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Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare | Biography


Childhood and Family Life

Very little is known about William Shakespeare's birth, education, or upbringing, and most of what scholars have gathered about his early life is extrapolated from local records. According to church records, he was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, which leads scholars to the conclusion that he was born on April 23 of that year. Birth records were not usually kept in Shakespeare's time, although church records—baptisms, weddings, burials—were kept fastidiously by clergy.

Shakespeare's family was relatively prominent in its small community. His father was a glover and dealer in animal hides who held a series of public offices, including alderman, chief magistrate, and eventually high bailiff (the equivalent of a present-day mayor). Scholars have speculated that Shakespeare's father may eventually have fallen on hard times, perhaps because of trading failures or controversial Catholic sympathies, but this is not known for sure. Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a distinguished family with some aristocratic connections. Shakespeare would most likely have had a typical education at the local grammar school, where education would have focused on the Latin language and authors. At age 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his elder who was already pregnant with their daughter Susanna. Anne gave birth to twins—Judith and Hamnet—a few years later. Church records reveal Hamnet died in childhood.

Theatrical Life

Shakespeare moved to London to pursue a career as an actor and playwright, and over time, he achieved success. He became a shareholder in the open-air Globe Theatre in London and had widespread popularity as a playwright whose works included romantic and classically inspired comedies, histories, and tragedies. At the time, plays were considered a lower literary form than poetry, and Shakespeare's interest in the theater seems to have been largely commercial. He invested more in his poetry, which was published with flattering dedications to patrons and other front matter. By contrast, the plays published during his lifetime are printed in careless, error-filled quartos, with no sign that Shakespeare was involved in their production. He is credited with writing at least 37 plays, two narrative poems, and over 150 sonnets. He was financially successful enough to buy the most impressive house in Stratford-upon-Avon and to help his father purchase a coat of arms, making him legally a gentleman.

Throughout his career Shakespeare and his fellow actors were supported by the nation's royalty and nobility; during the reign of Elizabeth I (1533–1603), the Lord Chamberlain was the patron for Shakespeare's company, called The Lord Chamberlain's Men. When James I (1566–1625) assumed the throne in 1603, the company came under his patronage and was renamed The King's Men. Although many of Shakespeare's plays were written for performance at the Globe, the King's Men also performed at the nearby Blackfriars Theater, a smaller indoor space, after 1608.

Retirement and Legacy

In 1610 or 1611 Shakespeare retired, moving back to Stratford-upon-Avon. Despite his retirement from London life, the playwright continued to do some writing, contributing to Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen as well as to another play, Cardenio, now lost. Scholars believe these final works to be collaborations with John Fletcher (1579–1625), another playwright.

Shakespeare most likely died on April 23, 1616, leading to the romantic notion he was born and died on the same date, although there are no records of the exact date of either event. He was 52 at his death and was buried on April 25 at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Over 400 years after his death, Shakespeare is still regarded as the greatest playwright of the English-speaking world.

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