To celebrate the return of Upstart Crow @ChasquiPenguin has written another brilliant facts article for us! This time it’s the big one, the man himself: William Shakespeare:
50 Facts and Suppositions about The Bard and His Life and Works
- The exact day of William Shakespeare’s birth is not known, though it is considered to have been 23rd April 1564. Records show he was baptised on 26th April 1564 in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.
- His parents were John and Mary Shakespeare (née Arden) and William was their third child and eldest son.
- William’s siblings were:
Joan (1569–1646) – named after her sister who died as a baby
- In July of 1564 there was an outbreak of plague in Stratford and his mother is believed to have taken 3-month-old William to her family in the countryside, which was free of the disease, where they stayed till the epidemic was over.
- William and his brothers and sisters grew up in their parents’ house in Henley Street. The east side of the building was devoted to his father’s glove-making business, complete with a small shop.
- At the age of 6 or 7 William is believed to have started at the King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon where he studied Latin and Drama, among other subjects, which would seem to have paved the way for his acting and playwriting in later life. It is likely that, as his father was a member of the council, Will’s education would have been free. Among Shakespeare’s teachers were Simon Hunt and John Cottam.
- When he was 14, with his father in debt, William was forced to leave school and probably joined the family gloving business where he would have learned the trade. This meant that he had no chance of going to university or furthering his education.
- On 30th November 1582, aged 18, Will married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway in the church in Temple Grafton with Fr John Frith officiating. Preparations for their wedding were somewhat rushed as Anne was expecting their baby in the spring.
- For their wedding, it is believed that William wrote a sonnet for Anne in which he told her that she had saved his life.
- William and Anne began their married life living with his parents and his younger siblings in Henley Street and this continued for many years.
- In May 1583 their daughter Susanna was born, followed by their twins Judith and Hamnet in January 1585.
- There is supposition that before his marriage Will moved to Lancashire where he worked as a tutor for the Hoghton family at their home, Hoghton Tower, perhaps having received an introduction from his former schoolmaster, John Cottam, who worked there. Years later, Kit Beeston, an actor in Will’s company, mentioned that Shakespeare had been employed as a tutor in the countryside. Perhaps linked to this, a William Shakeshaft’s name appears in the 1581 will of Sir Alexander Hoghton of Hoghton Tower and this person is thought to be Shakespeare.
- It is alleged that in his early years of marriage Will was caught poaching deer by the landowner, Sir Thomas Lucy, and fled from Stratford, though it is likely this whole tale is more myth than truth.
- In 1587 The Queen’s Men, a touring acting company, played at the Guildhall, Stratford and it is thought that Will joined them at this time as a jobbing actor, travelling around the country as they made their way to different towns to perform.
- In 1588 The Queen’s Men arrived in London, probably with Will in their company, and he made this city his home for the next 25 years.
- Will’s first London address was in Bishopsgate but he worked about a mile away in Shoreditch, where James Burbage had opened the first purpose-built theatre in the world – an amphitheatre 3 storeys high and 100 ft across, known as The Theatre – and Will was very likely to have been part of the playing company performing there.
- Throughout his 25 years in London, Will was heavily involved in theatre life as an actor, playwright and director.
- It is thought that Will did not return to Stratford very often, due to his work and the travelling difficulties, but there is speculation that when he did travel to and from Warwickshire, he stopped at The Crown Inn in Oxfordshire where he became friendly with the family who ran it. It is known that he was the godfather to their son, born in 1606, and it is even alleged, though unconfirmed, that he fathered this child, who grew up to become Sir William Davenant, poet, playwright and manager of the Duke’s company, a theatre group, chartered by King Charles ll, under the patronage of James, Duke of York.
- Another affair he is alleged to have had is with the woman known as the Dark Lady. This was Emilia Lanier, a musician and poetess, from the Venetian Bassano family, who was married to court musician Alfonso Lanier. It is speculated that Will’s sonnets 127–154 were dedicated to Emilia.
- On 28th December 1594 The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were due to perform Will’s new play, “A Comedy of Errors”, for the legal profession at Gray’s Inn. However, after this booking was made, they received a request from Queen Elizabeth to perform for her at Hampton Court on the same evening. They could not refuse the Queen but once the play had finished, they travelled by boat along the Thames to Gray’s Inn, arriving around midnight to find that there was no audience and the temporary stage had been dismantled. As a result, 28th December 1594 became known as “The Night of Errors”.
- It is thought that in 1597 Shakespeare was commissioned by Lady Mary Herbert to write some sonnets for the 17th birthday of her son. Among these was the sonnet, later numbered 18 in the First Folio, with the opening line, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”. However, there is also speculation that this particular sonnet was dedicated to Lord Southampton and that Will had Hamnet in mind when writing it, as this was probably written shortly after the death of his 11-year-old only son.
- Also in 1597 Will bought New Place, a large house in Stratford-upon-Avon, but it was apparently in a dilapidated state and needed much work before the family could move in.
- Falstaff appears in 3 of Shakespeare’s plays: “Henry IV” (Parts l & ll) and “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, with his death mentioned in “Henry V” though the character does not appear in this. Scholarly opinion is divided but some academics believe that John Falstaff was not only based on Sir John Oldcastel, who was executed in 1417 for heresy, but also initially named Oldcastel. However, John Oldcastel’s descendant Lord Cobham, a member of the Privy Council, objected and as a result Shakespeare had to change the name. Interestingly, there is a more recent theory that Falstaff was based on Robert Greene.
- James Burbage died in February 1597 and in 1598 renewal of the lease on The Theatre was refused by the owner. Over 4 nights in late December 1598, made feasible by a loophole, Will, with Cuthbert and Richard Burbage, fellow actors and 12 workmen, dismantled the building and transported the timbers across the river and with these The Globe Theatre was built and opened in 1599. The first play performed there is likely to have been Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”. The Burbage brothers, along with Will, Henry Condell, Augustine Phillips, John Heminges and Thomas Pope were all shareholders.
- On 2nd February 1602 “Twelfth Night” was debuted at Middle Temple, one of the London law schools.
- “Hamlet” is Shakespeare’s longest play – 30,000 words forming 4,000 lines, 37% of which are spoken by the actor in the title role.
- Richard Burbage, son of James, was the first Hamlet and played the lead in other Shakespeare plays: Richard III, Romeo, King Lear, Henry V, Othello and Macbeth.
- With 1,787 lines and 14,369 words, “The Comedy of Errors”is the shortest Shakespearean play.
- In 1603 The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the acting company with which Will was associated, became known as The King’s Men, by royal appointment from King James I. After that they were required to perform plays each Christmastime at Hampton Court for the entertainment of the King and his entourage. The Royal Records note that an actor by the name of Shaxberd was in this playing company that performed “Measure for Measure” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” among other plays.
- The foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 is said to have led to Shakespeare writing Macbeth.
- In 1605, following the Gunpowder Plot, the Act of Censorship was passed, at the instigation of the Puritans who were also calling for the closure of the theatres. Will had to cut some scenes from his plays and rewrite some of his lines or risk a £10 fine for each profanity within them.
- In 1607 Susanna Shakespeare married physician Dr John Hall, and their only child, Elizabeth, was born the following year, giving Anne and Will their first grandchild. Will got along well with his son-in-law and placed great trust in him, often taking him on business trips.
- In 1608 Will’s acting company took out a lease on the old Blackfriars Monastery in London. It was intended to be the winter home for the acting troupe as it was indoors and in one season it took £1,000 more than The Globe over a similar length of time.
- In 1612 Will bought land in Warwickshire and there is speculation that he was preparing for his retirement.
- On 10th March 1613 Will bought a new house in Blackfriars Gatehouse and as far as is known he never lived in it. The building is no longer standing but a City of London plaque in the area confirms this purchase.
- In 1613 Shakespeare’s “lost” play, “Cardenio”, based on the Cervantes tale of Don Quixote, was performed. Very little is known of this play beyond these few details.
- On 29th June 1613 the Globe Theatre burned down. A misfired cannon from the stage, during a performance of “All’s True” (known today as “Henry VIII”) set the wooden beams and thatching alight. Although the theatre was destroyed there were no injuries, but an audience member’s breeches caught fire and the flames were extinguished by ale being thrown over them.
- The Globe was rebuilt and re-opened the next year but at great expense to the shareholders. Around this time, Will sold his shares in the theatre and retired to Stratford and spent the rest of his life there with his family, living in New Place.
- On 23rd April 1616 William died, aged 52. Although the cause of his death is unknown speculations range from typhus to an excess of drinking.
- William Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford on 5th May 1616.
- His daughter Susanna and her husband John were executors of Shakespeare’s will, signed on 25th March 1616, and she was the main beneficiary. Will also famously left his “second best bed” to his wife Anne and £300 to his daughter Judith.
- Anne outlived William by 7 years and was buried in a grave next to his.
- In 1623 the First Folio was published, consisting of 36 Shakespeare plays known to us today. It was compiled and edited by his friends Henry Condell and John Heminges, with the preface written by Ben Jonson, and the plays were categorised as comedies, tragedies or histories.
- The portrait on the cover of the First Folio is believed to be of Shakespeare. It is considered only one of two with any claim to authenticity. It was engraved by Martin Droeshout and though he is unlikely to have ever met Shakespeare – being only 15 at the time of Will’s death – he probably based it on the earlier portrait, as Ben Jonson later claimed it was a good likeness.
- The Second Folio was published in 1632 and included an unsigned poem by John Milton, “An Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. Shakespeare”.
- The Third Folio, published in 1663 (reprinted in 1664), included 7 more plays than its predecessors but not all of these additions are considered to be genuine Shakespeare works. Most unsold copies of the Third Folio were destroyed in the Great Fire of London, giving any extant editions great rarity value.
- The Fourth Folio, from 1685, contained the same 43 plays as published in the Third Folio.
- Of all the plays Shakespeare wrote 38 are extant: 15 comedies, 12 tragedies and 11 histories, in addition to the 154 sonnets and his long narrative poems.
- The exact number of Shakespeare’s “lost” plays is unknown but “Cardenio” is certainly among them. Academics are of differing views on “Love’s Labour’s Won” – some regarding it as a sequel to “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, others as an alternative title for another Shakespeare play which may still exist today.
- There is no doubt that William Shakespeare was a prolific writer and left a vast legacy of literature. Whether he wrote alone, in collaboration, or both is not known, though there are theories regarding his co-writers of certain plays.
Photograph of William Shakespeare’s First Folio published in 1623:
The above details are correct to the best of my ability but please let me know if you notice any inaccuracies. In aiding my research work, I am indebted to Professor Michael Wood and his team for the information provided in his 2003 TV series, “In Search of Shakespeare”, and to online resources, especially from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the RSC.