The works of Shakespeare_s great mind were Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, and many more. These are the works of a man with something special to give the world: a gift that has transcended time to lend its inspiration to struggling playwrights and poets even now. What genius possessed his soul that he was able to produce so many masterpieces of literature?
We can only wonder. . .
2001 04 29
Birth Date. William Shakespeare, surely the world_s most performed and admired playwright, was born in April, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, about 100 miles northwest of London. According to the records of Stratford_s Holy Trinity Church, he was baptized on April 26. Since it was customary to baptize infants within days of birth, and since Shakespeare died 52 years later on April 23, and–most significantly–since April 23 is St. George_s day, the patron saint of England, it has become traditional to assign the birth day of England_s most famous poet to April 23. As with most sixteenth century births, the actual day is not recorded. And as with most remarkable men, the power of myth and symmetry has proven irresistible. So April 23 it has become.
Parents and Family. Shakespeare_s parents were John and Mary Shakespeare, who lived in Henley Street, Stratford. John, the son of Richard Shakespeare, was a whittawer (a maker, worker and seller of leather goods such as purses, belts and gloves) and a dealer in agricultural commodities. He was a solid, middle class citizen at the time of William_s birth, and a man on the rise. He served in Stratford government successively as a member of the Council (1557), constable (1558), chamberlain (1561), alderman (1565) and finally high bailiff (1568)–the equivalent of town mayor. About 1577 John Shakespeare_s fortunes began to decline for unknown reasons. There are records of debts. In 1586 he was replaced as alderman for shirking responsibilities, and in 1592 was reprimanded for not coming to church for fear of process of debt.
Mary, the daughter of Robert Arden, had in all eight children with John Shakespeare. William was the third child and the first son.
Birth Place. In the sixteenth century Stratford-upon-Avon was an important agricultural center and market town, its market being licensed in the twelfth century by Richard I. The building in Henley street known today as the „birthplace“ was at the time of Shakespeare_s birth actually two adjacent buildings that John Shakespeare purchased at different times. Illustrations of it are based on the 18th century water color by Richard Greene made after the two buildings were joined into one. There are no renderings of the original buildings.
Education. Records for the Stratford grammar school (The King_s New School – dedicated by Edward VI) from the time Shakespeare would have attended have been lost, but attend he undoubtedly did since the school was built and maintained expressly for the purpose of educating the sons of prominent citizens. The sons of burgesses attended free.
The curriculum commenced with the hornbook in order to learn the English alphabet, and thereafter was largely devoted to learning the Latin grammar, based on Lily_s Grammaticis Latina (this Lily was the grandfather of the playwright John Lily–often spelled Lyly), and later translating and reading the standard Roman authors. They began with what was considered the relatively easy Latin of Aesop_s Fables (translated from Greek), then Caesar, and then moved on to Cicero, Virgil, Ovid (the author that seems to have been Shakespeare_s favorite), Horace, Suetonius, Livy, and, notably for a dramatist, Seneca, Terence and (perhaps) Plautus . School began at dawn (six or seven depending on the season) and proceeded most of the day, with breaks for meals, six days a week How long Shakespeare attended the school is not known, but from his obvious mastery and love for the Latin authors, the grammar school must have at least begun the process that he later mastered.
The other significant educational opportunity afforded all Elizabethans was mandatory attendance at church, where they were exposed to either the Geneva Bible (translated 1560) or the Bishops_ Bible (translated 1568)–not the authorized, or King James, version since it was not published until 1611. Church attendance also brought them under the influence of The Book of Common Prayer (composed 1549), Foxe_s Acts and Monuments (1563), homilies and preaching.
No one knows how long Shakespeare remained at the Stratford Grammar School, but Nicholas Rowe (first editor of Shakespeare_s Works after the Folio editions and his first biographer–1709) reports that „…the want of his assistance at Home, forc_d his Father to withdraw him from thence.“ (Rowe, Some Acount of the Life, ). Rowe_s source was the actor Thomas Betterton (1634-1710), who made „a journey to Warwickshire on purpose to gather up what remains he could, of a name for which he had so great a veneration.“ So we cannot be certain, but it would seem likely that William was apprenticed to his father_s business in the usual way, perhaps some time around 1577 when John Shakespeare_s fortunes seem
to take a turn for the worse.
In any event, reckoned as part of William_s early education must be the ways of business he would have learned around his father_s shop. Concerning this period, there is a legend reported in Aubrey_s Brief Lives (Aubrey was a seventeenth century gentleman known as a gossip and raconteur–1681) that „…his father was a Butcher, & I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbors, that when he was a boy he exercised his father_s Trade, but when he kill_d a Calfe, he would do it in a high style, & make a Speech.“ As unlikely as this behavior seems from someone who shows empathy for animals in his poetry–almost alone among his contemporaries–the detail of having been apprenticed to his father (who was not a butcher but a worker in leather, and probably did not do his own butchering) may well be correct.
Finally, as part of Shakespeare_s early education and influences, the Warwickshire countryside cannot be ignored. The plays and poetry are full of images taken from nature, gardening, agricultural pursuits, and country folklore. For example, in Henry V we find this description of the land:
Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart,
Unpruned dies; her hedges even-pleach_d,
Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair,
Put forth disorder_d twigs; her fallow leas
The darnel, hemlock, and rank fumitory,
Do root upon, while the coulter rusts,
That should deracinate such savagery;
The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet, and green clover,
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.
This sort of learning was not gleaned from books.
On November 28, 1582 the Bishop of Worcester issued the marriage bond for „William Shagspere“ and „Ann Hathwey of Stratford.“ This was, almost beyond doubt, Anne Hathaway, daughter of Richard Hathaway of Shottery–a gathering of farm houses near Stratford. The Hathaway farm house has become known to the tourist industry as „Anne Hathaway_s cottage“.
Richard Hathaway_s will does not specify a daughter Anne, but names her Agnes, a name used interchangeably for Anne in the sixteenth century. He was a substantial, Warwickshire farmer with a spacious house and fields.
The banns were asked only once in church, rather than the customary three times, because the bride was some three months pregnant and there was reason for haste in concluding the marriage. She was eight years older than her new husband William. We can only wonder if Shakespeare was speaking for himself in A Midsummer Night_s Dream:
Lysander: The course of true love never did run smooth;
But either it was different in blood…
Or else misgraffed in respect of years–
Hermia: O spite! too old to be engage_d to young.
Or in Twelfth Night:
Duke: Then let thy love be younger than thyself,
Or thy affection cannot hold the bent;
For women are as roses, whose fair flow_r
Being once display_d doth fall that very hour.
The only mention of his wife in Shakespeare_s will is the famous bequest of his „second best bed.“ Whether as a fond remembrance or a bitter slight is not known.
Children. Whatever subsequent feelings, on May 26, 1583 their first daughter Susanna was baptised. Two years later, twins were born to them, Hamnet and Judith, named after Hamnet and Judith Sadler, apparently lifetime friends to Shakespeare. Hamnet Sadler was remembered in Shakespeare_s will.
There is no documentary record of Shakespeare_s activities from the birth of the twins, in 1585 until Robert Greene_s complaint about him as an „upstart crow“ in 1592. Biographers have therefore called these the lost years. In fact, there is nothing certain known about him from his birth in 1564 until 1592 except that he was married in 1582, fathered Susanna in 1583 and the twins Judith and Hamnet in 1585, and probably attended Stratford Grammar School. The lack of details has not stopped authors from inventing tales as to how Shakespeare got from Stratford, a young husband needing a way to support his growing family, to London as the man to be reckoned with in the entertainment business. A couple of these notions have some slight circumstantial evidence, but it must be said that no one really knows how it happened and that what follows is largely speculation.
The most commonly told story about Shakespeare leaving Stratford has it that he had to leave to escape prosecution for poaching deer on the lands of Sir Thomas Lucy, and that later he revenged himself on Lucy in The Merry Wives of Windsor who he portrayed as Justice Shallow. The story was started by a Gloucestershire clergyman name Richard Davies who, around 1616, wrote that „Shakespeare was much given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits, particularly from Sir —– Lucy [Davies left out Sir Thomas_ first name] who oft had him whipped and sometimes imprisoned and at last mad him fly his native country to his great advancement.“ In 1709 Rowe picked up the story in his Acount of the Life:
He had, by a Misfortune common enough to young Fellows, fallen into ill Company; and amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of Deer-stealing, engag_d him with them more than once in robbing a Park that belong_d to Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that Gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and in order to revenge that ill
he made a Ballad upon him. And tho_ this, probably the first Essay of his Poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the Prosecution against him to that degree, that he was oblig_d to leave his Business and Family in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter himself in London.
The Essay to which Rowe refers is not The Merry Wives, but rather various Stratford ballads sung at the unpopular Sir Thomas_ expense. An example reported by the eighteenth century Shakespeare scholar George Steevens (yet nonetheless unlikely to be by Shakespeare) goes:
A parliament member, a justice of peace,
At home a poor scarecrow, at London an ass,
Is lousy is Lucy as some folks miscall it
Then Lucy is lousy whatever befall it…
and so it goes in the same vein. The local Stratford sentiment is sufficient to explain any anti-Lucy puns in The Merry Wives and this episode really has no other supporting evidence.
Supported by less evidence even than the Lucy episode, others have made various speculations about Shakespeare_s activities during his last years in Stratford. Edmond Malone, greatest of eighteenth century Shakespeare scholars, impressed with Shakespeare_s detailed knowledge of the law, speculated that he „was employed while he yet remained at Stratford, in the office of some country attorney…“ (Poems and Plays, 1790). A nineteenth century antiquary (W. J. Thoms, 1859) found a William Shakespeare as a conscript in the low countries in 1605 and, once again, being impressed with the dramatists grasp of military minutia thought this must be the man.
More likely, Aubrey in his Brief Lives (1681) states that „…he had been in his younger yeares a Schoolmaster in the Countrey.“ and cites as his source William Beeston, son of Christopher Beeston who had certainly been one of the most important people in the London theater in his later life, and in his earlier life had belonged to the Lord Chamberlain_s men and had acted with Shakespeare in Every Man in His Humour (1598). This is the closest we get to authoritative intelligence about Shakespeare during these years.
Lute.There is a theory, argued by E. A. J. Honigmann (Shakespeare: „The Lost Years“ – 1985), that has Shakespeare located in Lancashire in the household of the powerful, Catholic Hoghton family. The link between faraway Lancashire and Stratford, as this theory has it, would have been Shakespeare_s last schoolmaster John Cottom. The theory is based on rather circumstantial evidence found in a Hoghton will, asking his kinsman to take care of „…William Shakeshaft, now dwelling with me…“ along with references to plays, play-clothes and musical instruments. The theory has it that Shakespeare was engaged by the Hoghtons as a schoolmaster on Cottom_s recommendation (Cottom being a Lancashire native living near the Hoghtons) and then began, naturally, participating in their private theatricals, and then passed through the Stanleys (who had many holdings in Lancashire to Lord Strange_s men, a theater company with which Shakespeare was definitely associated. The theory is presented convincingly in Honigmann_s book, but cannt be demonstrated with certainty.
Other less believable spculations have Shakespeare holding horses outside theaters in London, or visiting Italy, based on his knowledge of things Italian, or being a runaway butcher, or a scrivener. Perhaps the most natural course of events was that–based on Aubrey–Shakespeare actually was employed in some sense at least as an usher or schoolmaster and being what he was, performed with his class and even constructed plays for them based on Plautus (The Menaechmi is the source for The Comedy of Errors, perhaps Shakespeare_s first play). When a traveling theater company visited Stratford (as did the Queen_s men in the summer of 1587, among them Will Kemp (often spelled Kempe), later one of Shakespeare_s fellow householders in the Globe), perhaps they were short on personnel and pressed the eager local into service. He then may have shown them his budding dramatic work, told them he could work as a scrivener, impressed them with his quick wit and natural talent, and so he would have passed into the world of the Theater. We don_t really know, but this seems a natural scenario.
Perhaps the most famous literary snarl ever was penned in 1592 by Robert Greene in his Groats-worth of Witte:
for there is 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 beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a country.
The passage is famous because it clearly refers to William Shakespeare („Shake-scene“) and is the first documentary evidence we have of his rise to prominence in the London theatre world, indeed the first direct documentary evidence regarding him at all since the baptism of the twins in 1585.
Greene was a minor Elizabethan playwright (Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay) and pamphleteer, six years Shakespeare_s senior, a university educated man (MA from both Oxford and Cambridge) and proud of it, yet known to be a wastrel. He wrote the Groats-worth of Witte as a bitter, dying man, and in it attacked his younger rivals Marlowe, Nashe, and Peele as well as Shakespeare. Much has been written about this passage. Its importance is that it verifies several facts about Shakespeare_s career as it had
developed by 1592:
Ų He had become successful enough to rankle Greene_s jealousy.
Ų He had become well known among in the London professional theater world.
Ų He was known as a man of various abilities („Johannes fac totem“ or Jack-of-all-trades, as we would say), actor, playwright, play mender („beautified with our feathers“).
Ų He was well known as a poet („bombast out a blanke verse“).
Ų His Henry VI Part 3 had become famous enough to be recognize by one of its famous lines („O, tiger_s heart wrapped in a woman_s hide“).
Also in 1592 Thomas Nashe (1567-1601), another playwright and pamphleteer, made reference to Talbot, the hero of Shakespeare_s very popular Henry VI Part 1 in his book Pierce Pennilesse, his Supplication to the Devil:
How it would have joy_d brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeare in his tombe, hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the teares on ten thousand spectators at least (at severall times) who, in the tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.
The „at severall times“ in this passage is significant. Elizabethan theatrical companies produced plays in repertory, several being played simultaneously, new ones being added and tried out while old, less profitable ones were dropped from the rotation. Philip Henslowe, a theatrical impresario kept a Diary in which he kept many records, such as theater receipts, payments to playwrights, the cost of costumes, etc. A typical month (March 1592) shows one of Shakespeare_s Henry VI plays being performed 5 times in rotation with 13 other plays. Shakespeare_s play was apparently the most popular at the time (it was new to Henslowe on March 3), since the next most performed play during the month was Thomas Kyd_s Spanish Tragedy (3 times–called Joronymo, after its main character) and Marlowe_s Jew of Malta (twice). (One marvels at the feats of memory required of Elizabethan actors).
In any event, we see that Shakespeare was well established in the London theater world by the end of 1592. By this time he had probably already written The Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, perhaps Two Gentlemen of Verona, the three parts of Henry VI, Titus Andronicus and perhaps even Richard III. Assigning dates to the plays is, on the whole, a very difficult and finally unresolveable business. When dates are assigned in this essay, they are simply best guesses based on the painstaking work of monumental scholars such as E. K Chambers and John Dover Wilson.
Shakespeare_s chief rival among early Elizabethan playwrights (then as now) was Christopher Marlowe, who had by this time (he was murdered in 1593) written his Tamburlain plays, Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta. Had Shakespeare died in the same year as Marlowe, his accomplishment would have been thought remarkable, but Marlowe would undoubtedly have been given the precedence as the better of the playwrights by subsequent critics. Fortunately for us, there was much more to come.
From the beginning of his theatrical career, Shakespeare seems to have been associated with several acting companies: The Queen_s Men, Pembroke_s Men and Lord Strange_s Men. He must have in some sense been a freelance dramatist and acted with several companies in a fluid (to say the least) work environment. However his work in the theater had proceeded through 1592, it all changed when in January 1593 the theaters in London were closed on account of the plague. From December 1592 until December 1593 Stow (the Elizabethan archivist) reports 10,675 plague deaths–in a city of approximately 200,000. The theaters were allowed to open again briefly during the winter of 1594, but were closed again in February and remained closed until spring 1594.