As the author of an almost absurd amount of plays and poems, William Shakespeare is widely considered to be one of the most prolific writers in the history of the English Language. His name is known throughout the entire world (and widely cursed by the many students that study him over the course of their education!), but what most people don’t know is that the Bard had a background worthy of being put in a play itself. Even though most of his past is shrouded in mystery- to the point where we’re not even sure if he wrote his plays himself- the pieces of information that have been left behind in documents and in his plays point to a true rags-to-riches story, in which a man from the country came to London and revolutionised the theatre. So, forget the plays; today the Bard himself is going to come under scrutiny.
One of the few concrete facts that we do know about Shakespeare is that he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1564, and that he was baptized on the 23rd. Life in those days was hard; his two older sisters had died before him, although he later acquired five younger siblings. Given his father’s prominent position as an alderman of the city, William almost certainly went to King’s New School- a grammar school in Stratford- where he would have learnt Latin, Greek and a lot of religious education of one form or another. Sadly, the religious life didn’t tempt him, as at the age of eighteen, he married a woman eight years older than him – Anne Hathaway – under suspicious circumstances. It was in fact extremely suspicious, given that their eldest daughter, Susanna, was born six months later. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven, two years before Shakespeare wrote his most famous tragedy.
However, now the guesswork has to start: one of the biggest mysteries concerning Shakespeare’s life is the Lost Years. Between getting married and leaving school, Shakespeare mysteriously vanished from all records for a total of seven years, and this set him on the road to becoming the playwright we all know and love today. Although we know that he followed his father into the leatherwork business for some time, his plays also contain a detailed knowledge of Astronomy, the Law, Seamanship and Military matters (not to mention Italy, where most of his plays are set), none of which would have been learnt whilst staying in Stratford-upon-Avon. So how did he acquire this knowledge? Some stories state that Shakespeare started his theatre career by minding the horses of London’s theatre-goers, and others say that he ran away and joined the Navy. The only thing we know about this man of mystery is that he appeared again, in 1592, when several of his plays are mentioned as part of the London theatre scene.
After having emerged from the literary wilderness, Shakespeare’s theatrical career didn’t exactly get off to a flying start: the first mention we have of him in London is via a scathing attack by Robert Greene, who described him as an ‘upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that…supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you’. Despite the obvious allusion to Shakespeare’s lack of genius, Shakespeare’s plays were taken up by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men from 1594 onwards, and were soon the leading playing company in London, being awarded a royal patent by the new King, James I, and becoming the King’s Men in 1603. It was about this time that Shakespeare became properly wealthy, investing in a share of the Blackfriar’s Theatre in 1608, a business which not only made him a rich man, but which allowed him to buy the second-grandest house in Stratford-upon-Avon, called New Place. Unfortunately, the man who owned it after Shakespeare’s death became so annoyed with the fact that people kept on visiting it that he knocked it down in 1759.
And what of the Globe, Shakespeare’s famous theatre where the majority of his plays were staged? That has as unconventional a history as Shakespeare himself. The Globe was originally called The Theatre, which was an ailing theatre owned by the Burbage family. In 1597, the family couldn’t afford to pay Giles Allen the lease for his property, and the theatre was in line for demolition. However, the King’s Men needed a theatre, and therefore in the dead of night the whole theatre was dismantled and shipped to the south side of the Thames River, becoming the Globe instead. This daring bit of property management ensured that plays would be performed there until it burned down in 1613.
The later years of Shakespeare’s life ended as quietly as they began. Although he was still working as an actor in London in 1608, the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1609 meant that Shakespeare left the city for good, only coming back for visits until 1614. He died two years later, on 23rd April 1613, having written thirty-seven plays and over one hundred poems. Famously, he left his wife Anne his ‘second best bed’ in his will, something which has caused much speculation over the years: was it an insult, or did it refer to their marriage bed? Sadly, like so much of Shakespeare’s life, this remains open to interpretation.
So, that concludes the whip-round story of the Bard’s life – a life full of surprises and plot twists, not least the mysterious ‘Lost Years’ in which he vanished completely from the records. There are still questions regarding his actual identity, and how he stole a playhouse from a local rival and made it into the most famous theatre of all time. The stuff we do know spells out a rags-to-riches story, as he rose from the son of a leatherworker to the most famous man in English history. We may never know everything about William Shakespeare, but it is at least safe to say that he will forever be immortalised by his writing.