Tradition has it that the great English dramatist and poet William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon on today’s date April 23, in 1564. The exact day on which the celebrated bard was born is actually unknown, but church records show that he was baptized on April 26, and as three days was a customary amount of time to wait before baptizing a newborn, today’s date is likely his birth date. Shakespeare’s date of death is however known for certain: it was April 23, 1616. It was his 52nd birthday; he had retired to Stratford three years before.
Little Known For Sure of Shakespeare’s Life
There are in fact very few details that are known for certain about Shakespeare’s life. His station in his world was that of a non-noble, so however celebrated the man might have been (and still is) in literary circles, it is not very surprising that not much has survived by way of historical record. What IS known about the man, and his life comes from official records: court, wills, and marriage. From these sources, modern historians can create a rough sketch of the man’s life. Anecdotes and criticisms by his rivals and his contemporaries also speak of Shakespeare and suggest that he was indeed a playwright, poet and an actor, and was well-known as all three.
Shakespeare’s Early Years
It is known that during his earliest years, Shakespeare lived with his father, John Shakespeare so he must have grown up in Henley Street, some one hundred miles northwest of London (pictured above, circa 1580’s). We know that the King’s New Grammar School taught basic reading and writing so in all likelihood William attended this school since it existed near where Shakespeare lived, but this is not really known. It is certain however that young William never attended a University. A bond certificate dated November the 28th, 1582, shows that at eighteen years old, William married the twenty-six year old and quite pregnant Anne Hathaway. Her delicate condition is known, because just seven months later, they had his first daughter, Susanna. Anne appears never to have left Stratford, living there her entire life. Baptism records tell us that William’s first child, Susanna was baptized in Stratford in May, 1583. Such records again show that twins Hamnet and Judith were born in February 1592. Hamnet, William’s only son died in 1596, only eleven years old. Hamnet and Judith were named after William’s close friends, Judith and Hamnet Sadler. For all of her lack of travel, Mrs. Shakespeare would wind up outliving her husband, in this world anyway, dying in 1623.
Shakespeare’s Critics: Greene With Envy??
We do not know precisely when it was that Shakespeare began writing, records of performances show that several of his plays were being performed on the London stage by 1592. In fact he was sufficiently well known in London by then to have attracted the ire of fellow playwright Robert Greene, who said of him in his “Groats-Worth of Wit” (1592; Title page pictured below) :
“…there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”
Most scholars believe that Greene is herein accusing Shakespeare of stepping above his rank in presuming to stand with university-educated writers, such as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe and (of course!!) Greene himself in his historical plays. The phrase in bold parodying the line “Oh, tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide” is from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 3, and along with along with the pun “Shake-scene”, makes it clear that Shakespeare is the object of this barb. Shakespeare must have been well-known to have attracted such an extravagant rebuke.
Shakespeare Becomes Prominent
In 1594, by which time he had written such plays as Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, and The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare became an actor and playwright for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a performing company of actors owned by a group of players, including Shakespeare, which soon became the leading playing company in London. After Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603, the company was awarded a royal patent by the new king, James I, and thereafter changed its moniker to “the Kings Men.” Shakespeare’s theatrical prominence was demonstrated by his name being recorded as one of the owners of the Globe theatre in 1599
and on May the 19th, 1603, he was granted a patent, titling him as one of the King’s Men and a Groom of the Chamber by James I, who had succeeded Elizabeth as sovereign of England. This was an honor which made Shakespeare a court favorite for all performances, and also earned his fellow-players in “the King’s Men” some extra cash – as much as 30 pounds per performance – a princely sum indeed for the times. Shakespeare remained with the King’s Men as both a writer and as an actor in small parts until his retirement.
Shakespeare’s Most Productive Period
In 1596, John Shakespeare was granted a coat of arms, an obvious recognition his son William’s growing prominence. In 1597, Shakespeare bought a large home in Stratford, and in 1599, after writing his great historical plays, the first and second part of Henry IV and Henry V, he became a partner in the ownership of the Globe Theatre. Shakespeare scored financially in 1605 with the purchase of leases of real estate near Stratford. This investment of some four hundred and forty pounds doubled its worth and wound up earning him 60 pounds income each year. It is thought by many Shakespeare scholars that this investment gave him the time he needed to concentrate on his dramatical pursuits and it is known that he was viewed as a prominent businessman in the Stratford area. Indeed, this period saw the performance of the first of his great tragedies, Hamlet. During the next decade, Shakespeare wrote some of his masterpieces: Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest. In 1609, his sonnets, probably written during the 1590s, were published. Shakespeare died in Stratford-on-Avon as said above on this date of April 23, 1616.
Did Shakespeare Really Write the Plays?
Over the years, some scholars have argued that Shakespeare did not write any of the plays attributed to him. They suggest that that others, such as Edward de Vere,(pictured, below)
or Sir Francis Bacon (below) were the real authors of the plays. On the other hand, it has been countered that proof of Shakespeare’s authorship of the 37 plays attributed to him comes with Robert Greene’s criticism of him, as well as the attacks upon him as a poet by Francis Meres as being “mellifluous” and denouncing his work as honey-tongued, “sugared sonnets among his private friends” in his own Palladis
Tamia of 1598. And further proof of Shakespeare’s prominence as an actor can be found in his performances before Queen Elizabeth herself in 1594 and evidence of William’s interest in theatre can be found in his name being listed in 1594 and 1595 as a shareholder (part owner) of the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, a theatre company. Upon his death, his great friend the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson said, “He was not of an age, but for all time.”
Whatever the case, written upon William Shakespeare’s tombstone is a clear appeal that all of the earthly controversies be left behind and that he should be left to rest in peace with a curse on those who would move his bones…
“Good friend, for Jesus´ sake forbeare
To digg the dust enclosed here!
Blest be ye man that spares thes stones
And curst be he that moues my bones.”
SPECIAL NOTE = I should also note that Mr. Shakespeare shares this birthday with my grand nephew Jacob Covalcine who is a good boy, and a poet in his own particular way…..
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