To Be Or Not To Be – Now What Was the Question?
For many, the name William Shakespeare conjures up a battle of English literacy as even to this day, his plays are still part of the English Language curriculum with many exam boards – I, I, having struggled with the Merchant of Venice in the class of 72.
For despite having lived over four centuries ago, William Shakespeare is still often referred to as possibly England’s greatest ever author, with his works (and collaborations) consisting of approximately 39 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narratives and a few other verses. His plays have been translated into every major language and performed by more than any other playwright.
But, as is often the case with these famous figures of history, his personal life is as complex as any modern day drama and fits nicely with our April feature as it claimed that his birthday and death day was the same – the 23rd of April – just 52 years apart.
His father, John Shakespeare, was a glove maker by trade and his mother, Mary, the daughter of a ‘well off’ farmer. William came from a large family being the third of eight children and the eldest surviving son. His actual date of birth was not officially recorded in the parish, only the date if his baptism which occurred on the 26th April 1564. Similarly, there are no surviving records about his schooling, but again it is assumed that he would have attended the local Kings New School which was a free Grammar school that had been opened in 1553 as was literally just 400 yards from his parent’s home, in Stratford.
Quite obviously, William had a ‘way with words’ from a very early age as he was married at the age of 18 to a woman eight years his senior, Anne Hathaway. This was on the 27th November 1582. According to the local records the ceremony was a little ‘rushed’ as their marriage banns were only read once rather than the customary three times and just six months later they had their first child, a daughter named Susanna. It was another two years before they had their twins and final children, a Son named Hamnet and a second Daughter that they called Judith.
Between 1584 and 1592 little is known of the Bard, until his name starts to pop up on the London Theatre scene. He is identified as both a principal actor as well as a playwright with some of his own plays starting to be performed on the London circuit. There are a number of different interpretations as to what happened to William in those missing eight years, but one of the first biographers written claims that he had been forced to flee Stratford so as to avoid prosecution for deer poaching.
From 1594, Shakespeare’s plays started to be performed exclusively by a group called the ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Men’, of which William was a member. However, two years later tragedy struck his family when his only son and male heir died from unknown causes. Hamnet was buried on the 11th August 1596.
Back in London the ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Men’ grew from strength to strength with a partnership of members building their own Theatre on the South bank of the Thames that they named The Globe. By 1603 they became the leading playing Company in London, later becoming the King’s Men after being awarded a royal patent by the newly crowned King James 1.
Records of Shakespeare’s property purchases and investments throughout that period indicate that his association with the company made him a very wealthy man. He had already bought the second-largest house in Stratford prior to the turn of the century and in 1605, invested in a share of the parish tithes in Stratford, although he whilst Stratford was his family home, he lived and worked in London.
These were very difficult times in London. The bubonic plague had swept through the city in 1563, 1578-9, 1582, 1592-3, and 1603, the worst outbreaks being 1563 and 1603, each wiping out over one quarter of London’s population. Theatres and other public buildings would routinely have to close for lengthy periods, putting actors and writers out of work for the duration.
Shakespeare is said to have retired in 1611 at the ripe old age of 47, finally returning to his home town of Stratford, where his wife and family had remained during all the years in which he had lived and worked in the Capital. Despite declaring himself as being in good health in the March when writing his will, Shakespeare died on the 23rd April 1616, at the age of 52. No reason was officially recorded for his sudden death, but half a century later, the then vicar of Stratford, John Ward, implied that Shakespeare had ‘drank too hard’, and that he had ‘died of a fever there contracted’.
The bulk of his estate went to his elder daughter Susanna under strict stipulation that it was to be passed down intact to “the first son of her body”. She had three children, all of whom died without marrying and William’s youngest had just the one child, Elizabeth, who despite marrying twice, had no children. For this reason, any direct lineage to William Shakespeare ended in the 17th Century.