William Shakespeare 1564 - 1616

William Shakespeare
The Chandos Portrait of William Shakespeare. National Portrait Gallery; Image from Wikimedia Commons

William Shakespeare has claims to be the greatest playwright and poet in the English language, perhaps in any language. He was born during the reign of the Tudors in England, and died under the Stuart James I; in the meantime he wrote some truly great plays, sonnets and long poems which went on to influence the rest of English literature and are still performed and adapted widely today. However, there are gaps in the history of Shakespeare, many places where the dates of writing are unknown, and in this gap a huge offshoot industry has grown attempting to discern who ‘really’ wrote the plays if Shakespeare didn’t.

This industry has only helped to keep Shakespeare’s name current, and he’s even become the character in fiction instead of the author of such. This biography concerns his life, rather than the content of his plays (which I highly recommend).

Early Life

We know the year that Shakespeare was born, 1564, and we know he was baptized in a local church in Stratford Upon Avon on April 26th of that year. What we don’t know is the precise date, probably a few days before the baptism. Some texts use the date April 23rd with utter certainty, but they shouldn’t. Shakespeare’s parents were John Shakespeare (a leather worker) and Mary Arden, and they met when their parents became involved, a Shakespeare a tenant of an Arden. William was the third child, and had an early piece of luck when he lived through a plague which more than decimated Stratford; he would have many later siblings. You can visit a house in Stratford which was probably where he was born.

The family was initially wealthy, and William’s father played a prominent role in the town, but he fell into debt and decline.

During Shakespeare’s childhood Stratford was visited by touring theatre companies , possibly for the first time in the town’s history. John Shakespeare was still doing well at this point, and it’s likely that a young William would have watched them with his father.

Certainly floodgates had opened and there were many performances in the town, and it’s tempting to imagine them influencing a man who’d become the greatest playwright. His education was better than his parents, and he would have studied many of the texts which later influenced his work.

Between Shakespeare finishing school at fifteen and marrying his wife Anne Hathaway in Stratford when he was eighteen there is a gap in the historical record which has been filled by theories. One posits he took an apprenticeship with his father, more fanciful ones suggest a secretly Catholic Shakespeare worked as a tutor for a Catholic family. Whatever happened, Shakespeare was in Stratford to form a relationship with Anne, the daughter of a family friend, to make her pregnant and to marry her. Six months later, in 1583 Susanna Shakespeare was born; twins followed to the couple followed in 1585; there were no more children. There is another gap in the records, to 1592, and the theories get even wilder here, with no basis in fact.

Early Career

We know that by 1592 Shakespeare was working as both an actor and a playwright, and we know this because he managed to upset someone so much they published a pamphlet attacking him as an “upstart Crow.” The author is unclear, it claims to be Robert Greene.

We don’t know whether Shakespeare was any good as an actor, we just know he was brilliant at writing, and people suspect he was in a company called the Queen’s Men because their plays influenced some of his. There’s another problem and that’s there’s no agreed history for when and in what order his early plays were written, and each attempt involves calibrating a mass of influences: Shakespeare was a sponge who sucked up the mass of information around him. Playwrights wrote quickly to keep pace with demand, and often worked together, confusing who might have done what, and that’s only helped fuel the market for ‘who was Shakespeare’ writers.

Shakespeare had definitely written his plays about Henry VI by 1592, albeit probably with help, and historical works were popular. Using a three part format was his own innovation and it made him popular too.

He may have written The Gentlemen of Verona and Taming of the Shrew now, but a wave of plague closed theatres for two years from 1592 – 4, and Titus Andronicus and Richard III were probably queued up waiting for them to reopen. That he innovated again in his portrayal of madness, death and illness has been ascribed to experiencing the plague. He could just have been a genius. Shakespeare also helped other people write, adding sections and revisions to the plays Sir Thomas More and King Edward III. A move into poetry, starting with the long form Venus and Adonis, saw Shakespeare in print, and spread his fame and work out widely beyond theatres. It’s homoeroticism also bought him a wealthy benefactor.

Wealth and Fame

When the theatres reopened, Shakespeare secured himself a share in what would become renowned as the best theatre company in the land, who he would write all his remaining plays exclusively for: The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. As before, we’re uncertain of precise dates and order, but it seems that in late 1594 and 55 there were debut performances of The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Love’s Labour’s Won (now lost to us), Richard II, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, King John and Romeo and Juliet, an output that might have owed much to the extra writing time of the plague ban, and which made that period one of the most successively creative in the career of anyone. Shakespeare was covering different genres, different tones, and doing so with ease; he was trying things out and inventing new language.

Other plays followed, and his fame grew.

It wasn’t all good. In the original script for Henry IV Part 1 there was a character called Sir John Oldcastle; the descendant of this man complained, and the part was changed to the now recognised Falstaff. Other names and jokes had to be altered too. His son, Hamnet, died in 1596. But the family fortune was regrowing under the playwright, and while he spent time in London his wife stayed in Stratford, so he bought one of the largest properties there. He was to invest in more local land and property. A new piece of property also appeared in his life: his theatre company moved to the Globe theatre, and made it one of the most famous in history.

Official print copies of his work were released alongside some rather unofficial copies, and unscrupulous publishers liked to add the Shakespeare name to things he’d not been near just for sales. Other plays even made jokes about Shakespearian ones. Trips back to Roman history, more comedies and the titanic Hamlet were now created.


The King’s Men

Writing incredibly aware material could cause issues. When Lord Essex attempted a coup in 1601 Shakespeare was dragged into it because actors had been paid to perform Richard II two days before, a play about a king who was deposed and which plotters might have been using to make a veiled point. There was an investigation, but all were found innocent. We know this didn’t damage Shakespeare’s reputation because when James I came to the throne he became patron of the Chamberlain’s Men, who became the King’s Men and performed regularly at court, including plenty of Shakespeare.

A period of plague closures and halts for official mourning for the queen had been overcome, with much writing. Now King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra mined the heights (or lows) of tragedy. There were co-writers, and a reflection of contemporary politics, as well as influences from older works.

Shakespeare lost his mother and became a grandparent in the same year. He was publishing more of his own work, and a contemporary revealed William’s displeasure at unofficial versions profiting from his work, a situation which creative people still very much suffer from. His sonnets were published, and we have only a rough idea of when they might have been written, over possibly a long time. Their striking and developed homoeroticism suggests Shakespeare was either not solely heterosexual, or was a gifted empath.

Alongside the Globe the King’s Men now used Blackfriars Theatre, which had a smaller audience who paid more money, and whose format and equipment caused Shakespeare to further experiment.

Although his writing had slowed, Shakespeare still produced The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest among others after 1609. There was still collaboration, still a reflection of broader concerns in the world (such as colonisation.) He was also revising his work, sometimes heavily.

In the 1610s Shakespeare sold his share in the King’s Company (perhaps when the Globe burned down and had to be rebuilt), and appears to have retired, to a degree, but he still frequented London.

He was not only famous, but a massive influence on the plays being written and performed, some mimicking his approach.

Death and Afterlife

In 1616 Shakespeare had a will written. It concerns itself with money, with the relationships in his family, and with the scandal of offspring, and has caused decades of discussion, especially as he didn’t make many arrangements for his wife. A few months later, on April 23rd 1616, Shakespeare died. (You can see why an April 23rd birthday is so popular.) His cause of death is unknown, much theorised. The First Folio followed in 1623, an attempt to collect as many of his plays as possible and the first time eighteen had ever been printed. The volume saved them from being lost to history, sold well despite being costly, and more editions followed, with more plays added in. The tides of Shakespearian adulation would spread worldwide over the following centuries, with the plays better known now than ever before and vital to British education.

This article is going to stick with the historical orthodoxy that Shakespeare wrote his plays, albeit with collaborations throughout. If you wish to get involved in a giant puzzle that might have no proper end, there is plenty of literature advancing other people as authors and grand conspiracy.

It’s not done his reputation any harm.