Perhaps the most fascinating thing is why we know so little about Shakespeare’s life. He is a shadowy figure, and that is almost unbelievable, considering that during the last two decades of his life he was so famous. Going to plays was the most popular pastime during those decades and he was the most successful and popular playwright in London. He regularly performed at the courts of two monarchs and partially owned the Globe – London’s most prominent theatre. During the last few years of his life he was one of Stratford’s leading figures. And yet he lies hidden in obscurity.
Hundreds of biographers have written thick books about his life and so we have come to believe that we know a great deal about him, but most of that is speculation. No Sweat Shakespeare offers you the established facts:
He was the third of the eight children of John and Mary Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. John was a glove maker with a public-spirited attitude to life: we know that he held several local public positions during his lifetime. William was born in 1564 and baptised on 26th April. Because it was customary to baptise a child three days after its birth we have fixed his birth date at 23rd April, 1564, but that is not a fact.
We know very little about Shakespeare’s childhood but it has been assumed that he attended the local grammar school during his school years because that is probably what he would have done, unless he did not go to school at all. We simply don’t know, however.
We know that at the age of eighteen he married a twenty-six year old farmer’s daughter, Anne Hathaway, in 1582. We are fairly sure that they had three children, Susanna, born in 1583, and twins, Judith and Hamnet, born in 1585. The boy Hamnet did not survive although Anne and the two girls outlived Shakespeare.
Shakespeare left Stratford in 1587 or 1588 and went to London. By 1592 he had made his mark as an actor and playwright. He earned good money doing that because he bought New Place, one of the biggest houses in Stratford, in 1597. He returned to live permanently in Stratford in 1610, although he continued to write plays until his retirement in 1614. During his last two years he enjoyed the life of a well-off country gentleman.
What No Sweat Shakespeare regards as the most fascinating fact of Shakespeare’s life is that during his working years he averaged 1.5 plays per year. In that time he also worked as an actor, commuted between Stratford and London, directed performances, ran the business side of theatres, wrote several major poems and a large number of sonnets, conducted a family life and a social life, and read widely. The physical act of writing would have been slow and laborious, given the technology of quill and inkwell, and done with poor lighting, if done at night.
Shakespeare died on his fifty-second birthday, in 1616. We do not know the cause of his death but we know that in the days leading up to it he suffered from a fever. It is comforting to know that during the last week of his life he socialised with his two friends, Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton.
Shakespeare was buried on 25th April, 1616, in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. His gravestone bears the following engraving:
Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare
To digg the dust enclosed heare;
Blese be ye man yt spares these stones
And curst be he yt moves my bones