About William Shakespeare


Ben Johnson

On 26 April 1564 a baby was baptised in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire, England.  His name, William Shakespeare.  Original Font in Holy Trinity ChurhThe date of his birth is not known, but it was common practice to baptise infants within 2 to 4 days of birth.  Consequently, William Shakespeare's birthday is celebrated on 23 April - St George's Day. 

William's mother, Mary Arden was the daughter of Robert Arden, a wealthy farmer and landowner from Wilmcote.  She was the youngest of 8 daughters and when her father died, inherited the family farm.  She married John Shakespeare around 1557 but may have known him for some time as his family rented land off Robert Arden.

By trade, John Shakespeare was a successful glovemaker and Whittawer, manufacturing and producing quality gloves, bags, belts, sword-holders etc.  He used various skins, goat, calf,  dog, sheep, deer and rabbit and may have sold his wares from his home.

John Shakespeare was a businessman and colourful character, participating in the illegal activities of money lending and wool dealing.  Both lucrative activities, but illegal without a special license and often resulting in a heavy fine.  At one time John Shakespeare was an 'ale taster' (checking for irregular measures and quality control).  He had various civic rolls, as Chamberlain, High Bailiff (Mayor) of Stratford, and Alderman.

Shakespeare's SchoolIn 1553 The Kings New School was established by the Guild of the Holy Cross, in a building originally built in the early 15th century, as a place to hold their feasts. Now King Edward VI Grammer School, it was here that young William Shakespeare would have been educated.  Boys between the ages of 7 years - 14 years attended 'Big School'.  Some would go on to university but William did not, possibly because his father's glove making business had suffered financial difficulties.  William's school day began around 6am or 7am and with a short break, continued until 5pm or 6pm - 6 days a week!  There was a high emphasis on learning Latin and discipline was strict.  Perhaps William is referring to one of his teachers, Thomas Jenkins, in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor.  He portrays Sir Hugh Evans teaching a lad called 'Will' the intricacies of Latin grammer.  William must have been a bright lad but did he enjoy school, standing with candle on dark mornings with frosty fingers reciting reams of text.  Does his play 'As You Like It' give us a clue - "The whining schoolboy with his satchel  ........ creeping like snail, unwillingly to school". Nevertheless, his plays suggest a detailed knowledge of the curriculum taught in such schools and the influence of classical authors like Ovid (best known for Metamorphoses).

It is not know what William Shakespeare did when he left school.  One theory is that he may have left school early to help in his father's business.  In 1582, when William was 18 years old, he married 26 year old Anne Hathaway, daughter of Richard Hathaway a farmer in Shottery, a nearby village. Her family home, known as Anne Hathaway's Cottage, is one of the most photographed and visited buildings in the country.  William and Anne had 3 children.  Susanna was baptised on 26 May 1583 and two years later, twins - Hamnet and Judith were baptised on 2 February 1585.  

Some time after the birth of his twins, William Shakespeare disappeared from the Stratford scene and resurfaced in London, in 1592. There are several theories as to how he spent these lost years, although there is no concrete proof of any of them. It has been suggested that he left Stratford 'in a hurry' and in 'disgrace', having been caught stealing deer at Charlecote park, home of Sir Thomas Lucy and fled to London to escape punishment.  It is suggested that William Shakespeare's character 'Sir Justice Shallow' in 'Merry Wives of Windsor' was based on Sir Thomas Lucy.  Other theories suggest that William left Stratford to work as a lawyer, a school teacher or to work as a spy for the government. A popular theory is that he left Stratford to join the Queens Men.  By 1592, there is no doubt.  William Shakespeare was in London, working as an actor and dramatist.

How much time did William spend in London and how frequently did he returm to Stratford?  Travelling back and forth was not as easy as it is today.  It would have taken three to four days walking, although a little less on horseback.  The demands on his time, writing and acting and dealing with theatre business were considerable.  When the plague in London effectively closed the theatres for several years he would have had more time for writing and perhaps greater opportunity to return to his family home.

What relationships did he forge in that vibrant exciting city.  We can imagine him sat in a smoky noisy hostelry surrounded by pots of ale, wenches and drinking chums.  Did he forge a relationship with Jane Davenant who managed an Inn on the way to Oxford?  She had a son whom she called William and our William adventurer was his godfather - or was he the father?  And then there was the 'dark lady' mentioned in the sonnets - was she Emilia Larnier, an Italian lady of the Court?  Is it possible William fell head over heels for her and expressed his infatuation in his poetic writings? And then there was John Manningham, in London at the time, who in his diary suggests that William was 'led astray' by a lady in the audience.  It makes interesting speculation but would be a weak case in a court of law.

William bought property in London, must have been heavily committed to his work there and with some distance between Stratford and London it is not unreasonable to assume he was away from home for some considerable time. This could have had an impact on family life. Nevertheless it is evident Stratford, like a magnet, drew him back to his beloved family home New Place.



to be continued soon....

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