Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Summer MainStage production of Her Majesty’s Will.
Welcome to the inauspicious beginnings of our young hero and someday poet and playwright of great renown – William Shakespeare! Although very little is known about the specifics and inner-workings of William’s early life, for a young man of his social status, it is surprising that what is known about him has survived.
William was born to John and Mary Shakespeare in April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. John, although of yeoman status, had somehow managed to marry above his station into one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Stratford. Despite both families’ Catholic backgrounds, the Shakespeares were a respectable heritage with strong ambitions. John rose to become a valued civil servant in the community. In addition to being a glover, or glove-maker, John owned a shop that traded in wool and farm produce. He may also have dabbled in being a money-lender, a dubious enough position at the time. By the time William was born he already owned multiple properties in town and had held a couple of elected positions in the town including Ale-taster (Stratford had a prestigious reputation for its ale) and chamberlain (a position which had daily meetings, was responsible for clearing town streets, and heard local petitions). In 1565, John was elected as alderman, a position that would have come with free education for the children in the local grammar school. It is assumed that William learned to read and write in Latin, and that he would have studied the Greek and Latin playwrights and poets at the local King’s New School in Stratford. John’s ambitions continued to climb, and he was soon appointed as high bailiff (or mayor) in 1568, then to his highest held position of chief alderman in 1571. William would have been expected to follow in his father’s honorable (although restrictively local) footsteps. Feeling a sense of accomplishment, John applied for a coat-of-arms to formally give the family the credibility he had worked hard to achieve. The application, a costly endeavor for such a man, was denied, perhaps because of the family’s Catholic connections.
William Shakespeare’s believed birthplace
Unfortunately, John Shakespeare’s prosperity was not long-lived. The 1570s brought trouble for the Shakespeare family. By the end of the decade, John Shakespeare had fallen behind on his taxes, stopped paying the poor relief, and needed to mortgage Mary’s inherited estate. The boys were removed from school to help with the family businesses and so came the early end of William’s formal education. John was fined for missing court dates and church. There is no clear evidence as to what caused this sudden downward spiral from a promising career as a dedicated civil servant, although many scholars focus on an inability to manage finances.
Things got worse for the Shakespeares when 18-year-old William announced that 26-year-old Anne Hathaway was three months pregnant with his child. This news would have been devastating to the family name. A hasty marriage was arranged with special permission from the Bishop of Worchester and William and Anne were married on November 27, 1582. Susanna was born in May the following year. Two years later, twins Hamnet and Judith were born. It is assumed that William helped his father’s business during this time, or possibly took up secondary work as a teacher or lawyer. William was rumored to have acted as a money-lender when he relocated to London, so perhaps it is during this time that he learned the specifics of that trade. Since there is no evidence that has survived to indicate what he may have been doing to support his young family, many theories have cropped up to fill in the blanks of William’s life. One thing does seem to be consistent, though. It seems pretty clear that Anne and William’s relationship was strained and distant, despite its scandalous beginnings. John’s and the family’s fortunes continued to flounder and by 1586, John was removed from the board of alderman due to a lack of attendance. By 1592, John was stripped of all his civic duties.
Anne Hathaway’s family cottage
The years between 1585 and 1592, and where our play Her Majesty’s Will finds the young William, have been known as “lost years” in Shakespeare’s history. There are no official records between when his children were baptized and his first writing credits in London, therefore it is a time of incredible speculation by scholars. How does a barely-educated poor, struggling man from Stratford-upon-Avon become one of the greatest writers of the English language? Scholars though the ages have tried to crack the mystery of how Shakespeare established a successful career when he arrived in London. Common theories include: a local legend about poaching deer from Sir Thomas Lucy’s property and a quick escape from his punishment (complete with a revenge ballad); that he headed to London to be a horse attendant at the theatres; or that he was working as a lawyer or soldier based on the knowledge he displays of these professions in his plays. There is no evidence to support any of these claims, however. The most plausible speculations, with a little (but still not a lot) of evidence are the following three theories: 1. That Shakespeare was a teacher during this time, either in a private household or as a schoolmaster (this story was recounted by the son of one of his fellow actors in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) which would have allowed him time to study and work on his craft; 2. That Shakespeare was recruited by a travelling troupe of actors that came through Stratford (most likely the Queen’s Men who came to town short one actor in 1587); or 3. A recently-developed economic theory that suggests far from struggling, John Shakespeare’s business was tied into shady dealings, so William Shakespeare left Stratford to be his father’s agent of trade in the booming city of London (this would have been how Shakespeare could have supported himself with his artistic pursuits). In any case, it is reasonable to assume that whatever the reason Shakespeare left Stratford and his family behind, it must have been fairly compelling, since he gave up a fairly respectable lifestyle for one with the lowly rabble of the theatre profession.
By 1592, the first recorded indication that Shakespeare was in London writing plays appeared. Robert Greene made reference to him (and a dig or two) in his last written work, referring to Shakespeare as an “upstart cow” reaching above his rank by trying to match the university-educated men around this time. At the time there was the belief that a man could not change his own destiny, but that artistry needed to be fostered by a patron or developed through formal education. By 1594, however, Shakespeare’s plays were being produced regularly and exclusively by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company in which Shakespeare would later be a managing partner. The company would go on to become the King’s Men after Queen Elizabeth’s death.
As for his personal life, much examination and speculation has come from studying his sonnets and his plays – from what actually happened during those lost years to whether or not Shakespeare had a homosexual relationship and even whether or not Shakespeare penned all his own works. While many theories exist, little evidence supports one over the other. For example, while many scholars point to the sonnets and extensive cross-dressing themes in his plays as explicit proof of Shakespeare’s support for homoerotic relationships, others point out a different understanding of sexuality in the Elizabethan age in which the homosexual identity did not exist, separating act from identity in a way that is foreign to modern understanding. So, the best we can do to understand and interpret Shakespeare’s heart of hearts is to guess.
It seems almost silly to try to sum up the legacy of Shakespeare’s plays for he is widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest writer of the English language. His total body of work consists of approximately 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two narrative poems, and a few other verses. He produced most of his work over the 24 years between 1589 and 1613. Perhaps the greatest achievement in his parent’s eyes was that he was able to secure a coat-of-arms for his father before John passed away.
Shakespeare’s literary legacy changed the approach to Elizabethan theatre. He is credited with expanding the potential of characterization, plot, language and genre. He used the same devices that were popular in the age of Elizabethan theatre, not only to move the plot, but also to explore the complete range of emotions and conflict within his characters. He wrote plays that attempted to capture human emotion in a way that transcended his time and place. Shakespeare wrote within the conventional style of the day, but his innovative adaptations to language and flow changed the experience of the play, so much so, that critics have questioned how someone with such little education could revolutionize the genre. Without any evidence to the contrary, the vast majority of scholars do give him the appropriate credit. As his contemporary poet and dramatist, Ben Jonson, put it, he “was not of an age, but for all time.” David Blixt points out early in his book that theatre breathes life again into the playwright and characters every time the play is picked up and performed. Because of this, William Shakespeare continues to live a very long and celebrated life.