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Shakespeare, William

Now known affectionately as ‘the Bard’ and hailed as the greatest writer in the English language, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, the third child of John Shakespeare, a glove-maker and wool dealer, and Mary Arden, daughter of a local landowner. The couple had eight children in total, but William’s two elder sisters died in infancy, leaving him as the eldest child and leading him to inherit the family home upon his father’s death in 1601. (Shakespeare’s birthplace can now be visited by the public, as can Mary Arden’s house.) William was in fact baptised on 26th April, but his birth is now celebrated on 23rd April, St George’s Day, as is perhaps fitting for an author who is venerated by many as a literary patron saint. This date also creates a neat parallel with his death on 23rd April 1616.

Although we have no precise record of his childhood years, it is likely that he attended King’s New School, a grammar school where he would have received an education based on classical (Latin and Greek) authors. At the age of 18, he married Anne Hathaway, who was around eight years his senior and who was already three-months pregnant with their first child, evidenced by the birth of Susanna in 1593, six months after their marriage. Twins Hamnet and Judith, named after family friends the Sadlers, followed two years later, but Hamnet died of unknown causes aged only 11.

There are no surviving records of Shakespeare’s life over the next six or seven years, but by 1592 he seems to have already been established as a playwright in London, though it is not known what took him there in the first place. His success, and the jealousy it inspired in some of his university-educated rivals, is attested to in a pamphlet by dramatist Robert Greene called Greenes, Groats-Worth of Wit:

… there is an upstart Crow … that … supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and … is in his own conceit the only Shakes-scene in a country

This quote has more recently inspired Ben Elton’s satirical television series Upstart Crow, based on Shakespeare’s life and works and sending up the often convoluted plots, over-elaborate metaphors and blatant (though supposedly secret) asides.

Shakespeare’s lack of university education has led some to doubt the authorship of his plays, with some attributing them instead to Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford. However, the playwright’s knowledge of the classics and of court life is sketchy, as is compatible with a middle-class upbringing. Others point out that the plays may have been written collaboratively – for instance, there is evidence that Macbeth may have been revised by Thomas Middleton, Henry IV Part I may have been written with Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe, and Henry VIII may have been a joint work with John Fletcher – but Shakespeare’s contemporaries named him as the author, and the plays remain the some of the most influential and enduring works in the English language.

Besides his 38 or so dramatic works, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets over a number of years, published as a collection in 1609, and various other poems. The sonnets have also given rise to much speculation, as some are addressed to a ‘dark lady’ while others praise a ‘fair youth’, leading people to question Shakespeare’s sexuality. Further controversy has been caused by his famously leaving his wife his ‘second-best bed’ and by the fact that he spent so much time in London, away from his family.

Perhaps what such debates prove most of all is that success breeds jealousy and conjecture, even beyond the grave. As Shakespeare himself predicted in Sonnet 18, his works have long outlived him. Following his sudden death at the age of 52, his body was buried in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, but his works live on, translated into over 100 languages and performed many thousands of times in countries as far from his native Midlands as Egypt and Korea. They have inspired musicals, films, cartoon versions and satires, all of which are a tribute to his works’ lasting power.
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William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon

William was the third of eight children born to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, but his two elder sisters died in infancy, leaving him as the eldest child.

Find out more about Shakespeare’s birthplace


Five siblings were born

Mary Arden gave birth to Gilbert, Joan, Anne or Ann, Richard and Edmund, but Ann(e) died aged eight.

Aged 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway

Anne was the daughter of a yeoman farmer and was about eight years Shakespeare’s senior. The marriage was somewhat rushed as she was already pregnant with their daughter.

Susanna was born

The Shakespeares’ first child of three was born six months after William and Anne married.

The twins Hamnet (a boy) and Judith (a girl) were born

They were named after family friends Hamnet and Judith Sadler.

The ‘Lost Years’

There are no records of Shakespeare’s life for this period, but by 1592 he was already established as a playwright in London.

Henry IV Part I was written

Other early plays include Richard III (c.1593) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595/1596).

Rival dramatist Robert Greene wrote a pamphlet attacking Shakespeare

The pamphlet, Greenes, Groats-Worth of Wit, attests to Shakespeare’s growing reputation in the capital.

Shakespeare’s plays were now performed exclusively by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men

Richard Burbage was the lead actor of the company, but Shakespeare himself performed many of the minor roles, though we cannot be sure which.

Hamnet died, aged 11

It is not known what caused his death or whether Shakespeare was able to attend his funeral.

Shakespeare bought New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon

During this period, Shakespeare divided his time between London and Stratford (two or three days’ journey away), and had clearly become a wealthy man.

The Globe theatre was built

The theatre in Southwark, London, was commissioned by members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

John Shakespeare died

Upon his father’s death, William inherited the house where he had been born.

Accession of James I

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men took the name the King’s Men.

The Sonnets were published

They were probably written over a long period. Some refer to a ‘dark lady’ while others are about a ‘fair youth’.

The Tempest was written

The play is believed by critics to be Shakespeare’s last.
25th March 1616

Shakespeare signed his will

In it, he declared himself in ‘perfect health’.

The First Folio was published

This was a collection of Shakespeare’s plays and was published by his fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell.

Hamlet was first performed in Egypt

Since his death, Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into over 100 languages.

West Side Story premiered on Broadway

The show is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet. An earlier musical (Kiss Me, Kate – 1948) is based on The Taming of the Shrew.

The BBC broadcast The Animated Tales

The Animated Tales are half-hour adaptations of 12 Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays.

Watch some clips


The rebuilt Globe theatre was opened

The project was first conceived by actor, director and producer Sam Wanamaker in 1949.

Find out about the replica Globe theatre


The Hogarth Press launched the Hogarth Shakespeare series

These are modern reworkings of Shakespeare plays by famous contemporary authors, including Margaret Atwood, Tracy Chevalier and Jo Nesbø.

Find out more about the Hogarth Shakespeare series