William ShakespeareStratford-upon-Avon

All we know about the World’s most famous playwright is gleaned from entries in official records.  He did not keep a diary and his wife was illiterate.  We are not even sure of his exact birth date.  We do know that he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire and was baptised in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford on 26 April 1564.

Because of high infant mortality Tudor custom demanded that a child was baptized on the third day of its life and this would bring Shakespeare’s birth date to 23 April 1564, incidentally the same date as St George’s Day (the Patron Saint of England).
William’s father, John was a successful businessman as a glove maker and retailer of farm produce such as animals, wool, corn and malt. He knew what he was about because his father had been in the same business.
John married Mary Arden, the daughter of his landholder employer, so Mary married beneath her class.  They moved to Stratford in 1551 and lived in Henley Street.
It was here that William, their third child, was probably born.  Unfortunately the two earlier siblings were to die of Bubonic Plague (The Black Death).
William's father, John
John Shakespeare rose to prominence in the Stratford community and was appointed Ale-Taster to the Borough of Stratford in 1557.  He was extremely ambitious and over the next 13 years he became Mayor and rose to Chief Alderman.  This civic appointment entitled his children to be sent to the King Edward VI Grammar School free of charge.
William’s education was a Classical one studying the works of the great classical authors and dramatists such as Ovid, Plautus, Horace, Virgil, Cicero and Seneca.  Lessons and conversation were conducted solely in Latin and any failure to do so resulted in a severe beating.
School days were long and arduous covering 5½ days a week with constant examinations.  Learning was by rote and they were even examined on what the church sermon had been about on the previous Sunday.  End of term productions of the classical dramas would have been the only lightening of the educative process and William may have got his first taste for acting then.
Under normal circumstances William would have gone on to University where he could have studied a choice of Arts, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Poetry, History, Music, Astronomy, Arithmetic, Geometry, Theology, Law or Medicine.
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William Shakespeare left school at age 14
William never went to University because in 1578, at the age of 14, he was taken out of school to help his father who had got himself into financial difficulties.
Very little is known about the reason for this but perhaps his rapid rise to public office, or his dubious money lending activities or his Roman catholic religion could have led to jealousy and distrust by other members of the community.  Whatever was the reason, John Shakespeare and his family struggled for the next 14 years.
During this time more children were born to John and Mary and William worked in some capacity (possibly as a teacher or an assistant to a lawyer) to help pay the bills.
William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway
As if things were not bad enough, young William came home, aged 18, to announce that he had made a local woman, Anne Hathaway, 8 years his senior, pregnant.  Anne lived at Hewland Farm in Shottery, a village about a mile from Stratford.
Hewland Farmhouse is now known as Anne Hathaway's Cottage.  A marriage was hastily arranged and in November 1582 William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in her local church at Temple Grafton.  They immediately moved in with William’s family in the Henley Street house.
William and Anne’s daughter Susanna was born in May 1583.  Two years later Anne gave birth to twins, a boy named Hammet and a girl named Judith.  As can be imagined, by now the Henley Street house was becoming rather crowded and there were many mouths to feed. It was at this time that William’s father was removed from the Board of Aldermen.
William leaves suddenly for London
Somewhere between 1589 and 1592 William moved to London to seek his fortune. There is a story that around this time William was found poaching deer from the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlcote.  It would appear that William left town before Sir Thomas could prosecute.
Acting Troupes were regular visitors to Stratford and William’s father (whilst Mayor) would have been responsible for granting performance licences to them.  It is more than likely that William had come to know personally some of these actors.
His sudden documented appearance as an actor in London in 1592 lends weight to the theory that he joined up with one of these Acting Troupes on one of their regular visits to Stratford.
Literature and Drama in Elizabethan Times
Sometimes known as the ‘Golden Age’, the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) was an exciting but dangerous time to live.  It was the Renaissance, a time for new ideas, new thoughts, travel to new places, new and imported substances like tobacco, and a new religion.
Protestantism was the official religion and Elizabeth was determined that she would not enforce it by indulging in a bloody reign of terror like her half-sister, Queen Mary I.  Unfortunately the Roman Catholic religion was inextricably mixed with The Succession and fear of invasion by Catholic countries such as Spain.  Fear of plots and subversion was rife.
The only serious and credible literature was considered to be poetry written by people with ‘serious talent’, educated at University.  The writing of poetry was a fashionable pastime for the elite such as Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Phillip Sydney.  On the other hand, the writing of drama was not considered serious literature nor was it undertaken by credible authors.  Actors were considered to be ‘common folk’.
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William needed 'connections' to succeed
William Shakespeare had a problem – he came from country roots and had not gone to University so obviously was not a credible author.  Talent alone was not enough to become famous – he needed connections.
William wrote sonnets and plays but chose poetry as his vehicle for gaining recognition.  Fortunately he had a childhood friend and publishing contact in London, Richard Field.
Records show that on 18 April 1593 Shakespeare’s poem 'Venus and Adonis' was registered and published by Richard Field.  Subsequent poems were also published and thus William gained credibility but he never allowed any of his sonnets or plays to be published during his lifetime.  History also tells us that he acquired a patron – the Earl of Southampton.
Regulation of Actors and Playwrights
Actors were very fond of expressing their own political and religious views on stage.  In an effort to control the quality of actors and their performances, regulations were brought in to enforce registration of any creative work prior to publication.
The aristocracy were the only people able to form Acting Troupes.  Thus the bands of actors were known by their patron’s name e.g. Lord Strange’s men, or Essex’s men.
This registration of creative work was effectively a form of censorship and ensured that playwrights did not use the stage to express their own views on politics or religion.  The authorities did not want too much freedom of thought and criticism of the Crown or public events. 
This requirement to register any new work has given us a timeline and list of Shakespeare’s complete works.
Prior to 1576 there were no public theatres and the actors performed in the courtyards of Inns.  Performances were extremely popular and there was a lot of money to be made with this form of entertainment.
Theatres were multi-purpose and were also used for bear baiting, as brothels and as gambling houses – no wonder actors and playwrights had a bad reputation.
Rose Theatre opened in 1587
In 1587 the first open air amphitheatre (The Rose) was built on the south-side of the River Thames at Bankside.
By 1592 William Shakespeare was a well known actor, taking parts in other playwrights’ productions as well as minor roles in his own.  We know that on 3 March 1592 Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1 was produced by Lord Strange's Men at the Rose Theatre.
Players did not get any time for rehearsal and often the lines would be whispered to them on stage from behind a curtain.  It was quite common for five new plays to be put on in a week.  The playwrights sold their plays to the Acting Troupe and were paid a one off fee.  There were no royalty agreements in those days or copyright.
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William formed 'The Lord Chamberlain's Company'
In 1594 Shakespeare’s acting troupe The Lord Chamberlain's Company (formally known as 'Lord Stranges Men') was formed. By 1595 William Shakespeare had achieved prosperity and was recognised as the leading Playwright in London.  His output was prodigious:  Within the space of 20 years he wrote 38 plays, 154 Sonnets and 4 poems not to mention acting as well.
As a Theatre owner his name is linked with The Swan Theatre which moved to the south-side of the river in 1596 when open air performances of plays were banned from the City of London.  Shakespeare had the drama game all sewn up because he owned an actors troupe, part-owned theatres to perform in and wrote the plays that were performed.
When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 and King James I came to the throne, Shakespeare’s acting troupe The Chamberlain’s Men came under the patronage of the new king and were renamed The King’s Men.
New Place in Stratford
William was a very successful businessman and in 1597 he purchased New Place (see Nash's House & New Place article in this website), the second largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon
William's father John granted 'coat of arms'
His own father’s fortunes had started to improve again and in 1596 the Garter King of Arms granted John Shakespeare and his children the right to have a coat of arms and the word ‘Gentleman’ placed after their names.  To be part of the Gentry was only just below being a Knight. The coat of arms could be put on their doors and on all their personal possessions. The Shakespeares were now part of Elizabethan Society.
The Globe Theatre
In 1598 William is recorded as being part financier of The Globe Theatre which was built in 1599.  To get the real feel for an Elizabethan theatre performance a visit to the replica Globe Theatre on London’s Southbank is an experience not to be missed.
Audience members can either sit in wooden seats surrounding the stage or stand in the cockpit in front of the stage.  The audience is rowdy and hurls insults at the actors just as they did in Shakespeare’s time!
In contrast to William’s immensely successful career his personal life was marked by several tragedies.  The Bubonic Plague was a real and constant threat to the Shakespeare family because of their farm produce business.  The fleas that lived on the farm animals could carry the plague and William was terrified of it.
Three of his sisters and a brother fell victim to the plague and worst of all, in 1596, his only son Hammet died of it when only 11 years old.
The Mermaid Tavern
As William became more successful he moved from humble lodgings possibly in Blackfriars to new lodgings near St Paul's Cathedral. This area was popular with the theatre set and courtiers, playwrights, poets, authors and actors of the day would meet at the Mermaid Tavern.
Shakespeare retired in 1613 and returned home to Stratford-upon Avon.
William is Buried in Stratford-upon-Avon
We do not know what he died of but he must have known that he was going to die because he amended his Will in March 1616, just one month before the end on 23 April 1616.
He is buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford and a memorial bust showing Shakespeare, quill in hand writing, is on the wall close by.
London & Stratford Memorials
There are memorials to Shakespeare in the Poets Corner, south transept of Westminster Abbey, London; St Helen's Church Bishopsgate, London, Southwark Cathedral, London and a large memorial to him in Bancroft Gardens & Canal Basin beside the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal Lock exit into the River Avon at Stratford.
If you are interested in Shakespeare’s London, look up Walking in Shakespeare's Footsteps on this website.



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