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William Shakespeare | Biography

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The childhood of William Shakespeare is a murky area for scholars, since few records of his early activities exist. Very little is known about his birth, education, or upbringing. However, 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 around 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 solidly middle class, and he would have had a typical education for an English boy of his time at a public school endowed by Elizabeth I. He likely would have studied Latin and Roman and Greek classical literature. At 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.

Shakespeare moved to London to pursue a career as an actor and playwright and over time achieved success. Shakespeare became a shareholder in the Globe Theater and had widespread fame as a playwright. 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. For Henry VIII the playwrights relied on Holinshed's Chronicles, the source for many of Shakespeare's other histories. Holinshed's work provides the main historical events used in the play. Other possible sources are Annuals, published in 1592 by John Stow, and Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain, published in 1611 by John Speed.

Throughout his career Shakespeare and his fellow actors were supported by the patronage of the nation's monarchs—first by Elizabeth I (1533–1603), and then by James I (1566–1625), under whose reign Shakespeare's company was renamed The King's Men. Shakespeare honors both his patrons with this play. Elizabeth I is the baby christened at the end of the play, whom Cranmer praises, and James I, king at the time of the play's writing, was a descendant of the same royal family line.

Audiences at the time Henry VIII was written had a taste for grand spectacle, which the play certainly provides, with its elaborate processions, boisterous crowd scenes, and Katherine's heavenly vision. Some scholars believe the play was performed first at a wedding celebration for the daughter of King James I, Elizabeth. During another early performance, a cannon was fired for effect, which then set fire to the roof of the Globe Theater. The theater was destroyed in the fire. Though the play remained popular through the 18th century, it fell out of fashion after this time, and performances in the 20th century were rare.

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.

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