Study Guide

William Shakespeare Biography

  • Biography

    "All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players." But then again, according to Shakespeare, so is everything else.

  • Childhood

    William Shakespeare was born 23 April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, an small English market town located about 100 miles northwest of London along the banks of the River Avon. William's father, John Shakespeare, was a prominent local citizen who served as an alderman and bailiff (important roles in local government). His mother was Mary Arden Shakespeare, after whom Shakespeare named the Forest of Arden in the play As You Like It. William was the fourth of the Shakespeares' eight children, only five of whom survived to adulthood.

    Though some ill-informed biographers have depicted Shakespeare as poor and uneducated (more on that later), that wasn't really the case. By the age of four or five, young William Shakespeare was enrolled at the King's New School in Stratford, a grammar school run for the benefit of the sons (tough luck, daughters) of civil servants like John Shakespeare. By today's standards, the education that boys like Will Shakespeare received at these grammar schools was incredibly rigorous. Classes started at dawn and were held six days a week. Boys studied the alphabet, moved on to the Book of Common Prayer, and by the ripe old age of seven began instruction in Latin. "They began with what was considered the relatively easy Latin of Aesop's Fables (translated from Greek), then Caesar, and then moved on to Cicero, Virgil, Ovid (the author that seems to have been Shakespeare's favorite), Horace, Suetonius, Livy, and, notably for a dramatist, Seneca, Terence and (perhaps) Plautus,"blank">Homer.

  • Anne Hathaway

    No records survive for the grammar school in Stratford, so we don't know exactly when Shakespeare entered and left. The only hard facts we have about the first 28 years of Shakespeare's life come from church records. On 28 November 1582, the Bishop of Worcester issued a marriage license to "William Shagspere" and "Ann Hathwey." This confirmed the marriage of William Shakespeare, then 18 years old, and Anne Hathaway, the 26-year-old daughter of a local farmer. She was already pregnant at the time of their marriage; six months after their wedding, the couple baptized their daughter, Susanna. Two years later, Anne Hathaway gave birth to twins, a son named Hamnet and a daughter named Judith.

    No records exist of what Shakespeare was up to between 1585 and 1592, a period often referred to by Shakespeare scholars as the "Lost Years." Some early biographies speculated that he was forced to flee Stratford after he was caught poaching deer on a neighbor's property—this was a pretty serious offense at the time. Other theories hold that he was employed as a butcher, a teacher, or a clerk in a local attorney's office. How did he become involved the theater world? When did he leave Stratford and set out for London? We don't know. All we know for sure is that by 1592, Shakespeare had become popular enough to be hated.

  • Playwright

    In 1592, the ailing playwright Robert Greene published what might be the most significant diss in literary history. Why? Because his mean-spirited pamphlet proves that by 1592, Shakespeare was famous enough in the London theater scene to make someone really, really jealous.

    "There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger's heart wrapped in a Player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you," wrote Greene in a missive to his fellow playwrights. "Being an absolute Iohannes fac totum [jack of all trades], is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country." Though he never mentioned Shakespeare by name, it was pretty clear who was the target of Greene's bile. Robert Greene was furious that this young nobody, who didn't even have a university degree like Green or his fancy-pants fellow playwrights, would dare to make such a splash in their waters. Greene's personal reputation certainly did not outlast Shakespeare's—he died soon after the tirade was published, and his embarrassed publisher was forced to apologize to Shakespeare. Fortunately for biographers, his attack picks up the cold trail of Shakespeare's life.

    Sometime during the Lost Years, Shakespeare moved to London to pursue a career as an actor and playwright (his wife and children stayed behind in Stratford). He was not the only country boy in England heading toward the big city. London was undergoing a Renaissance of its own, growing rapidly from a riverside merchant town into a major metropolitan city. It was also, by modern standards, a nasty, filthy, disgusting dump. Raw sewage ran in the streets. There was no way to get clean water. Public spaces closed down every few years while bubonic plague rolled through—the outbreak that shut down theaters in the late 1590s was considered a minor one, since only 5 percent of the city's population died. It was a coarse, rough place, but for a young Englishman in love with the stage, it was the only place to be.

    Shakespeare had been working as an actor and dramatist for a few years already when theaters and other public spaces were ordered closed in January 1593 due to an outbreak of the plague. Shakespeare used the break to compose two long poems, "Venus and Adonis," based on Ovid's Metamorphoses, and "The Rape of Lucrece," based on a Roman myth. The two poems were celebrated for their beauty and lyricism. Both were dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton, whom Shakespeare was fortunate enough to have adopted as a patron. "The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end," Shakespeare wrote in the dedication to "The Rape of Lucrece." "The warrant I have of your honorable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours."blank">The Merry Wives of Windsor all likely penned in that one year.

  • Globe Theatre

    The Chamberlain's Men performed for the queen in the royal court, but they also performed for the middle-class public. In 1599 the company finished construction on the Globe Theatre, a wooden, open-air playhouse designed with the stage in the center and the audience arranged in tiers that rose up from the polygon-shaped floor. Many of Shakespeare's best-known plays premiered here, including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night.

    Attendance at a Globe production was hardly the dignified, hushed event that we consider attending the theater to be today. Since this was long before electricity was invented, all performances were held during the day. There were no lights, curtains, microphones, or actresses—young men played female roles. You could shell out half-a-crown (about $50 today) for a box seat, or pay a penny ($1.66) to stand on the floor with the other common folks. Actors—or "players," as they were known at that time—were generally considered by the Elizabethans to be a scruffy, itinerant bunch, though the profession gained more respect during Shakespeare's time. Their acting was not necessarily what we would consider "good." To make themselves understood in the noisy, open-air theater, actors relied on exaggerated gestures and cadence to get their points across. Acting meant overacting.

    Despite the stuffy conditions in the theater or the hamminess of the guys on stage, Shakespeare's language made the plays unforgettable. In an introductory note to the First Folio, Shakespeare's actor colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell wrote that Shakespeare's plays appealed to all, "From the most able, to him that can but spell."blank" rel="nofollow">As You Like It into cross-dressing ladies? Probably not. Shakespeare's inspiration was, as far as we know, not his personal experience. It was the human experience, and of this he was an unparalleled observer.

  • Hamnet & Hamlet

    In 1601 Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. What prompted this mournful, melancholy play, whose main character's first actions alone on stage are to contemplate suicide, mourning "How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world"?

  • Death

    Sometime between 1610 and 1613, Shakespeare left London and moved back to Stratford, where his wife and married daughters had been living all the while. By this time, Shakespeare was a wealthy and well-known man. Thanks to shrewd investments with the returns from his shares in the Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare had become rich. He owned the second-largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon. He moved in lofty circles among prominent people he met through his associations with the royal court and with wealthy patrons like Southampton. He had made his name and a successful career, and settled into a retirement that turned out to be rather short. By the spring of 1616, Shakespeare fell ill with some kind of illness; his precise ailment has been lost to history. On 23 April 1616, his 52nd birthday, William Shakespeare died. He was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, the same place he was baptized. As one final testament to his famous wit, he had his tombstone inscribed with a rather hilarious curse: "Good friend for Jesus sake forbear / To dig the dust enclosed here! / Blest be the man that spares these stones, / And curst be he that moves my bones." It was somehow a fitting way to draw the curtain on Shakespeare's life.

    In his memorial bust in Stratford (said to be one of only two accurate representations of the way he actually looked), Shakespeare holds a quill above an inscription that refers to "all that he hath writ."

    • Family

      Father: John Shakespeare (1530-1601)
      Mother: Mary Arden Shakespeare (?-1608)
      Sister: Joan Shakespeare (1558)
      Sister: Margaret Shakespeare (1562-1563)
      Brother: Gilbert Shakespeare (1556-1612)
      Sister: Joan Shakespeare Hart (1569-1646)
      Sister: Anne Shakespeare (1571-1579)
      Brother: Richard Shakespeare (1574-1613)
      Brother: Edmund Shakespeare (1580-1607)

      Wife: Anne Hathaway (1556-1623)
      Daughter: Susanna Shakespeare Hall (1583-1649)
      Son: Hamnet Shakespeare (1585-1596)
      Daughter: Judith Shakespeare Quiney (1585-1662)