William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon, the son 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).
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
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. This testament was discovered by workmen at Shakespeare's Henley Street birthplace in
1757, and was transcribed and authenticated by the Shakespeare scholar Edmund
Malone. It was subsequently branded a forgery, and the original lost, but
the later discovery of almost identical texts, all conforming to a format
recommended by Saint Charles Borromeo, has tended to confirm Malone's
assessment. It also suggests that there was an association between Shakespeare
and one or both of the two Jesuits, Edmund Campion and Robert
mission to England took place in the years 1580-81 (16-17), and by whose agency it is most likely that the document found its way to
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 the park of
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 Henry IV, 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
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'. 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.
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 (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'.
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, 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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Last plays and the burning of the Globe
The last plays
attributed to Shakespeare are thought to have been written around 1610 (46) and
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
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'.
Fear No More
Over Hill, over Dale
Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind
Other Elizabethan poets
Some commentary :
Maps of London