Monday, 24 March 2014

What Are Shakespeare's Lost Years?

Have you seen this man?
One reason there is debate over whether Shakespeare wrote any of the plays and poems attributed to him is that there are portions of his life that are completely unaccounted for: the so-called 'lost years'. 

But when were Shakespeare's lost years and what could he have been doing during them?

Of course, the fact is, very little is known of Shakespeare's life. We don't know exactly when he was born; we don't know where he went to school; and we don't know when he moved from Stratford-Upon-Avon to London's swinging, sixteenth century theatre scene.

However, there are two significant portions of his life during which he seems to drop entirely off the radar. The first of these is from 1578 to 1582, and the second is from 1585 to 1592.

What Was Shakespeare Doing During His First 'Lost Years'?

What was Shakespeare doing before he
met Anne Hathaway?
This four-year span of time begins when Shakespeare is fourteen, and leaving grammar school. The next time he's name is mentioned in historical record is when, at the age of eighteen, he marries Anne Hathaway. 

Given that Anne was with child as she stepped down the aisle, there is one thing we can be pretty sure Shakespeare was doing during that time!

But what else was he up to?

Well, in order to try to track William Shakespeare's movements during this period, it's useful to look at what was going on within his family, specifically the family's finances. 

Money Makes The World Go Round

William's father, John Shakespeare, was an affluent man; successful in his own business (as a glove maker), and deemed a pillar of Stratford community. It would have been usual, therefore, for William to have gone straight from grammar school to university. This didn't happen. Instead, for some reason, John Shakespeare fell behind with his taxes; William's education came to an abrupt halt, and the estate belonging to William's mother, Mary, was mortgaged. 

Money, for the Shakespeares, really was too tight to mention. 

Why did John Shakespeare's success slide so drastically? Nothing is known for sure, but what is clear is that, as the eldest Shakespeare boy, William may well have been compelled (or simply felt obliged), to alleviate some of the burden. 

Working Nine-to-Five, What a Way to Make a Living

Hello, Sailor!
It is likely, therefore, that during the first lost years, Shakespeare was employed and contributing to the family coffers. What job was he doing? Well, there have been several suggestions and they are incredibly wide-ranging. 

Some scholars, for example, assert that Shakespeare gained a knowledge of the sea and astronomy by serving as a sailor. 

Then again, perhaps he learned about legal matters, which he'd later use in The Merchant of Venice, by working as a law clerk. Or maybe he just worked in the family business.

We'll never know exactly what he was doing, but it's highly likely that he was doing whatever he could to help the family's dire financial situation.

What Was Shakespeare Doing During His Second 'Lost Years'? 

No sooner do we get a fix on Shakespeare than he disappears on us again. 

In 1592, Shakespeare's mentioned in
the pamphlet A Groatsworth of Wit
After marrying Anne Hathaway in 1582, we know the pair welcomed a daughter. Twins then came along two years later. However, after that, there is another glaring blank in Shakespeare's life. 

From 1585, until 1592, when he's mentioned in a London pamphlet, he's conspicuous in his absence. 

And it is this second lost stretch that is the most intriguing, because it's during these seven years that Shakespeare must have begun to write, hone his craft, collect stories he'd ultimate transform into his own, and make his name as both actor and playwright. 

However, apart from records of his childrens' baptism, there is only one other mention of Shakespeare in historical documents during this 'lost' period: a legal action pertaining to dispute over land, in which William and his parents are named. The case was filed in 1589, so its safe to assume Shakespeare was still living in Stratford at that point. 

However, by 1592, he was most certainly in London...and had written Henry VI Part 1. 

What Prompted Shakespeare to Leave Stratford?

Was Shakespeare's a poacher?
The obvious answer would seem to be: he travelled to London to be an actor and playwright. 

And, sure enough, that's what he ultimately did...but it's worth bearing in mind that the life of an actor in Elizabethan England was far from glamorous. Actors at this time were deemed delinquent lowlifes.

Was the tug of the stage really so powerful that he was prepared to leave his wife and young children; potentially condemning them to poverty if he failed to make any money, which was a very real possibility?

Well, some people wonder if Shakespeare had to get out of Dodge. Urban legend would have it that he was caught poaching deer on land owned by Sir Richard Lucy. To avoid prosecution, William fled to London. It's an interesting thought, but no documents support it, so there is unlikely to be a great deal of truth to the story.

Roman Holiday?

Did Shakespeare spend some of his 'lost years' in Rome?
More recently, it has been suggested that Shakespeare spent a portion of these lost years on a pilgrimage to Rome, which may account for the familiarity of Italy in his plays. 

However, this is only a hypothesis - albeit one supported by some evidence to suggest that Shakespeare might have been Catholic (a dangerous religion to practice in Elizabethan England).

It's an attractive possibility. And a 16th century Roman pilgrims' guestbook bears cryptic signatures thought to be that of Shakespeare...but that's a tenuous bit of evidence, let's face it.  

So it's impossible to say with certainty, and perhaps we'll never know exactly what Shakespeare was up to do during his lost years. And to tell the truth, I'm not sure I'd want to know. The mystery is far more fascinating than the facts could ever be.

For more about the bits of Shakespeare's life that are known, take a look at What's All About, Shakespeare: An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.