Who was William Shakespeare? Information on William Shakespeare biography, life story summary, works and analysis of career.
William Shakespeare; (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet, who is generally considered to be the greatest of authors in any language, ancient or modern. Throughout the world, Shakespeare’s plays are performed more frequently than those of any other playwright. Editions and translations of them continue to flow from the press 350 years after the publication of the first collected edition, and articles and books about Shakespeare appear in such numbers that no bibliography can pretend to give a complete list.
Some great authors, although classics in their own countries, are not readily exportable to other nations and cultures. Racine is nowhere so great as in France, or Cervantes in Spain, or Pushkin in Russia. But Shakespeare makes an essential appeal to all cultures. His Macbeth, for example, is a success in Rantu languages.
Shakespeare’s language, like that of the King James Version of the Rible, has had a profound influence on everyday English speech, and speakers of English use expressions like “that’s the rub” or “in one fell swoop” without being conscious that they are quoting Shakespeare. Rut more important, it is Shakespeare’s language that conditions their idea of what poetry is. To fail to appreciate his finest passages—and there are hundreds that can be so classified—is to be virtually tone-deaf and imaginatively blind. For a while, in the 18th century, English poets seemed to feel that it was not Shakespeare’s language, but Milton’s, that was the language of poetry, and they wrote in the language of Milton as much as they could. Rut the fashion passed. One of the greatest English poets of the 19th century, John Keats, was also one of the most sensitive appreciates of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare seems not to depend on fashion. He survives all the changes because it is not only his language but also his insight into human character that capture attention. His Hamlet, his Lear, his Othello, his Rrutus—all are tragic heroes of magnificent stature and nobility. His clowns and humorists—Falstaff and Touchstone, Rottom the Weaver and Launce with his dog—are irresistible. And his women—Juliet, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Miranda—overwhelm us with admiration and wonder. It is, as Dryden said, that Shakespeare, “of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul.’
LIFE AND CAREER
The date of Shakespeare’s birth is not known. The earliest biographical record is an entry of his baptism in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, on April 26, 1564. His father, John Shakespeare, first appears in the town records in 1552, when he was fined for not removing a dunghill from before his door in Henley Street. He became prominent in town affairs. He was elected a chamberlain of the Stratford corporation in 1561, alderman in 1565, and high bailiff (mayor) in 1568. He signed documents with a mark, but this is no longer supposed to prove that he was illiterate.
From 1577 to his death in 1601, there are many signs in the records of financial troubles. He is excused from a levy for the poor, he sells his wife’s inheritance, and he does not attend meetings of the corporation, so that another is appointed alderman in his place. Finally, in 1592 he is included in a list of nine who do not obey the law by going to church once a month, a note in the record signifying that this is for fear of process for debt. In 1596, however, he is described by the herald who made a rough draft of a coat of arms for him as a man who “hath lands and tenements of good wealth and substance.”
The poet’s mother was Mary, daughter of Robert Arden of Wilmcote, a wealthy landowner and relative of the aristocratic Ardens of Park Hall. Eight children were born to her, of whom William was the third child and oldest son. She died in Stratford in 1608.
No records exist of Shakespeare in his early years, but something is known about the Stratford Grammar School, which he presumably attended. The curriculum of such a school would have been adequate to provide the poet with the basis for such classical learning as he had—perhaps more than Ren Jonson’s “small Latin and less Greek” would suggest but rather less than some modern commentators suppose.
The two principal legends about his life in the country are that he was apprenticed to a butcher, for whom “when he killed a calf, he would do it in high style, and make a speech,” and that he fled Stratford because he was caught deer poaching in the park of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote. These stories cannot now be traced back farther than the late 17th century, about 100 years after the events are supposed to have happened.
The first record of William Shakespeare after his christening is a license for marriage, Nov. 27, 1582, in the episcopal register of the diocese of Worcester. The bride’s name is given as Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton. The next day a bond of £-40 was entered to secure the marriage, without trouble, of Shakespeare and Anne Hathway or Hathaway, of Stratford. The sum was posted by two yeoman friends of the bride’s father, Richard Hathway of Shottery, parish of Old Stratford, whose will had been proved in the preceding July. Anne Whateley and Anne Hathway are probably the same person, and since the latter is traceable, the Whateley entry is probably a clerk’s mistake.
The special license to which these records refer provided for a marriage after only one asking of the banns. The usual three banns would have carried the wedding into a prohibited period on the church calendar and delayed it for about two months. This delay would have been undesirable because Anne was already pregnant. The baptismal register at Stratford records the christening on May 26, 1583, of Susanna, daughter of William Shakespeare. On Feb. 2, 1585, the same register records the christening of twins, Hamnet (a variant of Hamlet) and Judith, apparently named for a Stratford baker, Hamnet Sadler, a beneficiary and witness of the poet’s will, and his wife Judith. Shakespeare’s wife bore him no other children. She lived until 1623, and the inscription on her grave records the fact that she was then 67 years old, which would make her about eight years older than her husband.
Nothing is known of Shakespeare’s life between the christening of the twins and the first record of his appearance in the theater in London as actor and playwright. Seven or eight years, from about 1584 to 1592, are blank so far as the records go. The actor William Beeston, whose father was a member of Shakespeare’s company, many years later told John Aubrey, the antiquarian, that Shakespeare had been a schoolmaster in the country. Because of the academic flavor of such early plays as The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labour’s Lost, this tradition has found favor with modern biographers. There is no record of Anne Shakespeare in London during her husband’s stay there, nor is there anything in Stratford until 1597, when Shakespeare, an established man of the theater, bought New Place.
Career in London.
In September 1592, Robert Greene, the dissipated university wit, died in poverty and misery in London, leaving a pamphlet called A Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance. In an epilogue he warned three of his friends who wrote plays (probably Christopher Marlowe, George Peele, and Thomas Nash) against the players, who live on the efforts of writers and then neglect them in their hour of need. “Trust them not,” he says, “for 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; and being an absolute Johannes fac totum is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.” This evidently refers to a presumptuous actor, not a university man like Greene and his friends, who has dared to write blank-verse plays and is versatile enough to be a threat to them.
That the jack-of-all-trades is Shakespeare seems clear from the fact that the “Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide” is a parody of a line in King Henry the Sixth, Part 3, and from the pun on Shakespeare’s name. Later in the year, Henry Chettle, who had seen Greene’s pamphlet through the press, apologized in the preface to his own Kind-Hart’s Dreame. Marlowe and Shakespeare had apparently resented the attacks in Greene’s book. Marlowe, though warned against the players and Shakespeare, had been called an atheist and Machiavellian, and Chettle expressed the wish that he had moderated more of Greene’s bitterness than he did. “With neither of them that take offense was I acquainted, and with one of them I care not if I never be. The other, whom at that time I did not so much spare, as since I wish I had. … I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault, because myself have seen his demeanour no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes [profession he follows, that is, acting]. Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art.”
Player and Writer, 1592-1594.
By the end of 1592, then, Shakespeare had become an actor, written plays, attracted the jealousy of a university-trained poet, and won the respect of Chettle and “divers of worship” for his civility, his honesty, and his excellence as player and writer. Why he left Stratford, and his wife and children, for London and how he got a start in the theater are unknown. The well-known legend that he began by holding gentlemen’s horses at the playhouse door comes down from Sir William Davenant, the eccentric 17th century poet, playwright, and theater manager who sometimes claimed to be Shakespeare’s bastard son. There are other legends that Shakespeare was first a “servant” in the theater or first a prompter’s assistant, or call boy.
From 1592 to 1594 the theatrical companies were somewhat disorganized because of the plague, and it is during these years that Shakespeare presented himself as a poet. His two narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were published in 1593 and 1594.
Actor and Playwright.
Sometime in 1594 the two principal acting companies of the later Elizabethan era were formed: the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the Lord Admiral’s Men. Technically personal servants of these officials, the actors could wear livery, thereby securing protection against prosecution under the old statutes that classified players with rogues and vagabonds. They received also some prestige as retainers of the court, since the puritanical authorities of the City of London looked on players and theaters with disfavor. Furthermore, the patron’s license was a useful introduction to the local authorities when the companies toured in the provinces. When they were at home, the players earned their living by producing plays in a public playhouse.
Occasional performances at court, usually on holidays, carried prestige but did not provide a major share of their income. In March 1595, the Treasurer of the Royal Chamber notes payment of £.20 to William Kemp (or Kempe), William Shakespeare, and Richard Burbage, servants to the Lord Chamberlain, for the presentation at court in Greenwich of two “comedies or interludes” during the previous Christmas holidays. Shakespeare was then a leading member of the company and a “sharer,” or stockholder, who participated in the profits. It was a position of some dignity and of considerable promise financially. The Chamberlain’s Men were to be the favorite court entertainers, giving 32 performances at court during Elizabeth’s reign and becoming the King’s Men on the accession of James I.
Shakespeare’s position in the company and his financial obligations and returns may be inferred from various legal documents relating to suits against members of the company in 1610, 1615, and 1619. The company consisted of actor-sharers (of which Shakespeare must have been one in 1594—1595), hired men, and boys who played female parts and were assigned to the sharers on something like an apprenticeship basis. With the acquisition of theater property, the Globe in 1599 and the Blackfriars in 1608, some members of the company became investors in real estate-landlords, or “housekeepers.” As originally leased, the Globe Theatre was held in two moieties, or halves, one by Richard and Cuthbert Burbage and the other by Shakespeare, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope, John Heminge, and William Kemp.
Shakespeare’s interest was therefore a tenth, but it varied as members dropped out or new ones were added. He held one-seventh interest in the Blackfriars after it was acquired by the company. He was still holding his share of the Globe when the theater burned in 1613, but whether he retained his interests to the end of his life is uncertain. The most careful estimates of Shakespeare’s income from theatrical sources give him about £50 annually to 1599, about £110 to 1608, and after retirement, about £ 60 to £70 from his interest as “housekeeper.” His income from the theater almost certainly never went over £175 or £200 at the most. But in relation to the cost of living at that time, Shakespeare’s income was quite comfortable.
Shakespeare’s first obligation to the company was as an actor. He is listed among the principal actors of Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour in 1598 and Sejanus in 1603, but he does not appear in the lists after that date. The First Folio edition of his own plays, 1623, lists him among the actors but does not specify the plays in which he took part. Legend has assigned to him the minor roles of Adam in As You Like It and the ghost in Hamlet. But his chief contribution to the company was the plays. He provided, alone or in collaboration, 38 plays between 1590-1591 and 1612-1613, and his work constitutes the most substantial part of the company’s repertory for the period. His relations with his associates seem to have been very cordial. He received a small bequest in the will of Augustine Phillips, and he left money in his own will for memorial rings to Richard Burbage, Heminge, and Condell. The devotion of the two latter actors to his memory is obvious from the prefatory matter to the First Folio, which they edited.
Biographical Records, 1596-1613.
Some details of Shakespeare’s personal life during his first decade in London have come down to us. His son Hamnet was buried on Aug. 11, 1596, in Stratford. About the same time, John Shakespeare, the poet’s father, applied to the College of Arms for a grant of arms, and a rough draft, drawn up by a herald, is dated Oct. 20, 1596. A note to a revised draft says that John Shakespeare possessed a pattern of the arms drawn up 20 years earlier, so this was apparently not the first time the poet’s father had sought the insignia of a gentleman. It has been suggested that William must have prompted the revival of interest in arms, since his father was not at this time in prosperous circumstances, as he had been 20 years before, whereas tire son was now increasing in wealth and status. The Shakespeare request was apparently granted, and the now familiar coat with the falcon and spear appears on the poet’s monument in Stratford church. Three years later, leave to impale the arms of Arden was asked, but if this was granted, Shakespeare seems not to have made use of it.
In 1597 the records of the tax collectors give us some information about Shakespeare’s London address. He is listed as one of the inhabitants of St. Helen’s parish, Bishopsgate (a district not far from the Shoreditch theaters, The Theatre and The Curtain), who cannot be found to pay the tax, which for Shakespeare was 5s. The next year he is listed as owing 13s. 4d., and the collectors have traced him to the Bankside in Southwark, close to the site where the Globe Theatre was .to be built. There, presumably, he paid his taxes, for his name does not appear as a delinquent in later rolls.
In 1597 he purchased New Place in Stratford, the house he was to repair, retire to when he left London, and hand on in his family as far as his granddaughter, his last lineal descendant. The prosperity that this transaction suggests is also indicated by a letter from Abraham Sturley of Stratford to Richard Quiney in which Shakespeare is said to be willing to purchase some land in Shottery and by a letter from Quiney to Shakespeare asking the loan of £30. This is the only letter to or from Shakespeare in existence. Quiney’s other correspondence suggests that the loan was promptly made. Also in 1598 when an accounting was made of corn and malt in Stratford, in an attempt to check hoarding during a shortage of grain, Shakespeare was credited with 10 quarters, or 80 bushels. Only a dozen residents of Stratford had more. In the next year he invested in his share of the Globe Theatre. In 1602 he purchased 107 acres of arable land in Old Stratford for the sum of £320. His largest investment, however, was made in 1605. It was the purchase, for £440, of a moiety of certain tithes of three hamlets in Stratford. This produced, in 1611, an income of £60. In 1613, Shakespeare bought a gatehouse in Blackfriars, London, for £ 140.
Not much is known of Shakespeare’s life in London aside from his work, and the few records we do have seem to raise as many questions as they answer. He was involved in two quarrels that got into the courts, but in neither case was he a principal. In 1596 he figured in a writ served by the sheriff against William Shakespeare, Francis Langley, Dorothy Soer, and Anne Lee, on the part of one William Wayte. Langley, who had built the Swan theater, had earlier been responsible for writs served on Wayte and his stepfather, William Gardiner, compelling them to keep the peace. Shakespeare’s part in the quarrel does not seem clear, but somewhat fantastic applications of it to characters in his plays have been offered.
In 1612 he was a witness in a suit brought by Stephen Belott, a wigmaker, against his father-in-law, Christopher Mountjoy, over a marriage portion. Shakespeare is shown to have known the French Huguenot Mountjoy family since about 1602, to have lived in their house in Cripplegate for a time in 1604, and to have served, at Mrs. Mountjoy’s request, as an intermediary to persuade the apprentice Belott to marry his master’s daughter. But his testimony was useless, since he could not remember what marriage portion had been agreed upon eight years earlier.
The little evidence we have concerning the habits and behavior of Shakespeare is somewhat contradictory. The Bankside was not a “respectable” district. The brothels and bear-baiting pits were there, and it was frequented by the sporting element rather than by sober citizens. John Manningham, a law student, entered in his diary on March 13, 1602, a story that Shakespeare overheard Richard Burbage making an assignation with a “citizen” at a performance of King Richard the Third. The actor was to announce himself as Richard the Third. Shakespeare got there first and was entertained, and when Burbage arrived and announced himself, the author sent down word that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third. Against this gossip is the general statement of John Aubrey, who had it from Beeston, that Shakespeare “was not a company keeper” and “wouldn’t be debauched.” From the little we know, it must be concluded that he led a much more dignified and quiet life than did Marlowe, Greene, Peele, or Ben Jonson.
Last Years, 1613-1616.
Shakespeare retired from active service as the leading playwright of the King’s Men sometime in 1612 or 1613, leaving his position to the younger John Fletcher, with whom he collaborated on King Henry the Eighth and The Two Noble Kinsmen. The last years of his life have interested his imaginative biographers almost as much as the lost years of his youth, and the picture given usually tells more about the biographer than about the subject. The first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, said: “The latter part of his life was spent, as all men of good sense will wish theirs may be, in ease, retirement and the conversation of friends.” Sir Sidney Lee and Lytton Strachey fill in other details from fancy. But if we turn to the Stratford records again, we find only that his brother Richard was buried in Feb. 4, 1613; he was given £5 in the will of John Combe, a wealthy Stratford moneylender, in 1614; his daughter Judith married the son of his old friend Richard Quiney in February 1616; and he drew up his own will in March 1616 and died on April 23 of that year.
The will is extant, and each of its three pages bears Shakespeare’s signature. He left £300 to his daughter Judith, part of it as a marriage portion; £20 to his sister Joan and £5 to each of her three sons; £ 10 to the poor of Stratford; small remembrances to a few friends; his second-best bed to his wife; and the residuary estate to his daughter Susanna, who lived with the Shakespeares at New Place. Presumably, Susanna was to see that her mother was taken care of. It is apparent that Shakespeare wished to found a family of landed gentry, for he provides that the estate shall go to the male issue of his daughter Judith if Susanna and her daughter Elizabeth both fail to have a son. Susanna was the wife of Dr. John Hall, a prominent physician who left some manuscript casebooks in Latin, later translated and published, which mention illnesses of his wife, his daughter, and himself but none of his father-in-law. The Halls had no son, and their daughter Elizabeth married first Thomas Nash and later Sir John Bernard, but she died childless in 1670, the last direct descendant of the poet.
Shakespeare was buried on April 25, 1616. On his gravestone are four lines of doggerel verse:
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.
Seventeenth century legend holds that Shakespeare wrote these lines himself and that the curse effectively prevented opening of the grave, “though his wife and daughter did earnestly desire to be laid in the same grave with him.”
The only two portraits of Shakespeare that have any authority are the bust on his monument in the Stratford church, done by Gheerart Janssen sometime before 1623, and the engraving by Martin Droeshout, which serves as a frontispiece to the First Folio. It is not known whether either Janssen or Droeshout had ever seen their subject. Droeshout was only If when Shakespeare died. Neither portrait can be called a work of art, but presumably the bust was enough of a likeness to satisfy the family. The various paintings, some contemporary with him, that are claimed to be of Shakespeare serve the purpose of pacifying those who are revolted by the stolid expression of the bust and the engraving. But the safest thing to do is to follow the advice of Ben Jonson and “look not on his picture, but his book.”