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William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous writer of the English language, known for both his plays and sonnets. Much about his life remains open to debate due to incomplete evidence.
In the mid-sixteenth century, William Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, moved to the idyllic town of Stratford-upon-Avon. There, he became a successful landowner, moneylender, glove-maker, and dealer of wool and agricultural goods. In 1557, he married Mary Arden. Town records indicate that William Shakespeare was John and Mary’s third child. His birth is unregistered, but legend pins the date as April 23, 1564, possibly because it is known that he died on the same date 52 years later.
Little is known about his childhood, although it is generally assumed that he attended the local grammar school, the King’s New School. The school was staffed by Oxford-educated faculty who taught the students mathematics, natural sciences, logic, Christian ethics, and classical languages and literature. Shakespeare did not attend university, which was not unusual for the time. University education was reserved for wealthy sons of the elite, and even then, mostly just those who wanted to become clergymen.
The numerous classical and literary references in Shakespeare’s plays are a testament; however, to the excellent education he received in grammar school, and speaks to his ability as an autodidact. His early plays in particular draw on the works of Seneca and Plautus. Even more impressive than Shakespeare’s formal education is the wealth of general knowledge he exhibits in his work. His vocabulary exceeds that of any other English writer of his time by a wide margin.
In 1582, at the age of eighteen, William Shakespeare married twenty-six-year-old Anne Hathaway. Their first daughter was Susanna. In 1585, Anne bore twins, Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare. Hamnet died at the age of eleven, by which time William Shakespeare was already a successful playwright. Around 1589, Shakespeare wrote Henry VI, Part 1, which is considered to be his first play. Sometime between his marriage and writing this play, he moved to London, where he pursued a career as a playwright and
Although many records of Shakespeare’s life as a citizen of Stratford have survived, including his marriage and birth certificates, very little information exists about his life as a young playwright. Legend characterizes Shakespeare as a roguish young man who was once forced to flee London under suspect circumstances, but the paltry amount of written information does not necessarily confirm this facet of his personality.
In any case, young Will was not an immediate universal success. The earliest written record of Shakespeare’s life in London comes from a statement by his rival playwright Robert Greene. With Richard III, Henry VI, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus under his belt, Shakespeare became a popular playwright by 1590. The year 1593, however, marked a major leap forward in his career when he secured a prominent patron: The Earl of Southampton. In addition, Venus and Adonis was published; it one of the first of Shakespeare’s known works to be printed and it was a huge success. Next came The Rape of Lucrece. By this time, Shakespeare had also made his mark as a poet, as most scholars agree that he wrote the majority of his sonnets in the 1590s.
In 1594, Shakespeare returned to the theater and became a charter member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – a group of actors who changed their name to the King’s Men when James I ascended the throne. By 1598, Shakespeare had been appointed the principal comedian for the troupe; by 1603, he was principal tragedian. He remained associated with the organization until his death. Although acting and playwriting were not considered noble professions at the time, successful and prosperous actors were relatively well respected. Shakespeare’s success left him with a fair amount of money, which he invested in Stratford real estate. In 1597, he purchased the second largest house in Stratford – the New Place – for his parents. In 1596, Shakespeare applied for a coat of arms for his family, in effect making himself a gentleman. Consequently, his daughters made “good matches,” and married wealthy men.
The same year that he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, and several other plays. In 1600, he wrote two of his greatest tragedies, Hamlet and Julius Caesar. Historians and scholars consider Hamlet to be the first modern play because of its multi-faceted main character and unprecedented depiction of the human psyche.
William Shakespeare died in 1616. His wife Anna died in 1623, at the age of 67. Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of his church at Stratford. Sometime before 1623, a unerary monument was erected in his memory on the north wall, with a half-effigy of him in the act of writing. Its plaque compares him to Nestor, Socrates, and Virgil. In 1623, in conjunction with the publication of the First Folio, the Droeshout engraving was published. Shakespeare has been commemorated in many statues and memorials around the world, including funeral monuments in Southwark Cathedral and Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
In conclusion, William did incredible things. He was able to write 37 plays, averaging 1.5 plays per year, all while dealing with social, family, and business life. Some scholars believe that he wrote 20 more that were lost, making the total 57 plays and 154 sonnets. None of his plays were published until after his death. Now, some are questioning whether the great Shakespeare wrote all the plays himself. In fact, some are questioning whether he existed at all. Either way, his works were so magnificent that they are now translated to every major language in the world.
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