Monday, 23 April 2012

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare! | The Life of a Genius

Whenever Shakespeare was born,
he probably didn't look like this.
Despite having one of the most famous names and recognisable faces in the entire history of humankind, relatively little is known about the man himself. This is especially true of his early years.

For instance, no one knows for sure when Bill Shakespeare was born. There is a record of his baptism in Stratford-Upon-Avon on 26th April, 1564. Because infant mortality during this era was so high, parents usually ensured that their children were baptised soon after birth. Subsequently, it is asserted that he may have been born on around the 23rd of April. This is considered to be Shakespeare official birthday, in part because it is also the date of his death - albeit several years later.

The 23rd of April is also St George’s Day and, as Shakespeare is one of England’s finest exports, it’s fitting that he is celebrated on the same day as the country’s patron saint.


Salad Days

Baby William was born to John Shakespeare, a glove maker and alderman (member of the local council) and Mary Shakespeare né e Arden (no relation of Elizabeth). Mary Arden was the daughter of a wealthy landowner, this coupled with John’s successful business and respected position suggests that the Shakespeares were financially comfortable.

Although no records exist to prove that William Shakespeare ever had any kind of formal education, his parents’ status would certainly suggest that he did. The King’s New School, was located just a stone’s throw from the Shakespeare home. So, it is very likely that this was the school he attended. There, he would have learnt Latin and would have become familiar with the classics, including Ovid. This knowledge would prove invaluable to him later in life, as a playwright.


Going to The Chapel and We’re…

In November of 1582, at the age of 18, Shakespeare married the slightly older Anne Hathaway (she was 8 years his senior). During this period, the legal age of consent was 21. Consequently, William needed his father’s permission to marry. It seems that arrangements for the wedding were made rather swiftly and the marriage banns, which are usually announced three times, were permitted to be read just once.

So, what was the rush? Were William and Anne so swept up in their love for one another that they felt compelled to marry instantly?

Six months later, Anne gave birth to a girl, Susanna, who was baptised on the 26th May, 1583. Yes, it was a shotgun wedding.

Two years after Susanna, came twins; a boy named Hamnet (sound familiar?) and a girl named Judith. The pair were baptised on 2nd of February, 1585. Sadly, Hamnet died at the age of 11 and was buried on the 11th of August, 1596.

The Lost Years

After the birth of the twins, Shakespeare slips off the radar rather. From 1585 until 1592, when he began to be noted as part of the theatrical scene in London, nobody knows exactly where Shakespeare was or what he was doing.

Since Shakespeare’s death, there have been many assertions as to what he may have been doing during these ‘lost years’. One theory states that he was forced to leave Stratford, after being caught poaching deer on a local estate. Others suggest that he spent the time teaching and there is also a theory that he began his theatrical career rather menially; caring for the patrons’ horses.

However, this is all guesswork and no evidence exists to support any of these theories. So, Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’ remain a mystery.


All The World’s a Stage

Like much of Shakespeare’s life, it is unknown when he began writing. As he is also known to have performed, it may be that he began his career as an actor. Nevertheless, records state that his plays were being put on the stage by 1592.
From 1594, his plays were performed exclusively by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which later became known as the King’s Men; a company formed and run by a group of actors (or players as they were known) including Shakespeare himself. Unsurprisingly, with Shakespeare’s material to work with, they quickly became the leading company in London.

Sketch of The Globe Theatre
It was clearly a lucrative venture, because, in 1599, a group of company members invested in the construction of a theatre. This outdoor structure was built on the River Thames’ south bank and came to be known as the Globe. By 1608, the company was also able to purchase Blackfriars; an indoor theatre.

During this period, Shakespeare, like his fellow company members, was living high on the hog and dividing his time between London and Stratford (where his wife and children remained). By 1597, he owned the second largest house in Stratford and, in 1605, made an investment in the parish tithes.

Shakespeare and his company were valuable property and, by 1598, his name carried enough cache to be on the title page of the quarto editions of his play - something that was not done when they were first published, four years previously.

Throughout this time, he continued to act both in his own and other writers’ plays. For example, he is said to have performed in many of Ben Johnson’s works, including Volpone and Every Man in His Humour. Some scholars believe that his acting career slowed after 1605, but he is still listed as a ‘principal actor’ in the First Folio addition of his works.

Twilight Years

By 1606/1607, Shakespeare’s output began to reduce and plays he did work on were predominantly collaborations. After 1613, no theatrical work is attributed to him.

Retirement was rare in those days, as there was no provision for pensions. Therefore, he never withdrew completely from the London theatre scene and made occasional trips back. However, by this period, the majority of his time was spent in Stratford.

In 1616, at the age of 52, Shakespeare died. He was survived by his wife, Anne, and both daughters, Susanna and Judith. The lion’s share of his estate was left to the eldest daughter Susanna with instruction that it to be passed to her first born son.

If you want to know more about the life,
times and work of Shakespeare, check out
An Introduction to The Bard of Avon
Anne, on the other hand, gets hardly any mention in his will, except to bequeath her his “second best bed.” These three words have prompted much speculation. Some literary historians and scholars view this is a snub.
However, it is worth bearing in mind that a household’s best bed was reserved for guests. Therefore, the ‘second best bed’ was likely to be the marital bed. Subsequently, it would be imbued with emotional significance. An opinion explored by Carol Ann Duffy in her poem ‘Anne Hathaway’.
It’s also worth mentioning that the law at the time dictated that one third of a man’s estate automatically passed to his widow. Consequently, Shakespeare may have felt no need to specifically bequeath anything, other than the bed, to Anne.

Whether this infamous line from his will was intended as an affectionate gesture or speaks of an acrimonious marriage, we’ll never know. It, like so much of Shakespeare’s life, is and will remain shrouded in obscurity and ambiguity.
This post is an extarct from What's It All About, Shakespeare An Introduction to The Bard of Avon, which can be found on, and all other European Amazon outlets.

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