This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 224-6, 234.
THE known facts of Shakespeare's life, few as they are, are yet rather more numerous than those concerning most of the other playwrights of his time. Stratford-on-Avon, at the time of Shakespeare's birth, was a village of about two thousand inhabitants, somewhat off the main routes of travel, eighty miles from London. John Shakespeare, father of William and resident of Stratford, is reported to have been at one time a farmer doing business in hides and meats. His wife was Mary Arden, rather an heiress for her time, who brought into the family a house and fifty acres of land. Two girls were born and died in infancy. William, the third child, was baptized the twenty-sixth of April, 1564. The day of his birth is unknown, but is usually reckoned as three days earlier than his baptism. Five other children were born to John and Mary Shakespeare, and for a time the family prospered. When William was about four years old the father became bailiff, or mayor, of Stratford, and seems to have occupied other positions of prominence in the community. In all probability William went to the free grammar school of the town; but when he was about thirteen years old the father got into financial difficulties, and William, apparently, was taken out of school and put to work at home. In 1582 the license for the marriage of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway was entered in the town records. Three children, Susanna, the eldest, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born to the couple. Hamnet lived only about eleven years, but the two daughters survived their father.
After the birth of the twins, there follows a long gap in the authentic records. There is ground, however, for believing that William, leaving his family at Stratford, went up to London about 1856. At that time Queen Elizabeth had already reigned about twenty-eight years, and London had grown rich and prosperous. The city spread loosely along the north side of the Thames, and had about two hundred thousand inhabitants. Wealthy merchants had built fine houses to the west and south; but the fields at the north and the precincts across the river were rather disreputable. It was in those sections that the first theaters--The Theater, the Curtain, and the remodeled house known as Newington Butts--had been built ten years earlier.
Shakespeare at first took jobs as a man-of-all-work about the theaters. The tradition is that he held horses at the door, and employed boys for this service, so that for a long time these servitors were called "Shakespeare's boys." At that time the Scholar Poets belonging to Greene's circle were in practical possession of the stage, so far as authorship was concerned. About 1587 Greene was somewhat eclipsed by Marlowe and Kyd, whose Tamburlaine and The Spanish Tragedy, respectively, appeared that year. During the years immediately following, Shakespeare must have gained a foothold, both as an actor and playwright. The evidence for this conclusion lies principally in an unfinished pamphlet, called A Groatsworth o' Wit, left by Greene at his death in 1592, in which he warns his friends, Nash, Peele, and Lodge, against the injustices and difficulties of the theatrical profession, and incidentally refers to one "Shakescene" as an impudent upstart of an actor and a plagiarizing author. In this skit Green parodied a line, "Tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide," which occurs in what is now considered Shakespeare's first play, the first part of Henry VI. The probabilities, therefore, are strong that Greene referred to Shakespeare; thus establishing the fact that the younger playwright had already become something of a rival to the university set.
In the early 1590's Shakespeare's activities as a theater man were well begun. He was summoned to act at court with Burbage, Heminge, Condell and others, and he received a salary as actor, a share of the profits of the enterprise, and certain sums for each play he wrote. In 1599 the Shakespeare family was granted a coat-of-arms; and "William Shakespeare" became "William Shakespeare, Gent." He purchased New Place, the largest house in Stratford, for sixty pounds; and thereafter he frequently added to his property in land and houses not only in Stratford, but also in London. He was involved in several cases of litigation concerning mortgages and the recovery of sums of money. One investigator, Professor G.M. Wallace, discovered that for a time Shakespeare lodged in the house of one Christopher Mountjoy, a wig-maker living near Cripplegate. In 1601 John Shakespeare died; the widow, Mary, lived until 1608. In 1607 Susanna married a physician named John Hall and went to live at New Place, the mother remaining, for the remainder of her life, in a small cottage in Henley Street.
During the following years it is probable that Shakespeare detached himself gradually from his London associations, and finally, three or four years before his death, made Stratford his home again. He made his will early in 1616, about the time his daughter Judith married Thomas Quincey; and on the twenty-third day of April, the same day of the same month in which he is supposed to have been born, he died. Two days later he was buried in the chancel of the Church of the Holy Trinity at Stratford, where, on the now famous grave, are carved the lines:
- Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare
- To dig the dust enclosed here;
- Blest be the man that spares these stones,
- And curst be he that moves my bones.
The inscription on the monument in the church at Stratford reads:
- Judico Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem
- Terra tegit, populus maeret, Olympus habet.
- Stay passenger, why goest thou by so fast?
- Read, if thou canst, whom envious death hath plast
- Within this monument: Shakespeare with whome
- Quick nature dide; whose name doth deck ys tombe
- Far more cost; sith all yt he hath writt
- Leaves living art but page to serve his witt.
- Obiit ano. doi 1616. Aetatis 53, Die 23 Ap.
Shakespeare may be measured by many tests; but this measurement can only be done, finally, by each reader for himself. It is only by letting the characters speak to you that the real Shakespeare can be revealed. In his plays you may see what he admired, what he laughed at, what he loved and handled tenderly. What did he like in women? Not only beauty and modesty, like all poets, but the clear brain of a Portia, the gay spirits of a Rosalind, the womanly dignity and kindness of Olivia; women who were not squeamish or clinging, but courageous and gallant. His heroes are men of character, though often beset by some demon which temporarily perverts them; they are not cads or rakes. Sincerity, faithfulness in friendship, dependability, loyalty--these are the qualities which he constantly elevates, and whose infringement he punishes. He scoffs merrily at conceit, bombast, vanity, and worldly folly. What emerges more and more, as one reads and thinks, is the wisdom and knowledge of the man combined with his gift of poetry. These qualities have lifted him into eminence. He could make words mean more than they logically mean, and express such commonplace emotions as young love, sorrow, despair, and ambition, in a radiant kind of language so that these experiences seem not commonplace, but the very essence of romance, adventure, pathos.
- Shakespeare Index - An index of articles on to the Elizabethan dramatist.
- All Sorts of Hamlets - A study of some of the most famous actors to tackle Shakespeare's most famous rôle.
- All's Well that Ends Well - An analysis and brief history of Shakespeare's comedy.
- Antony and Cleopatra - A brief analysis of Shakespeare's historical comedy.
- As You Like It - An analysis and history of Shakespeare's comedy.
- The Bacon-Shakespeare Controversy - A brief overview of the theory that Shakespeare's plays were actually written by Francis Bacon.
- Biographical aspects of the Sonnets - Examines the worth of Shakespeare's sonnets in piecing together clues as to the nature of his romantic life.
- Comedy of Errors - An analysis and synopsis of the play.
- Coriolanus - A history of Shakespeare's play and adaptations of it by other authors.
- Doubtful Plays of Shakespeare - Analysis of evidence supporting the claim of Shakespearean authorship of several questionable Elizabethan plays.
- The Greek Stage and Shakespeare - A comparison of the Attic dramatists and the theatre of Shakespeare.
- Greene's Jealousy of Shakespeare - As early as 1592, Shakespeare's dramatic work had excited the envy and indignation of his contemporaries, including the accomplished scholar and dramatist, Robert Greene.
- Hamlet - Analysis of the play.
- Hamlet, Prince of Denmark - An analysis of the play and its literary origins.
- Hamlet as the Mouthpiece of Shakespeare - An essay suggesting Shakespeare may have used Hamlet to proclaim his own views on various subjects, at times to the detriment of the plot.
- Hamlet: A One-Act Play - A condensed version of Shakespeare's tragedy.
- His Family and Education - Available biographical details of Shakespeare's early life.
- His Marriage and Relations with his Wife - Known facts of Shakespeare's relationship with Anne Hathaway.
- Julius Caesar - A synopsis of the play.
- King Lear - Analysis and history of the play.
- King Lear - Analysis of the play and characters.
- Macbeth - Analysis of the play and characters.
- Macbeth - Analysis of the play.
- The Merchant of Venice - A synopsis of the play.
- A Midsummer Night's Dream - Analysis of the play and characters.
- A Midsummer Night's Dream - Analysis of the play.
- Much Ado About Nothing - Analysis of the play.
- Othello - Analysis of the play and characters.
- Othello - Analysis of the play.
- The Romantic Iago - A unique analysis of the character of Iago in Shakespeare's Othello.
- Romeo and Juliet - Analysis of the play and characters.
- Romeo and Juliet - Analysis of the play.
- Shakespearean Blank Verse - Management of metre, pause, trisyllabic substitution and the redundant syllable.
- Shakespeare and Mrs. Davenant - An account of Shakespeare's affair with the wife of an innkeeper and the illegitimate son this affair may have produced.
- The Shakespeare-Bacon Theory - Analysis of the theory that the plays of William Shakespeare were not written by the man whose biography we are familiar with, but rather under pseudonym by Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon.
- Shakespeare Monologues - A collection of monologues for actors.
- Shakespeare Monologues - More Shakespearean monologues for actors.
- Shakespeare's Birthplace - A description of the house in which Shakespeare was born and a note on the orthography of his name.
- Shakespeare's Use of Prose - An essay examining the use of prose in Shakespeare's plays.
- Shakespeare Trivia - An index of Shakespeare related trivia questions.
- Shakespeare's Coined Words - A study of words coined by Shakespeare which either have been, or deserve to be, adopted into common usage.
- Shakespeare's Early Life and Marriage - An overview of the known facts and legends regarding William Shakespeare's youth and marriage to Anne Hathaway.
- Shakespeare: Sonnets - An index of poems by William Shakespeare.
- Shakespeare the Barker - An account of Shakespeare's first days in the theatre.
- Shakespeare Quotes - Quotations attributed to Shakespeare.
- The Tempest - Analysis of the play.
- The Tempest - Analysis of the play and characters.
- The Traces in Hamlet of an Older Play - An analysis of the theory that Shakespeare's Hamlet was adapted from an older play.
- Value of the Meres List - Examines the importance of the Meres list in establishing the order of Shakespeare's plays.
- The Weird Sisters - An analysis of the etymological origins of Shakespeare's "weird sisters".
- William Shakespeare - A biography.
- William Shakespeare - A brief biography.
- William Shakespeare (1564-1616) - A biography, plus links to purchase all of his works currently in print.
- William Shakespeare Quotes - Quotations from his plays.
- Purchase Plays by William Shakespeare
- Purchase Books of Shakespeare Criticism
- Search eBay for Shakespeare collectibles