All about Shakespeare’s childhood.
We know very little about Shakespeare’s early childhood or teenage years. In those days children were seen as miniature adults to be manipulated and trained to take their place in the adult world as soon as possible. In the modern world teenagers are a clear and distinct group, with a ‘teenage’ identity and a clear and distinct way of life, recognised by adults. Marriage was the natural step as soon as one was not a child anymore. You will know that Juliet was just fourteen when her parents were arranging her marriage, and Romeo wasn’t much older. In the meantime, teenagers either went to work or endured a very hard slog at school.
We first hear of the young William as a baby being baptised. The next time we hear of him is when he marries the twenty-six year-old ‘old maid’, Anne Hathaway, when he was eighteen. She was three months pregnant on her wedding day. Her parents were dead and she lived with her brother in the family home, where William visited her. We can see, then, that young Will does as any seventeen year-old boy, given the chance; he hurries to this older woman’s cottage to spend long rainy afternoons alone with her!
It wasn’t unusual for women and girls to be pregnant when they married. When a boy made a girl pregnant he was honour-bound to marry her, and Shakespeare did that. If he hadn’t, her child would have been a ‘bastard’, looked down on throughout its childhood and adulthood, and without any legal rights. So the pressure to marry in those circumstances was compelling.
We know, then, that Shakespeare was a teenage father, having to marry the woman he had made pregnant and supporting her and her child. He was penniless at the time and his father had fallen on hard times: we don’t know how William supported his wife and baby girl, but, a few years later, soon after they had their twins, another girl, and a boy, he went to London and started his career in the theatre. He did really well in that and was able to send money to his family and visit them frequently. Eleven years after the twins’ birth he had become so rich that he bought New Place, one of Stratford’s biggest houses, and moved his family into it. There is a sad note here: one of the twins, the boy, Hamnet, died in the same year, aged eleven. (Read our Shakespeare Timeline or Shakespeare biography to see how that all fits in.)
Hygiene was not a strong point during Shakespeare’s childhood. It’s thought that young William had a bath once a year in May. The water had to be fetched; then the mother spent hours boiling it. She would fill a barrel or the biggest tub they had. The father bathed first, then any other men who lived in the house, then the women, and finally the children, in order of their age. By the time it got to the baby’s turn the water was thick and black with all the dirt.