William Shakespeare (born April 26, 1564) was an English playwright, actor and poet and is often called England’s national poet. Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, he was an important member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men company of theatrical players from roughly 1594 onward.
Written records give little indication of the way in which Shakespeare’s professional life molded his artistry. All that can be deduced is that, in his 20 years as a playwright, Shakespeare wrote plays that capture the complete range of human emotion and conflict.
Known throughout the world, the works of William Shakespeare have been performed in countless hamlets, villages, cities and metropolises for more than 400 years. And yet, the personal history of William Shakespeare is somewhat a mystery. There are two primary sources that provide historians with a basic outline of his life. One source is his work — the plays, poems and sonnets — and the other is official documentation such as church and court records. However, these only provide brief sketches of specific events in his life and provide little on the person who experienced those events.
William Shakespeare Full Biography and Profile
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in April 1564. The exact date of his birth is not recorded, but it is most often celebrated around the world on 23 April.
Shakespeare’s baptism is recorded in the Parish Register at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon on Wednesday 26 April 1564. Baptisms typically took place within three days of a new arrival, and parents were instructed by the Prayer Book to ensure that their children were baptised no later than the first Sunday after birth. This means that it’s unlikely that Shakespeare was born any earlier than the previous Sunday, 23 April. Given that three days would be a reasonable interval between birth and baptism, 23 April has therefore come to be celebrated as his birthday.
Shakespeare also died on 23 April; in 1616, when he was 52 years of age.
William Shakespeare’s Family
William Shakespeare was the eldest son of John and Mary Shakespeare. John Shakespeare was a glove-maker, who married Mary Arden, the daughter of a farmer from the nearby village of Wilmcote. When William was born, John and Mary were living on Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, in the house now known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace. They had eight children in total.
Shakespeare Family Tree:
Shakespeare’s parents and siblings
John Shakespeare was a prominent citizen who served on the town council for many years. He even became a high bailiff in 1568 (the equivalent of Mayor). Aside from his craft as a glover, he traded as a wool dealer and was also involved in money-lending. He was granted a Coat of Arms in 1596, elevating him and his heirs to the official status of gentlemen.
When William was born in 1564, his parents had already lost two infant daughters. Joan died within the first few weeks of her life, and Margaret died a year after she was born. William’s younger siblings were Gilbert (1566-1612), Joan (1569-1646), Anne (1571-1579), Richard (1574-1613) and Edmund (1580-1607).
Gilbert was probably based in Stratford for most of his life. There are records that suggest he may have been a haberdasher. He may have spent some time in London as there is a record of a haberdasher with the name in St Bride’s London.
Joan was the only surviving daughter of John and Mary Shakespeare and the only one of Shakespeare’s siblings to outlive him. She married hatter William Hart in the late 1590’s. From 1601 the Harts lived in a cottage within the west part of the Shakespeare house on Henley Street.
It’s likely that Richard was named after his paternal grandfather. Anne unfortunately died at the age of eight.
Edmund was the youngest of Shakespeare’s siblings, born when William was 16 years old. Edmund became an actor in London, as his brother William did. He died in 1607 and is buried in Southwark Cathedral in London. It is thought that William Shakespeare paid for his brother’s burial inside the church and for the great bell to be rung in his memory.
Shakespeare’s wife and descendants
At the age of eighteen, William married Anne Hathaway, a young woman from the village of Shottery, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon.
William and Anne Shakespeare had three children. Susanna was born six months after their marriage, followed by twins Judith and Hamnet in 1585. Hamnet died at age 11.
Shakespeare’s four grandchildren all died without heirs, so there are no direct descendants of his line today. Susanna and John Hall’s only daughter, Elizabeth, married twice but both marriages remained childless. His daughter Judith and her husband Thomas Quiney’s three sons all died at an early age, either in infancy or as young adults before having children.
It is possible to claim a relationship to Shakespeare through his sister, Joan. There are many descendants of Joan and William Hart alive today, in both the male and female lines.
William Shakespeare’s education would have started at home. His mother, Mary Arden, would have told him fables and fairy tales during his early youth. Mary was certainly literate. She acted as the executor of her father’s will. The kinds of stories Mary told him are referred to much later in Shakespeare’s plays. His home education would also have included reading the bible. In addition to education at home, Petty School followed up to the age of seven. There he learnt his alphabet, numbers, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer–often written on small pieces of parchment and made into hornbooks.
Shakespeare’s Henley Street home was just a short walk from the grammar school, the King’s New School, on Church Street, also the site of the Guild Hall where the borough council regularly met. The school was available to all boys within the borough, free of charge. The grammar-school’s demanding curriculum was geared to teaching pupils Latin, both spoken and written. The boys studied authors such as Terence, Virgil, and Horace in their original Latin. In fact, the students were even expected to speak Latin to each other in the playground or at home. We can see the influence of these Classical writers, particularly Ovid, in Shakespeare’s poems and plays. While grammar schools focused on Latin rhetoric, drama was also included. He probably left school at fourteen to undertake an apprenticeship of seven years until his coming of age.
There is no record of Shakespeare going to University. Only a few of Shakespeare’s contemporary playwrights attended University, including Christopher Marlowe who was at Cambridge. Ben Jonson, who prided himself on his learning, did not.
Shakespeare’s Wedding and Marriage
William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in November 1582 and they remained married until Shakespeare’s death. At the time of their marriage William was 18, while Anne was 26—and pregnant with their first child.
The average age of marriage was 26 years of age, so Anne would have been an eligible young lady of her time. William, on the other hand, was still a minor in the eyes of the law and so required permission from Anne’s father to marry Anne. Shakespeare’s early marriage also meant that he wouldn’t legally be able to complete an apprenticeship.
To avoid any scandal surrounding Anne’s pregnancy, William sped up proceedings by applying to the Bishop’s Court in Worcester. This licence also authorised the marriage to take place outside the parish of normal residence, allowing William and Anne to be married outside of Stratford-upon-Avon. Stratford then lay in the diocese of Worcester, and two documents survive in the diocesan archives to establish the marriage was performed in November 1582, but neither document specifies the parish in which they did marry. The parishes of Luddington, Bishopton, Billesley, and Temple Grafton have all been suggested.
Anne and William’s first daughter, Susanna, was born six months after their marriage, and they would go on to have twins Judith and Hamnet a few years later. Read the article, ‘How Many Children did Shakespeare Have?’ to learn more about Shakespeare’s children.
Tudor Wedding Customs
On her wedding day, a Tudor bride would have worn her best set of clothes, with her hair worn loose and crowned with a garland of herbs. She would have been escorted by her bridesmaids who would spread rushes before her to protect her shoes and clothes from mud.
The groom would dress in his finest doublet and hose, and been escorted by his male friends to the bride’s house with the musical accompaniment of the pipe and tabor. It was common for the groom to bring gloves for wedding guests in exchange for herbs and flowers (an appropriate gift since Shakespeare’s father was a glover).
The wedding ceremony began at the door of the church and the ring was blessed. Afterwards the wedding party entered the main body of the church for nuptial mass.
Shakespeare’s Wife & Will
It is difficult to define the exact nature of Anne and William’s relationship due to a lack of documentary evidence. William Shakespeare signed his will on 25 March 1616. In the will, he leaves his second-best bed to Anne; the document reads, ‘Item I gyve unto my wief my second best bed wth the furniture’ (furniture is used to refer to the curtains and bedcover which formed part of the complete bed). Some have read this as a slight against Anne; but the second-best bed would have been their marriage bed, since the best bed was typically reserved for guests.
Under medieval common law in England a widow was entitled to one third of her late husband’s estate for her life (or widowhood) even though it was not specifically mentioned in the will. In practice however, most wives were mentioned, usually in terms of affection and trust, and were frequently made executrix of the will.
The bequest of the second best bed is not in itself unusual, and wills were not places for the expression of personal feelings. The best bed, or indeed best of any type of item was usually regarded as an heirloom to be passed to the major heir, his daughter Susanna.
Shakespeare’s ‘Lost Years’
‘The Lost Years’ refers to the period of Shakespeare’s life between the baptism of his twins, Hamnet and Judith in 1585 and his apparent arrival on the London theatre scene in 1592. We do not know when or why William Shakespeare left Stratford-upon-Avon for London, or what he was doing before becoming a professional actor and dramatist in the capital. There are various traditions and stories about the so-called ‘lost years’. There is no documentary evidence of his life during this period of time.
A type of mythology has developed around these mysterious years, and many people have their favourite version of the story.
A popular story revolves around Shakespeare’s relationship with Sir Thomas Lucy, a local Stratford-upon-Avon landowner. By oral tradition, it was reported that Shakespeare poached deer from Sir Thomas Lucy’s estate, the nearby Charlecote Park. It was said that he fled to London in order to escape punishment.
John Aubrey wrote in 1681 that William Shakespeare ‘had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country’ (which might well refer to Stratford, since Aubrey was writing from a London perspective). Others speculate that he was employed as a lawyer’s clerk or became a soldier. It is also possible that he joined one of the companies of players which visited Stratford in the late 1580s. He may also have been living in Stratford, and helping out with the family business.
Gaps in the records of people’s lives are not unusual, so the notion of ‘lost years’ might even be construed as being symptomatic of too much biographical expectation and entitlement. Regardless of what happened during these years, we do know that he found himself an established playwright in London by 1592, as his plays began to be produced.
Shakespeare’s reputation was established in London by 1592. It was during this time that Shakespeare wrote his earliest plays, including Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Titus Andronicus, though it is often debated which of these plays was actually the first.
Shakespeare’s first printed works were two long poems, ‘Venus and Adonis’ (1593) and ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ (1594). These two of Shakespeare’s poems were both dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, who had become his patron.
After the plague epidemic subsided, Shakespeare and other actors who had previously belonged to different companies combined to form the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. This new theatre company was under the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain, and Richard Burbage starred as its leading actor. As a member of the troupe, Shakespeare also became a sharer in the company’s overall income. For almost twenty years William Shakespeare was its regular dramatist, producing on average two plays a year. Shakespeare stayed with the Chamberlain’s Men, which would later evolve into the King’s Men under the patronage of King James I, for the rest of his career. He also became a member of the syndicates which owned the Globe and the Blackfriars Theatre.
Shakespeare’s success in the London theatres made him considerably wealthy, and by 1597 he was able to purchase New Place, the largest house in the borough of Stratford-upon-Avon. Although his professional career was spent in London, he maintained close links with his native town. On his father’s death in 1601, he inherited the old family home in Henley Street part of which was then leased to tenants. Further property investments in Stratford followed, including the purchase of 107 acres of land in 1602.
During his lifetime, Shakespeare provoked the envy and admiration of fellow writers, as we know from their surviving comments in print. The First Folio, an unprecedented collection of a playwright’s work, is the best illustration of the pre-eminence awarded to him. Ben Jonson’s tribute to him, printed in this volume, famously praised him as:
“…..Soule of the Age!
The applause! Delight! The wonder of our Stage…
He was not of an age, but for all time!”
The memorial statue erected by his family in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon also demonstrates his status as a prosperous man of property as well as a famous poet.
As a member of the acting company called the Chamberlain’s Men, which from 1603 were known as the King’s Men, Shakespeare enjoyed the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain George Carey 2nd Lord Hunsdon and then of James I. Early in his career as a writer Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. The First Folio was dedicated after Shakespeare’s death to William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke and his brother Philip who supported Shakespeare and his plays in his lifetime.
Elizabeth I was an active and generous patron of the theatre. She had her own acting company called the ‘Queen’s Men’, and stood against the puritans who wished to close down the theatres. Without her support the Elizabethan theatres would not have survived. In the 1590s court performances by acting companies became popular and Shakespeare’s company was selected more than any other. Shakespeare does not refer to Elizabeth very often. He makes only one direct reference to her: “a fair vestal throned by the west” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
There is a reference to her baptism at the end of Henry VIII, but that section of the play is believed to have been written by Fletcher. It is believed that she liked the character of Falstaff so much, in Henry IV, Part One, that she asked Shakespeare to write a play that showed the character in love – this supposedly inspired The Merry Wives of Windsor. When Elizabeth died Shakespeare wrote no elegy for her, unlike most of the poets of the day. As you can see it is not easy to determine Shakespeare’s relationship to Elizabeth I. It appears that he worked for her as she demanded but there is no indication that their relationship was closer than that.
Shakespeare and Stratford
From the late 1580s, William Shakespeare started to divide his time up between Stratford-upon-Avon and London; his family and professional lives.
Shakespeare’s wife and children remained in Stratford and he made most of his financial investments in his home town. This certainly suggests that he cared about their (and his) comfort and status in Stratford.
His first significant investment came in 1597 with the high profile purchase of a large family home in the centre of town, known as New Place.
New Place was a considerable dwelling and gave Shakespeare and his family an impressive social status. This was to be his family home and could have offered him the focus he needed to be a full-time writer.
Shakespeare was only ever an intermittent lodger in London, and there are very few references to him there between 1604 and 1612. There were good links between Stratford-upon-Avon and London, so Shakespeare probably commuted to and fro when he had to (a journey that would have taken about three days).
Shakespeare’s other investments in Stratford-upon-Avon included an estate of 107 acres of land in the open fields of Old Stratford, which he purchased in 1602 for £320, a considerable sum of money in the Elizabethan era.
Shakespeare Coat of Arms
In 1596 William Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, was granted a coat-of-arms. During this time of increasing social mobility, a coat of arms was an essential symbol of respectability, and they were highly sought after. It has been estimated that William might have paid as much as £20 for it.
Between 1570 and 1630, there were 45 ‘gentlemen’ in Stratford-upon-Avon out of a population of around 2,200 (in 1595). 28 had been born into the title; the other 17 were tradesmen who, like Shakespeare, successfully applied for the status. Like all of them, the Shakespeare family were entitled to display their coat of arms above the entrance to their homes, to have it set into windows, and carved into their furniture.
The grant document includes a rough drawing and the following technical description of the coat of arms:
‘Gold, on a bend [diagonal bar] sable [black], a spear of the first [i.e. gold], steeled argent [with a silver tip]; and for his crest… a falcon his wings displayed argent [silver], standing on a wreath of his colours supporting a spear gold, steeled as aforesaid, [i.e. silver] set upon a helmet with mantles and tassles’.
The motto that runs along the bottom reads, ‘Non Sans Droict’ which is Latin and translates to ‘Not without right.’ Using the rough drawing and this description, the coat of arms can be reconstructed as shown above.
On his father’s death in 1601, William continued to use the coat of arms and had the right to style himself a gentleman. The coat of arms can be seen on Shakespeare’s monument, above his grave in Holy Trinity Church, and versions of it can be seen on Shakespeare’s Birthplace, above the entrance to the Shakespeare Centre and at Shakespeare’s New Place.
When did Shakespeare die?
William Shakespeare died in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1616, aged 52. His burial in Holy Trinity Church is recorded in Stratford-upon-Avon’s parish register on 25 April 1616. A monument still stands in the church, which notes the date of Shakespeare’s death as 23 April 1616.
The grave below Shakespeare’s monument does not bear his name, but was believed to be Shakespeare’s from at least 1656. It is also the first in a row of graves that commemorate his family, including his widow Anne, who died in 1623. Shakespeare’s family line came to an end with the death of his grand-daughter Elizabeth in 1670.
Visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon can still visit the church and William Shakespeare’s grave, where a curse is inscribed on the stone: ‘Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To digg the dust encloased heare, Blest by the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.’
We do not know the cause of Shakespeare’s death. Tudors placed some emphasis on the importance of making preparations for death, so it is unsurprising that Shakespeare left a will behind. The last version of his will was signed on 25 March 1616, almost a month before he died. In it he describes himself as ‘in perfect health & memorie, god be praysed’, which was a conventional phrase that cannot necessarily be taken as a true indication of his health at the time.
How did Shakespeare Die?
Shakespeare’s burial is recorded in Stratford’s parish register on 25 April 1616. We do not know the cause of Shakespeare’s death.
He made a will on 25 March, almost a month before he died, in which he describes himself as ‘in perfect health & memorie, god be praysed’. This was a typical phrase and does not necessarily mean he was not already experiencing symptoms of an illness which later proved fatal. This version of his will is, apparently, a re-drafting of one made in the January before, which could be taken as an indication of illness over a longer period. However, the Tudors placed some emphasis on making preparations for death, so Shakespeare could simply have been ensuring his affairs were in order in accordance with the conventions of the day.
On Shakespeare’s monument, still standing inside Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, we read that he died on 23 April. His gravestone, below the monument, does not bear his name, but was believed to be Shakespeare’s from at least 1656, and is the first in a row which commemorates other members of his family. His gravestone reads, ”Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To digg the dust encloased heare, Blest by the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.’
Listen to our podcast ‘How Did Shakespeare Die?’ to hear experts discuss the rumours and stories surrounding Shakespeare’s death, and other evidence about what his death would have been like.
- William Shakespeare Full Biography and Profile (Biography / William Shakespeare)