Did a ‘genius' poet and playwright by the name of William Shakespeare really exist? Given the sparse recorded history on his life, this question lingers in the minds of some. Much of Shakespeare's story is devised from baptism, death, property and court records of London and Stratford. The man himself has left no personal accounts only the connected histories of relatives, friends and fellow players and writers leave us clues.
Baptised on April 26 1564, 'William Shakespere' (as Stratford parish documents name him) may have been born up to three days previously. First son to John and Mary (nee Arden) Shakespeare, William was the third child of eight. His two older sisters died during infancy yet he survived the plague that stuck around the time of his birth. It is thought the boy would have attended King's New School in Stratford, as his father was well respected as a local government member during this time. Perhaps here, in school plays along with the observance of medieval ‘miracle' plays in the town streets and inns, the young Will discovered his theatrical tendencies. Chances of a university education were lost in 1582 when he married 26 year old Anne Hathaway to which daughter Susanna was born only 6 months later. Following the baptism of his twin children Hamnet and Judeth on 2 January 1585, the next seven years of William's life remain a mystery with no activity recorded. Whatever he did during this time saw the man find reason to depart from his wife and children in Stratford and make significant progress in launching the profession he is known for.
Following these ‘lost years' Shakespeare appears in London where his career as a poet surfaces. In 1592 Robert Green, a jealous writer, claimed the success of an unnamed player (believed to be Shakespeare) was because he had been ‘beautified by our feathers'. He also rather infamously labelled Shakespeare an 'an upstart crow'. It is from Green's reference that we know Shakespeare had been in London for some time. Today Shakespeare is given much praise and is a celebrated writer. In his day however, there were equally as popular artists whom people flocked to see including Richard Burbage and Ben Jonson. Many of the main characters in Will's plays appear to have been written with particular actors in mind. It is difficult to nominate specific dates and the order in which the 37 plays and 160 sonnets and poems credited to him were written. His first publications were the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucree (1593). Hamlet makes reference to the ‘war of the theatres' where boy players rather than men were popular, indicating it was written around 1601. The suicide of Shakespeare's cousin, persecuted for Catholicism could explain the religious implications and espionage found in the play. However, with no copyright laws prevailing, it is likely Shakespeare's Hamlet is a rewritten version of a lost play of the same name by Thomas Kyd. Also, it appears to be based on a Nordic legend Historia Danica by Saxo Grammaticus in the 12th century. Evidently, Shakespeare was influenced by the works of other writers from various cultures in Europe.
As part of The Lord Chamberlain's company of players including actors Richard Burbage and William Kemp, Shakespeare performed for Queen Elizabeth in 1594. The sons of James Burbage built the Globe theatre five years later which became the home and wealth of this same company. William's career peaked in 1603 when King James employed the players and the company was renamed the ‘King's Men'. By 1611 he returned to his family in Stratford completing the last of his plays The Tempest and Henry VIII. On 25 April 1616, William Shakespeare was buried aged fifty-two with a lasting inscription on his stone:
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.
In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell published the First Folio containing the works of this extraordinary writer.
While there are a lot of unknown details about Shakespeare's life, several assumptions can be made by looking at Elizabethan history and ‘filling in the gaps'. Watch the film Shakespeare in Love and have the class discuss what would be credibly depicted about his life while what is pure ‘fairy tale'. Discuss using other historical information from websites, whether this film is a reliable source from which to learn about Shakespeare.
Some websites regarding the life of Shakespeare you might like to visit are: