Who Was William Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright and actor of the Renaissance era. He was an important member of the King’s Men company of theatrical players from roughly 1594 onward.
Known throughout the world, Shakespeare’s writings capture the range of human emotion and conflict and have been celebrated for more than 400 years. And yet, the personal life of William Shakespeare is somewhat a mystery.
There are two primary sources that provide historians with an outline of his life. One is his work — the plays, poems and sonnets — and the other is official documentation such as church and court records. However, these provide only brief sketches of specific events in his life and yield little insight into the man himself.
When Was Shakespeare Born?
No birth records exist, but an old church record indicates that a William Shakespeare was baptized at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564. From this, it is believed he was born on or near April 23, 1564, and this is the date scholars acknowledge as Shakespeare’s birthday.
Located about 100 miles northwest of London, during Shakespeare’s time Stratford-upon-Avon was a bustling market town along the River Avon and bisected by a country road.
Shakespeare was the third child of John Shakespeare, a leather merchant, and Mary Arden, a local landed heiress. Shakespeare had two older sisters, Joan and Judith, and three younger brothers, Gilbert, Richard and Edmund.
Before Shakespeare’s birth, his father became a successful merchant and held official positions as alderman and bailiff, an office resembling a mayor. However, records indicate John’s fortunes declined sometime in the late 1570s.
Childhood and Education
Scant records exist of Shakespeare’s childhood and virtually none regarding his education. Scholars have surmised that he most likely attended the King’s New School, in Stratford, which taught reading, writing and the classics.
Being a public official’s child, Shakespeare would have undoubtedly qualified for free tuition. But this uncertainty regarding his education has led some to raise questions about the authorship of his work (and even about whether or not Shakespeare really existed).
Wife and Children
Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway on November 28, 1582, in Worcester, in Canterbury Province. Hathaway was from Shottery, a small village a mile west of Stratford. Shakespeare was 18 and Anne was 26, and, as it turns out, pregnant.
Their first child, a daughter they named Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583. Two years later, on February 2, 1585, twins Hamnet and Judith were born. Hamnet later died of unknown causes at age 11.
Shakespeare’s Lost Years
There are seven years of Shakespeare’s life where no records exist after the birth of his twins in 1585. Scholars call this period the “lost years,” and there is wide speculation on what he was doing during this period.
One theory is that he might have gone into hiding for poaching game from the local landlord, Sir Thomas Lucy. Another possibility is that he might have been working as an assistant schoolmaster in Lancashire.
It’s generally believed he arrived in London in the mid- to late 1580s and may have found work as a horse attendant at some of London’s finer theaters, a scenario updated centuries later by the countless aspiring actors and playwrights in Hollywood and Broadway.
The King’s Men
By the early 1590s, documents show Shakespeare was a managing partner in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an acting company in London with which he was connected for most of his career.
Considered the most important troupe of its time, the company changed its name to the King’s Men following the crowning of King James I in 1603. From all accounts, the King’s Men company was very popular. Records show that Shakespeare had works published and sold as popular literature.
Although the theater culture in 16th century England was not highly admired by people of high rank, some of the nobility were good patrons of the performing arts and friends of the actors.