William Shakespeare, the best-known figure in Renaissance literature, if not all of literature, was born April 23, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, a town near London. His father John Shakespeare, held many jobs, from leather goods salesman to ale taster, culminating in a position as Stratford’s High Bailiff, or town mayor. Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden Shakespeare, had eight children with John.
Because Shakespeare’s parents were well off, he was able to attend grammar school- a luxury not every household could afford in 16th century England. For those who could afford it, however, a quality grammar school rivaled any school, citing that no records exist to verify his education, but he clearly was not a self-taught genius. His knowledge of the world and human psychology did not come from the streets, but from the writing of Seneca, Cicero, Ovid and Virgil. Shakespeare married at age 18 to Ann Hathaway of Stratford, who was eight years older. The date was November 28, 1582. Their first child, Susanna, was born May 26, 1583, only six months after the wedding. They even had twins-Judith and Hamnet-were born February 2, 1585. They were named for the couple’s neighbors and lifelong friends.
In the late 1580’s, Shakespeare moved his family to London, where he served as a theater apprentice, handling everything from management to water the horses. It wasn’t until 1592 that he began to achieve distinction as an actor and playwright. In 1593, he became a published poet with the long narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. He wrote these poems because the plague, which was crushing London, had closed all the theaters. Shakespeare began writing plays, for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men acting troupe, when the theater was reopened. Lord Chamberlain’s Men was the most important company of players in all of England. In 1598, the company built a theater across the Thames River from London and named it the Globe. Queen Elizabeth I became a strong supporter and attended may of the Globe’s performances. With the accession of James I in March of 1603, the troupe received royal patronage and was renamed the King’s Men. Shakespeare began writing comedies and histories, using existing stories and chronicles as his Source material. His first plays, The Comedy of Errors and Titus Andronicus were extremely successful.
With the publication of Henry VI, Richard III, Love’s Labor Lost and Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare received critical acclaim and admiration form fellow playwrights such as John Lilly and Christopher Marlowe. During a performance of Henry VIII in 1613, a spark from a cannon used to announce King Henry’s entrance caught the Globe Theater’s thatch roof on fire. The entire structure burned, but was rebuilt in 1614 with a tile roof. The Globe continued to dominate the theater scene until 1642, when Puritan forced it to close. It was torn down two years later and dousing was built on the site.
William Shakespeare died in Stratford on his birthday in 1616. Although the reason for his death has never been confirmed, many theories abound. The most common is that he died of a fever contracted after a night of heavy drinking with fellow writer Ben Johnson and Michael Drayton. What is known for sure is that Shakespeare was sick before his death and retired from play writing between 1612 and 1613. Common practice in those days was to dig up bodies once a graveyard was full and burn them. William detested this custom and wrote the following epitaph:
Good friends, for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the bones enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
He was buried April 25, 1616 and according to his wishes, his body has never been removed from its resting place.