Meet William Shakespeare: A Brief Bio of His Life & Times
Even the most avid theatre-goers may not know much about Shakespeare’s life. There has also been a good deal of confusion created by those who say he didn’t write the plays and poems that are generally attributed to him; those who say he didn’t even exist; and biographers who have tried to fill in gaps in our factual, historical knowledge with conjecture.
This Brief Bio therefore, should help the reader of these letters to understand the generally accepted facts about his life, family, and accomplishments. The dates shown for Shakespeare’s plays and poems are based on information in the letters. Until now, the estimates by various experts of these dates (and the order in which the plays and poems were written) vary widely, but agree about the general period of Shakespeare’s life in which he wrote them.
There are also disagreements about which plays he wrote or contributed to, although the ‘First Folio’, a compilation of his plays published seven years after his death, is generally accepted as representing his work. Based on the letters, we also now know that he wrote several plays that were not included in that compilation.
First a little context of the world he was born into – – and what was about to change. If you grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s in the U.S. or Europe, as I did, your world was orderly and predictable. After the turmoil of two world wars in thirty years, people were content with bland normalcy. Dad worked; mom raised the kids at home. Everyone went to church on Sunday (OK, a few went to synagogues or Mosques on Friday night, but the point is that just about everyone ritually participated in a mainstream religion). We all talked about the same TV shows around the water cooler or at school, heard the same music on the radio, and we all smoked. By 1970, all of what we thought was normal began to change.
If you grew up in the 1560’s and 1570’s in England, as William Shakespeare did, your world was equally orderly and predictable. After the turmoil of being forced to change your religion (or possibly lose your head) three times in thirty years, people were content with order and stability. To be sure, life for many was hard, but everyone knew the recipe for a goodly, godly life that would ensure their eternity in Heaven, because everyone now had, or heard, a book of common prayer written in their own language. Everyone went to bed early and rose early (candles were costly); knew that foreigners had introduced the Plague to their country; expected men to speak first in social situations; and knew a woman could only conceive if she had an orgasm. Much of what was comfortable or familiar in Shakespeare’s boyhood England would soon change however, some better for everyone, other things far worse for many.
Queen Elizabeth had come to the throne in 1558, and William was born just six years later, in a country impoverished by ill-advised policy decisions of her predecessor (her sister Queen Mary) too numerous to catalogue simply, and by a series of bad harvests that left many hungry and just as financially strapped. William’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, a recently incorporated town in Warwickshire, sat about a hundred miles north of London, a journey that typically took four days of walking.
Stratford’s main claim to fame was a weekly market, trading things like cattle, wool, and malt. England had a population then of just under five million; London was one of Europe’s largest capital cities with 200,000; and Stratford boasted about 2,000 souls, plus or minus, depending on the plague (in 1564 for example, the year William was born, one in every seven Stratford residents died of the disease).
William was not the only child of John and Mary Shakespeare (nee Arden). He was the eldest child to survive, the others being Gilbert (1566), Joan (1569), Anne (1571), Richard (1574), and Edmund (1580).
Although the records for that period are lost, he apparently attended King’s New School (a grammar school), where Stratford youth still learn their ABCs in the same classroom. Records show that in November 1582 William (age 18) hastily married Anne Hathaway (age 26) and in May the following year their daughter Susanna was born. In early 1585 Anne bore twins, Hamnet and Judith, the only other issue of the marriage.
By this time many parts of England, including Stratford, were undergoing massive transformation because of the rapidly growing international wool trade. During William’s youth, his father worked as a glover and served the town as an alderman and later as bailiff (mayor). We know that he was lured into the profitable wool trade, because he was prosecuted for doing so without a license. Land that had been farmed was now dedicated to grazing sheep, so the excess labor pool needed work and rural youth fled to the big city.
Theories abound as to why William was among these restless migrants. Recorded history loses track of William from about 1585 until 1592 (so called “Lost Years”), but facts do show his father had fallen from grace for unknown reasons, though the illegal wool dealing was probably one of them, and according to official records the result was an inability to pay his debts. Exit William.
The letters tell us that he attached himself to a troupe of traveling players (The Earl of Leicester’s Men) as a kind of handyman in order to get to London. His goal was to find a ship bound for the New World, where he heard a man could earn a fortune in gold and other valuables, and in doing so, restore his family’s fortunes. Efforts to establish a military garrison in what was being called Virginia, in honor of the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, had mixed results. The plan was to secure a base for English pirates to raid Spanish treasure ships coming from Mexico and South America, but Sir Walter Raleigh had bigger plans. He wanted to establish a colony to exploit the natural resources, including fertile farmland that could be used to grow Europe’s biggest new cash crop: tobacco.
Raleigh appointed John White, an artist who had sketched and painted riveting images on previous voyages of flora, fauna, and Indians in their villages, as Virginia’s first governor. He offered 500 acres of land to any man who would join his colony and work the land. The modern storyline for this period suggests the colonists fled England to gain freedom from religious persecution, but the majority accepted the peril and hardships out of economic necessity or greed.
To be sure, there was religious conflict during this time. Recall that in 1534, King Henry VIII had established the Church in England, essentially the same Catholic faith, but with England’s monarch designated as its head instead of the Pope in Rome. This schism divided Catholic Spain and France from the Protestant Low Countries (and now England), with the threat of war always looming. King Edward VI succeeded his father in 1537 and maintained the new church, but when he died in 1553 his sister Mary Tudor became queen and restored Catholicism and fealty to Rome. She married King Phillip II of Spain, who then became king of England too, and ruthlessly executed anyone who did not return to the old ways (earning her the moniker ‘Bloody Mary’). When she died five years later, Elizabeth restored her father’s Protestant Church in England, but declared that she did not mean to be a “window into men’s souls” and would tolerate Catholics, as long as they didn’t practice openly.
Her forbearance bought her peace for thirty years, especially as King Phillip and other Catholic nobles sought her hand and thought they could accomplish by marriage what they could not with diplomacy, persuasion, or the high cost of war. But her sanctioning of English pirates, who restored England’s treasury and opened valuable trade routes for her exports, along with her continued refusal to marry anyone, ultimately led to war with Spain.
By 1588, King Phillip had built a vast empire of ships and soldiers to invade England, paid for largely with gold from the Americas. The “Armada invincible” as he called it attacked, but was repulsed by superior English seamanship and the notoriously bad English Channel weather. Shakespeare, like almost every able-bodied man of his generation, was pressed into service. The letters tell us how he used his newly-honed skills in the theatre to help his country face overwhelming odds and defeat the Spanish.
Before the appearance of the letters, historians could only surmise that at some point in these formative years he must have started playing and writing for an acting company, because in 1592 Robert Greene calls him “an upstart crow” for writing plays that Greene thought should be left to Shakespeare’s betters. The letters fill in the professional gaps and explain why Greene and his peers felt so threatened: in 1589 Shakespeare produced Titus Andronicus; in 1590, Henry VI parts 1, 2; in 1591, Henry VI part 3, Richard III, a poem called A Lover’s Complaint, and the Comedy of Errors. From this swelling body of popular work, he was clearly now established in world of London theatres, not just an observer of the seismic societal changes underway, but one of its most lasting chroniclers.
Various events, including the war with Spain, prevented Shakespeare from joining Governor White’s colony in Virginia, which turns out to be a great benefit to theatrical history and literature. The letters tell us he was initially granted passage on the ship that took 150 settlers to what became the Lost Colony of Roanoke. None of them were ever heard from again.
This success brought the young poet out of the historical shadows: various records show the end of the “lost years” in 1592 yielded Taming of the Shrew and the famous Sonnets (many of which were written about this time, but not published until 1609); followed in 1593 by Loves Labours Lost, Two Gentlemen of Verona and the epic (and epically popular) poem Venus & Adonis. The burgeoning success gave William more than fame: in 1594, he was able to buy a share in the newly formed theatre company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He promptly wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream and another very popular poem Rape of Lucrece in the same year.
But money and fame in London, that had restored the family fortunes and reputation in Stratford, was not enough for Will Shakespeare. As he was writing Romeo & Juliet and Richard II in 1595, he was applying to authorities for something that had been denied his father many years earlier: a coat of arms. In the rigidly hierarchical society of Elizabethan England, a commoner could not become a nobleman, of course, but he could be declared a ‘gentleman,’ the coat of arms giving official notice of that status to the whole world. In 1596, John Shakespeare, not William, was granted just that status, which he would then pass down to his son and grandson. As if he needed to poke his enemies and doubters in the eye for evermore, the family chose the accompanying motto ‘Non sanz droict (Not without right).
The lost letters tell us that Shakespeare lodged at first in London with kindly friends of friends; for a time in a barn next to The Theatre; and later over a brothel in rooms he shared with his brother Gilbert. But now the son of a gentleman, he moved to his own rooms in the high-rent district of St. Helen’s Ward, Bishopsgate, London and wrote King John and The Merchant of Venice, followed in 1597 by Henry IV parts 1 & 2.
The next year he was in such demand that he is noted at the top of a list of actors in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour. His name was also appearing on various published versions of his own plays (most printed without his apparent approval or involvement, many considered “bad” copies that were subsequently amended by the First Folio). Taken together, his play and poem writing, his acting jobs, and his share of a popular theatre company earned him enough disposable income to really step up in the world. In 1598 records show he bought the second-largest house in Stratford (New Place) and was an investor in local farmland, produce, and tithes (the right to collect taxes). The same year he still found time to write another play, Much Ado About Nothing.
Shakespeare was a key part of another “real estate” transaction in 1599 that made lasting history. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men lost the lease for the land under The Theatre (London’s first commercially successful purpose-built playhouse, erected in 1576). A shrewd reading of the lease showed there was no obligation to leave improvements on the land, so the players disassembled the entire building and moved it to a new location across the River Thames, reassembling and improving it for audiences in the entertainment district of Southwark (next to bear bating rings and popular brothels). The first plays Shakespeare wrote for this new Globe Playhouse were As You Like It, Henry V and Julius Caesar. Who can fail to see how the players worked their magic of space and time, and what their audience witnessed, hearing the prologue of Henry V, which he also wrote at this time:
Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour‑glass…
The next year, The Globe held more than armies and fields of France. Shakespeare brought to life Merry Wives of Windsor and Twelfth Night, set on the Adriatic Sea coast. By 1601, his father died and his work turned more somber and introspective, with the debut of his masterpiece Hamlet. The Phoenix & The Turtle, a collection of poems (some recycled from earlier efforts), was published then too, but that year will be remembered for another momentous event involving Shakespeare and his former patron, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton.
Earls in England were minor potentates in their own right, each with vast estates, glittering castles, eye-popping, jewel-encrusted wardrobes, and swollen retinues. But throughout Southampton’s life, he displayed a moth-to-flame fascination with higher power and wealth. His obsession was the Earl of Essex, who commanded the armies and respect that Southampton never could. Together, the two plotted the overthrow of Elizabeth. Like many in England, they were genuinely concerned about civil war if the Queen died without an heir. She had never married and had no obvious blood-relative to take the crown, so in an odd way, Essex was trying to do something patriotic by resolving the matter before she left this earth.
He was naïve, to say the least, because Essex and Southampton tried to stir up the public to their cause, in part using Shakespeare’s plays and theatre company, then by marching on London with a few followers, assuming a popular acclimation of Essex’s right to the throne. Instead, both were easily taken by royal guards and imprisoned. History tells us that Essex was beheaded; the letters reveal that Shakespeare played a central role in sparing Southampton’s life.
History records little of Shakespeare’s life for the next two years, perhaps not surprisingly as he kept a lower post-rebellion profile. In 1602 he wrote Troilus & Cressida and shortly after Elizabeth’s death in early 1603 (from natural causes), he wrote the appropriately titled All’s Well That Ends Well. Fortunately there was no civil war over the succession: Mary Queen of Scots was Elizabeth’s cousin (they shared King Henry VII as a grandfather), so her son, King James of Scotland, was accepted as Elizabeth’s rightful heir to the throne of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Shakespeare’s allegiance to the Earl of Southampton moved him closer to King James than he ever was to Queen Elizabeth. Southampton had been fascinated for many years by the King and Scotland in general, spending time and money on the northern monarch and teaching him the ways of the English Court. This friendship resulted in his complete rehabilitation and release from imprisonment when James assumed the throne. Southampton became the new king’s chief advisor and confidant at Court.
Records reflect that James immediately elevated Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men to royal status, making them the King’s Men. The letters tell us why. Southampton knew that the king of a small rustic kingdom would not be able to command respect from powerful English Earls, which might give one or two of them thoughts of taking the throne for himself. Shakespeare was brought in to teach the King to act the part. All the world really is a stage.
He must have been successful, because King James reigned peacefully for over two decades. He loved theatre, music, and spectacle and commanded numerous repeat performances of many of Shakespeare’s old plays, while commissioning new ones: in quick succession Shakespeare writes Measure for Measure, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Pericles.
And remember how Shakespeare almost ended up in the New World? Those early abortive efforts to colonize North America were quickly succeeded by more successful efforts, such that in 1607, the first permanent new town could be established and named for the new King: Jamestown, Virginia. The biggest cash crop was tobacco, bringing great private and public wealth to England, but ironically King James was not a fan of smoking, having written Counterblaste to Tobacco, sort of an early Surgeon General’s warning about potential hazards, as early as 1604.
Although many of his contemporaries were investing in plantations and other ventures in the Americas, Shakespeare’s fascination seems to have waned and he contented himself with growing his own wealth in Stratford. By 1609, he was spending more time in Stratford, investing in more land and various agricultural enterprises. He invested in a new indoor theatre with his King’s Men brethren, Blackfriars, where wealthy spectators saw plays at night by candlelight. The convention of dividing plays into five acts was instituted now to give stagehands time to trim and refresh the lights. Shakespeare wrote Timon of Athens, Cymbelline, and Winter’s Tale, during the next two years, along with his valedictory effort The Tempest, wherein an aging magician tells the audience that in his many years…
I have bedimm’d the noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art.
But this rough magic I here abjure, and now I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my books.
Can anyone hear those words and not think of the aging playwright laying down pen and prompt books? He did dabble thereafter, working with John Fletcher on Cardenio in 1612 and wrote most of Henry VIII in 1613, but his pen was silenced forever on April 23, 1616, his birthday when William died at the age of 52.