Who was William Shakespeare?
Darragh McManus on the life and times of the man who became the greatest playwright the world has ever known
Published 21/11/2007 | 00:00
Most biographies of William Shakespeare begin with this statement: little is known for certain about his life. Partly it can be explained by the understandably poor record-keeping of the 16th and 17th centuries - this was, after all, a time when the plague still laid waste to huge numbers of people, a time of great political upheaval and rudimentary technology.
Yet many of Shapespeare's peers are clearer, more solid in history; more of the prosaic facts of their existence are known to us. The greatest writer in the English language, however, remains an enigma for some reason, with huge tracts of his life simply unaccounted for.
The starkest example of this is the fact that we don't know when, exactly, between 1585 and 1592 he left his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon to join a theatre company and begin his writing career. That's seven full years, in a relatively short life of just 52, which are left fairly blank; it would be unusual in a regular citizen, but in a man famous even then as a playwright and actor, it's astonishing.
The confusion begins early: even his name is uncertain, being variously spelled Shakespeare, Shaxpere, Shakespere, Shakspere, Shaxberd, Shak-speare and Shake-speare. William was the third child of eight, and eldest son, of John Shakespeare, a successful glovemaker, commodities merchant and alderman originally from Snitterfield, a village near Stratford, and Mary Arden, daughter of local landowners. By 1568 John had risen through the ranks of town government in Stratford but he would subsequently suffer financial difficulties, from William's teen years until his success as a writer.
William was born in Stratford in 1564 - the date is generally accepted as April 23rd, though this is likely to have been retrospectively amended to better chime with his date of death. In any event, Shakespeare was baptised on April 26th. He attended the King's New School in Stratford, probably from the age of seven, though again no formal records survive. This was a free grammar school, its curriculum dictated by law and providing an education in Latin, rhetoric, and the Classics.
In 1575 Queen Elizabeth visited Kenilworth Castle, near Stratford. According to legend the 11-year-old William was inspired by the pageantry of the occasion and later recreated it in his plays. Shakespeare probably left school aged 15; it would have been the norm during these times, but in this case may also have been occasioned by his father's troubles. He may have worked for his father for a while.
At the age of 18 he married the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway, a local farmer's daughter, at Temple Grafton, a village five miles from Stratford. A marriage licence was issued by the Diocese of Worcester on November 27th, 1582. Anne was pregnant at the time, and six months after the ceremony gave birth to the couple's first child, Susanna. The twins Judith and Hamnet were born two years later.
And so we come to the end of what might be called 'Early Shakespeare', and enter what have been aptly termed 'the dark years'. There are few historical traces of Shakespeare after that until he turns up again as part of the London theatre scene in 1592. Many stories, probably aprocryphal, have sprung up over the years to 'explain' this startling anomaly. A Stratford legend had it that William was forced to flee for London to escape prosecution for poaching deer. Another states that he began his theatrical career tending the horses of theatre patrons. Some contend that he was employed as a schoolmaster. Others say he went on tour with a theatrical group which had visited the area.
Whatever the case, by 1592 Shakespeare was firmly ensconsed in the London theatre milieu, as both actor and writer. He is said to have specialised, as an actor, in 'kingly' roles (and later as Hamlet's father). Several of his plays were performed that year, which would suggest that he had been honing his craft for some years previously. Also in 1592 a jealous rival playwright, Robert Greene, attacked Shakespeare in the pamphlet A Groats-worth of Wit, criticising him for going above his station in competing with university-educated writers such as Christoper Marlowe and, needless to say, Greene himself. The pamphlet alleged that Shakespeare had plagiarised material from his well-educated 'betters'. This is the first recorded mention of his dramatic career.
In the same year, the plague killed thousands of Londoners and closed theatres for two years. During this period Shakespeare devoted himself to writing some of his 154 sonnets and book-length narrative poems, such as Venus and Adonis. By the time theatres reopened Shakespeare had written and performed for numerous theatrical troupes, including Pembroke's Men and Strange's Men, which eventually became the Lord Chamberlain's Men.
This company, owned by a group of performers including Shakespeare himself, has been described as a collection of 'excellent actors who were also business partners and close friends. (and) all worked together as equals'. Well-known actors Richard Burbage and Will Kempe were among its players. From 1594 Shakespeare wrote and acted solely for this group, and they fast became the leading company in London. Two years later their patron Henry Carey, the Lord Chamberlain, died. On his accession to the crown in 1603, King James I awarded them a royal patent and the name was changed to the King's Men. Shakespeare's dizzying professional success was sharply counterpointed with personal tragedy in 1596, when his son Hamnet died of unrecorded causes, aged just 11.
But for Shakespeare the Author, as opposed to Shakespeare the Father, it was ever upwards. Some of his plays had already been published in quarto format in 1594, and by 1598 his name was included on the title page - 'Brand Shakespeare' was now a selling point for the dramas.
In 1600 he became a partner in the new Globe Theatre, built in London by the Chamberlain's Men. Records show that Shakespeare made many property purchases and investments in subsequent years, indicating that his part-ownership of the acting company made him a wealthy man. In 1597 he had bought New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford, and its spacious grounds, while in 1605 he would invest in a share of Stratford's parish tithes.
In 1608 he took over a second theatre at Blackfriars with his fellow actors, and would purchase a gatehouse there five years later.
After around 1607, Shakespeare wrote fewer plays. His final works, dating from 1613-14, are understood to be Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen - probably written in collaboration with John Fletcher, who succeeded him as the King's Men in-house playwright - and Cardenio, the only Shakespeare play that has been completely lost to history. He had stopped acting in around 1605. Shakespeare retired to Stratford in 1613 but continued to visit London regularly. He died on April 23rd, 1616, and was survived by Anne and their two remaining children. In his will, Shakespeare left most of his estate to Susanna, the eldest, instructing that she pass it down intact 'to the first son of her body'.
Susanna had married a doctor, John Hall, in 1607, and Judith had married a vintner, two months before Shakespeare's death. Interestingly, none of Judith's three children married and Susanna's daughter Elizabeth died without children, so Shakespeare's direct line ended there. Anne Hathaway was hardly mentioned in the will, though she would have been automatically entitled to one third of the estate. Notoriously, Shakespeare bequeathed to her 'my second-best bed', which some scholars see as a blatant insult to his wife, and others as a veiled tribute and mark of affection.
After his death, gradually, his work began to be collated and republished. In the year of Anne Hathaway's death, two of Shakespeare's former theatrical colleagues published the famous First Folio collection in 1623, 'to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive'. It included all but two of the 38 plays now recognised as Shakespeare's. By the 19th century his reputation had risen to unparalleled heights; the Romantics worshipped him, while the Victorians' reverence for Shakespeare was such that George Bernard Shaw was moved to describe it as 'Bardolatry'.
Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church on April 25th, 1616, and a monument was erected in his memory on the wall, with an effigy of Shakespeare in the act of writing and a plaque comparing him to Socrates and Virgil. And like those distant Ancients, despite all that has been scrutinised and hypothetised, we are none the wiser as to who, exactly, this genius of letters really was. Only his timeless dramas and poetry are truly knowable; the life and the man himself have become mere footnotes in the great dramatic sweep of his work.