Life and Times
Very little is known about Shakespeare's life, beginning even the exact date of his birth. Records from the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon indicate that he was christened on April 26, 1564. Since babies were customarily christened three days after birth, Shakespeare's birthday is officially recognized as April 23. In England, April 23 has long been celebrated as Saint George's Day, a national holiday for the country's other patron saint, a legendary warrior and martyred hero who famously 'slew the dragon.' Thus, the date chosen to commemorate Shakespeare's life and death (for he is presumed to have died on his birthday), although perhaps not entirely accurate, carries with it enormous cultural significance.
In 1564, the year of Shakespeare's birth, the bubonic plague descended upon Stratford. Known as the Black Death, the plague was a disease carried by fleas on the backs of rats. Indiscriminate and deadly, its victims succumbed within days, sores covering their bodies, every organ afflicted. That year in Stratford, hundreds of citizens died. As the infant mortality rate in Elizabethan times was high in even the best of circumstances, Shakespeare's survival in the face of this deadly disease, during one of the cruelest months of the year, is made all the more remarkable. William was not John Shakespeare and Mary Arden's first child. He was, however, their first to live past infancy.
John Shakespeare married Mary Arden in 1557. A glover by trade, John Shakespeare was an ambitious man, achieving the elected office of High Bailiff in 1568, the equivalent of Stratford's mayor. Mary herself came from a prominent family. The Ardens were wealthy landowners, and John, a yeoman's son, was a tenant on her family's property before they married. Together, the couple set up home and shop on Henley Street, a bustling area in downtown Stratford. Presumably, this is where young William was born. The birthplace site (although not the exact house) remains the center of attraction in Stratford today.
Though no records survive from Shakespeare's boyhood, as the son of an upstanding gentleman (though not yet in arms), it is assumed that Will attended the local grammar school. A typical day for Will would see him arriving at school at seven in the morning (six o'clock during the summer), and studying until five in the afternoon, with recesses for breakfast and lunch. The curriculum was Latin. Latin and nothing else. Although the school could be a harsh and foreboding institution, corporeal punishment freely reigning, sitting at his desk was where young Will was first introduced to the classics of Roman literature, works by Ovid and Seneca, storytellers whose epics he would remember in the years to come.
There is no evidence to suggest that Shakespeare continued his studies beyond a basic education. As there is a significant gap in time between his schoolboy days and his life in London, scholars have long postulated a number of different theories as to what occurred in the life of the young poet during these so-called lost years. Looking to his plays for clues, many have assumed that he was a law clerk, a sailor, a soldier or, even more likely, a glover like his father. Many believe that, at one time or another, Shakespeare acted as a schoolmaster, perhaps composing plays for his students to perform, citing The Comedy of Errors as a prime candidate. One fact is certain, however. At age eighteen, William Shakespeare got married.
At age twenty-six, Anne Hathaway was eight years older than her groom. They married in such haste that they had to obtain special permission from the church, forgoing the normally required three readings of the banns. The apparent urgency of the matter is explained when, six months later, Anne gives birth to a baby girl, Susanna. Two years after that, she gives birth to twins, Judith and Hamnet.
When William Shakespeare made the hundred-mile journey to London from Stratford in the late 1580's, he left behind a wife and three children. No one knows for certain how or why he left, whether for financial reasons or in search of adventure. It is unlikely that Shakespeare made the trip alone, for England at the time had laws against 'master-less men,' those traveling by themselves would be easily susceptible to accusations of vagrancy. Early in his career, Shakespeare was associated with many of England's top theatre companies, including the Queen's Men, Pembroke's Men and Lord Strange's Men, companies which all made visits to Stratford. The theatres in London would frequently close due to the plague, so actors oftentimes found themselves traveling the country in search of a living. As High Bailiff, one of John Shakespeare's duties was to pay the actors when they came to town, so his son must have had at least a passing knowledge of the inner workings of players' companies. Shakespeare, already displaying an enthusiasm and talent for poetry, may have signed on as an apprentice. Perhaps one of the acting troupes was shorthanded. With a wife and three children to support, he had four mouths to feed, and, after all, other Stratfordians had made their fortune in the big city. Why not him?
London in the late sixteenth century could arguably have been called the capital of the world. At the height of the English Renaissance, it was a time of growth and exploration, art and education, science and invention. Patriotism was strong. As England sought to increase and solidify its power, wars were fought and countries were conquered. As the sailing ships discovered, the earth was no longer flat, and travelers set their sights on the New World. Journeying to the farthest reaches, the 'Antipodes,' the explorers found pristine lands ruled by barbarians, cannibals and men whose heads grew beneath their shoulders. They sent home tales of the New World, published pamphlets filled with stories to spark the imagination. Back in England, advances were being made in all areas of learning, as science and technology scrambled to keep pace with new developments in the understanding of the natural world. Not only was the earth not flat, it might not be the center of the universe, either! Johann Gutenberg had invented the printing press over a hundred years earlier, but the true revolution in reading and writing came during Elizabeth's reign, as a once predominantly illiterate populace reaped the benefits of an expanded education system, one which provided for more than just the wealthy few. The world had Spenser, Gallileo, Marlowe, Inigo Jones - thinkers and artisans years before their time. The Dark Ages gave way to a time of enlightenment, as fundamental beliefs were challenged and reevaluated. It was an age of infinite possibility and new hope, and London was in the center of it all.
Messy and chaotic, dark, noisy and dangerous, London was also a place where citizens both literally and figuratively watched where they stepped. To an extent unfathomable by present-day standards, filth and disease simply permeated everyday life, from unclean drinking water to the human and animal waste which littered the alleyways and filled the river. The plague had ravaged the city for years, with no relief in sight. In the hottest months of summer, when the plague was most virulent, those with means evacuated the city, while the unlucky who remained were quarantined in their own homes, windows and doors sealed, their dying moans heard from the street. Indeed, except for the privileged few, life was more often than not a daily grind for survival, and times were unpredictable. With Queen Elizabeth I on the throne, the English people had themselves a ruler whom the Pope had branded a heretic, for both her 'bastard' birth and her Protestant policies. As she had not married, produced or even named an heir, the air was taut with suspicion and mistrust. Many were accused of treason against the Queen, and those convicted faced a horrible, public death. Hung, drawn and quartered, the heads of the condemned were set upon the spikes of London Bridge, a warning to all who entered the city of the fate which befell all traitors to the Queen. The executions themselves were often treated as a form of entertainment, an afternoon's diversion for the whole family, proof that Elizabethan audiences had a stomach for blood.
When a good public hanging was not on the marquee, there were always the playhouses. The theatres in London were not actually inside the city proper, but rather in its outskirts, on the other side of the river Thames, this, of course, to avoid the jurisdiction of the city government. As such, the entertainment district could be a fairly seedy place, with prostitution and petty thievery coexisting with the taverns and arenas. In addition to plays, the theatres staged such real life-and-death amusements as cockfighting and bear-baiting, the former of which involving a giant wild animal fighting a gang of rabid dogs.
In the 1580's, William Shakespeare began to write for the stage, possibly by mending the plays of others, practicing his newfound craft as a musician might do scales, studying the basics, then learning to improvise. In 1592, Philip Henslowe, proprietor of the Rose Theatre, records in his diary a performance, "Harey the vj," which most scholars interpret as the debut of Shakespeare's Henry VI, performed by the Lord Strange's Men. While no one knows for certain if Shakespeare was an actual member of this acting company, it seems probable in light of the fact that they would go on to perform many of Shakespeare's early plays, including the remainder of the Henry VI cycle, as well as the Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus. Records from Henslowe's diary indicate that Shakespeare's plays did very well at the box office, audiences demanding repeat performances. However, regardless of his affiliation with Philip Henslowe, by the mid 1590's, Shakespeare had become a member of a rival acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. It was for this company that Shakespeare would author his greatest works, including of course all of the late, great tragedies. Although Shakespeare was primarily a playwright, he occasionally acted in some of his plays, taking such roles as Adam in As You Like It, and the Ghost in Hamlet. When the Lord Chamberlain's Men built the Globe Theatre in 1599, Shakespeare became a shareholder. They were the top acting company in London, and, with the ascension of King James I in 1603, their patron became no less than the King himself.
Throughout his career, Shakespeare never ceased writing pure poetry. In his time, plays were mainly considered vulgar entertainments, not high art. He composed four narrative poems, two of which were dedicated to a rich patron and published himself, entitled Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Shakespeare also wrote more than a hundred and fifty sonnets. Of all his works, these seem to be the most intimate, written primarily in the first person, and expressing such passionate emotions as love and desire, jealousy, heartbreak and lust. The sonnet cycle features three characters, the speaker, whom many believe to be Shakespeare as himself, a youth, thought to be the Earl of Southampton (to whom Shakespeare had dedicated his poems), and a so-called 'Dark Lady.' All three are involved in a dangerous love triangle. Although, in this instance, truth is impossible to separate from fantasy, many scholars have enjoyed speculating who the mysterious Dark Lady might be, and if Shakespeare ever had an affair, either with her, or with the Earl of Southampton.
Other Useful Links
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Encyclopedia Britannica's Shakespeare and the Globe
Shakespeare Resource Center
Stratford-Upon-Avon Today - Maps and Pictures