Somewhere in the world, a book about William Shakespeare is published every day. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, the most comprehensive collection of material relating to his life and work, contains some 350,000 volumes.
His works have been studied with an almost religious zeal, every word turned upside down and dissected for nuance and context. Even the printing of his work has been so scrupulously investigated that scholars identify nine different typesetters on the First Folio based on the quirks in their spelling and working style, and some of them are known by name.
There are dozens of theater companies in the United States devoted exclusively or primarily to presenting his work, and hundreds of other productions are mounted each year.
But at the time of his death, William Shakespeare was not the shining star he is today. Other playwrights — Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher and Ben Jonson, for instance — received higher praise and more frequent performances. It took 100 years before a biography of Shakespeare would be published, by then all direct testimony of his life would be buried with those who knew him.
Because we live in an era where every movement of even minor celebrities is documented ad infinitum in talk shows, tabloid newspapers and even mainstream press, it seems surprising how little we actually know about the man who gave us "Hamlet," "Romeo & Juliet," "King Lear" and all the other marvelous plays.
We know that he was baptized, that he was married and had three children, that he was a published poet and an successful actor and playwright, that he bought property both in London and Stratford, and that he returned to Stratford in his 40s and died there at age 52. Once he was a witness in a court case, a dispute between a wigmaker and whose son-in-law took him to court for shirking on the dowry.
We have no written description of what he looked like from anyone who actually saw him, and the images we have of him are all suspect as to their accuracy.
There's one portrait in existence that may have been painted in his lifetime, but it's not a very good painting and there's no real evidence that it was Shakespeare at all. Although it's been authenticated to be from the period, there's not record of it having existed before 1747.
There are two other existing images created after his death and viewed by people who knew him, one being the famous engraving that was created for the publication of the First Folio seven years after his death, and a memorial bust at the Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, created at around the same time. The artist of the engraving was in his early 20s when he made it, and it's been suggested that he worked from a painting. The mason that created the Trinity bust may have known Shakespeare and created it in time for the Bard's widow and daughters to have seen it, but we don't know what they thought about it and that image has been painted over at least three times since a 1769 touch-up. All three have similar looks: A balding man with some facial hair wearing Elizabethan-era clothes, but otherwise the resemblance is not particularly remarkable.
We can be pretty sure that he read books because except for “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Loves Labors Lost” and “The Tempest,” his plays were adaptations of the work of others, but we don't know where he got the books or what he felt about them. Some of them weren't published in English in his lifetime, so it begs the question whether he knew Italian and Latin or if someone told him the stories or had private translations.
The only writing we have in his own hand is 14 words: His name six times and the words "by me" on his will. Each time he signed his name, it is spelled differently, and never in the spelling we now routinely use. Indeed, the records we have of Shakespeare and his family use more than a dozen different spellings:
And we don't really know how it was pronounced. Some linguists say it may have been SHACK spere or SHACK spur.
We don’t know what religion he was, although it’s generally presumed that he was a Catholic in an era where it was very dangerous to be a Catholic.
We know that he acted in some of his own plays, as well as plays by Ben Jonson and others, but we don’t know what roles he took on. Tradition has it that he was the Ghost in Hamlet, but we don’t really know.
We currently attribute to William Shakespeare 38 plays — 16 comedies, 10 histories, 12 tragedies, categories laid out in the publication of the First Folio. Nine or ten of his plays are deemed "problem plays" because Shakespeare was daring enough to mix genres. Some plays it works better than others. "The Tempest," for instance, probably the last play he wrote by himself, was listed in the First Folio as a comedy, but its complicated story has inspired arguments for it to be put into a new category of Romance, separating five plays from the ranks of Comedy. But it's also a plot built on magic and sorcery, so it was in some ways a precursor to fantasy fiction like the Harry Potter books.
There's also at least two lost plays, "Love's Labours Won" and "Cardenio," and a dozen or so other plays attributed at least in part to Shakespeare but for which there is no proof.
So we don't really know how many he plays he actually wrote or in what order they were written — and as we'll talk about later on, some would say we don't really know that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon even wrote the plays attributed to him.
Even so, we're lucky that we have his plays. It's estimated that from the time Shakespeare was born until the Puritans shut down the theaters in 1642, some 3,000 different plays were produced in London, but 80 percent are known only by title. Fewer than 10 percent, some 230 texts, exist, including Shakespeare's 38.
There are differing opinions about how much biographical detail can be culled from his plays and poetry, though many have tried. Maybe he knew a lot of legal terms, but that doesn't mean he was a lawyer, no more than using metaphors of weather would make him a meteorologist. Bill Bryson said in a recent biography, "We can only know what came out of his work, never what went into it."
Most of what we do know about William Shakespeare and his immediate family comes from the writings of others and from about 100 official historical documents — baptismal records, title deeds, tax certificates, marriage bonds and a lot of court records.
The Elizabethan culture was almost as litigious as our own, so there were a lot of lawsuits bandied about — and there were a lot of rules to follow in regard to dress, manners and the upkeep of one's property. Because most of what we know about William Shakespeare and his ancestors comes from court documents, the portraits that we try to create of them may skew toward the less attractive parts of their lives. We know when a man gets fined for keeping his dung pile in the wrong place or for not wearing the proper kind of hat in church, but we can't tell from these kinds of records whether he was a kind to his children, if he had an interesting hobby or if he liked his job. But all we have to work with is what we've got, so let's take a look at what we can know.
The family name may go as far back as 1284 when William Saksere from Gloucestershire (pronounce GLOU stur) was hanged for theft, or 1385 when a William Shakespeare, the first written record of the name being spelled in what has become the conventional way, served on a coroner's jury in Balsall (pronounce BAL sul).
But were these men ancestors of our Bard?
We don't really know.
What we do know starts the Bard's story in 1530, one Richard Shakspere lived in the village of Snitterfield about four miles from Stratford. That was when he payed a two-pence fine for not appearing in court at Warwicke, some six miles away. What he did to be summoned to court, we don't know. From court records, however, we know that on other occasions he was fined for letting his pigs run wild, letting his animals overburden the public pastures and for not mending his hedges. But we also know that he owned a substantial amount of property and was charged with estimating the value of the estates of his deceased friends and neighbors, so he may also have been something of a trusted leading citizen of Snitterfield before his death in 1561.
Richard Shakspere had two or three sons. There's a Thomas Shakespeare on record paying rent in Snitterfield, but there's nothing to indicate any relationship. But it is pretty certain that Richard Shakespeare was the father of Henry and John.
Henry was a bit of a rake. He owned land, but was in frequent trouble with the law, to the point of having served several prison terms. Like his father, he showed a careless disregard for keeping his fences, hedges and ditches in good repair, but more seriously: He was excommunicated for refusing to pay his tithes to the church of England and drew blood in a fight with one Edward Cornwall, who will turn out to be William's maternal uncle. His jail sentences were for non-payment of his debts. He was also fined for wearing a hat to church instead of a cap, in defiance of the Statute of Caps. The Queen was very particular about what one wore to church and had enacted a complicated set of "Sumptuary Laws" to lay down who could wear what depending on your position in society. We don't know when Henry was born, but he was buried in Snitterfield on Dec. 29, 1596.
Henry's brother John Shakespeare, our Bard's father, was born in 1529, and was 28 years old in 1557 when it is presumed he married Mary Arden, the 17-year-old daughter of a local landowner and from a somewhat noble Catholic family that had been given their property by William the Conqueror.
John's wife Mary Arden, our Bard's mum, was the youngest of eight daughters. Her father died in 1556, leaving her a pretty sweet dowry that included property, and there was no mention of her being married in his will, composed just before he died, but she and John had their first child in 1558, so we presume they were married in 1557 or thereabouts, sometime between that death and that birth.
Mary's first two children died as infants, so William was essentially the oldest child when he was born 1564 — he was baptized on April 25, so it’s presumed that he was born on the 23rd, but we don't really know that for a fact.
It may have been nothing short of a miracle that he survived for the plague began a sweep through Stratford that year, and 20 deaths "hic incepit pestis" were recorded between Jan. 1 and July 11. By the end of the year, 240 deaths were recorded, one-seventh of Stratford's populations, including all four children of the Green family who lived right next door to the Shakespeares.
But some of Mary Arden's inheritance was an estate in Wilmcote, and the family may have sought refuge from the plague there, but again, we don't really know that for a fact.
From the records, we probably know more about John Shakespeare than the Bard, and what we know paints a portrait of a complicated man. He was a money-lender and illegal wool dealer with his share of unpaid debts. He also dealt in property, timber and barley, which was an important commodity because it was used in the making of ale, a staple of the Elizabethan diet, even among the Puritans. In fact, John Shakespeare served for a time as the local ale-taster, an important job because he set the price of ale. He is best known, however, as a glover, a man who worked with light leather making belts, purses and aprons, and probably ran a shop from his home.
Marrying into the heavily-propertied Arden family may have helped John Shakespeare's social standing as he began his career in public service in 1558 when he was appointed constable of Stratford.
A year after being appointed constable, he was promoted to Assessor, the man responsible for setting fines that weren't already established by the law, and in 1565 — a year after William was born — John Shakespeare was promoted to alderman.
In the same year, however, he was fined three pounds, seven pence as restitution for an old debt. An odd combination of events that today would seem almost scandalous, and maybe it was, but his star continued to rise.
In 1568 he held an elected office, mayor of Stratford, and served one term. He may have felt his fortunes rising, too, for in 1569 he applied for a coat of arms, which if bestowed would have sealed his standing as a country gentleman, but was declined.
After his term as mayor, John Shakespeare became chief alderman and justice of the peace, but then he seemed to fall on some hard times. From 1576 to 78, he was absent from council meetings and was excused from some taxes and levies, but was also brought to court for debts.
In 1578, he sold 70 acres of his wife's dowry, and the following year borrowed 40 pounds against the remainder. Perhaps not coincidentally, that year he was also fined 20 pounds from failure to appear in the Queen's Court and another 20 pounds for surety in a dispute with a Nottingham hatmaker. When that mortgage came due in 1580, he was unable to pay and never recovered the property.
There's not much in the records for John Shakespeare after that, although he lived until 1601 when he left his son, by then a successful theatre mogul and property owner himself, the largest house in Stratford.
And from the public records for the Bard's dad, we gather many of these variant spellings: Shakyspere, Shackspeare, Shakespeyr, but none of them from the hand of John Shakespeare himself. Whenever he was required to sign his name, he made a mark that looked like a compass, one of the tools of the glover's trade. Because those were the only marks he ever made, at least as far as we know now, some have surmised that he was illiterate. Likewise, there are no records of Mary Arden Shakespeare signing her name. Her mark was a horse. But we don't know for a fact that they were illiterate. Indeed it was fairly common at the time for people to leave some kind of ideographic mark rather than a signature.
We also don't know exactly what happened during William Shakespeare's childhood that shaped the mind of the greatest writer of the English language and perhaps of the whole history of literature.
But we know that in 1569, the Queen's Players performed in Stratford. Our Bard would have been 5 years old and his father the Mayor of Stratford. It would be easy to imagine a story, as many have, that by virtue of his father's position, the youngster may have had a front-row seat to whatever play or plays were performed during their stay, to watch the proceeds with wide-eyed wonder befitting an impressionable child, beginning his life-long interest in the performing arts.
In that day, before the rise of the commercial theater, troupes were often supported by noblemen. In modern terms, you might think of how corporations and foundations support professional theater companies, allowing them to exist without relying on ticket sales to sustain them. In this case, however, they would have had a duty to perform a certain amount of time in their patron's court, but would also tour the countryside to be hired by villages such as Stratford to put on shows there, their fees being recorded in the public books. So we also know that Leicester's Men (pronounced LYE-stur) — which included the Jame Burbage, one of the great actors of the day who will re-appear in the Bard's life — performed in Stratford in 1573, when Will was 9 years old, and Lord Strange's men performed there in 1579, when he was 15. In all, during Shakespeare's early years, 10 different troupes performed in Stratford.
But apart from his Christening in April, 1564, we have no other written record of William Shakepeare until 1582. On Nov. 27, a license was issued to marry William Shaxpere to one Anne Whately. A different document, a 40-pound marriage bond, is dated the following day, permitting the marriage between William Shagsper and Anne Hathaway to proceed without the normal bureaucratic delays. Probably because Anne Hathaway was three months pregnant.
The existence of Anne Whately is limited to just that one record, and so many academics and biographers have chalked it up to a clerical error, but things being what they are, the dearth of biographical details has inspired other to imagine a young man — an aspiring young actor having his career interrupted by a dramatic love triangle— torn between art and love and duty, of wanting to marry Anne Whately to avoid a hasty marriage because he is being forced to marry Anne Hathaway and give up his dream of a life in theater because she is pregnant with his child. And indeed, on May 26, 1583, almost exactly six months later, William and his wife christened their first daughter, Susanna. Two years later, William and Anne christened twins, Judith and Hamnet.
And that's all we know about William Shakespeare until 1592 when he turns up in London in the diary of a London wag, a pamphleteer who was a member of a group of theatre mavens known as "the University Wits," but we don't really know how he got to London, or why. Like Jesus, Shakespeare has his missing years.
But we can make guesses, some more educated than others.
Among the theories that have been put forth through the years, much of it surmised by people looking for clues in his plays, we find William Shakespeare being employed as a legal clerk or a scrivener in a lawyer's office, sailing the globe with Sir Francis Drake, traveling to Germany and Italy with the army, or working as a schoolmaster. Legend has him being exiled from Stratford for being a deer poacher. Some would have it that he got his start in theatre by tending to the horses of patrons as they arrived, essentially inventing valet parking.
There's no record of William Shakespeare ever attending a college or university — or even grammar school for that matter, although we might presume that he did, that he learned to read and write and developed some kind of passion for both. But we don't know.
There are some documents that may shed a little light, though they are ambiguous and careful historians try not to make too much of it, but it comes up almost every time because it's a good story that has the smell of truth if not the substance of fact.
But it seems that in August, 1581, Alexander Houghton, the wealthy master of Lea Hall in Lancashire, about 150 miles north of Stratford, was dying without male issue, as they say. He wrote wrote a will leaving his half-brother Thomas all of his musical instruments and his collection of "play clothes," or costumes "if he be minded to keep players," or if he didn't want to "keep players," to pass the items along to Sir Thomas Hesketh, who did keep a troupe of players in Rufford Old Hall, an estate often visited by the Earl of Derby's Players, which was in turn where the Queen's Men, the premiere group of the day, recruited actors. That is, Alexander Houghton, it seems, kept musical instruments and costumes, but we don't know that he kept a troupe players, so it's more likely that he kept the instruments and costumes so that his own family and servants could put on shows. And with his passing is leaving it up to his brother to either continue the practice, or to make sure the items get good use at Thomas Hesketh's Rufford Old Hall. At that point, he a plea for Hesketh "to be friendly unto ... Wiliam Shakeshafte" and to take him into his service. Later on in his will, Alexander Houghton also leaves 2 pounds to William Shakeshafte above the wages bequethed to other servants mentioned by name.
It's all rather ambiguous, no doubt. But it is possible to read this that this William Shakeshafte — a Northern variant on Shakespeare — came into Houghton's service somehow and made enough of an impression on him as an actor that he recommends him into the service of a known patron of the theater. If this is our Bard, he would have been 17 years old, a year before his marriage to Anne Hathaway.
There is some credibility to this concoction, another fact that adds to the smell of truth. Houghton's will also mentions John Cottom, who as it turns out was the schoolmaster in Stratford in 1579, right at the same time John Shakespeare was suffering financially and selling off his wife's inheritance. Had William Shakespeare attended the Stratford School at this time, he would have been 15 years old.
So it's tempting to connect the dots, that Cottom made an introduction for his star pupil to travel to Lancashire, about 150 miles to the north, the same distance as London, but the opposite direction, to serve as — what — a tutor perhaps to the children at Lea Hall, and perhaps as a part-time player, giving him a chance to work on his theatrical skills, imitating the troupes of players that passed through the Stratford of his youth. And then after Houghton's death and upon his recommendation, Shakespeare works his way up the ladder and is even perhaps on his way to London the following year when he makes a stop to his hometown, somewhere around August, 1582, only to have his career interrupted by an unexpected pregnancy.
It could have happened like that. It's a good story. But we don't really know.
Here's something else to add some drama to the story: We don't know when Anne Hathaway was born or baptised, but she died in 1623 and her tomb in Stratford's Holy Trinity Church says she was 67 years old. Barring an error, that would put her eight years older than our Bard, some 26 years old at the time of their nuptials. While 26 was a common age for men to marry — remember John Shakespeare was 28 — that was certainly approaching old-maidenhood for a woman by some accounts.
We also know that her father died the year before, leaving her a bequest of 10 pounds to be paid on her wedding, and leaving her to reside with his second wife and her three children. In other words, we have a stepmother situation here. So again, it's fertile ground for an overactive imagination: Anne Hathaway, fearing a lifetime of spinsterhood and caring for a family not really her own, seduces a young actor and forces him into marriage so that she can collect her inheritance. In other words, she married him for her own money. Even the official Stratford-upon-Avon website claims "He endured her until he could stand it no longer and fled to London to become an actor."
Sounds dramatic enough, but we don't know that's how it happened. It may well be that young Will was deeply in love with this older woman and would have married her anyway. He did stick around long enough to have another child — a set of twins, as it turns out. And even though he moved away to London and likely left her in Stratford, he did return a few times, some say as often as once a year. We know that when he first purchased property, it was in Stratford, and when he retired from the theatre, it was to Stratford.
But he did leave a wife and three children behind, so that's something to reckon with.
Here's something else we know: In 1587, when William Shakespeare was 23 years old, the Queen's Men made a return engagement to Stratford.
The Queen's Men was a troupe of players hand-picked by the Queen herself, and it was the big time for actors in that era. It cost 20 shillings for the town of Stratford to host them in June 1587, and in the troupe was Richard Tarleton, the leading comedic actor of the day.
But a few nights before they arrived in Stratford, a quarrel broke out among the players, and William Knell was stabbed in the throat and died. A coroner's investigation cleared the actor who did the stabbing, declaring it self-defense, so he remained with the troupe, but it was still a man short when it arrived in Stratford and found an eager replacement in one William Shakespeare, who fell in love with the stage as a child and just as he was beginning to prove himself as a performer found himself in a shotgun wedding, putting his aspirations on hold while he raised his sudden family. Perhaps some in the troupe already knew him from his days at Lea Hall when he worked for Houghton or Rufford Old Hall if he took Hesketh's patronage, if that William Shakeshafte was indeed our Bard.
It could have happened that way, but we don't know that it did.
There's also a persisting legend that he was run out of Stratford because he was poaching the deer of Sir Thomas Lucy, a story based on a ballad that was written down by an Greek scholar visiting Stratford around 1690.
But the next historical record of Shakespeare comes in London, five years later, so let's take a brief look at what the theater was like there at the time...
Until 1576, there were no commercial theaters in London. That's when James Burbage, an actor but not a particularly notable one, borrowed the money to build a playhouse which he called "The Theatre." Like Kleenex and Styrofoam in our era, the brand name eventually became the common name. Indeed, it was Shakespeare's own "Richard II" in 1596 that used "theatre" as a common noun.
The next year, the Curtain opened, so named not because of the stage accoutrement's — theaters didn't have curtains at the time — but because it was in a part of London known as "Curtain Close," some 200 yards south of Burbage's Theatre, which would become the home base for the Queen's Men.
The two establishments enjoyed what seems to be a heated but still friendly rivalry, often putting on fencing matches between the players. In 1587, the Rose had also opened, so if Shakespeare came to London sometime between then and 1592, when we know with some certainty that he was an established figure, he would have walked into a scene with three more or less thriving commercial theaters, although they resorted to all sorts of low entertainment to pay the bills.
Like animal baiting, setting dogs off on bears and the like. One theater is said to have put a chimpanzee on a horse's back and set a pack of mastiffs loose on them, the ape clinging for its life on the back of a bucking horse while the dogs bit at their legs and tried not to get hit by the horse's hooves. Sounds like a new series on the Fox network, doesn't it?
But they did plays, and a lot of them. Although a playwright's name on could be a box office draw, the plays belonged to the company and not the author. A theater in London needed to average 2,000 spectators a day, two hundred times a year. To keep people coming back, they would perform five different plays a week. A new play would get three performances, and if it were good enough, would be worked into a rotation so that it might get ten performances in a year. So there was a constant need for new material.
Around the time William Shakespeare left his wife and three children in Stratford to ply his skills as a performer with the Queen's Men, the London theater was dominated by Christopher "Kit" Marlow, who's "Tamburlane" was a continuing hit. The second tier was a group of Oxbridge graduates calling themselves "the University Wits," who churned out box office fodder that often included a lot of theater-scene in-jokes, ridiculing the competition.
One of those wits, George Peele, wrote a historical play "Edward I," which contains the lines "Shake thy speares in honor of his name," which may be the first reference to William Shakespeare in London. That was in 1589. In 1592, Philip Henslow, owner of the Rose, recorded in his diary a March performance of "Harey VI," which some scholars take as to be "Henry the VI, Part I," which may be the first recorded reference to a Shakespeare play. Whatever the play was, it was a big hit for the Rose and was performed 13 times in four months.
The first almost-for-sure mention of Shakespeare comes in 1592, in a Pamphlet written by Richard Greene, one of the University Wits. In a snarky satire on the London theater scene, he chides an actor who also writes plays, refers to him as "an upstart crow" and calls him "Shake-Scene," and makes reference to a line in "Henry VI, Part 3."
Greene was not a particularly well-regarded person, however, described as "a wastrel and a cad," and no one knows what Shakespeare did to make him so mad. Probably just threatened him with his talent. At any rate, Greene died shortly thereafter from either food poisoning from a pickled herring, or just from the cumulative effects of other indulgences, at the age of 31 or 32. His editor soon offered an apology, praising Shakespeare's "honesty and good character," a back-handed compliment at best.
The timing of these emerging references to our Bard is most unfortunate, however, because before the year was out, the playhouses would be closed on account of plague. BUT... In April the following year, 1593, William Shakespeare released his first published work, the 1,194-line narrative poem "Venus and Adonis," based on Ovid's "Metamorphosis." It was a great success and was reprinted 10 times during his lifetime. The next year, before the theaters re-opened, the follow-up "Rape of Lucrece," 1,855 lines, was published, but was not so popular.
It is in the dedications to these two books that Shakespeare speaks in his own voice, but they are so fawning over his patrons — "The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end" etc. — that it's really difficult to glean anything useful about his life or personality, except that he was probably a pretty-good suck-up, a nice characteristic to have in an industry that even then was dominated by big egos and bigger aspirations.
When the playhouses re-open, it's a much different landscape. Marlow is dead at age 29, and that's a really good story for another time, having to do with Elizabethan-era homeland security and double-crossing spies, and Marlow may have been killed at the behest of the crown.
During the shut-down, actors were forced into going on the road again, but the rigors of playing the hinterlands may have proved too much, for they disbanded one by one, and by the time the playhouses re-open, there is only the Admiral's Men and a new group called the Lord Chamberlain's Men, led by Richard Burbage, son of James, and named for the head of the queen's household. The company also included John Heminges, the celebrated comic Will Kemp and our Bard, who would remain with the Lord Chamberlain's Men for the rest of his career.
Except for the one possible reference to "Harey VI", we don't know what plays of Shakespeare's had been performed before the plague, but his plays started being published after the playhouses re-opened, but not with his name and it is presumed without his permission, starting with “Titus Andronicus” in February, 1594. At least eight or nine plays were published anonymously, many of them now considered to be corrupt copies gleaned from notes taken by spies, an early form of media pirating, or from the memory of actors who had been in the play and may not have been very accurate with those parts he didn't play. It wasn't until the second editions of “Richard II” and Richard III” in 1598 that a published volume bore William Shakespeare's name. By the time of his death in 1616, 18 of his plays had been published, some of them several times. Some in improved, Bard-approved editions the second time around.
In 1596, his son Hamnet died. We don’t know how; some say plague but who knows where they get their information. And in May 1597, he bought a house in Stratford, known as New Place, dilapidated, but at a good price and the second biggest house in town. He later bought the house across the street and 107 acres of farmland north of town.
And in 1599, he applied for a family coat of arms on behalf of his father. This time, it was granted. At age 35, he was apparently not only a well-known writer, but also making a good living in the theater, probably due to his part-ownership of the company because playwrights didn’t earn much.
He was also found guilty in 1597 and 1598 of defaulting on tax payments, so the true state of his finances remain uncertain. Maybe he was just a tightwad, or maybe he was a conscientious objector to taxes.
Also in 1597, James Burbage died and it was up to his son Cuthbert to re-negotiate the lease on the Theatre the next year. For whatever reason, the landlord proved difficult, so the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and a dozen workmen disassembled the building on Dec. 28, 1598, and moved it across the frozen Thames and re-named it The Globe.
In 1603, Elizabeth died and James took the throne. One of his first acts as king was to award the Lord Chamberlain’s Men a royal patent making them the King’s Men. He used them often (187 times between his coronation and Shakespeare’s death) and paid them well — and allowed them to wear scarlet cloth provided by the Crown.
In 1608, Shakespeare’s mother and his brother Edmund both died, she in her 70s and he 27. That same year, the King’s Men opened the Blackfriar’s Theatre, the first fully indoor theater that held about 600 people but was more profitable than the Globe because they could charge a higher admission.
In 1609, Shakespeare’s sonnets were published by Thomas Thorpe. We don’t know anything about the circumstances. Thorpe owned neither a printing press nor a retail shop. We don’t know where he even got the sonnets or whether Shakespeare himself had anything to say about it.
We don’t know when they were written, to whom they were addressed or whether they are assembled in the correct order, but so much has been made from the content that they have been by far the largest source of biographical speculation about Shakespeare.
Sonnets 1 through 126 seem to be addressed to “a fair youth’ with whom the narrator is infatuated, and similarly numbers 127 to 154 are addressed to someone referred to as “the dark lady,” though the poems never actually call her that. There has been much speculation about who these two people are and what it means about Shakespeare's sexuality, but all these stories depend on the assumption that the "I" character in the sonnets is always the same and always Shakespeare himself, writing straight from his heart.
But I don't think that's a safe assumption. One of the reasons Shakespeare remains our greatest author is his remarkable ability to write in other voices. It's equally possible that he wrote theses sonnets on commission, assuming the voice of his patron and writing love poems to people he may not even know. So lacking any other material, culling biographical information even from these poems is, I would venture, entirely and wholly speculative. The truth is, we just don't know.
On March 25, 1616, one month before his death, William Shakespeare signed his will. He was apparently already a sick man, though except for the insinuations of a shaky signature, we don't know his symptoms, and on April 25, 1616 he was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, and so convention would have it to date his death at April 23, the same as his presumed date of birth, but we don't know either date for sure.
His will included bequests to his sister Joan and her children, his daughter Judith, his granddaughter Elizabeth, and the poor of Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as money for his fellow-actors Richard Burbage, John Heminge and Henry Condell to buy memorial rings. The remainder of his estate, including New Place, went to his daughter Susanna and her husband. His wife Anne, to whom he left only 'my second-best bed', outlived him by seven years. She was buried on August 8, 1623. Susanna died in 1649 at the age of 66. Judith, 1662, age 77.
The same year Shakespeare died, his rival playwright Ben Jonson published a folio of plays entitled "Workes." This was a time when plays were not taken seriously as literature, and so his handsome volume received some criticism for its elegance. But it may have served as an inspiration for two of Shakespeare's acting friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, surely two of the greatest heroes of modern literature. They are the men who gave us Shakespeare.
The book is formally titled "Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, but it's more commonly known as the First Folio. It was published seven years after Shakespeare's death and Jonson's folio, but it may have taken Heminges and Condell that long to prepare the manuscript. Not only did they introduce 18 new plays to print, but they purposefully set about correcting those volumes now known as the "bad quartos," those plays that were incomplete or inaccurate or just plain wrong somehow.
Remember this, perhaps Shakespeare's most famous soliloquy?
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
Were it not for the First Folio and we had to rely on the First Quarto, a Bad Quarto, of "Hamlet,"
we'd have the prince saying:
To be, or not to be, I there's the point.
To die, to sleepe, is that all? I all.
No, to sleepe to dream, I mary there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an everlasting judge
from whense no passenger ever returned.
Quite a bit of difference. Enough that were it not for Heminges and Cordell, William Shakespeare would likely not be the towering figure he is today. Whoever he is.
There are those who claim that Shakespeare isn't really Shakespeare. That is, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon is not the person who wrote "Hamlet," "Romeo & Juliet" and so on. That at best, he was an actor who lent his name to some otherwise anonymous author. That the son of a wool merchant and glover that never went to university could not possibly be the wit behind the greatest collection of writing in the English language.
The anti-Stratford movement, as it is collectively known, began with a nut job from Tallmadge, Ohio, Miss Delia Bacon. She was one of six children born to a poor minister in a long cabin in the Ohio frontier. He either died or went broke, but somehow the family ended up in New England and she lived there, mostly in Connecticut, for the rest of her life.
She published a novel at 20 and a play a few years later, and taught school for a while, but in 1852, she moved to England on her quest to prove that the works of William Shakespeare were actually written by Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser because there were subliminal political messages in the plays that they needed to be shielded from. Her goal, which she failed to accomplish, was to dig up Shakespeare's grave to uncover the documents that would prove he was a fraud.
It seems demented, and probably was. Delia had a few bad, even publicly humiliating, relationships, and eventually went insane and died thinking she was the Holy Ghost, but she won over some influential people, including Ralph Waldo Emerson in New England and Thomas Carlyle in the other England.
Nathaniel Hawthorne made the mistake of writing the introduction to her book before he read it, because it was dismissed out of hand by critics and scholars, but the Baconian theory took on something like a cult furor, with people finding all sorts of hidden codes and clues in Shakespeare's plays, using numerology and cryptography to prove that Francis Bacon was the true Bard.
Even Mark Twain and Henry James jumped onto the Baconian bandwagon, but the theory started to fall out of favor after its proponents started also giving him credit for the works of Marlowe, Kyd and Spenser as well as the King James Bible. Some believed him to be the bastard son of Queen Elizabeth.
Still, anti-Stratfordians continued to seek out the real author. Some say it was Kit Marlowe having faked his death but used his pal Will to help him keep a hand in theatre. Some say Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. Or William Stanley, sixth Earl of Derby. Some 50 different people have been credited with being the brains behind Shakespeare, but there's not a shred of real evidence for any of it.
Presently, the most popular candidate among the anti-Stratfordians are the Oxfordians who believe that Edward de Vere, the 16th Earl of Oxford, was the real Shakespeare. But Edward de Vere died in 1604, before many of the Shakespeare plays had been written. Still, there are famous proponents of the Oxfordians, perhaps most notably Orson Welles and Royal Shakespeare Company mainstay Derek Jacobi.
But scant as the documentation is of William Shakespeare's life, there's even less — that is, no historical evidence at all — that even suggests someone other than the glove-maker's son from the country made such a profound impact on a culture, an impact not limited to the power of his plays and poetry, but on the language itself.
Shakespeare coined or made the first recorded use of 2,035 words, including antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leap-frog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany and countless.
He had a way of coining phrases that made them memorable and have since become part of our everyday language: one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, bag and baggage, play fast and loose, in a pickle, budge an inch, the milk of human kindness, remembrance of things past, cold comfort, be cruel to be kind, with bated breath, pomp and circumstance, forgone conclusion.
Maybe it was because of this impact, on our language, our art and our culture, that we want to know more about William Shakespeare. And the lack of good information only adds hunger to that thirst for knowledge, and so people keep trying. Even now, people in London and Stratford continue to pore over public documents, looking for anything that looks remotely like Shakespeare, or Shakspere or Shagstaffe or whatever. Any bit of information that puts him in a particular time or place is treated like the discovery of a long lost tomb, but the truth is we may never know anything beyond the bare-bone facts of his life.
Even so, we have the poems and the plays, and we'll probably just have to be content with that.
And maybe that's enough.
Hamilton Roundtable Club Paper
Feb. 26, 2008
"Shakespeare" by Michael Wood. Basic Books, 2003.
"Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare," by Stephen Greenblatt, 2004.
"Shakespeare: The Biography" by Peter Ackroyd, 2005.
"William Shakespeare: The World As Stage" by Bill Bryson, 2007.
"In Search of Shakespeare," PBS Home Video, 2003.
"William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life" by Samuel Schoenbaum, 1975.