We know where Shakespeare grew up and what kind of family he grew up in, we know that he was married and had three children, one of whom died at the age of eleven. We know when he was first seen in London, when he retired to Stratford and when he died. We know some details of his family – his parents, his siblings, and his daughters’ husbands. But regarding the man himself, there is a gap in the timeline scholars have constructed – a seven-year period during which we know nothing at all about where he was and what he was doing, although there is much, unsupported, conjecture about it. Those years have been labeled ‘the lost years.’
We see him as a young man, married with three children and living in Stratford. Seven years later we find him working in London as an actor, playwright and part-owner of a theatre. Nobody knows what he was doing during the years in between. It wasn’t until 1709, nearly a century after his death that we have the first attempt at a biography of the writer, by Nicholas Rowe. Most of the source material for that consisted of anecdotes and gossip without any documented evidence. Shakespeare’s direct line and all those who had known him personally had died well before that so there was no-one to help create a picture of him.
Accounts of Shakespeare’s activities during those lost years are confused and, at times, totally unbelievable. Why he left his wife and children and went to London is a question that is tantalising and unanswerable. And why acting? It was an occupation associated with disreputable, beggarly men who were regarded as the lowest of the low. Shakespeare came from a respectable background and would have been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and take up a trade in Stratford, and perhaps enter into local political life, thereby becoming a respectable citizen like his father. And yet, here he was, in a strange and, to some, terrifying, place, associating with down-market people. One theory is that he fled from Stratford due to poaching activities that had got him into trouble and he ran away to avoid prosecution.
Possibly. But why London? London players often toured and it is known that Stratford had frequent visits from theatre companies. Given that Shakespeare turned out to be the greatest playwright in history it is reasonable to think that he would have been interested in plays and their performances from an early age. Perhaps he went to a performance, got chatting to members of the company and, wanting to get away from Stratford, joined them and began his acting apprenticeship at that point. Leaving his wife and children looks like a fairly desperate move so that lends credibility to the idea that he was in a hurry to get out of town. And then we don’t hear anything about him because it would have taken him quite a few years to emerge as a playwright worthy of note. Being an intelligent young man with a huge talent for writing, meeting so many hard-working, also talented, writers gathered into a closed community in London’s theatreland, he was given the opportunity to join them and work with them. And then, seven years after joining them, we hear of him as a blossoming London dramatist and we begin to have sightings of him and comments about him from fellow actors and playwrights. And the rest is history.
However, speculation about those years abound. Theories range from his having been a teacher, having enlisted in the army and having been in Italy, but none of them are based on any evidence and have no credibility. Such theories assert, as evidenced in his plays, that he knew a lot about such things as military affairs and Italy, but he is also known to have been a great reader so knowledge about those things could have been acquired by reading, in the same way as his very extensive knowledge of history was acquired by his extensive reading.
Talk of his having been a soldier or a teacher or an Italian tourist doesn’t make sense as we should remember that in order to produce the incredible creative output that we know Shakespeare produced means that he must have done very little else but write plays. And it isn’t possible suddenly to become such a dazzling star out of nowhere without a lot of groundwork, so he must have been working hard at writing and learning about theatre writing during those seven years. His native poetic genius is one thing but channeling it into a commercial mode – bestselling plays that would bring the audiences in droves – requires years of hard work.
The conclusion to the problem of the lost years can only be that we don’t know. However, it was during those years that he transformed himself from a country youth into a sophisticated playwright and businessman so it is highly probable that those years were spent in London learning his trade as a writer.