After a glittering career as an actor, playwright and theatre proprietor in London, Shakespeare retired in 1611 at the age of 47 to his home town of Stratford, where his wife and family had remained during all the years in which he had lived and worked in London.
Retirement for Shakespeare was not a matter of sitting around in slippers and letting the world pass him by: he was active in monitoring his financial interests, took an interest in borough affairs, and continued to work with younger playwrights, collaborating with them on plays, and visiting London frequently. But now, living in Stratford, he was able to enjoy the company of his family and childhood friends. By this time, too, he had a granddaughter, Elizabeth, and was able to give time to her.
Before leaving London he had built up a bank of plays which had their first performances shortly after that. It was a very impressive list – The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, The Tempest and Cymbeline. It is likely that he went to London for some of those performances, most probably those of The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, which took place before King James. Also, his theatre, The Globe, was burnt down on June 29th, 1613 and was rebuilt. It is likely that Shakespeare went to London to attend some of the meetings that that process necessitated. He was also in Westminster on 11th May 1612 as he had to appear as a witness in the case of Bellot v. Mountjoy. At one time Shakespeare had been a lodger in Christopher Mountjoy’s house in Cripplegate, and now Mountjoy was being sued by his son-in-law, Stephen Bellott for defaulting on a promised marriage settlement. Shakespeare had been involved in the dowry negotiations and so was called to give evidence in the case.
Having been raised in Stratford in what we would think of today as a ‘middle class’ family, respectable but not entirely comfortably off, Shakespeare returned to Stratford a rich and famous man, and was able to live in great comfort in the large house, New Place – the second-largest house in Stratford – which he had bought, waited on by servants and enjoying any luxury he and his family desired. Celebrity was not what it is today with modern communication – magazines, internet, television etc. – so fame wasn’t quite the same: his fame as a top dramatist in London may not have placed him as an A list celebrity in the market town of Stratford. However, he was well known in Stratford, with a solid portfolio of properties, interests in the corn and malt trades, and other business interests. He was respected as a Stratford businessman and had a Coat of Arms.
Besides taking a more active role in family matters Shakespeare enjoyed visits from his many friends in the world of theatre, arts and letters. There were writing sessions mixed with social pleasure. During those visits he participated in the writing of Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen and also the lost play, Cardenio, with his friend John Webster.
During the week before his death Shakespeare’s friends, Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton visited him and were entertained by him to an evening of eating and drinking, after which, it is reported, he became ill and was carried off by a fever a few days later.