Shakespeare400 - The life & death of wordsmith Shakespeare
Who was William Shakespeare? How did a boy from sleepy Stratford-upon-Avon grow up to become the world's greatest playwright? Graham Clifford explains
Act One: Birth and Early Years
While the actual birth date of William Shakespeare is unknown, records show he was baptised on April 26th, 1564. The son of John Shakespeare, a successful glove maker and wool dealer and Mary Arden, the daughter of a prosperous landowning farmer, William grew up in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, some 22 miles south east of Birmingham.
William was the third child of eight born to John and Mary and the oldest surviving son. In all, five of the Shakespeare children survived into adulthood. His birthplace, a restored 16th century half-timbered house on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, stands to this day.
William's father was well thought of in the town and elected to several municipal offices, serving as an alderman and culminating in a term as bailiff (the modern day equivalent of mayor) and the chief magistrate of the town council.
The family would have lived in relative comfort with the glove and wool businesses being run out of one half of the family home.
But when William was 13, records show that his father suffered financial loss - though any more detail doesn't exist. However within a few years the family prospered again thanks largely to the success of William's career as a playwright, actor and poet.
Act Two: The Making of a Master
What made this unremarkable young man the most remarkable scribe and storyteller the world has even seen? Well the roots of his education were most likely put down at King Edward VI Grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon where William is likely to have attended from the age of six or seven. Because his father held public office the fee for his education is likely to have been waived.
At the Grammar school, which would have operated with Catholic influence at the time, he's likely to have studied classics, Latin grammar and literature. It's believed that one of his teachers, Robert Dibdale, was ordained a Catholic priest and was martyred in 1586.
Shakespeare would have been expected to converse in Latin at all times in order to improve his fluency in the language. A young William would have studied the works of the great classical authors and dramatists such as Ovid, Plautus, Horace, Virgil, Cicero and Seneca but, at the age of 14, with his father's business suffering, he was forced to discontinue his schooling so he could help out at home.
At the tender age of 18 William met and married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway (inset) who was pregnant at the time they exchanged vows. Six months after the marriage Anne gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, baptised on May 26th, 1583. Twins, son Hamnet and daughter Judith, followed almost two years later and were baptised on February 2nd 1585. Hamnet died of unknown causes at the age of 11.
Act Three: The Glorious Career
By 1592, with Shakespeare then aged 28, his plays started to appear on the London stage though biographers believe he may have started writing and putting on performances from as early as the mid-1580s.
Shakespeare's first play was probably The Comedy of Errors written around 1590 while his first tragedy Titus Andronicus was more than likely penned three years later.
Between 1592 and 1594, when the theatres were frequently closed because of the plague, he wrote his earliest poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
After 1594, Shakespeare's plays were performed only by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a company owned by a group of players, including Shakespeare himself, that soon became the leading playing company in London.
Patrons would flock to see their plays and Shakespeare's stock as a playwright rose rapidly.
In 1599, a partnership of members of the company built their own theatre on the south bank of the River Thames, which they named the Globe. Many of Shakespeare's greatest plays were written for this open-air playhouse. Shakespeare's association with the company made him a wealthy man and in 1597 he bought the second-largest house in Stratford.
Shakespeare continued to act in his own, and other, plays after his success as a playwright.
He wrote the majority of the 37 plays which are now accepted as his, as well as collaborating on several more, between 1594 and 1613. And as an actor, he was associated with the parts of kings and old men such as the Ghost in Hamlet and old Adam in As You Like It.
Act Four: Final Years and Death
Though he was the toast of London's theatre circle Shakespeare frequently returned to Stratford-upon-Avon where it's believed his family remained. Some years before his death he returned there permanently.
After 1610, he wrote fewer plays, and none are attributed to him after 1613. Indeed his last three plays were collaborations rather than his own outright. In the months before his death Shakespeare's health deteriorated though the cause of his sickness is not definitively known. Sure in the knowledge that his time on earth was drawing to a close, he wrote a will a month before he died leaving all he had to his oldest daughter Susanna. Despite this he described himself as being 'in perfect health' at the time.
It's believed that William Shakespeare died on April 23rd, 1616 at the age of 52, a commendable age at a time when diseases including the plague reduced life expectancy substantially. He was buried, two days later, in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church.
With no cause of death ever recorded we can only speculate as to what led to Shakespeare's passing but 50 years later , John Ward, the vicar of Stratford, wrote in his notebook: "Shakespeare, Drayton and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and, it seems, drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted."
His gravestone bears an epitaph which Shakespeare himself supposedly wrote. It warns:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.