The 'Chandos' portrait of Shakespeare
currently in the National Portrait Gallery, London
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon, the eldest child of John Shakespeare, a glovemaker and dealer in wool, who became bailiff, justice of the peace and the Queen’s chief officer at Stratford-on-Avon, as evidenced in his application for a coat of arms in 1569 (5), and Mary Arden, youngest daughter of Robert Arden. The Ardens were an important land-owning family in the locality, tracing their ancestry back to the times before the Norman conquest, and Robert left a significant legacy at Wilmcote (called 'Asbyes') to Mary on his death in December 1556 when she was just sixteen years old. Mary and John married in 1557. Their first two daughters died early, but the birth of William in 1564 was followed by Gilbert (1566), Joanne (1569), Anne (1571), Richard (1574) and finally Edmund (1580).
Shakespeare probably attended Stratford Grammar School from 1571 (7), but was removed from school around 1577 (13), when his father’s fortunes apparently began to decline, probably as a result of the increasingly anti-Catholic policy of the government of Elizabeth I, a policy which provided for fiscal and other penalties for non-attendance at Church of England services (recusancy), and enforced the exclusion of Catholics from public office.
Roman Catholicism of father
That John Shakespeare continued a Roman Catholic is evidenced not only by his ceasing to attend Stratford council meetings (most likely in order to avoid the necessity of taking the Oath of Supremacy, but also by his inclusion in a list of recusants compiled in 1592, and by the survival of a five leaf spiritual testament signed by him.
He married Anne Hathaway in 1582, when he was 18 and she 26, and already three months pregnant. His daughter, Susanna, was baptised on May 26, 1583 (19).
Story about deer poaching
His early biographer, Nicholas Rowe, relates that he was soon afterwards caught deer poaching in a park claimed by Sir Thomas Lucy, and felt that 'he was prosecuted by that Gentleman, as he thought somewhat too severely and in order to revenge that ill usage he made a ballad upon him.....' which 'redoubled the Prosecution against him to that degree that he was obliged to leave his businesse and Family in Warwickshire for some time and shelter himself in London.' Lucy was at this time aggressively availing himself of anti-Catholic legislation to take possession of the property of absent Catholic landowners in the neighbourhood of Stratford-on-Avon.
The poaching story is corroborated by the appearance in the Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV of a close parallel to Sir Thomas in the form of Justice Shallow. Shallow is Justice of the Peace, Custos Rotulorum and armigerous, with a 'dozen white Luces' in his coat of arms, and he is shown acting as Commissioner for the Musters. Sir Thomas was a knight, Justice of the Peace, Custos Rotulorum and Commissioner of Musters. In The Merry Wives, Sir John Falstaff is brought before Shallow, and Shallow arraigns him that he has 'beaten my men, kill'd my deere, and broke open my Lodge'.
The poaching story is also supported by an entry in William Fulman's (1632-1688) notebooks made by his friend Richard Davies, which states that Shakespeare was 'much given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits particularly from Sir Lucy who had him oft whipt and sometimes imprisoned and at last made him fly his native country to his great advancement, but his reveng was so great that he is his justice clod-pate and calls him a great man and in allusion to his name bore three louses rampant for his arms.'
It is generally assumed that he must have been in Stratford in 1584 (20), when his wife conceived twins. Hamnet and Judith were born in 1585 (21).
Lost years and the acting
It is possible that he joined one of the London companies of players, which are known to have visited Stratford at the time, but his occupation between 1584 and 1592 has never been firmly established. Rowe records that he was employed at a playhouse 'in a very mean Rank', and goes on to state that, though he had made enquiries, 'I could never meet with any further Account of him this way, than that the top of his Performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet'. The Ghost in Hamlet has twenty-three lines, three of which are 'swear'. Taken literally, this would mean, contrary to what is generally believed, that Shakespeare was no actor. That he was part of a troupe of actors is undoubtedly true, and well documented, but it is clear that a troupe of actors needed scripts, and to have one of the troupe responsible for the writing / amending of scripts would seem both logical and necessary, particularly if that person was as good at it as Shakespeare clearly was.
Loan from Southampton
Rowe further recounts a story that the Earl of Southampton 'at one time, gave him a thousand Pounds, to enable him to go through with a Purchase which he heard he had a mind to', quoting William Davenant as his source. He had certainly established some sort of relationship with the Earl of Southampton at this time as his first two poetic efforts in print (the long poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece) were dedicated to the Earl.
Attacked by Greene in a pamphlet
In 1592 (28), the playwright, pamphleteer and university man Robert Greene attacked Shakespeare in the pamphlet Greenes Groatsworth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance as an 'upstart crow beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you : and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie'.
Robert Greene at work on one of his scurrilous pamphlets
It is thought that the plays Titus Andronicus, King John and Henry VI were written before 1592 (28). Disputes as to who wrote these plays tend to suggest that Shakespeare began his writing career by adapting existing scripts, changing, adding and extending where he thought necessary, and collaborating with others, a practice which would explain the marked variability in the quality of some of these early pieces.
The first mention of a work by Shakespeare in the Stationer's List occurs in 1593 (29), with the long poem Venus and Adonis, dedicated to Henry Wriothesley (pronounced Risley, Riseley or Rosely), the Catholic 3rd Earl of Southampton, and this was followed by The Ravishment of Lucrece in 1594 (30). Both poems were a literary and commercial success, and they are frequently mentioned by contemporaries.
Dedication of two long poems
'I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burthen: only, if your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some greater labour.' (Venus and Adonis, Dedication) This is a rarity, being Shakespeare speaking in his own voice. The tone clear and respectful, but not the type of sycophantic excess commonly used at this time in dedications. But what a change a year makes! 'The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety. The warrant I have of your honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours. Were my worth greater, my duty would shew greater; mean time, as it is, it is bound to your lordship, to whom I wish long life, still lengthened with happiness.' (The Rape of Lucrece, Dedication) No doubt the success of Venus and Adonis had cemented the relationship between the two men: it was as useful to Southampton to have a significant poet in his entourage as it was to Shakespeare to be in that entourage, where he had access to books, learning, sophisticated conversation, works of art, and, in time, a view of the workings of the political machine in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. It should also be mentioned that the tone of the second dedication clearly approaches the tone of those sonnets which are addressed to a man, some of which were probably written at about the same time.
The Sonnets, a series of 154 poems of 14 lines each (a form popularised in England by Thomas Watson and Sir Philip Sydney), though not published until 1609 (45), seem also to date, at least in part, from this period. They deal with the sometimes turbulent love of the poet for a man and a woman, described in poignant detail and coloured with beguilingly persuasive, sometimes anguished poetry. The sequence, beginning in a fairly traditional manner, builds to provide an unparalleled anatomy of the joys and sorrows of love, deeply felt and movingly conveyed. The intensity of feeling and the particularity of the events retold has generally been thought to indicate their autobiographical nature, and the man in question has generally been thought to be the Earl of Southampton.
Involvement with acting companies, application for coat of arms, purchase
of substantial property
In 1594 (30), when the theatres reopened after the plague, he became a ‘sharer’ in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of the most important acting companies then in London. As a sharer he was part owner of a stock of costumes and scripts, and shared in both the expenses and the profits of the company. It was a financially beneficial arrangement, and Shakespeare applied for and was granted a coat of arms in 1596 (32), and bought the house called New Place in Stratford-on-Avon in 1597 (33). That Shakespeare was concerned to acquire a coat of arms is taken as evidence that he aspired to gentility, and, certainly, this may be a part of the reason. More important, however, is the fact that his father clearly aspired to the honour, having already attempted and failed to have a coat of arms granted in 1569. His son now triumphantly remedies this disappointment before the death of his father in 1601 (37). What a fine fellow!
sketch of Shakespeare's coat of arms
Death of his son
His son, Hamnet, died in 1596 (32).
Subject of a restraining order
In November 1596 (32) William Wayte, stepson of the Bankside Justice of the Peace, William Gardiner, petitioned for 'sureties of the peace' against William Shakespeare, Francis Langley (owner of the Swan Theatre), Dorothy Soer, wife of John Soer, and Anne Lee for fear of death or bodily hurt, and a writ of attachment was issued to the Sheriff of Surrey to enforce Langley and Shakespeare to keep the peace. The whole appears to have been part of a continuing quarrel between Langley and Gardiner, as Langley had arranged the issue of a similar writ against Gardiner and Wayte a fortnight before. This evidence probably locates Shakespeare on Bankside in the autumn of 1596, with his company, now called 'Lord Hunsden's Men' (until the new Lord Hunsden, cousin to Elizabeth I, himself became Lord Chamberlain a few months later, when they became the 'Lord Chamberlain's Men') at the Swan Theatre.
Plays from the early middle period
It is during this period that an astonishing sequence of plays, including Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Nights Dream, Henry V, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, are thought to have been written.
Hoarding and tax evasion
In 1598 (34), he appeared in a list of hoarders as having illegally held 10 quarters of malt or corn during a shortage, and he was noted in official records as a tax defaulter four times between 1598 (34) and 1600 (36).
Evidence from the letters of Richard and Adrian Quiney and Abraham Sturley (1598, 34) suggest that Shakespeare was known as a source for loans, a suggestion confirmed by the later court action against Philip Rogers (see below).
The Globe Theatre venture, and more investment in property
On the death of James Burbage (1598, 34), Burbage’s two sons invited Shakespeare and four of the other principal actors in the Lord Chamberlain’s men to put up money for a half share in the new Globe Theatre, which they built in Bankside on the south bank of the Thames using timber from the old Theatre for the foundations. The venture was a success, and, in 1602 (38), Shakespeare invested in 107 acres of land and 20 acres of pasture near Stratford-on-Avon, which he bought of the local magnate John Combe.
The Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames with the Rose Theatre and the old St Paul's in the background: Illustration by C.Walter Hodges
Map of London showing the location of the Globe Theatre: C Walter Hodges
Diary entry of John
Manningham, 13 March 1602 (38)
'Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III there was a Citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard III. Shakespeare overhearing their conclusion went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came. Then message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard III.' (spelling modernised)
The King's Man
With the accession of James I in 1603 (39), the company became the King’s Men. James and his Queen were themselves avid playgoers, who paid handsomely for their entertainment, and in 1604 (40) Shakespeare is listed in the Master of the Wardrobe records as among 'players' who received scarlet cloth to be worn during the King's Royal Procession through London. The immediate promotion of Shakespeare's company to the King's Men on James' arrival in London at least suggests that the new king had some previous knowledge of the troupe, and supports the idea that they had in fact played for him in Scotland. A visit to Scotland would also explain the strikingly realistic portrayal of the country in Macbeth.
artist's impression of a performance at the Globe Theatre: C.Walter Hodges
In the same year (1604, 40) he appears in court records suing the apothecary Philip Rogers for the unpaid balance on a sale of 20 bushels of malt and a small loan. back
Plays from the late middle period
It was during this period that King Lear, Macbeth, All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Othello are generally thought to have been written.
More property deals and further court actions
There is documentation for further property transactions dating from 1604, 1605, 1610, 1613 and 1614 (40-54), including the purchase of a share of Stratford's tithes in 1604 (40). He is also recorded bringing an action against John Addenbrooke for £6 and 24s costs in 1608 (44), attempting to enforce the surety against the blacksmith Thomas Horneby when Addenbrooke defaulted, and in 1610 (46) he joined an action against fellow tithe holders complaining of the non-payment of their portion of rent for the tithes.
The reluctant witness
According to court records, in 1604 (40) William Shakespeare had acted as a go-between in marriage negotiations between Nowell Mountjoy and his apprentice Stephen Belott for the hand of Mountjoy's daughter. A dispute arose as to how much had been offered as dowry and, in 1612 (48), Belott took proceedings in court. Shakespeare was called to give evidence to help resolve the dispute, but claimed that he could not remember the details of the transaction. There may possibly be here a clue as to why Shakespeare stopped writing at about this time, and retired to Stratford. One possible cause of memory loss is, of course, a stroke, which would also explain sudden loss of the ability to write, and sudden retirement.
Last plays and the burning of the Globe
The last plays attributed to Shakespeare are thought to have been written around 1610 (46) and include A Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Henry VIII, during a performance of which, in 1613 (49), the Globe theatre burnt down.
John Fletcher takes over
After 1612 (48), his position with the King’s Men was taken by John Fletcher, with whom he possibly collaborated for The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Involved in a dispute over enclosure
From 1608 (44) he appears to have spent more time in Stratford, and became involved in a long running dispute about enclosure of common land between William Combe, nephew of the John Combe already mentioned, who wanted to enclose, and the people of Stratford, who vigorously opposed him. It seems that Shakespeare himself refused to oppose Combe once he was assured by a legally binding agreement that his own rights would be safeguarded.
He died in Stratford in 1616 (52), and is buried in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford. The following epitaph graces his gravestone:
Good friend, for Jesus´ sake forbeare / To digg the dust enclosed here! / Blest be ye man that spares thes stones / And curst be he that moves my bones.
Richard Davies further attests in Fulman's notebooks 'He dyed a papist'.
click on the image to enlarge
Depictions of characters from Shakespeare's plays: Bottom being admired by Titania (A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Ophelia sent mad by Hamlet.
Links to some poems by Shakespeare
Fear no More
Over Hill, Over Dale
Blow, Blow thou Winter Wind
continue reading about Shakespeare
go to index of poets