William Shakespeare Biography

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William Shakespeare Birthplace

William Shakespeare Biography – Highlights Of A Life

As with nearly everything involving the Bard beyond his vast popularity, any attempt to build an agreed upon William Shakespeare biography creates 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.

Public Records For Shakespeare’s Biography

Everything we know about William Shakespeare’s life comes primarily from available public records. No formal biography exists until approximately one hundred years after his death. Biographies for those who were not of noble birth were not normally written at the time Shakespeare lived.

To Shakespeare’s Detractors

This lack of a narrative biography for the Bard, however, should not cast doubt on what we do know about the poet’s life. Despite the claims of his detractors or those seeking to enlist his support for their pet social justice agenda, Shakespeare is no greater mystery than most notables from previous eras. While there are gaps in the record, 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, but we know he was baptized on April 26, 1564 at the local parish. He was the oldest surviving child of John Shakespeare, a local glover, and Mary Arden. The Ardens were a prominent family in the Stratford community. Go to William Shakespeare’s Early Life for more about his birth, family, and the town in which he was born

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. Though literate, he did not attend a University. According to contemporaries, he was not one the “University Wits,” the name given to playwrights in Shakespeare’s day with a university education. See William Shakespeare’s Educationfor more on this much discussed topic.

Shakespeare’s Marriage

In 1582, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, and their first daughter, Susanna, was born. William was eighteen when they wed. Anne was twenty-six. For more on William Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway, see my blog post on “Shakespeare’s Life“.

The Lost Years In The William Shakespeare Biography

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.” Early biographers assumed he worked in his father’s tanning business or as a local butcher. Some suggest he might have toured outside of London with a passing drama troupe. Still others believe he worked for a time as a private tutor for a recusant Catholic household in Lancashire.

Shakespeare In London

In London, Shakespeare developed a significant reputation and audience 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. To download your own copies of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, go to my Shakespeare Plays And Poetry page. Also, check out my blog page for descriptions of his many works.

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

Shakespeare’s Wealth

Along with his success as a playwright and poet, William Shakespeare also gained significant wealth as a businessman and investor. Through his position as a managing member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, London’s most popular acting company, he 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 unchallenged 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. In the same vein, a year earlier, in 1596, Shakespeare’s father John, was granted a coat of arms. We presume the Bard arranged for this as well.

William Shakespeare’s Death

One of the last plays William Shakespeare worked on was The Two Noble Kinsmen which he wrote 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, but we do know his brother-in-law also passed away a week earlier. Check out “Shakespeare’s Life” for more on his passing and the infamous curse affixed to his grave.

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

Last Will And Testament

A final ongoing controversy surrounding William Shakespeare’s death has to do with a correction to his will in which he leaves his “second best bed” to his wife, Anne Hathaway. Nowhere else do we find her mentioned in the document. This incident combined with the years he spent away working in London lead scholars to question the precise nature of their relationship. “Shakespeare’s Life” provides further details about this controversial marriage and a number of other issues as well .

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