Very little is known about William Shakespeare. He was the son of a merchant of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, and his wife, Mary Arden, who claimed kinship with one of the gentry families of the surrounding countryside.
During Shakespeare’s youth, his parents were prosperous, and his father took a part in the civic government of the town – ale-taster, treasurer, alderman and even Mayor. As time passed, his business affairs became chaotic, and he was frequently cited for debt. It has been alleged that John Shakespeare was a Catholic recusant, based on the discovery of a Catholic tract with his signature during the eighteenth century, although the original has been lost. If this is true, it may explain some of his financial difficulties, as recusants had to pay heavy fines. This has led to speculation that Shakespeare too, adhered to the old religion, although there are contrary views.
It is assumed that Shakespeare attended the Stratford Grammar school, although there are no records supporting his presence. He did not attend university, nor did he train formally as a lawyer. There is no evidence of any apprenticeship or any trade, prior to him moving to London in 1585.
In November 1582 he married at the unusually young age of eighteen. His wife, Anne Hathaway was twenty-six. The couple were married by special licence which permitted the ceremony to take place after only one reading of the banns.Their first child, Susanna, was born the following May. Where the young Shakespeare family lived, or how they supported themselves, is unknown.
Twins followed in 1584, and then the next record of Shakespeare is in London, where he is found as an actor and playwright. He may have worked for the company known as Lord Strange’s Men, later the Queen’s Men, but this is not proven. Academics date his plays from the early 1590s, but there is controversy as to which was the first to be performed. It is usually taken to be Henry VI Part 1, although it has been suggested that this was not Shakespeare’s own, but a reworking of an earlier production.
How much of his time Shakespeare spent in the capital and how much in Stratford is unknown – he appears as a lodger in various locations in London, and, eventually as a shareholder in the company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. This company built the Globe Theatre, and later, the Fortune. In the protection of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon and cousin of Elizabeth I, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were successful and popular – performing in front of the Queen herself on several occasions.
Rather than his plays, Shakespeare was best known at the time for his poem, Venus and Adonis, which went through ten editions during his lifetime. His financial success, which was solid, rather than spectacular, allowed him to invest in property in his native Stratford, where it appears that his family remained.
Following the death of Elizabeth I, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men became the King’s Men, and were heavily patronised by James VI & I, who enjoyed theatre immensely. The Company played at court on at least 187 separate occasions up until 1611, on which date Shakespeare’s The Tempest was played.
By 1612, the records suggest he was spending more time in Stratford – both his parents and all of his siblings save Joan had died and perhaps he was feeling his age. He had lost his son at the age of 11, and his daughters were both involved in local scandals – the elder, Susanna, accused of adultery, and the younger’s fiancé found guilty of fathering an illegitimate child on another woman.
Shakespeare died in April 1616, having made a complex will, which envisaged numerous future little Shakespeares passing his hard-earned wealth on, but none of his grandchildren had issue. Famously, he left his wife only the second-best bed, although whether this was an insult, or reflected other financial arrangements of which we know nothing, is a mystery.
In 1623, the First Folio, as it is known, which collected the majority of his plays into a single edition, was published. Some 237 were printed, of which many are missing, although in April 2016 it was announced that one had been found at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute, Scotland. A fitting discovery for the four-hundredth anniversary of his death.