Home Upcoming Shows HSC Venues Past Productions Articles HSC Programs Shakespeare Library Actor Resources About Us/Contact Us Site Map Links






The few facts about Shakespeare’s life are mostly mundane details, reflecting the ordinary existence of an Englishman of his day and social position. He exemplified the enterprising yeoman advancing to gentleman status, a common phenomenon in his day. Like many ambitious early modern Englishmen, he was attracted to London without surrendering his roots in the countryside. In terms of day-to-day life, the only unusual feature was that he was a part of the theatrical world. In his day, actors, playwrights, and theatrical entrepreneurs were only just emerging from an era in which they were stigmatized by both law and custom. Though in the course of Shakespeare's lifetime, the courts of Queen Elizabeth and King James I gave prestige to acting, and a few theatre people—including Shakespeare—got rich protest against drama and acting was still very strong in England. The fascination with theatrical lives that resulted in memoirs and biographies in later periods did not yet exist. Nevertheless, the broad outlines of Shakespeare's life can be discerned. 

Shakespeare's life falls into three main periods. His first 20 years were spent in Stratford, where his father was a member of the local establishment His career as an actor and playwright in London lasted about 25 years. Finally, he retired to Stratford where for about five years before his death he was a moderately wealthy member of the local gentry. The first two periods are linked by several years about which we know absolutely nothing—the so-called dark years—and the transition between the last two was gradual and cannot be precisely dated.  

Shakespeare was baptized on April 25, 1564 and since the normal lag between birth and baptism was several days, his birthday is conventionally regarded as April 23—also the date of his death 52 years later His father, John Shakespeare, was the son of a farmer who lived near Stratford. A member of the yeoman class, John became a tradesman and moved' to the town. He prospered and became one of the leading figures of Stratford's establishment, only to encounter serious financial difficulties, for unknown reasons. These began during Shakespeare's adolescence and were only resolved 20 years later, with the money Shakespeare earned in the theatre. However, the family was evidently never impoverished, for the family home was never sold, and John's status in the community was probably not seriously diminished. Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, was a member of the gentry the next higher social class. Her father, Robert Arden was an owner of inherited property that he both farmed himself and leased to other farmers The boundary between the gentry and yeoman classes was notably permeable in the 16th century, and John Shakespeare's rise in status through marriage was quite typical.   

No record of Shakespeare's education has survived, but he doubtless attended the excellent Stratford Grammar School, which was appropriate to his family's status and free of charge, since his father was an official of the town. Shakespeare studied mostly Latin literature, in Latin. Fragments of the standard textbook of the day, William Lily’s Latin Grammar, appear in the plays, most amusingly in the famous 'Latin scene' (4.1) of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Also, the Latin authors he studied, such as Ovid, Livy, and Virgil, are echoed, quoted, and occasionally mentioned in the plays. 

Shakespeare probably left school at the normal age about 15, in 1579. It seems likely, particularly in view of his father's financial problems, that young William took a job of some sort at this point. A number of possibilities have been envisioned—based on various traditions and on references in the plays that imply familiarity with certain occupations—including assistant schoolmaster, law clerk, gardener, and, perhaps the most natural supposition, assistant to his father who was a glover and dealer in commodities. In any case, John Shakespeare's business activities left the playwright with specialized knowledge that he was later to put to good use—for instance, when the Clown in The Winter's Tale puzzles over the market price of wool in 4.3.32-34, or when a beard is described as 'round . . . like a glover's paring-knife' (Merry Wives, 1.4.18-19). Recollections of life in the countryside around Stratford are also frequently found in the plays especially in the Induction to the early Taming of the Shrew. The town life he knew in Stratford itself is not often appropriate to his dramas, but it too is convincingly portrayed in The Merry Wives of Windsor

Within a few years after leaving school, Shakespeare had an affair with Anne Hathaway, which led to her pregnancy and a hasty marriage, late in 1582. Anne eight years older than her 18-year-old husband, was the daughter of a farmer in a nearby village. In May 1583 their first child, Susanna, was born; twins, Hamnet and Judith soon followed. The christening of the twins in February 1585 provides assurance that Shakespeare was in Stratford nine months earlier, but no record of his activities between then and 1592 has survived. That period, utterly opaque to modern investigation constitutes the 'dark years'.  

Scholarly speculation has not been wanting, of course. Most notoriously, there was a local tradition first published in the 18th century—that Shakespeare had been caught poaching by a local nobleman, Sir Thomas Lucy, and had thus departed for London as a fugitive. Modem scholarship finds both story and conclusion highly dubious, and attention has instead focused on Shakespeare's likely occupation during the dark years. In addition to the various possibilities already outlined, suggestions have included a term as a soldier—in the Netherlands under the Earl of Leicester or as part of the defense forces assembled against the Spanish Armada in 1588—or a job in the London publishing industry, perhaps with his fellow Stratfordian, the printer Richard Field. A 17th-century writer established a tradition that Shakespeare had been a butcher during this period, reporting that young Will had been known to 'kill a calf in uproarious spirits. His conclusion was based on a misunderstanding: to 'kill a calf was Elizabethan theatrical slang for a particular comic routine, the details of which are lost. Nevertheless, the anecdote points to the only certain fact about the dark years: at some point Shakespeare became involved with a theatrical company. Many traveling companies played at Stratford, an important provincial town, during Shakespeare's youth, and Leicester’s were there in 1586, followed by the Queen’s Men (who possibly had a vacancy in 1587. However, there is no evidence that such troupes ever recruited on the road, and Shakespeare probably had to go to London to begin his career.  

He was probably in London no later than 1589, for he was established as an actor and playwright by 1592, when the scurrilous criticism of Robert Greene makes it clear that he was well known. The response by Henry Chettle makes it just as clear that he was respected and admired. Several of the plays were already popular—3 Henry VI is quoted from by Greene—and while the earliest plays are notoriously difficult to date, it seems likely that they included The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, the three Henry, VI plays, Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Several of these plays were performed by an acting company called Pembroke’s, and it seems likely that early in his career Shakespeare wrote and acted for them. Similar considerations also suggest links with the Admiral’s Men, Sussex’s Men, and Strange’s Men. The latter seems especially likely, because the earliest sure evidence of his employment is a document of 1594, in which he is listed as a principal member of Strange's Men's successor, the Chamberlain’s Men.   

In the meantime his career was affected by a plague outbreak that closed the theatres in London for about two years beginning in 1592. Shakespeare may have toured the provinces with a company under William Alleyn, but he may have left the theatre for a period. He turned his attention to a purely literary endeavor, the writing of book-length poems. His virtues as a writer had by now been established, and the theatre was not regarded as the best career for a serious literary artist in the 16th century. The likeliest avenue to fame and fortune was to write major works of poetry or prose. Writers offered their works as tokens of esteem to wealthy nobles, who, if they were pleased, might respond with a gift of money or even some extended financial support. It was the aristocracy that supported the literary world, for the most part, with publishing playing only a small role. A writer might live quite comfortably with a generous patron, and it is evident that Shakespeare attempted to tap this market during the long layoff due to the plague. He wrote his two long poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), during this period and dedicated them to the Earl of Southhampton. Some scholars believe he lived at Southampton's estate for some part of the time. The first of his dedications, in 1593, is an ordinary approach to a potential patron, conventionally flattering and self-deprecating, while the second suggests a warm friendship and makes it clear that the earl had responded positively to the young poet's work. In fact, that the two men were friends is one of the few undocumented aspects of Shakespeare's life that virtually all scholars accept.  

However—whether out of concern for his independence or from love of the theatre or in view of some unknown factor—Shakespeare returned to the stage in 1594. Strange's Men were reorganized as the Chamberlain's Men in June of that year, and the playwright is presumed to have joined them then or shortly thereafter, since he was a prominent member of the company in December, when he was a representative of the troupe at court. He was to remain with this company for the rest of his career. During his first few years with them, he wrote a long string of successful plays, probably including (though dates continue to be uncertain) Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, and King John. An earlier play, Richard III, was extremely popular as performed by the Chamberlain's Men; later tradition had it that it established both Shakespeare and its leading man, Richard Burbage, as important figures in the London theatre world. They became subjects of gossip, at least, for the only surviving personal anecdote of Shakespeare that can be certainly dated to his lifetime concerns Burbage and a female admirer, during a production of Richard III.   

Tax assessments and the records of an obscure lawsuit reveal some of Shakespeare's residences during this period. He apparently moved across the city when the Chamberlain's Men moved from the Theatre, in a northern suburb, to the Swan Theatre, in southern Southwark.  Some scholars believe that his tax bill in the first of these homes was too large for a single man's dwelling, suggesting that his wife and children spent time with him in London. There is no further evidence to confirm this, however.  

Shakespeare continued to turn out plays at a great rate, probably completing the following between 1596 and the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603- The Merchant of Venice, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Troilus and Cressida. In 1598 an edition of Love's Labour's Lost was the first publication to have Shakespeare's name on it as booksellers realized the value of his growing fame' In the same year Francis Meres cited him as among England's best playwrights for both Comedy and Tragedy and compared his poetry to the greatest of the ancients. 

Throughout the 1590s, and perhaps somewhat later, Shakespeare wrote his Sonnets, a complex sequence of love poems that is one of the masterpieces of English poetry. These poems are often taken to reflect a real love for a man and a woman, but they probably represent merely Shakespeare's pursuit of a fashionable genre. In any case, if they are autobiographical they are deliberately obscure and can contribute little to our knowledge of his life; they recount no events or incidents, and they offer little concrete information about the persons depicted. Shakespeare also composed an allegorical poem. The Phoenix and Turtle, written for Love’s Martyr, an anthology of poems (1601) celebrating an aristocratic marriage In addition, a number of brief Epitaphs are sometimes ascribed to Shakespeare by various scholars. 

In 1596, after the first years of Shakespeare's theatrical success, John Shakespeare was awarded a Coat of Arms. Such tokens of gentlemanly status were nominally awarded for a family's services to the nation, but they were in fact bought, and it is presumed that the playwright paid the fees for the Shakespeare escutcheon. Such a public assertion of his family's recovery from their earlier troubles must have been satisfying to Shakespeare, especially when it was confirmed by the purchase of a grand Stratford mansion New Place, in 1597. However, Shakespeare's triumphs' were not unalloyed, for in 1596 his son Hamnet died at the age of 11. Shakespeare presumably returned to Stratford for Hamnet's burial, though his appearance went unrecorded; the earliest surviving documents indicating his presence in the town after 1584 are those recording the sale of New Place. The absence of any certain association of Shakespeare and Stratford for 13 years has sparked suggestions that the playwright had turned his back on his home, perhaps because of an unhappy marriage. However, the grant of arms the purchase of New Place, and Shakespeare's continuing close involvement with Stratford thereafter constitute so firm a commitment to the town as to imply a strong earlier involvement as well. Later tradition recorded that he had all along returned frequently, and there is no reason to doubt it. That only the later visits can be substantiated merely points up the impact of wealth for it is Shakespeare's money matters that are mostly recorded. He was soon a force in Stratford, being recorded in 1598 as a leading owner of grain and figuring several times in the correspondence of Richard Quiney as a man of business. His father died in 1601, and Shakespeare inherited the birthplace, in half of which his family continued to live, while the other half—formerly his father's shop—was leased as an inn. New investments were made in Stratford in 1602 and land was added to the property surrounding New Place.

In London in 1599, Shakespeare became one of the partners in the new Globe Theatre, a successful enterprise that furthered his prosperity. Most Elizabethan playwrights only wrote, and of the few who also acted—such as Thomas Heywood and Nathan Field—Shakespeare alone was a partner in an acting company, deriving his income from the long-term success of the enterprise, rather than merely from the production of single plays. After the accession of King James in 1603, the company was part of the royal household—the number of courtly performances per year more than doubled—and in the first five years of the new regime, Shakespeare produced an astonishing sequence of major plays: Othello, Measure for Measure All's Well That Ends Well, King Lear, Macbeth, Conolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Pericles, plus the unfinished Timon of Athens. Similarly, when in 1608, the company acquired the Blackfriars Theatre, with its unusual new scenic capabilities and its sophisticated clientele, Shakespeare responded with plays in a new genre, the Romances. These, with Henry VIII and the lost play Cardenio and The Two Noble Knisman, comprise his final period.

Late in his career, Shakespeare was acquainted with the young Christopher Beeston, whose son, retelling his father's reminiscences years later, left us one of the few glimpses we have of the living playwright. Beeston described Shakespeare as 'a handsome well shap't man—very good company, and of a very readie and pleasant smooth Witt'. Beeston also said that the playwright 'understood Latine pretty well, for he had been in his younger yeares a Schoolmaster in the Countrey' (the earliest such statement), and added that he was the more to be admired that he was not a company keeper [and] wouldn't be debauched'. In late 1603 Shakespeare appeared in a play by Ben Jonson; this may have been his last appearance on stage, for he does not appear on later cast lists His career as an actor is obscure. He certainly began as one—Robert Greene complained in 1592 that it was presumptuous of him, as an actor, to write plays—and he appears in the cast lists of several plays put on by the Chamberlain's Men. We do not, however, know of any role he played or even that he ever appeared in one of his own works (though as a member of the company he probably did). He may have played the title character in George Peele’s Edward I (c. 1593), for another character, referring to the king, says,  'Shake thy spears in honor of his name'. Several ambiguous contemporary references seem to associate him with kingship, and scholars have supposed that he played Duncan, Henry IV or Henry VI (the great kingly protagonists such as Richard IIIand Lear were played by Burbage, however). Later traditions ascribed to Shakespeare the roles of Adam in As You Like It and the Ghost in Hamlet. From all this it seems likely that he specialized in roles of older, dignified men, but that his contribution as an actor was not a great one.

Late in his career, Shakespeare wrote collaboratively (as he may also have done in the obscure early years) with at least one other playwright, John Fletcher, who wrote parts of Cardenio, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and possibly Henry VIII. This almost surely reflects Shakespeare's retirement to Stratford; he was certainly in residence there by 1612 (when he visited London to testify in a lawsuit and some scholars believe he may have made the move as early as 1610, writing The Tempest in the country. He presumably visited the city to confer with Fletcher on the other late plays.

In 1607 his older daughter, Susanna, married a prominent Stratford physician, Dr John Hall, who seems to have become Shakespeare's friend if he was not already, and in 1608, the couple had a child, Elizabeth Hall. As the master of New Place, Shakespeare was one of the social leaders of the town; when visiting preachers came for high holy days, they stayed at Shakespeare's home. He continued to invest in Stratford real estate. In 1605 he bought a share of the tax revenues of some agricultural land (a purchasable commodity in those days), was involved in a lawsuit about it in 1611, and astutely managed the investment during the enclosure controversy of 1614. Also, in 1613 he bought an investment property in London, the Blackfriars Gatehouse.

In January 1616 Shakespeare's lawyer prepared a draft of the playwright's last will and testament. In February his younger daughter Judith married the scandalous Thomas Quiney, and Shakespeare rewrote his will to protect her portion from her husband, signing it on the 25th of March. On April 23 he died. We do not know the cause; a later tradition that he caught a chill drinking with his fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton is almost certainly apocryphal. On April 25 he was buried_52 years to the day after his baptism—in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church. Sometime before 1622, the chancel wall received a memorial relief featuring a portrait bust by Gheerart Janssen), presumably commissioned by his family.

This bald recitation of facts is as much as we can know about Shakespeare's life, unless further evidence is uncovered. Over the centuries speculative scholars and fantasizing enthusiasts have added a great variety of suppositions, extrapolating from the  plays to make a more fully motivated, psychologically  credible human being—or perhaps simply a more interesting person—than the simple documents allow.  This is most easily done by assuming that the opinions expressed by the major characters in the plays—and by the persona of the poet in the Sonnets—are those of the author. However, efforts to interpret the works as fragments of autobiography are generally mistaken; the characters are imaginary, and because they must occupy all the niches of various fictional worlds, they naturally hold a wide range of attitudes and opinions. Even very broad interpretations are highly problematic. For instance, some critics have seen The Winter 's Tale, in which unjust jealousy is followed by reconciliation, as an autobiographical rendering of the playwright's relationship with his wife. Though the story is in the play's source material, it is argued that Shakespeare must have been driven to choose that source by some similar experience of his own. However, in the absence of evidence, such a hypothesis remains untestable, and it certainly seems unnecessary.  A writer who could produce almost two plays a year for 20 years and make real such diverse characters as, say, Falstaff, Hamlet, and Volumnia can have had no serious problem finding material outside his own life. To argue that specific experiences are necessary for Shakespeare's art suggests that, on the evidence of Hamlet, he must have suffered from writer's block.

Nevertheless, if considered with care, Shakespeare's works can help us to a fuller comprehension of the man. Repeated motifs and concepts in the plays permit us to draw a few conclusions, however tentatively, about Shakespeare's sensibility and his general ideas on certain subjects. The History Plays and Roman Plays  reflect a political conservatism—in the sense of resistance to changes in the existing system of social organization—that we might expect of a man of his time and social position. The late 16th and early 17th centuries were an anxious period in England, for the newly Protestant country was at odds with the Catholic powers of continental Europe—to the point of repelling an attempted invasion—and internal strife bubbled up in such episodes as the rebellion led by the Earl of Essex. Indeed, civil war was regarded as a serious prospect during the last years of Elizabeth's reign (and after a brief respite it became reality, not long after Shakespeare's death). On a more personal level, the playwright's social position was newly achieved and, as his father's experience had demonstrated, precarious.

In these circumstances Shakespeare's politics were naturally conservative. For instance, the plays clearly demonstrate that he places a high value on the preservation of social order and distrusts the disorder that he sees in popular political assertiveness. From Jack Cade, through the Plebians who kill the wrong man in Julius Caesar and the shifty Junius Brutus of Coriolanus, to The Tempest's rebellious Caliban, the common man in his political aspect is generally a villain, though the playwright's fondness for the common people of England is evident in his many sympathetic characterizations, from the very early Dromios to the very late Boatswain.  Still, the violent and fickle common man is only a secondary villain. In both the history and Roman dramas popular disorder is seen as a symptom of moral sickness rather than a cause. The rulers of the state are the major focus, as aristocratic shortsightedness, greed, and ambition lead to usurpations and civil war. Shakespeare clearly found the greatest threat to society in disruption of the system at the top. Perhaps for this reason, he is sometimes interpreted as representing a proto-revolutionary strain of thought; however, his notions actually reflect the political orthodoxy of the Tudor Dynasty, which naturally feared the threat of an opposing aristocratic faction, having come to power as one itself. Shakespeare's work and life considered together do not show us a member of the rising bourgeoisie who is nervous about the crown's overweening power_the proto-revolutionary image—but rather the unmistakable lineaments of a country gentleman and a social conservative.

An interpretation of Shakespeare's life from his work that sparks great controversy is the suggestion that the Sonnets indicate Shakespeare was a homosexual. However, the love for a man expressed in the Sonnets is not sexual (as is specified in Sonnet 20),  though sexuality is important in the world of the poems. Sonnet sequences were a fashionable vehicle for comments on love, and they conventionally took unrequited passion as their topic. The love triangle implicit in the Sonnets is probably such a convention—albeit more complex and involving than most (as we might expect of Shakespeare) and so more convincing. In any case it does not involve a homosexual relationship. Here, seeming biographical data have been forged from nothing, by applying modern values to pre-modern materials.

Moreover, the plays repeatedly focus on heterosexual love and its culmination in marriage. Shakespeare's heroines are frankly interested in sex. Juliet longs for her wedding night and its 'amorous rites' (Romeo and Juliet 3.2.8); Rosalind envisions Orlando, whom she has just met, as 'my child's father' (As You  Like It 1.3.10); and Perdita describes Florizel’s body as 'like a bank, for love to lie and play on' (4.4.130). Throughout the plays, Shakespeare celebrates sexuality in marriage, and he plainly sees marriage as a vehicle for the fulfillment of humanity's place in the natural order of things. Nothing that can be seen of his own marriage suggests that he regarded it in any different light, and there seem no grounds for the idea that he was not a conventional husband with a conventional sex life.

Propositions based on the work are necessarily speculative, but a few elements from the plays do seem related to what we know of Shakespeare's life. For instance, we have seen that Stratford is reflected in the early plays, and the playwright's love of country life is evident throughout his work. English rustics reappear in such unlikely settings as Athens (in both A Midsummer Night 's Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen), Denmark (Hamlet), and Bohemia (The Winter's Tale). More personal concerns may also emerge. Looking at Shakespeare's remarkably similar doomed boys, the Son of Macduff  in Macbeth and Mamillius in The Winter's Tale, both charming and intelligent lads seen in touching conversation with their mothers, it is easy to suppose that the playwright was remembering Hamnet.

Also, we can surmise that Shakespeare's consciousness of his own increasing age is reflected in his remarkable sequence of tragic lovers. Romeo and Juliet (created c. 1595, when Shakespeare was around 30) re virtually children, powerless in the face of adult society; Troilus and Cressida (1602) are young adults and have roles in their societies, but those roles are themselves oppressive and help undo their love; Othellow and Desdemona (c. 1604) are fully adult,' married, and entirely in control of their positions in the world, though not of themselves; Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1608, Shakespeare was 44) are quite mature and have had adult lives full of incident and accomplishment. Shakespeare seems to have identified himself with different age groups as he grew older; this is of course natural, and in observing it, we are not learning about Shakespeare's life through the plays but rather confirming our awareness that he made his , plays out of life.


To view other Shakespeare Library sections:

Biography     Plays     Poems     Sonnets     Theaters     Shake Links

Send mail to with questions or comments about this web site.
[Home]  [Upcoming Shows]  [HSC Venues]  [Past Productions]  [Articles] [HSC Programs]
 [Shakespeare Library] [Actor Resources]   [Contact Us]  [Links]  [Site Map]