King Henry VI Part 2: Biography: William Shakespeare

Biography: William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare†was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. He was the third child of John Shakespeare, a glove-maker and businessman, and Mary Arden Shakespeare, the daughter of a wealthy landowner who inherited much of his estate when he died. The date of Shakespeare’s birth is not known. There are no records of his schooling, though it is believed that he attended Stratford grammar school and received an education in the classics. 


In November 1582, Shakespeare obtained a special license to marry Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years older than him, who was pregnant with their first child, Susanna. Susanna was born on May 26, 1583, and twins called Hamnet (a boy who died aged 11) and Judith were born February 2, 1585. Hamnet died aged 11 and was buried in Stratford on August 11, 1596. Anne remained in Stratford her whole life.


No one knows when or why Shakespeare left Stratford for London. The first sign of his presence in London came in 1592, in the form of a derogatory reference to an actor whom scholars have identified as Shakespeare. The reference was made in a pamphlet called Greenes Groatsworth of Wit, attributed to rival playwright, Robert Greene. 


In 1593, the first work published under the name William Shakespeare appeared, a long poem called Venus and Adonis. The poem was dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton, who is believed to have been Shakespeares patron. He also wrote another long narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece (entered in the Stationer’s Register May 9, 1594), and 154 sonnets. The sonnets portray a troubled triangular relationship between the author, his young male friend (the “fair youth”), and a woman. They were published in 1609, apparently without the author’s permission.


Shakespeare is, however, best known as the author of his thirty-seven plays, including comedies, tragedies, histories, and romances. The dates of composition of the plays is the subject of debate. No collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays was published in his lifetime, but in 1623 two members of his acting company, John Heminge and Henry Condell, published the first collection, referred to as the First Folio. 


In 1594 Shakespeare became a shareholder and playwright of a successful theater company called the Lord Chamberlains Men. Shakespeare held a one-tenth share in the company. In 1599 the Lord Chamberlains Men built and occupied the Globe Theater, on the south bank of the river Thames in London. 


Shakespeare grew rich enough in London to invest in real estate in Stratford. In 1597 he bought New Place, the second largest house in town. 


His career spanned the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625), and his work found favor with both monarchs. In 1603, James paid Shakespeares company the compliment of allowing them to take the name, “The Kings Men.” 


Shakespeare retired from the theater around 1612, and returned to Stratford to live. He died on April 23, 1616 and was buried in the church at Stratford. He was outlived by his wife but left the majority of his estate to his daughter Susanna. Controversy has arisen over his meagre bequest in his will of his “second best bed” to his wife.


Since Shakespeares death, a controversy known as the Authorship Question has grown up around the topic of who wrote the plays. Some scholars and other analysts do not believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford was the true author They think that the real author borrowed the name as a pseudonym because he wanted to remain anonymous. Rival candidates for authorship include Christopher Marlowe; Sir Francis Bacon; and Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke; but the candidate supported by the most circumstantial evidence is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. 


In 1987, the US Supreme Court held a moot court to decide whether Oxford or William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote Shakespeare. The justices found for William Shakespeare on the basis of insufficient evidence of Oxford’s claim, but later all three came to doubt their decision. By 2009, one of the justices, Justice John Paul Stevens, announced that he has decided firmly in favor of Oxford.


In January 1999 Shakespeare was chosen as British Person of the Millennium by listeners of BBC Radio 4s flagship news and current affairs programme Today. He beat a shortlist including Sir Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin, and William Caxton (credited with introducing the printing press into England). His works continue to be performed and filmed worldwide today. They are translated into many languages and appear to appeal to people of widely different cultures. Shakespeare’s continuing popularity seems to confirm the words of his fellow playwright and contemporary, Ben Jonson, who in his preface to the First Folio of 1623 wrote, “He was not of an age, but for all time!”