The life of William Shakespeare, unquestionably the world’s most renowned playwright and poet, is based mostly on conjecture and inference, with the exception of documented facts acquired from his works, and surviving church and legal documents. Although the actual date of William Shakespeare’s birth was never recorded, accounts from Holy Trinity Church verify that he was baptized on April 26, 1564. Because infants were traditionally baptized within 3 days of birth, it is generally accepted that he was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.
The third of eight children, Shakespeare was the first son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, who were married in approximately 1557. John Shakespeare, a glover and leather merchant, was well respected in Stratford, where he held many civic offices, including High Bailiff, the equivalent of a city Mayor. Throughout William’s early childhood, John was considered a solid, successful citizen, but for reasons unknown, at some point during the late 1570s his fortunes began to decline, and he ceased participation in local government affairs.
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That Shakespeare actually attended grammar school is unknown, but it is likely that he was educated at The King’s New School, given his father’s status as a prominent citizen of Stratford. There, Shakespeare would have studied Latin and possibly Greek, and been exposed to such literary greats as Ovid and Plautus. While we know that Shakespeare did not attend a university, the events of his life between adolescence and early adulthood remain a mystery and have become the topic of much debate.
The next documented event in Shakespeare’s life is his marriage to Ann Hathaway on November 28, 1582. At 26, Hathaway was eight years older than Shakespeare, and three months pregnant at the time of their nuptials; it is probable that the two were hastily married in order to prevent disgrace. Whether or not Shakespeare truly loved his wife is a matter of speculation (in his will he bequeaths to her his “second-best bed.”), nevertheless, on May 26, 1583, Susanna, the first of three children, was born. Twins Hamnet and Judith arrived two years later in 1585, but sadly Hamnet died in 1596 at age 11.
No records survive as to the activities of Shakespeare from the time of his twins’ birth and 1592, now known as the “Lost Years.” However, in 1592 the London novelist and dramatist Robert Greene, in his A Groats-worth of Witte criticizes Shakespeare, referring to him as an “upstart crow,” demonstrating that he was already entrenched in the London theatre world. In fact, it is plausible that Shakespeare had written several plays by 1592, including The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, and many others.
By 1594, Shakespeare had become an active member of and managing partner in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of the most successful acting troupes in London. Until 1599 when they lost their lease, the troupe conducted performances at “The Theatre.” Luckily, they had acquired enough capital to cross the Thames and build a new theatre, known as “The Globe” in Southwark, using leftover lumber from “The Theatre.”
A few years later, in 1603, James I ascended the throne of England and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were thereafter known as the King’s Men. For the next ten years, Shakespeare and his troupe entertained at “The Globe,” until a cannon fired from the roof during a showing of Henry VIII burned down the entire theatre. Although Shakespeare provided financial support for the rebuilding process, he no longer participated as a member of the King’s Men.
Having enjoyed substantial financial success throughout his career, Shakespeare was able to purchase New House, the second-largest home in Stratford in 1597. In approximately 1613, Shakespeare retired to New House, where he continued to write until his death at age 52, purportedly on his birthday. It is not clear that Shakespeare actually died on April 23, but records do indicate that he was interred at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford on April 25, 1616. During his short lifetime, William Shakespeare managed to write 37 plays and 154 sonnets-a body of work unrivalled for over 400 years.
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