William Shakespeare (1564–1616) — poet, actor, and playwright. The documented facts of Shakespeare’s life are as sparse as the legends are prolific. Yet more is known about him than most other playwrights of his day and certainly enough is known to make possible a reconstruction of the major events and activities of his life and to weed out the more fantastic myths that have naturally gathered about his name.
Stratford. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon; the exact date of his birth is unknown (see birthday) but traditionally is considered to be April 23, 1564. His father was John Shakespeare, a glover. Extant records show his father to have been a prominent and respected citizen and property owner in Stratford. Two of the buildings he owned, adjacent to one another, are generally designated as the woolshop and the birthplace and the latter is traditionally believed to be the place of Shakespeare’s birth although there is no real evidence for this belief. Shakespeare’s father held several public offices in the town, including the equivalent of the modern office of mayor. Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, was probably connected with an old and respected family of the county of Warwickshire (see Arden Family). Although the Tudor records of the Stratford grammar school have long since disappeared, it is all but certain that, at the age of six or seven, Shakespeare entered school there to learn what all other Elizabethan schoolboys learned — Latin (see education). Just when Shakespeare's schooling ended and why are not certain, but it is possible, as Nicholas Rowe reports from hearsay in his biography (1709), that Shakespeare left school to help his father in business. If this story is true, he would have been about 13, a time when records show a sudden fall in the fortunes of John Shakespeare — an inexplicable financial decline and withdrawal from public eminence from which he never recovered.
In 1582, when he was 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway (see Hathaway Family); the marriage is documented by extant records (see marriage). The baptism of their first child, Susanna, is recorded in the Stratford parish register under the date of May 26, 1583 (see Susanna Shakespeare). Two years later, under the date of February 2, the baptism of the twins Hamnet and Judith is recorded. Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died at the age of 11 on August 11, 1596, as recorded in the parish register. (See Judith Shakespeare.) Susanna Shakespeare eventually married John Hall, a physician, and their daughter, Elizabeth Hall, was Shakespeare’s last living descendant at the time of her death in 1670.
The years between the birth of Judith and Hamnet, 1585, and an allusion to Shakespeare by Robert Greene in 1592, are the so-called lost years; documentary evidence as to Shakespeare’s whereabouts and activities during this period is totally lacking. It has been conjectured that he is the William Shake-shafte, probably a provincial actor, who is mentioned in the will of Alexander Houghton. Another story derives from William Beeston, who asserted that Shakespeare was a schoolmaster in the country. Nothing, however, can be confirmed about this period in Shakespeare’s life except that he left his family during it and that by the time Robert Greene alluded to him, he was firmly established in London, acting, and prominent enough as a playwright to provoke Greene’s jealousy and ire.
In his move to London, however, Shakespeare by no means severed his ties with Stratford. During the 20 years he was in London, he carried on many business transactions, among them the purchase of land, in Stratford and it is clear that he continued to think of it as his home. In 1597, for example, he bought New Place, a large, handsome house, and there installed his family. A town inventory (see noate of corne & malte) in the next year shows that Shakespeare was storing grain in the barns of his new property. The correspondence between the Stratfordians Abraham Sturley and Richard Quiney (see Quiney Family) seems to indicate that they considered Shakespeare their fellow townsman. Other business activities of Shakespeare’s in Stratford when he was living in London include his purchases in 1602 of land in Old Stratford (see Combe Family) and of a cottage across Chapel Lane from the garden of New Place. In 1605 he made his largest known investment, purchasing an interest in the lease of the Stratford tithes; this investment later involved him in a controversy over enclosure (see William Replingham). In 1604, 1608, and 1609, records show that Shakespeare brought suit for recovery of debt against John Addenbrook and Philip Rogers. In 1611 he contributed to the highways subscription. All evidence seems to indicate an uninterrupted interest in the town on his part, and his position there seems to have been one of some distinction, helped, no doubt, by his growing reputation in London. As early as 1596 his reputation must have been such as to make him able to help his father secure the coat of arms that the latter had applied for 20 years before.
Sometime around 1612, after 20 years of writing and acting for London’s foremost acting company, Shakespeare moved back to Stratford. He died on April 23, 1616; the cause and circumstances of his death are unknown. In apparent lack of trust of his son-in-law, Thomas Quiney, Shakespeare altered his will just a month before he died. He was buried in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church and several years later a monument was erected, presumably by his family (see monument; epitaph). The monument was carved by Gheerart Janssen and is one of two extant likenesses of Shakespeare considered to be authentic (see portraits of Shakespeare). See also RELIGION.
London. The allusion of Robert Greene to Shakespeare in his pamphlet A Groats-worth of Wit places Shakespeare definitely in London in 1592. The allusion refers to him as both an actor and a playwright and indicates that he had achieved some reputation by that time. Shakespeare’s residence in London has been surmised from the reports of tax collectors which place him in St. Helen's Parish before 1596 and on the Bankside in Southwark, near the Globe theatre, in 1597. Evidence confirming his residence in Southwark is found in a writ served against Shakespeare and Francis Langley by the sheriff in that district. The complainant was a William Wayte and the quarrel involved William Gardiner, but the details of the dispute are no longer known.
How Shakespeare came to join the lord chamberlain’s acting company and where he got his training — the training of actors in his day was extremely rigorous and the profession highly competitive — is not known. It is reasonable to assume that he started out as a hired man, possibly in Pembroke’s Men, or was a member of Strange’s Men when they re-formed to become the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. In any case, he emerges as a member of Chamberlain’s Men in 1594. His position as a leading actor and sharer in the company is attested to by a record of payment in that year from the Master of the Revels to the Chamberlain’s Men for a performance at court. Such payments were usually made to the two or three most prominent actors in the company, and in this case the payment was made to Will Kempe, Richard Burbage, and Shakespeare. See Chamberlain’s Men; ACTING COMPANIES.
In 1598 the leading actors of the Chamberlain’s Men took the first steps toward the construction of their own playhouse, the Globe theatre. The troupe probably moved there sometime during 1599 and its reputation steadily rose until it was of unrivaled prominence. The high achievement of this company was due in part to its unique organization. The usual arrangement for acting companies was one in which the actors leased their theatres from theatre owners who were usually in no other way connected with the theatre; they were often businessmen with conflicting interests. In the case of the Globe, half the ownership was given to Cuthbert and Richard Burbage, the latter the leading actor of the company, and the other half was divided equally among five actor-sharers, including Shakespeare. Thus actors were owners or housekeepers as well, and almost all profits from the work of the actors remained with the actors.
In 1603, on the death of Queen Elizabeth, all the acting companies came under the patronage of members of the royal family, and the Chamberlain’s Men, as the finest acting company in London, became King James’ troupe, the King’s Men. As such, Shakespeare and his fellows attained even greater distinction, received a new patent, and were entitled to wear royal livery. In 1608 the King’s Men rented a second theatre, the Blackfriars, a private theatre. Seven men, including Shakespeare, each had a share in the theatre.
Very little reliable evidence exists as to the parts Shakespeare played in his own or other men’s plays. However, a mixture of gossip and tradition attributes to him the role of Adam in As You Like It and the Ghost in Hamlet. John Davies in an epigram in The Scourge of Folly, consisting of Satyri-call Epigrams and others (c. 1610) is responsible for the idea that Shakespeare often played the part of King in his own plays. It is on this basis that T. W. Baldwin infers that Shakespeare’s line as an actor was that of an old man of high rank about whom the center of action revolves, like the fatherly Duncan in Macbeth. Other roles that Baldwin assigns to Shakespeare are the following:
- Duke of Florence (All’s Well That Ends Well)
- Lepidus (Antony and Cleopatra)
- Duke of Ephesus (Comedy of Errors)
- Charles VI (Henry V)
- Cicero or Cinna (Julius Caesar)
- Friar Peter (Measure for Measure)
- Duke (Merchant of Venice)
- Friar Francis (Much Ado About Nothing)
- Duke (Othello)
- Escalus (Romeo and Juliet)
- Vincentio (Taming of the Shrew)
- Sea Captain (Twelfth Night)
- Antonio (Two Gentlemen of Verona)
Shakespeare is mentioned in the casts of characters of two of Ben Jonson’s plays — Every Man In his Humour and Sejanus — and there is a tradition that in the first he played the elder Knowell. The dates of these two plays, 1598 and 1603 respectively, indicate that Shakespeare continued to act fairly late in his career, even after he was a successful playwright and poet.
Shakespeare apparently retired to Stratford sometime before May 11, 1612, for, in a deposition of that date in regard to the Bellot-Mountjoy suit, he describes himself as a resident of Stratford. It is likely, however, that he went to London occasionally — in this instance to serve as witness in a suit. In 1613 Shakespeare is recorded as having designed, with Richard Burbage, an impresa for Francis Manners, 6th earl of Rutland. It was about this time that he purchased the Blackfriars Gate-house, another indication that he had not retired from London completely.
Running simultaneously with Shakespeare’s career as an actor was, of course, his career as playwright and poet. Shakespeare’s development (see Shakespeare, William: His Plays and Poems) into a writer whom many consider the supreme literary artist of all time, during a period of unparalleled intellectual and artistic vigor whose greatest achievement was its drama, is the happiest coincidence in English literary history. Shakespeare’s involvement with several aspects of the theatre — as actor, theatre owner, and playwright — though unique even in his own time, was possible because playwrights in general had a more intimate relationship with the theatre and actors than is the case today. Most modern productions of Shakespeare give very little idea of the theatrical conditions in which he worked. The structure of the theatre in Shakespeare’s time, for example, afforded far greater intimacy between actor and audience than is possible in modern-day theatres (see playhouse structure). The audience itself was far more heterogeneous than is the modern theatre audience, and Shakespeare appealed to everyone (see audiences). The division of a play into acts and scenes was not provided by Shakespeare, but was the work of later editors to make the plays conform to the theatrical conventions of a later day (see act-scene division). Thus an Elizabethan production, without such breaks, had much greater continuity and fluidity of action and the audience’s attention did not lapse because of changes of scene, curtain raisings and droppings, and the like. See performances of Shakespeare’s plays.
Like all playwrights of the time, Shakespeare was very much influenced in his writing by the nature and size of his company. A common device, doubling, made it possible for a company of, say, 15 actors to play twice that many roles or more Shakespeare usually knew who was going to act the parts in his plays and wrote them to suit the talents of the actors in his company (see cast). Shakespeare was most certainly influenced by the fact that in his day women did not act and female roles were impersonated by boy actors whose voices had not yet changed. The tenure of the boys as female impersonators was necessarily limited and their range of expression must also have been limited. This situation undoubtedly accounts for the small number of women in proportion to men in the plays. G. E. Bentley points out that in all of Shakespeare’s plays he assigns the largest part to women in only four of them; that the types of women in the plays are extremely limited compared with the types of men; and that Shakespeare never wrote a role which would require a boy actor to sustain a normal, maternal attitude. Thus, many phases of Shakespeare’s art can be fully appreciated only when seen against the background of his theatre. See actors.
Of the 36 plays published in the First Folio (1623), the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, only 18 had been previously published. These were published in quarto, the usual format for play publication in Elizabethan times. Again, modern practices differ so radically from Elizabethan that confusion has arisen about the publication of Shakespeare’s plays. The central difference between publication today and in Shakespeare’s day is that the writer had nothing to do with the publication of his own works (see printing and publishing); he did not own them, had no copyright, and therefore no legal rights concerning their printing. His play was the property of the acting company for whom he wrote it and, in general, acting companies jealously guarded their plays so that they would be exclusively part of their repertories (see blocking entry). This state of affairs is partially responsible for the publication of corrupt versions of Shakespeare’s plays (see bad quartos) and for false attributions to Shakespeare of other men’s work (see apocrypha) . As a result, the authenticity of the Shakespearean canon has been subject to painstaking investigation on the part of modern scholars (see canon). For a full discussion of the plays, see under the individual titles.
Authors usually had more of a hand in the publication of their nondramatic works. In the case of two of Shakespeare’s poems — Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece — Shakespeare obviously had some control of their printing and even wrote dedications for them. Both were dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton, and, taken together with the dedication in the Sonnets, have aroused speculation, often wild, about the relationship of Shakespeare to his patron. The dedication in the Sonnets was the publisher’s and its enigmatic phrasing has caused endless conjecture about Shakespeare’s life. Such conjecture is the result of reading the Sonnets as biography and is based on the attempts to determine the identity — Southampton is a favorite candidate — of Mr. W. H., the dedicatee.
There are many contemporary references to Shakespeare’s plays and his works, some direct and some oblique: Robert Greene’s angry allusion to Shakespeare was apologized for by Greene’s publisher Henry Chettle; Francis Meres, in the list of plays included in his Palladis Tamia, includes several of Shakespeare’s plays and praises him highly; a number of the plays were entered in the Stationers’ Register; the Chamberlain’s Men, and especially Shakespeare, are referred to in the Parnassus plays; Gabriel Harvey asserts that Venus and Adonis is more popular with youth, but that the "wiser sort" prefer Lucrece and Hamlet. Tributes by his contemporaries are included in the First Folio by Ben Jonson, Leonard Digges, Hugh Holland, James Mabbe (see M., I.), and, of course, by Shakespeare’s fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, who prepared the volume for publication. For other contemporary references of note see Willobie his Avisa; Michael Drayton; Richard Barnfield; John Marston; John Weever; John Bodenham; John Manningham; Robert Parsons; Anthony Scoloker; William Camden; William Barkstead; John Webster; Richard Carew; William Drummond. Among some of the notices after his death are those by William Basse; John Taylor; John Milton; John Benson.
This long list might give the impression that Shakespeare’s fame as the greatest of England’s writers began in his own day. However, Shakespeare’s reputation was neither as high nor of the same kind as it is today and its history is not a dull collection of high praise from every generation alike. The history of his reputation, in fact, is interesting in that it reflects the artistic standards and values of each period in subsequent literary history (see criticism — 17TH CENTURY; CRITICISM — 18TH CENTURY; CRITICISM — 19TH CENTURY; CRITICISM — 20TH CENTURY).
Legends. There are many stories about Shakespeare in contemporary, Caroline, and Restoration writings that purport to add to his biography and that form what E. K. Chambers calls the Shakespeare-mythos. The value of these stories is twofold: they contribute to the reconstruction of his life and the history of his reputation. Caution, however, must be taken in assessing the value of statements about Shakespeare because of the universal tendency on the part of people to create myths about the past, especially about heroes. It is best to accept the general drift of these traditions and see them in light of other evidence rather than adhere to details.
London, Oxford, and Stratford are the three main sources of tradition about Shakespeare. The Stratford tradition is miscellaneous and testifies to the fact that Stratfordians were early aware of Shakespeare’s reputation and that the town had become a place of pilgrimage as early as 1630.
Thomas Plume set down several anecdotes about Shakespeare, among them that he was a glover’s son. The story that Shakespeare wrote an epitaph on John Combe was recorded by Lieutenant Hammond and Nicholas Burgh in the 17th century. Another story concerns Shakespeare’s death following a drinking bout with Ben Jonson (see John Ward; Bidford). The tradition that Shakespeare left Stratford because he was caught stealing deer on the property of Sir Thomas Lucy was recorded by Richard Davies and Joshua Barnes. The curse on Shakespeare’s tomb is attributed to him by Mr. Dowdaix and William Hall. If the various anecdotes about Shakespeare are not to be trusted, they do show that a local mythology was early created under the pressure of interest and curiosity from the outside.
The Oxford tradition is concerned exclusively with the legend that Sir William Davenant was the natural son of Shakespeare which, though the result of local tradition, had tacit confirmation from Davenant himself.
The London tradition is largely theatrical and yields information about Shakespeare as an actor, about his relationship with Ben Jonson, and about the composition of some of his plays. Stories about Shakespeare and Jonson were recorded by Nicholas L'Estrange and Thomas Fuller. Notices about the composition of his plays were written by Richard James, Edward Ravenscroft, and John Downes, and the anonymous Essay against too much Reading discusses Shakespeare’s method as a writer. The line of transmission of the London tradition is mainly from Davenant to his associate Thomas Betterton, from whom it finds its way to Alexander Pope and others in the 18th century, including Sir William Oldys.
These stories all appeared, some of them much embellished, in early attempts at biography. Shakespeare is treated in several early collective biographies, notably those by Edward Phillips, William Winstanley, Gerard Langbaine, and Charles Gildon. These are interesting more for an early view of his reputation than for any specific biographical data they yield. More anecdotal are the notices of Shakespeare by Sir William Bishop, Sir Hugh Clopton, and John Aubrey. The dearth of strictly contemporary references to Shakespeare is due in part to the fact that until 1709 — when Nicholas Rowe made the first attempt to reconstruct the life of Shakespeare for his Life — there was no systematic research into the playwright’s life and many who might have provided information or recollections about him died without being consulted. Later notices — those that appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries — are to be regarded with great skepticism. Finally, it might be noted that, unlike the various traditions that derive from recorded notices comparatively close to Shakespeare’s time, the notion that his plays were written by someone else materialized, unsupported by fact or tradition, in the 19th century. See claimants. [E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, 1930; Marchette Chute, Shakespeare of London, 1949; Mark Eccles, Shakespeare in Warwickshire, 1961; G. E. Bentley, Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook, 1961.]
Source: A Shakespeare Encyclopaedia / Edited by Oscar James Campbell. Associate Editor Edward G. Quinn. L.: Methuen & Co LTD. P. 755–767.