William Shakespeare’s father, John, was a man without any formal education other than a few years in a public school. He made something of himself in the world, though, running his own business as a glove maker and becoming an alderman in the town council of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. He married Mary Arden, who had no formal education at all.
Young William was their third child, and they were to go on to have five more. The family lived in a town house right in the middle of Stratford. John used one of the downstairs rooms as a workshop and displayed his gloves on the sills of the windows, which looked out on to the high street. Like his father, William made something of himself in the world in spite of the lack of formal education, which amounted, as was the case with his father, to a few years in a public school. That wasn’t the end of his education, however, and we know from his plays that, although self taught, he was very knowledgeable about history, geography, philosophy and some areas of science. He read widely, with an interest in translations of the latest books from Europe.
We think of Shakespeare as the great poet of our culture, the great dramatist, the top writer in the history of English language literature. But during his lifetime London was full of writers, some more highly regarded than he was. It’s sometimes forgotten that he was a great entrepreneur: he built and managed theatres and companies of actors, and that’s where he made the good living he and his family enjoyed. As far as he was concerned his play writing was a job that had to be done to fill the theatres every day. The second half of the sixteenth century and the first decade of the seventeenth is often referred to as the golden age of English drama. That’s because theatre was very popular during that time, and like television today, it had a voracious appetite. Consequently, a great number of talented writers worked furiously to satisfy that appetite for plays. Shakespeare became one of those writers. There was fierce competition among the twenty theatres so scores of writers were kept busy. It’s hard to imagine today how fast they wrote. Playwrights today may produce a play once a year but the Elizabethan writers had to write much faster than that to cope with the demand and fight the competition.
By the middle of his writing career Shakespeare was famous. His plays were not only being performed in the theatre but also at court, not only for Queen Elizabeth but also for her successor, King James 1. One of his plays, Troilus and Cressida, was written for, and performed at, Oxford University. He became prosperous and bought New Place, one of the finest houses in Stratford. He died a rich man, the equivalent of the modern multi-millionaire.
It is thought that after he left school at the age of about fourteen he worked with his father, making gloves. In 1582, when he was eighteen, he married a local twenty-six year old woman, Anne Hathaway. They had two daughters and a son. The boy, Hamnet, died aged eleven.
In 1587, leaving his family in Straford, Shakespeare went to London. By 1592 he was an actor and an established playwright and had already written Henry V1 Parts 1,2,3; The Comedy of Errors; Titus Andronicus; The Taming of the Shrew and Richard 111
Shakespeare worked in London for twenty-five years, commuting between London and Stratford. He retired to Stratford in 1612 and lived quietly, enjoying family and friends, and collaborating with younger playwrights on some plays until his death at fifty-two in 1616.
Judging by the number of plays he wrote, Shakespeare worked very hard during his London years. It’s difficult to imagine how he had time to read and to travel backwards and forwards to see his family. While they led a stable life in Stratford he moved around. Scholars have been able to trace his movements and we can visit the sites of some of the places where he lived.
In 1593 he lived somewhere in Bishopsgate. Court records show that he paid taxes there. While living there he seems to have been interested in writing poems: in addition to his day job of writing plays – Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love’s Labours Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Richard 11 and The Merchant of Venice – he also wrote his two long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Not only that, but this is the period when he started work on the sonnets. During this time, too, in 1597, his son Hamnet died.
In 1599 we find him on the other side of the river, in Bankside, on property owned by the Bishop of Winchester estate, near the infamous prison, The Clink, where the Globe Theatre was built. It seems that he moved there to be near to the building site. He lived there until 1604 and wrote at least seven plays, including Henry 1V Parts 1&2, The Merry Wives of Windsor, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V and Julius Caesar. His father died in 1601.
In 1604 Shakespeare moved back to the City and rented a room in the house of Christopher Mountjoy on the corner of Monkwell and Silver Street, Cripplegate, near St Paul’s Cathedral. He lived there for about eight years and wrote Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. In 1607 his older daughter, Suzanna, married and his mother died the following year. His sonnets were published in 1609.
The London in which Shakespeare lived was a noisy, over-crowded, smelly, busy city with narrow streets and no sanitation. It tumbled over itself with inns, churches, houses, stables and workshops: it was teeming with dogs, cats, pigs, horses, sheep, prostitutes and beggars, among which clergyman, merchants, apprentices and thieves went about their business.
At least thirty-seven of Shakespeare’s plays have survived and there are three more that are thought to be by or partly by Shakespeare, bringing the total to about forty. There is at least one Shakespeare play, Cardenio, often referred to in documents, that has been lost. Some scholars argue that there are about thirty more lost plays.