakespeare’s play, and he wrote a brief biography entitled “Some Acount of the Life &c. of Mr. William Shakespear” -the first biography of Shakespeare. In it, we are given apocryphal tales of Shakespeare fleeing prosecution for illegal deer poaching and working as a country school teacher and so on. prior to his theatrical workin London.

In the 1590s Shakespeare divided his time between Stratford-upon-Avon where he owned a home, and London where he worked as an actor and playwright. Some have speculated about whether Shakespeare’s significant time away from his family caused strain on his marriage, but this rumor is merely the speculative rumblings of modern academics and nothing more. Shakespeare was accused by at least one reviewer of attempting to punch above his weight as a playwright with university-educated elites like Christopher Marlowe. At some point Shakespeare apparently fully moved to London. As time went by, Shakespeare became a reputable actor and playwright, as well as a shareholder and partner in the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” (later renamed the “King’s Men” in 1603 upon the accession and patronage of James I). In time Shakespeare’s name became a selling point for his plays -he began to be listed listed on title pages and quartos. Shakespeare’s partnership in the company brought significant financial security and Shakespeare bought real estate back in Stratford-upon-Avon, including the “New House” in 1597, the second largest house in town.

One of Shakespeare’s final plays was The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1611 which was likely a collaboration between Shakespeare and his frequent partner, John Fletcher -Fletcher succeeded Shakespeare as head playwright for the “Kings Men.” William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 (his wife Anne had died seven years prior). His death occurred within one month of signing his own will which described him in perfect health at the time. His health and death have been the cause of much speculation. Shakespeare was age 52 when he died. There are two known authentic likenesses of Shakespeare that have survived: a bust that was paid for by friends which sits at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford (where Shakespeare is buried), and the engraving by Martin Droeshout as featured in the First Folio of 1623 -seven years after Shakespeare’s death.

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