“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players:
they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time
plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”
William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2 Scene VII
Shakespeare: a big name, and a man who is overshadowed by his own work. This year celebrates 400 years since Shakespeare’s death on the 23rd of April 1616. Most historians disagree on many aspects of Shakespeare’s life. However, as BBC History Magazine lately pointed out, we know more than is commonly assumed. It is legal records and official documents from which we have to assume knowledge as Shakespeare did not keep a diary or anything personal for historians to look at. There are of course the “lost years” between 1578 and 1582, and also 1585-1592 (these are periods of time where Shakespeare disappears from all records), which are difficult to entangle, however this article will attempt to cover the life of Shakespeare in relative detail.
Shakespeare was born in Statford-upon-Avon and baptised on 26th April, 1564. This fact we know for sure. We also know that his father had boosted his status through a marriage to Mary Arden, the daughter of a landowning aristocrat. We can assume that Shakespeare enjoyed a good education at the local grammar school – incidentally the curriculum of the time (likely to have been a humanist education) was well-suited to a future dramatist, with rhetoric, Roman comedy, debate, dialogue and phrasing being central to it. His allusions to Roman poets such as Ovid is likely to have been learnt from such an education.
After Shakespeare’s baptism, we face a short break in the records until his marriage to Anne Whateley was recorded in November 1582. Historians assume that Whateley was in fact Anne Hathaway. The date of the christening of their daughter, Susanna, suggests that the marriage was rushed due to Anne becoming pregnant. In 1585 they had twins Hamnet and Judith. Following this comes the first period of Shakespeare’s “lost years”. The antiquary John Aubrey, suggested that at one point Shakespeare was a schoolmaster, which could be one of the things he did in this time. He may also have taken up acting, however Weis believes that neither of these is likely and that it is more probable that he stayed in Stratford-upon-Avon. One of the things he may have done in Stratford was to become an apprentice as many boys of his class did. On the other hand this may not have been the case considering his young marriage to Anne Hathaway. We can only speculate as to what he did as we have no concrete evidence to support any of these theories.
When Shakespeare returned to the records in 1592 he had been in London long enough to have gained rivals and a reputation of sorts. Robert Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit criticised Shakespeare as an “upstart cow” who assumes he is a good actor — something which Green clearly disagrees with. From 1594 he became associated exclusively with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as the King’s Men when it was patronised by James I. He continued to visit his family in Stratford and bought lands surrounding the house. The original work which helped him to stake his claim to fame was his narrative poem Venus and Adonis – a hugely popular work in his own time, although barely known to much of the public in the present day. In this time theatres had closed due to an outbreak of the plague, however, once they reopened, Shakespeare had already established himself as an author.
The detail of the ins and outs of Shakespeare’s plays is not necessarily relevant to this article on the events of his life. However, it is interesting to see the impact of events in his life on the content of his plays. Most of his plays were written between 1590 and 1613, and he wrote them for money, not just simply for pleasure. Furthermore, despite the fact that there are many people who espouse the view that Shakespeare did not write these plays, historians generally agree that there is very little doubt as to Shakespeare’s authorship of them. Considering the content of his plays, we find a strong correlation to events at the time. Macbeth is clearly indicative of the anti-Catholic hysteria following the Gunpowder Plot. Macbeth was also relevant as it was based on a Scottish story which celebrated James I’s ancestors. Anti-Jewish sentiment, which was especially high after Elizabeth I had her Jewish convert physician, Dr Roderigo Lopez, killed for treason, was also represented in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Furthermore, it has been suggested by Brotten that Richard II, a play that discusses the righteousness of deposing legitimate monarchs, was in fact written with a deposition scene that Elizabeth I’s censors were insistent to take out. Although this looks at the simple influences on the play at the time we can see that Shakespeare was writing for an audience, about current events; it is likely that his ability to incorporate events of the day into his work subtly contributed to his popularity as an author.
As with much about Shakespeare’s life we find that his death is something where we rely on guesswork. Just as people assume his date of birth to be 23rd of April 1564, his death has been assumed to be the same in 1616. Weis believes that the “fever” Shakespeare contracted is most likely to have been typhoid as it was known as the “new” or “spotted fever”. His will has been the subject of much discussion, particularly the giving of his “second-best” bed to his wife. However it is a complex will with many changes, multiple different signatures by Shakespeare and it was unsealed. The complexity of his will represents the complexity for historians to untangle Shakespeare’s life. However from what we do see there was nothing extraordinary about Shakespeare’s life except the plays he created; it is interesting to wonder at Shakespeare’s quote that we are merely players in a play written by someone else, considering the fact that Shakespeare has become embodied by his plays.
Written by Lauren Miller
Aubrey, John. Brief Lives. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972.
Benson, Jon. The Reader’s Companion to The Death of Shakespeare. Maryland: Nedward, 2016.
Brotton, Jerry. “How Shakespeare Rewrote History”. In BBC History Magazine, Volume 17, no. 4 (2016): 46-50.
Dobson, Michael, Paul Edmondson, Laurie Maguire, and René Weis. “Shakespeare: The Historians View”. In BBC History Magazine, Volume 17, no. 4 (2016): 40-44.
Greene, Robert. Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit. London: 1592.
Hodek, B. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Comprising his Plays and Poems. London: Spring Books, 1966.