William Shakespeare Early Life

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Shakespeare’s Birth

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in England to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden on April 23, 1564—more or less. More precise birth records were not kept when he lived more than four hundred and fifty years ago. If this surprises you, it shouldn’t.

Modern Birth Records Are A Recent Practice

People were normally born at home until quite recently. Families themselves recorded the event—if records were kept. Most family bibles, in face, still carry a formal family records section for recording such events to this day.

Image of Shakespeare's Baptism Record
Parish Register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1558-1776, entry for April 26, 1564 Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK

Shakespeare’s Baptism

We know for certain that young Will was baptized at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford on April 25, 1564 . We arrive at his accepted birthday by projecting backwards two days from his baptism.

Shakespeare’s Mother

William Shakespeare’s mother was Mary Arden, the youngest daughter of the local Arden family. The Ardens were well off farmers near Stratford. They were also one of the most infamous Catholic recusant families in Warwickshire.

In 1583, Mary’s cousin Edward was caught harboring a priest. The government hanged him and impaled his head on a stake atop London bridge as a warning to others. William Shakespeare’s grandfather, Richard, was a tenant farmer on the Arden’s property. Mary likely met Shakespeare’s father, John, through this relationship.

William Shakespeare’s Father

John Shakespeare was an accomplished glover and prosperous businessman when young Will was born. He was also a successful city official and held a number of elected positions over the years. In 1557, he served as Official Ale-taster for Stratford which was known for its brewing. In 1561, he won election as chamberlain for the borough and alderman in 1565. He became high bailiff (or mayor) in 1568 and chief alderman in 1571.

Image of Shakespeare grammar school classroom.
Shakespeare Grammar School Classroom Edmund Hort New (1871-1931), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

William Shakespeare Goes To School

Because John Shakespeare’s public service included free education for his sons, young William attended Stratford’s local grammar school. Despite Ben Jonson’s claim that “he possessed small Latin and less Greek,” we should not assume his education was lacking.

Even a basic education in Shakespeare’s day included the study of Latin grammar and basic rhetoric as well as the reading and memorization of classical literature. Arithmetic and astronomy were also common. For more on Shakespeare’s probable course of study, check out my page on William Shakespeare’s Education .

William Meets The Players

Another perk associated with his father’s influence in local affairs was young Will’s childhood exposure to the theatrical players his father regularly invited to perform in Stratford. According to Bard biographer, Alfred C. Calmour, John Shakespeare showed a fondness for dramatic performance. As Bailiff, he contracted the best drama troupes in England to perform in Stratford when they toured outside of London.

The Stratford Connection

Under John Shakespeare’s tenure as Bailiff the number of acting companies visiting Stratford increased significantly. The Queen’s Players and the Earl of Worcester’s Men appeared in 1568 and 1569. The Earl of Leicester’s Players, the Earl of Warwick Men, and the Earl of Worcester’s Company performed in 1573 and 1576. In 1577, the Earl of Leicester’s Players and the Earl of Worcester’s Men returned. Finally, the Countess of Essex’s Players and the Earl of Derby’s Servants visited in 1580.

James Burbage And The Earl of Leicester’s Men

Among the many Drama Troupes visiting Stratford, two, the Earl of Warwick’s Men and the Earl of Leicester’s Players included men from Stratford in their companies. The Earl of Leicester’s Men, moreover, were led by none other than James Burbage, the senior member of the famous theatrical family with whom William Shakespeare himself would become personally associated.

John Shakespeare’s Fall From Grace

Near the peak of his success in 1570, John Shakespeare applied for a gentleman’s coat of arms. Unfortunately, in just over a year, his fortunes began to slip. The coat of arms application was not completed. We do not know why. We do, however, know from this moment forward that John Shakespeare “would go from wealthy business owner and dedicated civil servant to debtor and absentee council member.”

A Recusant Catholic

One explanation for this rapid change in circumstance may be the 1571 Treasons Act. This law effectively made practicing Catholics enemies of the State and required government officials to take an oath of supremacy to the Queen.

The strong Catholic connections associated with Shakespeare’s mother suggest his father’s sudden troubles may be related as well. In 1592, he was fined £20 or $10,000 in today’s currency as a recusant or Catholic who refused to attend Anglican services. For more on this, go to “Was The Bard Catholic?”

The Glover’s Son Takes A Wife

Whatever the reasons for John Shakespeare’s financial difficulties, young William’s education suddenly ended. The family needed the income. Although some sources suggest that Shakespeare may have tried his hand as a butcher, it is just as likely that he attempted to follow his father’s trade and become a tanner or glover.

In 1582, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway who was eight years his senior and expecting their first child. See my Shakespeare’s life for more on his marriage and family.

Shakespeare Flees Stratford

In 1585, Anne gave birth to twins, Judith and Hamnet. Shortly after, Shakespeare himself abruptly leaves Stratford and disappears from view for seven years before reappearing in London as an up and coming actor and playwright in 1592.

Shakespeare scholars refer to the time as “the lost years,” because we know nothing for certain about where he was or how he began his theatrical career. When he reappears in London, he is already an up and coming playwright and theatre professional. Return to my “Shakespeare Biography” page for more on his amazing life.

REFERENCES:

Asquith, C. (2006). Shadowplay: the hidden beliefs and coded politics of William Shakespeare (Pbk. ed). PublicAffairs.
Calmour, A. C. (1894). Fact and Fiction About Shakespeare With Some Account of the Playhouses, Players, and Playwrights of His Period (Stratford-Upon-Avon). George Boyden.
William Shakespeare Biography. (2011, July 6). No Sweat Shakespeare. https://www.nosweatshakespeare.com/resources/william-shakespeare-biography/
Was Shakespeare Catholic? (2021, April 10). https://www.shakespearestudyguide.com/Catholic.html
Parish register entry recording William Shakespeare’s baptism. (2021, February 7). Shakespeare Documented. https://shakespearedocumented.folger.edu/resource/document/parish-register-entry-recording-william-shakespeares-baptism
mcarafano. (2014, December 15). Shakespeare’s Life [Text]. Folger Shakespeare Library. https://www.folger.edu/shakespeares-life
Jonson, B. (2020, November 16). Ben Jonson: To... William Shakespeare. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/jonson/benshake.htm

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