William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous writer of the English language, known for both his plays and sonnets. Though much about his life remains open to debate due to incomplete evidence, the following biography consolidates the most widely-accepted facts of Shakespeare's life and career.
In the mid-sixteenth century, William Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, moved to the idyllic town of Stratford-upon-Avon. There, he became a successful landowner, moneylender, glove-maker, and dealer of wool and agricultural goods. In 1557, he married Mary Arden.
During John Shakespeare's time, the British middle class was expanding in both size and wealth, allowing its members more freedoms and luxuries, as well as a stronger collective voice in local government. John took advantage of the changing times and became a member of the Stratford Council in 1557, which marked the beginning of his illustrious political career. By 1561, he was elected as one of the town's fourteen burgesses, and subsequently served as Constable, then Chamberlain, and later, Alderman. In all of these positions, the elder Shakespeare administered borough property and revenues. In 1567, he became bailiff - the highest elected office in Stratford and the equivalent of a modern-day mayor.
Town records indicate that William Shakespeare was John and Mary's third child. His birth is unregistered, but legend pins the date as April 23, 1564, possibly because it is known that he died on the same date 52 years later. In any event, William's baptism was registered with the town of Stratford on April 26, 1564. Little is known about his childhood, although it is generally assumed that he attended the local grammar school, the King's New School. The school was staffed by Oxford-educated faculty who taught the students mathematics, natural sciences, logic, Christian ethics, and classical languages and literature.
Shakespeare did not attend university, which was not unusual for the time. University education was reserved for wealthy sons of the elite, and even then, mostly just those who wanted to become clergymen. The numerous classical and literary references in Shakespeare’s plays are a testament, however, to the excellent education he received in grammar school, and speaks to his ability as an autodidact. His early plays in particular draw on the works of Seneca and Plautus. Even more impressive than Shakespeare's formal education is the wealth of general knowledge he exhibits in his work. His vocabulary exceeds that of any other English writer of his time by a wide margin.
In 1582, at the age of eighteen, William Shakespeare married twenty-six-year-old Anne Hathaway. Their first daughter, Susanna, was not baptized until six months after her birth - a fact that has given rise to speculation over the circumstances surrounding the marriage. In 1585, Anne bore twins, baptized Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare. Hamnet died at the age of eleven, by which time William Shakespeare was already a successful playwright. Around 1589, Shakespeare wrote Henry VI, Part 1, which is considered to be his first play. Sometime between his marriage and writing this play, he moved to London, where he pursued a career as a playwright and actor.
Although many records of Shakespeare's life as a citizen of Stratford have survived, including his marriage and birth certificates, very little information exists about his life as a young playwright. Legend characterizes Shakespeare as a roguish young man who was once forced to flee London under suspect circumstances, perhaps related to his love life, but the paltry amount of written information does not necessarily confirm this facet of his personality.
In any case, young Will was not an immediate universal success. The earliest written record of Shakespeare's life in London comes from a statement by his rival playwright Robert Greene. In Groatsworth of Witte (1592), Greene calls Shakespeare an "upstart crow...[who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." While this is hardly high praise, it does suggest that Shakespeare rattled London's theatrical hierarchy from the beginning of his career. In retrospect, it is possible to attribute Greene's complaint to jealousy of Shakespeare's ability, but the scarcity of evidence renders the comment ambiguous.
With Richard III, Henry VI, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus under his belt, Shakespeare became a popular playwright by 1590.* The year 1593, however, marked a major leap forward in his career when he secured a prominent patron: The Earl of Southampton. In addition, Venus and Adonis was published; it one of the first of Shakespeare's known works to be printed, and it was a huge success. Next came The Rape of Lucrece. By this time, Shakespeare had also made his mark as a poet, as most scholars agree that he wrote the majority of his sonnets in the 1590s.
In 1594, Shakespeare returned to the theater and became a charter member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men - a group of actors who changed their name to the King's Men when James I ascended the throne. By 1598, Shakespeare had been appointed the "principal comedian" for the troupe; by 1603, he was "principal tragedian." He remained associated with the organization until his death. Although acting and playwriting were not considered noble professions at the time, successful and prosperous actors were relatively well respected. Shakespeare’s success left him with a fair amount of money, which he invested in Stratford real estate. In 1597, he purchased the second largest house in Stratford - the New Place - for his parents. In 1596, Shakespeare applied for a coat of arms for his family, in effect making himself a gentleman. Consequently, his daughters made “good matches,” and married wealthy men.
The same year that he joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, Love's Labour's Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, and several other plays. In 1600, he wrote two of his greatest tragedies, Hamlet and Julius Caesar. Historians and scholars consider Hamlet to be the first modern play because of its multi-faceted main character and unprecedented depiction of the human psyche.
The first decade of the seventeenth century witnessed the debut performances of several of Shakespeare’s most celebrated works, including many of his so-called history plays: Othello in 1604 or 1605; Antony and Cleopatra in 1606 or 1607; and King Lear in 1608. The last of Shakespeare's plays to be performed during his lifetime was most likely King Henry VIII in either 1612 or 1613.
William Shakespeare died in 1616. His wife Anna died in 1623, at the age of 67. Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of his church at Stratford. The lines above his tomb, allegedly written by Shakespeare himself, read:
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
*The dates of composition and debut performance of almost all of Shakespeare's plays remain uncertain. The dates used in this note are widely agreed upon by scholars, but there is still significant debate around the dates of completion for many of his plays.
William Shakespeare Biography
Born: April 23, 1564
Died: April 23, 1616
English dramatist and poet
The English playwright, poet, and actor William Shakespeare was a popular dramatist. He was born six years after Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) ascended the throne, in the height of the English Renaissance. He found in the theater of London a medium just coming into its own and an audience eager to reward talents of the sort he possessed. He is generally acknowledged to be the greatest of English writers and one of the most extraordinary creators in human history.
William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a wealthy landowner from a neighboring village. His father, John, was a maker of gloves and a trader in farm produce. John also held a number of responsible positions in Stratford's government and served as mayor in 1569.
Though no personal documents survive from Shakespeare's school years, he probably attended the Stratford grammar school and studied the classics, Latin grammar and literature. It is believed that he had to discontinue his education at about thirteen in order to financially help his father. At eighteen he married Ann Hathaway. They had three children, Susanna, Hamnet, and Judith.
There are no records of Shakespeare's activities between 1585 and 1592. Some have speculated (guessed) that he was a traveling actor or a country schoolmaster. The earliest surviving mention of his career in London, England, is a jealous attack by Robert Greene, a playwright, which indicates that Shakespeare had already established himself in the capital. It is hard to believe that even Shakespeare could have shown the mastery evident in his plays without several years of apprenticeship (the period of time a person works to learn a skill).
Three early comedies demonstrate that Shakespeare had learned to fuse conventional characters with convincing representations of the human life he knew. Shakespeare's first play is probably The Comedy of Errors (1590). Most acknowledge it as a brilliant and intricate farce (a humorous piece of work with a story unlikely to happen in real life) involving two sets of identical twins. The plot of his next comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1591) revolves around a faithful girl who educates her fickle (inconsistent) lover. It has romantic woods, a girl dressed as a boy, sudden changes, music, and happy marriages at the end. The last of the first comedies, Love's Labour's Lost (1593), deals with three young men who attempt to withdraw from the world and women for three years to study in their king's school. They quickly surrender to a group of young ladies who come to live nearby.
Early history plays and first tragedy
Though little read and performed today, Shakespeare's first plays in the popular history genre (particular style) are equally ambitious and impressive. Henry VI (1592), which is performed in three parts, and Richard III (1594) form an epic (story of heroic figures). They deal with the tumultuous (disorderly, agitating) events of English history between the death of Henry V (1387–1422) in 1422 and Henry VII (1457–1509) assuming the
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Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus (1593), reveals similar ambition. It is recognized as a brilliant and successful piece in the tradition of the revenge play where someone tries to punish someone for a wrong that was done.
The theaters were closed because of plague (a bacteria-caused disease that spreads quickly and can cause death) during much of 1593 and 1594. At this time Shakespeare wrote two narrative poems for the Earl of Southampton. Both the seriocomic (both happy and sad) Venus and Adonis and the tragic Rape of Lucrece are based on the Renaissance traditions of myth and symbolism.
Shakespeare's most famous poems are the 154 sonnets. They were probably composed in this period but were not published until 1609. Sonnets are fourteen-line poems with a fixed rhyme scheme. Though they often suggest autobiographical revelation (the discovery or realization in oneself), the sonnets cannot be proved to be any less fictional than the plays.
The Lord Chamberlain's Men
In 1594 Shakespeare became principal writer for the successful Lord Chamberlain's Men in London. This was one of the two leading companies of actors. He also became a regular actor in the company and a partner in the group of artist-managers who ran it. The company performed regularly in unroofed but elaborate theaters that seated up to three thousand people. The actors performed on a huge platform stage equipped with additional levels for performances. The audience sat on three sides or stood on the ground in front of the stage. In 1599 this group had the Globe Theater built on the south bank of the Thames River.
Shakespeare produced many plays for the company. They include the comedies The Taming of the Shrew (1594) about the taming of an ill-tempered, scolding woman and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595), in which fairies and magic potions in moonlit woods become entangled with young lovers who escape from a cruel society. These were followed by The Merchant of Venice (1596), Much Ado about Nothing (1598), The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599), and As You Like It (1600).
Shakespeare's tragedies of the period are among his most familiar plays: Romeo and Juliet (1596), Julius Caesar (1599), and Hamlet (1601). Although very different from each other, they share the setting of intense personal tragedy in a large world vividly populated by what seems like the whole range of humanity. Like most of his contemporaries in the theater, Shakespeare used the same techniques in writing comedies as tragedies. Politics are constantly present, and what is best in the protagonist (hero) is what does him in when he finds himself in conflict with the world.
Shakespeare, continuing his interest in the historical play, wrote King John (1596). Despite its one strong character it is a relatively weak play. His other epics range from Richard II (1595), through the two parts of Henry IV (1597), to Henry V (1599). These four plays pose disturbing questions about politics, particularly the difference between the man capable of ruling and the man worthy of doing so. They are not optimistic about man as a political animal.
The "problem plays"
Several plays produced at the end of Elizabeth's reign are often grouped as Shakespeare's "problem plays." They are not easily categorized as either tragedies or comedies. All's Well That Ends Well (1602) is a romantic comedy with qualities that seem bitter to many critics because it presents romantic relations between men and women in a harsh light. Troilus and Cressida (1602), is a brilliant, sardonic (skeptically humorous), and disillusioned piece on the Trojan War. Measure for Measure (1604) focuses on the link between political power and romantic desire.
King's Men and the late tragedies
Upon ascending to the throne in 1603, King James I (1566–1625) bestowed his patronage upon the Lord Chamberlain's Men, so that the flag of the King's Men now flew over the Globe. During his last decade in the theater Shakespeare was to write fewer but perhaps even finer plays. Almost all the greatest tragedies belong to this period, and they share several qualities. The heroes are dominated by passions that make their moral (having to do with right and wrong) status increasingly ambiguous (not clearly one thing or another) and their freedom increasingly constricted. In the end, what destroys the hero is what is best about him. Like the histories, the late tragedies continue to be felt as intensely relevant to the concerns of modern men.
Othello (1604) is concerned with trust and betrayal. In King Lear (1605) an aged king foolishly deprives his only loving daughter of her heritage in order to leave everything to her hypocritical (only pretending to have morals) and vicious sisters. Macbeth (1606) concentrates on the problems of evil and freedom. It mingles the supernatural with history, and makes a sympathetic hero of a murderer who sins against family and state.
Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus (both written in 1607 and 1608) embody Shakespeare's bitterest images of political life. Antony and Cleopatra sets the temptation of romantic desire against the call to Roman duty. Coriolanus pits a protagonist (hero) who cannot live with hypocrisy (pretending to believe in something) against a society built on it. Both of these tragedies present ancient history with a vividness (intensity) that makes it seem contemporary.
A final group of plays takes a turn in a new direction. Pericles (1607), Cymbeline (1609), The Winter's Tale (1611), and The Tempest (1611) have a unique power to move and are in the realm of the highest art. The Tempest is the most popular and perhaps the finest of the group. In it Prospero and his daughter are shipwrecked on an island inhabited by supernatural creatures. Prospero rules the island with magic, but renounces (gives up) magic at the end. After the composition of The Tempest Shakespeare retired to Stratford. He returned to London to compose Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1613. Neither seems to have fired his imagination. He died in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 23, 1616, at the age of fifty-two.
Shakespeare's work has continued to seem to each generation like its own most precious discovery. His value to his own age is suggested by the fact that two fellow actors performed the virtually unprecedented (never done before) act in 1623 of gathering his plays together and publishing them in the Folio edition. Without their efforts, since Shakespeare was apparently not interested in publication, many of the plays would not have survived.
For More Information
Bentley, Gerald E. Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Chambers, Sir Edmund K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1930. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
De Grazia, Margreta, and Stanley Wells, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Gollob, Herman. Me and Shakespeare: Adventure with the Bard. New York: Doubleday, 2002.
Schoenbaum, S. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Southworth, John. Shakespeare, The Player: A Life in the Theatre. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2000.