William Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, moved to the idyllic town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the mid-sixteenth century, where he became a successful landowner, moneylender, wool and agricultural goods dealer, and glover. In 1557 he married Mary Arden . John Shakespeare lived during a time when the middle class grew and became wealthier and wealthier, thus allowing its members increasing freedoms, luxuries, and voice in the local government. He took advantage of the opportunities afforded him through this social growth and in 1557 became a member of the Stratford Council, an event which marked the beginning of an illustrious political career. By 1561 he was elected one of the town’s fourteen burgesses, where he served as constable, one of two chamberlains, and alderman successively. In these positions he administered borough property and revenues. In 1567 he was made bailiff, the highest elected office in Stratford, and the equivalent of a modern day mayor.
The town records indicate that William Shakespeare was John and Mary’s third child. His birth is unregistered, but legend places it on April 23, 1564, partially because April 23 is the day on which he died 52 years later. In any event, his baptism was registered with the town on April 26, 1564. Not much is known about William’s childhood, although it is safe to assume that he attended the local grammar school, the King’s New School, which was staffed with a faculty who held Oxford degrees, and whose curriculum included mathematics, natural sciences, Latin language and rhetoric, logic, Christian ethics, and classical literature. He did not attend the university, which was not unusual at this time, since university education was reserved for prospective clergymen and was not a particularly mind-opening experience.
However, the education he received at grammar school was excellent, as evidenced by the numerous classical and literary references in his plays. His early works especially drew on such Greek and Roman greats as Seneca and Plautus. What is more impressive than his formal education, however, is the wealth of general knowledge exhibited in his works, from a working knowledge of many professions to a vocabulary that is far greater than any other English writer.
In 1582, at the age of eighteen, William Shakespeare married the twenty-six year old Anne Hathaway. Their first daughter, Susanna, was baptized only six months later, which has given rise to much speculation concerning the circumstances surrounding the marriage. In 1585, twins were born to the couple, and baptized Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare. Hamnet died at the young age of eleven by which time Shakespeare was already a successful playwright. Around 1589 Shakespeare wrote his first play, Henry VI, Part 1. Sometime between his marriage and writing this play he and his wife moved to London, where he pursued a career as a playwright and actor.
Although we have many records of his life as a citizen of Stratford, including marriage and birth certificates, very little information exists about his life as a young playwright. Legend characterizes Shakespeare as a roguish young scrapper who was once forced to flee London under sketchy circumstances. However, the little written information we have of his early years does not confirm this. Young Will was not an immediate and universal success; the earliest written record of Shakespeare’s life in London comes from a statement by rival playwright Robert Greene, who calls Shakespeare an “upstart crow . . . [who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you:” – hardly high praise.
In 1594 Shakespeare became a charter member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a group of actors who later changed their name to The King’s Men when they gained the sponsorship of King James I. By 1598 he was “principal comedian” for the troupe, and by 1603 he was “principal tragedian.” Acting and writing plays at this time were not considered noble professions, but successful and prosperous actors were relatively well-respected. Shakespeare was very successful and made quite a bit of money. He invested this money in Stratford real estate and was able to purchase the second largest house in Stratford, the New Place, for his parents in 1597. In 1596 Shakespeare applied for a coat of arms for his family, in effect making himself into a gentleman, and his daughters married successfully and wealthily.
William Shakespeare lived until 1616 while his wife Anna died in 1623 at the age of sixty-seven. He 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.