William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 in the village of Stratford-on-Avon in the county of Warwickshire. His father John Shakespeare was a farmer’s son who came to Stratford about 1531, and began to prosper as a trader in corn, wheat, leather, and agricultural products. His mother Mary Arden was the daughter of a prosperous farmer, descended from an old family of mixed Anglo-Saxon and Norman blood. It is generally believed that neither the poet’s mother nor his father could read and write.
Of Shakespeare’s education little is known. For a few years he probably attended the Grammar School at Stratford where he picked up “small Latin and less Greek”. His real teachers meanwhile were the men and women and the natural influences which surrounded him. Stratford is a charming little village in the beautiful county of Warwickshire. Near at hand were the forests of Arden, the old castles of Warwick and Kenilworth, and the old Roman campus and military roads, all of which appealed powerfully to the boy’s active imagination. Every aspect of the natural beauty of this exquisite region is reflected in Shakespeare’s poetry just as his characters reflect the nobility and the littleness, the gossip, vices, emotions, prejudices. and traditions of the people about him. The nurse in Romeo and Juliet, for instance, is simply the reflection of some forgotten nurse with whom Shakespeare had talked by the wayside, one whose endless gossip but also the dreams, the unconscious poetry that sleeps in the heart of the common people, appealed tremendously to Shakespeare’s imagination and are reflected in his greatest plays. In the same way, his education at the hands of Nature came from keeping his heart as well as his eyes wide open to the beauty of the world. Because he noted and remembered every significant thing in the changing scenery of earth and sky, no other writer has ever equaled him in the perfect natural setting of his characters.
When Shakespeare had attained the age of fourteen, his father lost his little property and fell into debt. The boy probably left school to help support the family of younger children. It is not exactly known what occupation he followed for the next eight years. From evidence found in his plays, it is maintained that he was a country schoolmaster and a lawyer’s clerk; but, if evidence of this kind be collected from his various plays, then Shakespeare will be found to have been a botanist, a courtier, a clown, a king, a woman, a Roman, etc. He was everything in his imagination, and it is impossible from a study of his scenes and characters to form a definite opinion about his early occupations.
In 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a peasant family. She was eight years older than he. From many mocking references to marriage made by the characters in his plays, and from the fact that he soon left his wife and family and went to London, it is generally alleged that the marriage was a hasty and unhappy one. But here again such internal evidence is untrustworthy. There are quite a number of references in his plays to the happy side of love and marriage, and on this ground we could as well say that Shakespeare’s marriage was a happy one. And the fact that, after his enormous success in London, he retired to Stratford to live quietly with his wife and daughters, confirms this conclusion.
Departure from Stratford
About the year 1587, Shakespeare went to London where he joined Burbage’s company of actors. According to a tradition, his reason for leaving Stratford was that he has been caught stealing a deer from Sir Thomas Lucy’s park and he fled from Stratford to escape the consequences. But it is not certain whether, at the time Shakespeare is said to have stolen a deer, there were any deer or a park at the place referred to. At any rate, it is unworthy to construct out of rumour the story of a great life which had no contemporary biographer.
Life in London
Of Shakespeare’s life in London from 1587 to 1611, nothing definite is known. It was the period of his greatest literary activity. He entered into the stirring life of England’s capital with the same perfect sympathy and understanding which he had shown among the simple folk of his native Warwickshire. He came to be known among his followers as “the gentle Shakespeare”. Ben Johnson said of him, “I loved the man and do honor to his memory, on this idolatry, as much as any. He was indeed honest and of an open and free nature.” To judge from only three of his earliest plays (Love’s Labour’s Lost; Comedy of Errors; and Two Gentlemen of Verona), it would seem that in the first five years of his London life he had gained entrance to the society of gentlemen and scholars, and was ready by knowledge and observation as well as by genius to depict the whole stirring life of the English people in his plays. There is every reason to believe that his life in London, unlike that of the typical actor and playwright, was not wild and dissolute.
Apprenticeship and the Experimental Stage
Shakespeare’s first work may well have been that of a general helper, an odd-job-man, about the theater; but he soon became an actor. The records of the old London theaters show that in the next ten years he gained a prominent place. Within two years he was at work on plays and his course was exactly like that of other playwrights of his time. He worked with other writers, and he revised old plays before writing his own and so gained a practical knowledge of his art. He soon broke away from this apprentice work; and then appeared in quick succession, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, the English Chronicle plays (Henry VI, Richard III, Richard II, and King John), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet. The wide variety of these plays, as well as their frequent crudities, marks the first or experimental stage of Shakespeare’s work. It is as if the author were trying the temper of his audience, for to please his audience was the ruling motive of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s poems, rather than these early dramatic attempts, mark the beginning of his success. Venus and Adonis became immensely popular in London. It was dedicated to the Earl of Southampton and brought from him a large amount of money as a gift. This money Shakespeare invested shrewdly, and soon he became part owner of the Globe and Blackfriars theaters. At these theaters his plays were presented by his own companies of actors. His success and popularity grew enormously. Within a decade of his arrival in London, he had become one of the most famous actors and literary men in England.
The Period of Maturity
Following his experimental work, there came a series of great plays from his pen—The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra. It is believed that the great tragedies of this period point to personal misfortunes in the life of Shakespeare, but what these misfortunes were it is difficult to guess. It was probably this unknown sorrow which turned his thoughts back to his native village and caused a dissatisfaction with his work and profession. In 1597 he bought the finest house in Stratford and soon added a tract of farming land to complete his estate. His home visits became more and more frequent till, about the year 1611, he left London and settled permanently at Stratford-on-Avon.
Last Years at Stratford
Though still in the prime of life, Shakespeare gave up his dramatic work to live the comfortable life of a country gentleman. Some of his later plays show a decline from the quality of his previous work. His last play was The Tempest, based upon an actual shipwreck. It is quite evident that Shakespeare thought little of his success and had no idea that his dramas were the greatest that the world had ever produced. He made no attempt to collect or publish his work. After a few years of quiet at Stratford-on-Avon he died on the anniversary of his birth, April 23, 1616. On his tombstone the following fines are inscribed:
Good friend for Jesu’s sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here;
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be the that moves my bones.
Thousands of people visit Shakespeare’s tomb every year. His tomb has become almost a place of pilgrimage for his admirers.