Shakespeare’s Life

In this post, I present a brief video biography of Shakespeare’s life along with accompanying text. I focus on his birth, family, education, and writing career. I’ll highlight his literary accomplishments and accumulated wealth.

Mystery And Controversy Surrounding Shakespeare’s Life

What’s more, I’ll look at a controversial theory by Germaine Greer about Shakespeare’s wife. I also examine a recurring complaint surrounding the lack of information we have available to us. Finally, I conclude, as all things must, with his death, burial, and the remarkable curse written on his gravestone.

Check out my Youtube channel for more videos on William Shakespeare’s life and art.

Who Was William Shakespeare?

As with nearly everything involving the Bard, attempts to build an agreed upon biography create many challenges. Questions like where he lived or when he died are fairly straightforward. Others like how he lived, or those dealing with his early life, education, or marriage are more complicated. Even his move to London draws controversy.

Image of “William Shakespeare’s Family Circle” Unknown German engraver, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“William Shakespeare’s Family Circle” Unknown German engraver, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Like many historical figures, the more intimate details of his life are missing. His life must be pieced together from public documents and other sources. Unfortunately, he had few known associations. Indirect background material provided by the Bard’s contemporaries is also scarce. These interpreted relationships account for the differing opinions about who William Shakespeare was and the meaning we attach to what he wrote.

Public Records

As for the more concrete details surrounding his life, most of what we know comes primarily from official public records. No formal biography exists until approximately one hundred years after his death. The narrative biographies of famous people and celebrities we expect to see today are largely a modern occurrence. No one wrote biographies at the time Shakespeare lived for those who were not of noble birth.

Image of "Shakespeare in His Study" British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“Shakespeare in His Study” British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

No Personal Correspondence

Personal correspondence too was much less common in Shakespeare’s day than it later became. Paper was expensive. Letters were privately delivered assuming the recipient could also read and respond. Therefore, correspondence tended to be reserved for legal or professional matters. As a working playwright, Shakespeare was much more likely to spend his resources producing work for the stage rather than writing letters, notes, or memoirs.

Still, Shakespeare is no greater mystery than most notables from previous eras. There are gaps in the record, however, other important details are clearly documented.

William Shakespeare’s Birth and Early Life

William Shakespeare was most likely born in Stratford, England on or about April 23, 1564. No records of his birth exist. He was, however, baptized on April 26, 1564 at the local parish.

Image of "Stratford on Avon Historic Map" 1902 via Wikimedia Commons
“Stratford on Avon Historic Map” 1902 via Wikimedia Commons

He was the oldest surviving child of John Shakespeare, a local glover, and Mary Arden. The Ardens were a prominent land-owning farm family in the Stratford area. Shakespeare’s grandfather, was a tenant farmer on the Arden’s property. It is likely through this relationship that Shakespeare’s father, John, met Mary. Mary’s father died before the marriage, naming Mary as executor of the estate.

Image of "Mary Arden House Wilmcote, UK" Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“Mary Arden House Wilmcote, UK” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He also left her a valuable piece of land as an inheritance. For an ambitious local merchant, John’s marriage into the Arden family would seem a step up socially.

Shakespeare’s Life And Education

Due to John Shakespeare’s connections as a local government official, young William probably attended the local grammar school. There, he studied Latin and classical literature.

Image of Stratford grammar school in the 1570's
The Grammar School, Stratford on Avon in the 1570’s Francis S Walker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Though literate, he did not attend a University. He was not one of the “University Wits.” This was the name given to poets and playwrights in Shakespeare’s day with a university education.

Image of Ben Jonson National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“Ben Jonson” National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fellow playwright and friend, Ben Jonson, remarks directly on the Shakespeare’s limited education in his introduction to the First Folio edition of the Bard’s collected works published shortly after his death.

Things To Know About Shakespeare’s Marriage

In 1582, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, and their first daughter, Susanna, was born.

Image of Portrait of Anne Hathaway JschneiderWiki, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
“Portrait of Anne Hathaway” JschneiderWiki, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons, The only surviving image that may depict Anne Hathaway (1555/56 – 6 August 1623), the wife of William Shakespeare, is a portrait line-drawing made by Sir Nathaniel Curzon in 1708, referred to as “Shakespear’s Consort”.

William was eighteen when they wed. Anne was twenty-six. Because Shakespeare spent so much of his life in London away from his family, many scholars believe his marriage to Anne was not a happy one. Some suggest he may have been gay. Others think he kept a mistress in London to whom he was truly devoted. Despite the influence of popular movies like “Shakespeare In Love,” no actual evidence exists for these claims.

Image of Shakespeare In Love from Youtube movie review by Kevin Falk
“Shakespeare In Love” from Youtube movie review by Kevin Falk

At least one scholar, Germaine Greer, however, disagrees with the traditional view of Shakespeare’s marriage.

Germaine Greer Photo Helen Morgan, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
“Germaine Greer” Photo by Helen Morgan, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In her book Shakespeare’s Wife, she challenges the narratives depicting an unhappy union. She insists the Shakespeare’s marriage was, in fact, successful in its own way. For Greer, it was Anne Hathaway’s strength and business sense that enabled her husband to become the timeless genius we know today. While not without its flaws, the book is well researched and presents a compelling alternative to the traditional narrative.

Shakespeare's Wife book cover image
“Shakespeare’s Wife” book cover image from

Watch for my review of this fascinating book in a future video.

The Lost Years

By 1592, Shakespeare was an established actor and playwright in London. However, when or why he moved there, we do not know. The record from 1585 to 1592 is dark. Scholars refer to this gap as “the lost years.” Numerous suggestions and theories exist about what the Bard may have been up to during this mysterious period.

Please tell me in the comments if this topic interests you.

Shakespeare’s Life In London

In London, Shakespeare developed a significant reputation as an accomplished actor, playwright, and poet. His poetry includes two narrative poems, “Venus and Adonis,” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” along with more than 150 sonnets. His stage writing consists of 37 plays including 14 comedies, 11 history plays, and 12 tragedies. He also coined a number of new words in the English language.

Image of Red Rose on white by George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Red Rose On White” by George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Countless lines and passages from his plays and poetry like, “a rose by any other name…,” are so firmly embedded in our culture that many use them without realizing where they come from.

Things To Know About Shakespeare’s Wealth

Along with his success as a playwright and poet, William Shakespeare also gained significant wealth as a businessman and investor. He was a shareholder and managing member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, London’s most popular acting company.

Illustration of Shakespeare's original Globe theatre
The Old Globe theatre, Wenceslaus Hollar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Later, he also became a stockholder in the Globe Theater. Over time, he acquired a share in the indoor Blackfriar’s Theater as well. These and other non-theatre investments made Shakespeare both prosperous and well-known at the time.

New Place

William Shakespeare’s success in the theatre and his investments in the Globe and Blackfriar’s theatres made him notably prosperous. In 1597, he purchased New Place, the second largest house in his home town of Stratford.

Coat of Arms image by Tomasz Steifer, Gdansk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
“Shakespeare Coat of Arms” Tomasz Steifer, Gdansk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A year earlier, in 1596, Shakespeare’s father John, acquired a coat of arms. We presume the Bard arranged for this as well.

Things To Know About William Shakespeare’s Death

One of the last plays William Shakespeare wrote was The Two Noble Kinsmen with John Fletcher in 1613. At some point after this collaboration, he retired to his home in Stratford. He died there on April 23, 1616. The cause of his death is unknown. His brother-in-law, however, also passed away a week earlier.

William Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in his hometown of Stratford following his death. A monument with an engraved statue of the Bard was erected over his grave.

Photograph of the Stratford Bust of William Shakespeare.
Photograph of the Stratford Bust of William Shakespeare.
Photo: Harold Baker, Birmingham, England,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Family and friends approved the engraving. For this reason, the statue is considered one of the best representations of how Shakespeare may have actually looked.

Image of Shakespeare's grave by Roberto231, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
“Shakespeare’s Grave” by Roberto231, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A famous curse, believed to be written by the poet himself, adorns his gravestone. It reads:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

Check out my William Shakespeare Biography page for more highlights of his remarkable life.

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Music used in this video includes:

‘The Medieval Banquet’ by Silverman Sound is under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0) Music promoted by BreakingCopyright:

Suonatore di Liuto Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

The Bard Without Revisionism

Video originally posted on my YouTube channel.

In the just over four hundred years since the Bard of Avon’s passing on April 23, 1616, William Shakespeare’s popularity has only continued to grow. With the rise of the Internet, his myth, once confined predominantly to the English-speaking world and those societies most deeply impacted by European culture, now extends to acolytes around the world.

Image of Cook County Jail "Othello" rap performance
“Othello” rap performance at Cook County Jail

An interesting example of this is the “Bard Behind Bars” movement. This program, and others like, brings Shakespeare to prison inmates around the world. This image, for example, is from a rap version of Othello performed at the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois. Some prisons even mount fully staged productions acted by the prisoners themselves.

Re-imagining The Bard


While a general appreciation of the Bard’s unique talents continues to grow beyond the ivy-covered walls of academia, an ever-widening gap exists between traditional scholars and an increasingly postmodern culture. Despite their enthusiasm, these new fans often myopically pass over Shakespeare’s deeper insights trying to modernize his writing. He is recast as an apologist for ideas that bear little resemblance to his more complex view of human nature.

Image of George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw, Nobel laureate in Literature 1925 Nobel Foundation,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To remedy this situation, I suggest we, as Shakespeare scholars, step away somewhat from a tendency among some towards what George Bernard once sneeringly called “Bardolatry.” Such uncritical worship and an overly literary approach to Shakespeare’s writing is the problem. Culture and historical context still matter.

The Bard of Avon: A Man Of The Theatre

We must remember when approaching the Bard that William Shakespeare was not a man of letters. He was a man of the theatre with the unique perspective and qualities that art form engenders.

William Shakespeare was a largely self-educated commoner. Though literate, he had only a modest grammar school education through his father’s standing as a local public official. He learned his craft on the public stages of Elizabethan London. In the Hurley-burly atmosphere of that unique community, he undoubtedly copied the better educated writers of his day while honing his observation, mimicry, and oratory skills as an actor.

Image of Shakesperean stage performance
Shakespeare Stage, Image by David Mark from Pixabay

As Philip Howard reminds us in the London Times article, “Antidotes to Bardolatry:”

The Shakespearean repertory system was as frantic as producing a weekly color mag (or a daily TV soap opera).​ They mounted a different play every afternoon, six days a week, staging as many as 30 different plays a year, many of them continuously updated, improved and improvised, and they never repeated even the most popular play more than four or five times in one month.​ The actors (and the playwrights) had far less time for rehearsal, perfectionism, and prima-donnaism than their modern successors.

To fully appreciate what Shakespeare really accomplished, we must always bear in mind:

  • that theatre, at its core, is a collaborative and pragmatic art,
  • that play scripts, whatever their literary value, are primarily vehicles for live collaborative story-telling, and…​
  • that even his sonnets and other poetry, likely written as alternative sources of income during periods when the theaters were closed due to plague or political unrest, derived, at least in part, from lessons learned in writing for the stage.

Poetry For The Stage And Page

This does not in any way minimize the legitimate literary value of Shakespeare’s contemporaries or of the Bard himself. The poetry of the stage serves a quite different purpose than that created primarily for the page.

While literary poetry seeks to build an emotional connection between the poet and the reader directly through the mental imagery painted by the words themselves, poetry for the stage uses the music of dramatic language, rhyme, and meter to enhance the immersive visual imagery playing out live before an audience. It also provided direct mnemonic assistance to the performers themselves in retaining the vast amounts of material they were expected to have committed to memory for recall at any given time.

Image of Native American flute player
Native American Flute Player, Image by cstibi from Pixabay

It is no accident that cultures with a strong oral tradition frequently preserve their history in metered rhyme. It is also likely that the players of Shakespeare’s day embraced the poetic for similar reasons. Shakespeare, likewise, simply learned to master the tools at his disposal to their greatest effect.

In the end, the Bard of Avon is not so fragile that he can never be challenged. Neither does he need excessive modernizing or some witty re-imagining to make him comprehensible or meaningful to modern “woke” audiences. He speaks as he speaks, presenting humanity as he found it in his own day and as it continues to exist today. He truly wrote, as Ben Jonson assures us, “… not for an age, but for all time.”

Bust of William Shakespeare from the Folger Shakespeare library.

Check out my William Shakespeare Biography page for more on his unique life and surroundings.

Reference Used:

Howard, P. (1990). Antidotes to bardolatry. The Times (London, England).

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