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A Brief Biographical Sketch
His plays survive to bear witness to the genius of England’s greatest poet and playwright but official documents concerning the life of William Shakespeare are very few indeed in spite of exhaustive searches for them over the last several hundred years. There are some entries in church registers or other church records, some court documents of litigation actions, some details of property purchases, a reference to unpaid taxes, some mentions of payments from the royal treasury to him and his fellow actors, and his final will and testament, that is about all that has been found.
We know that William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and grew up in the heart of the English countryside in the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon in the county of Warwickshire in central England. His father, John, was engaged in the trade of glove-making and also held public office in several capacities, eventually rising to be the High Bailiff of Stratford in1568, a position similar today to being the mayor of a small country town. His mother, Mary Arden, was the youngest daughter of Richard Arden, the Ardens were a prominent and respected family of long standing in the county. The Stratford town’s records seem to indicate that John Shakespeare may have suffered financial setbacks by the time William was about fourteen years old, however, he seems to have remained a respected member of the community until his death in 1601, by which time, in 1596, he had been granted a coat of arms, a symbol of honor and standing as a member of the English gentry, permitting the addition of the word “Gentleman” to the male Shakespeare name.
Existing records of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, translated from the Latin language then in use, show that William, son of John Shakespeare was baptized on April 26th, 1564. While there is no record of his actual date of birth, it is assumed that in keeping with the custom of the times, his birthday was probably a few days before the baptism giving the date of April 23rd, a date that coincides nicely with that of England’s patron saint, St. George’s Day. It is also the date of Shakespeare’s death fifty-two years later in 1616.
There is no evidence of William Shakespeare’s schooling but it is assumed he attended the local grammar school but did not go to university.
Not until eighteen years after the baptism entries is there another official reference to William Shakespeare when, on 27th November 1582, after the posting of a significant monetary bond of indemnity, the Bishop of Worcester court office granted a certificate permitting the marriage between William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway of Shottery, a small village near Stratford. The Hathaway and Shakespeare families were acquainted through earlier dealings with one another. Anne was the eldest of the eight children of the twice-married Richard Hathaway, a farmer who had died the year before.
William and Anne were married in 1582, William was eighteen years old, Anne was twenty-six, if the age at death inscribed on her tombstone is correct. Anne was pregnant by about two months when the certificate was granted enabling the waiving of the usual three weeks of the announcing of banns in church that is normally required to permit a marriage.
While her pregnant condition may have prompted a quick marriage, there may instead have been a different reason, it has been speculated by one scholar that the wedding needed to be as soon as possible because William would have to leave soon thereafter to take up employment, perhaps as a tutor, to an important family in a nearby county to the north. There is no evidence but it is assumed that the newlyweds took up residence with William’s parents.
In the matter of Anne’s age, because her tombstone bears the inscription that she was 67 when she died in 1623, it is generally accepted that she was eight years older than William. However, the figures 1 and 7 are easily confused, and it is possible that she might have been 61 at death, just two years older than her husband.
Anne gave birth to Susannah on May 26,1583 and in 1585 twins were born to the young couple, baptized Judith and Hamnet. Tragically, Hamnet died at age eleven in1596 possibly of the plague, a common cause of death in those years. It is has been suggested that a verse from Shakespeare’s play King John, may be an expression of grief related to Hamnet’s untimely death. It is believed the play was finished about that date with its first performance around in 1596 or 1597. The play could also have been modified to incorporate the verse at a later date, such modifications being a normal occurrence.
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form…
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven:
If that be true, I shall see my boy again.
A touching description of an event that every parent dreads, the death of a child before one’s own. This is a perfect example of Shakespeare’s ability to understand and express the personal feelings of every human being in every situation of life.
After the birth of the twins nothing is heard of William Shakespeare until 1592 when he was achieving success and notice from his contemporaries in the theatre in London. The intervening years have come to be known as the Lost Years, prompting much speculation and argument on how William was occupied during that time.
Actors and playhouses were held in low regard by city and town officials, the members of the acting companies were often regarded as vagabonds and were persecuted with attempts often made to close down the playhouses. It was claimed that the playhouses attracted the worst elements of society to their neighborhoods, criminals, prostitutes, together with drunkenness, and gambling. That was probably true, the theatres were usually located beyond the reach of the authorities in such areas as the disreputable South Bank, known as the Stews, the wrong side of the river in sixteenth and seventeenth century London. Today the area offers a popular tourist site for conducted walks, the London Walks advertising pamphlet tells us that:
“Modern drama was born here. In short, say hello to the Bankside district, home to Shakespeare’s Globe (old and new) and the other Elizabethan theatres and the stews and bear-baiting dens and St. Saviour’s (where Shakespeare buried his brother Edmund) and an ancient, swaybacked coaching inn in whose courtyard Shakespeare’s plays are still performed. And a bonus: it’s also cobbled, echoing Clink Street threading between brick cliffs of warehouses where bars of sunlight probe the shadows, the London of Dickens’ troubled childhood, the London that haunted him to his dying day. Bottom line: the past is high impact here. High impact like nowhere else in London. In short, this is a thrilling walk!”
There was merit in the claims of the local authorities, and in 1572 parliament passed an “Act for Punishment of Vagabonds” a law requiring companies of actors to obtain a noble patron who would vouch for their good conduct as they toured the countryside, This helped to make the acting profession more respectable and enabled acting groups to find support and protection of the Queen and members of the nobility who lent their names and sponsored various companies of players, among them The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, and later under royal patronage as The King’s Men. In both companies Shakespeare was an actor, producer, playwright, and shareholder.
Shakespeare continued in his professional work in the theatre until retiring about 1610 to Stratford. It is assumed he enjoyed a peaceful and productive life there living with his wife in the town in which his children and grand children lived, perhaps with occasional visits back to London, sometimes on business with son-in-law Dr. John Hall, Susannah’s husband. William Shakespeare died of an unknown cause in 1616 at the age of 52, leaving the bulk of his considerable fortune to his daughter Susannah. He was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, apparently with little fanfare, although at least one literary figure of the day eagerly commented on a visit to the churchyard to pay respects to the poet held in such high esteem, even if perhaps the local population were not as well aware of or did not appreciate his talents and achievements. Anne, his wife was buried in the churchyard nearby in 1623. Other family members were also buried in that churchyard and it is interesting to note that the inscription on the tombstone of daughter Susannah, who died in 1649, likens her to her father, reading:
Witty above her sex, but that’s not all,
Wise to salvation was good Mistress Hall;
Something of Shakespeare was in that, but this
Wholly of him with whom she’s now in bliss.
There were so many achievements and events of great interest and fascination in Shakespeare’s productive life that it is not possible to cover them in a brief biographical sketch as is this piece. So much to delve into, to speculate on, regardless of the lack of official records and documents. There is a huge amount of relevant background material, opinion, and other matters about the life and times, the contemporaries and friends, and the work of this greatest of poets living in the England of Elizabeth the First. But we will try to touch briefly on some other biographical aspects before we leave this entry.
“Sweet Swan of Avon”, “He was not of an age but for all time”
Thus was Shakespeare referred to, almost four hundred years ago, by Ben Jonson, a younger contemporary and a leading poet and playwright, a friend, a critic, and a rival. Jonson was writing that at the time of the publication of The First Folio, the collection of Shakespeare’s plays gathered together for the first time in 1623 by his friends and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, seven years after the great playwright’s death.
And Shakespeare was an actor too
In one of the earliest presentations of Jonson’s play, “Everyman in his Humour”,
Shakespeare appeared as a player, being listed first in the cast of actors performing that play. And as an actor, Shakespeare’s name is listed in the cast of many of his own plays. But those references appeared in publications of plays that, like the Jonson play, were printed and issued after his death. Prior to that time, it was the custom to not list the performers. And plays were not usually circulated in print since copyright laws for protection of ownership and use did not exist at the time and it was the acting companies to which Shakespeare’s belonged that became the actual owners of his works and they had a vested interest in keeping the manuscripts and copies to themselves, rather than allow them to become available to competing companies to stage these profitable plays.
Shakespeare gained early notice in his own career as writer, actor, and man of the theatre, when referred to by another well known playwright of the time, Robert Greene, who, with intent to disparage Shakespeare, referred to him as being an “absolute jack of all trades, a general factotum able to bombast out blank verse with the best of them.”
Those remarks were made in a posthumously published pamphlet “Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit bought with a million of Repentance”, written as Greene lay dying, in which he bitterly warned other writers of his acquaintance, thought perhaps to include Marlowe and Nashe, to be wary of this “upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, with his Tyger’s heart wrapt in a player’s hide,” a references paraphrasing lines from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1. The comments by Greene were quickly denounced, the poet and playwright Thomas Nash termed the tract in which they appeared ” a scald, trivial, lying pamphlet.”
Henry Chettle, a printer and later a playwright, who had prepared Greene’s offensive essay for printing, took much criticism himself for doing so and shortly after withdrew the remarks, admitting being at fault in their publication and stated that he had “seen and could witness Shakespeare to be of civil demeanour, and one who had facetious grace in writing”, and that many others had “reported on his upright dealings and honesty”. It appears that Shakespeare’s friends stepped in to defend his reputation.
It seems that he was well regarded and there were few, if any, other criticisms ever voiced. As Jonson was to say with the publishing of the First Folio, “I loved him this side of idolatry, he was of brave notions and gentle expressions”. And there is a poem by Jonson in the First Folio: “To the memory of my beloved, The Author Mr. William Shakespeare and what he hath left us”.
Shakespeare’s body of work, includes thirty-seven known plays, first published in their entirety in the First Folio of 1623, two epic poems dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, several other poems and 154 Sonnets. And within the plays, there are poems and songs. This was accomplished over a working life of about 20 years. There are also 12 to 14 plays, known as the Shakespeare Apocrypha, that some scholars believe can be attributed to him. Not every thing he wrote was great but much of it was, he certainly wrote to meet the needs of his acting company, of which he was a shareholder, fitting the dialogue and action to the talents of his companion players and to the properties of the stage on which they performed.
As has been said, many details of his life are a mystery, but that is not unusual for those working in the theatre in those years, it is the same for other important playwrights of his generation, for Marlowe, Jonson, Ford, Greene, Beaumont, Fletcher, Dekker, Webster, and others, little is known of any of them, in fact, as it turns out we probably know much more about Shakespeare than any of the others.
His life has generated immense speculation and myth, every detail and assumption has been examined and argued over. A life and work analyzed, discussed, and debated by scholars of almost every discipline, in almost every country and language. And this has continued for several hundred years. There is also is a substantial body of conspiracy addicts and cryptography fanatics who support theories that someone other than Shakespeare was the author of the poetry and plays.
Thousands of books about Shakespeare, his plays, poetry, and the sonnets, have been published in English and other languages. Adaptations of his plays are in production worldwide by theatre groups, by television, and in motion pictures. His works provide insights into the human condition, he belongs to the literature and culture of the world. As Ben Jonson said, “not for an age but for all time”.
There is so much more to be discussed, including the portraits, the properties, about Anne Hathaway, about Shakespeare’s will and the second best bed bequeathed to his wife, about his six ill-scrawled signatures and whether they are they really his, about Hand D and whether it is Shakespeare’s composition and handwriting, about the character roles and situations in the plays and sonnets and whether they relate directly to Shakespeare or anyone in his circle, about Sir William Davenant who may have claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son, about the anti-Stratfordians. And still so much more.
And for the sonnets that are the source of the greatest mysteries in English literature, a special series of questions to contemplate: the identity of the young man to whom many of them are addressed, whether they depict a homosexual relationship or are they merely couched in the flowery and affectionate terms said to be common among males in the Elizabethan age, who was the Dark Lady, to whom did the Sonnet publisher Thomas Thorpe refer in his dedication to Mr. W.H. and were the sonnets published without Shakespeare’s permission and oversight as their somewhat poor editing suggests, and they quickly disappeared from circulation and was that by intent to suppress them? And whose interest or reputation would be protected if that were the case? Again, still so much to explore, but now we must bring this essay to a close, with Puck’s help, who might add:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.