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Thursday, February 25, 2010

About the Playwright: William Shakespeare

Personal Life and the Lost Years

William Shakespeare was born around St. George’s Day, April 23, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England, which is about one-hundred miles northwest of London. His father was John Shakespeare, a glover, illegal wool dealer and local official, and his mother was Mary Arden. He was the third of eight siblings and the first son. He attended a local grammar school, The King’s New School, where he learned English and Latin, studying Aesop’s fables, Ovid and Virgil. In his early years he would have also been exposed to the Geneva Bible, The Book of Common Prayer, Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, and other Protestant works. He married Anne Hathaway, eight years his elder, in 1482 and became a father in 1583. Their children included the eldest daughter Susana, Hamnet and Judith.

An early drawing of Shakespeare's home.

After 1585, Shakespeare does not appear in any records until 1592, known as the “lost years.” Some believe that he fled Stratford after a poaching incident while others believe that he was studying abroad, practicing law, or teaching school. While equally mysterious is how exactly Shakespeare ended up in London, it is possibly that he joined a theatre troupe that traveled through Stratford and the rest is history.

While Shakespeare was in London, his family remained in Stratford. He probably traveled home on occasion, about four days walking or two days ride. It was in 1596 that his son Hamnet died, and Shakespeare also composed the melancholy lines in King John, “Grief fills the room up of my absent child…” (Gray).

Shakespeare and the Theatre

In London, the “upstart crow” Shakespeare became a very successful, versatile playwright. In March 1592, for example, his Henry VI plays are recorded to have played five times in rotation with thirteen other plays, making Shakespeare’s plays the most performed compared to Kyd, Marlowe or anyone else. At first, Shakespeare was a kind of “freelance dramatist” and worked for The Queen’s Men, Lord Strange’s Men, and Pembroke’s Men, who performed frequently at court (Gray). Despite being hit hard by the closure of the theatres during an outbreak of the Plague in 1593 that killed roughly 11,000 of London’s 200,000 inhabitants, Shakespeare stayed afloat writing verse for patrons like Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, who became a long-term supporter. Shakespeare’s sonnets were most likely composed sometime during this “Southampton period,” between 1592 and 1595, earning him enough money to survive until the theatres reopened and become a sharer in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, organized by the Queen’s Chamberlain, Lord Hudson (Gray). It was with this troupe that Shakespeare worked with Richard Burbage, the great actor, his father James Burbage, and actor William Kempe. They performed publicly at the Theatre, the Swan and the Curtain.

Between 1594 and 1599, Lord Chamberlain’s Men became the most popular theatre troupe in London and Shakespeare’s writing was profuse. In 1597, when the lease ran out on Burbage’s Theatre, the family eventually decided to tear it down and use the timber to build the Globe on the Bankside across the Thames and could accommodate as many as 3,000 audience members beneath its open-air, thatched roof and among its three balconies. Shakespeare was one of the new theatre’s co-owners and made somewhere between £200 and £250 every year. Shakespeare was now able to help his father receive a coat of arms, and he even bought a mansion by Elizabethan standards in Stratford. The next years of explosive creativity and writing were probably connected to the rapid changes going on in society around him. Not only had the Essex Rebellion crumbled in 1601, ending in the execution of Southampton, but in 1603 England suddenly had a new monarch, James VI of Scotland, and Shakespeare was now a member of the King’s Men, the most popular company to perform at court. Shakespeare’s tragedies become increasingly popular, and it is speculated that Shakespeare himself was in a dark place while composing these “higher art forms.” In 1608, the King’s Men began performing at the more expensive, indoor theatre, Blackfriars, and Shakespeare focused on his romances that were in the spirit of the masques that became very popular at court. The Globe burnt down in 1613, but a second Globe was built on top of it, only this time with a tile roof.

In his final years, Shakespeare returned to Stratford to work on three more collaborative plays after The Tempest. It seems he spent his time with his two, now married, daughters, until his death at April 23, 1616.

Folios and Quartos

Shakespeare’s plays first appear in print in 1594 with Titus Andronicus in the form of quartos. These were very small, very inexpensive pamphlets that could be readily made and sold. The quartos remain the only source for Shakespeare’s writings, since he left no manuscripts, and they are often contradictory, reflecting drafts of plays or versions written by the actors from memory (British Library).

In 1623, the First Folio appeared thanks to two of Shakespeare’s colleagues, Heminges and Condell, entitled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. The folio included 36 plays, 18 of which had never been published. The collection was probably inspired by the recent folio of Ben Jonson, Workes, who even included a commemorative poem to the Bard.

Catholic Shakespeare

One of the most highly debated aspects of Shakespeare’s biography is his religion. While historians do not have concrete proof that Shakespeare was a Catholic, many pieces of evidence suggest that he was despite the era of Catholic persecution in which he lived and wrote:

1. The Arden Family was a wealthy, powerful, and staunchly Catholic family located in Warwickshire. Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, was a not-so-distant relative of Edward Arden, the head of the family, who actively supported Jesuit rebels, such as Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell. Arden was hung, drawn and quartered for his religion and alleged involvement in treasonous plots in 1583 after his son-in-law, John Somerville, was arrested for claiming the Queen to be a heretic and calling for her death. Shakespeare and his mother would have certainly been affected by this incident, if they were not present at the executions.

2. Coventry, known for its medieval Catholic Mystery plays, was just a day’s ride from Stratford, where Shakespeare would have surely first have been exposed to the theatre.

3. John Shakespeare, William’s father, was certainly raised Catholic, although as a Bailiff and later Chief Alderman of Stratford, he publicly identified as a Protestant during his career. However, it is suggested by historians that John Shakespeare’s financial troubles and retreat from public affaires later in life was due to his difficulty functioning in an increasingly Protestant political climate. Most incriminating of all, in 1757, a testament of faith was found in Shakespeare’s birth home signed by John Shakespeare, and his name is later found on a list of Catholic sympathizers who refused Protestant communion by claiming to be in too much debt.

4. Shakespeare was possibly educated by known Catholics both at grammar school and in his “lost years” it has been speculated that Shakespeare studied abroad in Rome, attended a Catholic college or became a schoolmaster for a prominent Catholic family in Lancashire.

5. As a dramatist and poet, two of Shakespeare’s patrons, Lord Strange and Earl of Southampton, were from very Catholic families.

6. There is also documentation to suggest that Shakespeare purchased the gatehouse at Blackfriars, London where Catholics secretly met, making a very personal contribution to the survival of Catholicism.

Click here for an additional Shakespeare timeline including his life, plays and historical context.


The British Library. “Basic facts about William Shakespeare, his, life, his plays and the quartos.” William Shakespeare in quarto. Web. Accessed 2-22-10. <>.

“Edward Arden,” “John Shakespeare,” “John Somerville.” In Search of Shakespeare. PBS. 2003 Web. Accessed 2-22-10. <>.

Gray, Terry. “A Shakespeare Timeline.” 1998. Web. Accessed 2-22-10. <>.

Hammerschmidt-Hummel, Hildegard. "The most important subject that can possibly be": A Reply to E. A. J. Honigmann." Connotations. 12.2-3, 2003. Web. Accessed 2-22-10. <>.

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