Follow the journey of William Shakespeare's life in this series of 13 videos addressing commonly asked questions.
1. How do we know when Shakespeare was born?
Ok, so one of the first questions you might ask about William Shakespeare is when was he born and how do we know that fact? But we don’t know precisely when he was born unfortunately because the document we’re looking at here is not the record of Shakespeare’s birth but rather the record of Shakespeare’s baptism. And you can see it entered here by a clerk copying out older records into a new document. You can tell that because the hand-writing is all the same so you can tell all these entries were entered in fact at the same time from older records. But here we have the recording of Shakespeare’s baptism on the 26th of April 1564, and the interesting thing about that of course is that it doesn’t tell us when he was born it only tells us when he was baptised. Our guess then that Shakespeare’s birthday is the 23rd of April comes from the fact that we know it was common practice for children to be baptised between two and four days after the birth. Often depending on how fragile the child seemed if they appeared to be sickly then it was considered risky to take them out down to the church to be baptised and they’d wait hopefully to see whether the child prospered before they did the baptism. So there we have the record of Shakespeare’s baptism later marked by someone else with the three x's. So that’s all the evidence we have about his birth.
2. What did Shakespeare's father do?
You are now in the working part of the house. This is where John Shakespeare, William’s father, had his business. He is a glove maker by trade, a very good business to be in in the 1570’s. Now William Shakespeare’s father John, as a working glove maker would actually have to prepare his own animal skins. So before he could make the gloves he’s got to prepare the skins. Quite a range of different animals would have been used at that time. We’ve got goat, calf, sheep, deer, rabbit skin for the lining, and also at the time, dog. (I don’t like to think about that, as a dog lover.) Dog skin gloves would have been available. See, dog skin was an enormous luxury, very, very expensive. Apparently Elizabeth the First, the Queen on the throne as William Shakespeare was growing up here, only wore dog skin gloves, I’m assured; none here today, I hasten to add. Now, John Shakespeare would have had at the back of the house a working yard. That’s where he’s preparing the animal skins; it’s not a very nice business preparing animal skins in the 16th century. He would begin by soaking the skins in animal and human urine; very, very effective; softens the skins, bleaches them. What you have to think about as you go around the house is the smell of that process. The Shakespeares would live with that; that would be a constant part of their lives. Now the skin’s prepared outside, the gloves made here in the workshop, and then John Shakespeare would sell them directly out of the window.
John’s Civic Life
Another question we might ask as we know that John’ Shakespeare’s main career was as a glover; but what about the other parts of his life? What other things did he do in his civic and social life? Over to you…
Thank you. John Shakespeare had a quite a lot of civic duties to perform. He was quite a leading figure in Stratford’s community and society. Not only; had he begun by being an ale taster and a bailiff on the town council. And by the time William is about four year’s old, he then rises to the position of mayor. That was when we see him at the peak of his success at least in the civic end of his duties. As an ale taster he would have to look for certain things; irregular measures of alcohol and water in certain beers and ales; kind of a quality control position there. If publicans of the time, tavern keepers, innkeepers of the time fell afoul of those laws they could face imprisonment or heavy fines. So, it was quite an important role and that one in particular.
John Shakespeare also participated in some illegal activities. He sold wool without a license, and also lent money at interest. There was a heavy fine in place for participating in both these activities, and at some point John fell upon hard times, losing his position in the town council. It was around this time that William would have been removed from school.
3. Who was Shakespeare's mother?
So we ‘ve learned a little bit about Shakespeare’s father and found out what he did for a living, but what about Shakespeare’s mother? What was she like; what do we know about her? Well I’ve come out here to Mary Arden’s farm and the actual site of her girlhood home out here in Wilmcote to answer to answer that question. Mary Arden was the daughter of Robert Arden. The Ardens were a well-known and respected family in the area who could trace their ancestry back to the Norman Conquest, so certainly a good name, if you like, to be associated with. Robert Arden was a relatively wealthy farmer in the area and landowner to some degree, although not an enormous amount of land that he owned, and Mary was the youngest of his eight daughters. She in fact inherited the farm when she was about 19 when her father died and she was made the executer of his will, which is quite interesting because people also comment that she couldn’t sign her name. She made her mark by writing an x on legal documents. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she was illiterate in the sense that we mean when we say that today. She was obviously capable of handling the duty of being the executor of her father’s will and dealing with divvying up, if you like, the properties associated with that. Mary’s father was actually John Shakespeare’s landlord, so it’s possible that John and Mary had known one another from childhood and that was, if you like, the germ of the reason why they got married. It was probably a good marriage for them both. They were a good social match both from respected families, possibly a slightly better match from his point of view than from hers, but certainly nothing eyebrow-raising in terms of changes of social status in that marriage. So that tells you a little bit about Shakespeare’s mother and the kinds of things that might have influenced him in his childhood.
4. Where did Shakespeare go to school?
We’re standing outside Shakespeare’s school here, so one of the next questions we might address is: what was school life like for the young Shakespeare and what kinds of things did he learn? Many of the subjects that Shakespeare learned would be familiar to modern school children. He probably would have learned a certain amount of history, a certain amount of literature, but what would have seemed very different was that the literature he studied would have been almost entirely in Latin. An awful lot of his time would have been spent translating to Latin and from Latin. That was used both to teach students language skills, but also to teach them the construction of good prose, which was a skill in those days called “rhetoric.” Nobody really learns rhetoric today. In its most simple form of course rhetoric is simply persuasive speech or the art of persuasive speaking. But you can see how learning to shape good rhetorical speeches by learning from some of the original Latin and Greek examples probably helped Shakespeare in his later career as a playwright. There’s hardly a play that exists in which one character doesn’t at some point attempt to persuade another character of something; being that for comedy value or for villainous intent. So the things that Shakespeare learned in the school are very important. The school days were quite long with a lunch break which allowed the children to go home to have lunch and come back to school. Another thing which would seem perhaps strange to the modern school child is that only boys went to school. Girls were educated in different way, possibly in small groups tutored by one of the local women, and would have had a very different education focusing more on practical skills than intellectual skills. The boys would have come to this school from the ages of about 6 to 16, although we think that Shakespeare probably stopped his own education about the age of 14 which I will address in more detail in another question. Suffice to say, that this is where Shakespeare gained the education which allowed him to become the man he did.
5. What did Shakespeare do after leaving school?
So the next question I might ask is what did Shakespeare do when he left school? The likelihood is that Shakespeare left school around the age of fourteen, earlier than many of his contemporaries because as we know his father had got into to trouble and lost his station in society. We don’t know exactly what Shakespeare did when he left school. There are again several speculative ideas, one of which he was that he was apprenticed to a local butcher for instance. But we do know one thing he definitely did do in the period after leaving school and before having his first child and that is of course that he fell in love with Anne Hathaway and that is why I’ve come out here to Anne Hathaway’s cottage to film this particular entry. We don’t know exactly how they met but suffice it to say they did get married. They did however have a good reason for getting married which or may have not been to do with love, and that is that Anne Hathaway was pregnant when they got married already by three months. Not that this was particularly unusual in Tudor time I should add. It wasn’t that Shakespeare was particularly precocious. Approximately one in three women was pregnant at the time of their marriage. We obviously know that by comparing marriage records with birth records. What might have made Shakespeare a little more precocious was his age. He was only 18 when he married Anne Hathaway, who was 26. Anne Hathaway was exactly the average age for marriage in Shakespeare’s day. It was Shakespeare who was unusually young, not Anne Hathaway who was unusually old. The idea that people got married very young, probably perpetuated by Romeo and Juliet, is actually fairly false. There isn’t actually that much difference between the average age of marriage in Shakespeare’s day and our own. Possibly one of the things he also did during this time was write some of his first poetry. People speculate that some of his early sonnets were written to impress Anne Hathaway, and one of them indeed has a pun on Anne Hathaway’s name in the last couplet, so look out for that if you’re reading through Shakespeare’s sonnets. So we don’t know Shakespeare did precisely but we do know some of the things perhaps he was feeling and going through at the time.
6. How many children did Shakespeare have?
Moving on in Shakespeare’s life, another question we can answer down here in the archives is: how many children did Shakespeare have? Now the baptisms of those children are recorded in exactly the same book and document that Shakespeare’s own baptism is and the one we’re looking at here Susanna. You can just make that out to the left. That was his first daughter. Susanna, daughter to William Shakespeare, you can see along there. That was his first child with whom Anne Hathaway was interestingly already pregnant at the time of their marriage, slightly scandalously although not in fact uncommonly in Shakespeare’s day. Then in a couple of year and a bit later we have the baptism of his twins, Hamlet and Judith, in the same record book. And then much further on in the record book but rather more sadly we have the death here and burial of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s son, who died when he was eleven years old, and that’s recorded there in this record of baptisms and burials, effectively births and deaths in the parish. By this time Shakespeare was in fact in London and nobody knows whether he returned to Stratford for the funeral of his son or whether or not he got news of the death in time to do so. But it’s interesting to speculate how that affected him; the death of his son and whether or not he returned to the funeral.
7. Why and when did Shakespeare go to London?
The next question we're going to ask is: how and why did Shakespeare go to London? There are lots and lots of stories about this, too many to recount at once, but I’ll tell you some of the best ones. Basically the last record of Shakespeare in Stratford is in 1585, and the first record of him in London is in 1592. Those years are usually referred to as the lost years, the years we don’t know what Shakespeare was doing. Probably the most popular story and perhaps the one with the most likelihood of being true is Shakespeare got into trouble with one of the local landowners, Sir Thomas Lucy. The legend has it he stole a deer or he a poached a deer from Sir Thomas Lucy’s land and when Sir Thomas Lucy was very annoyed with him proceeded to add insult to injury by writing a rude poem about Sir Thomas Lucy and in the end had to flee the area to avoid Sir Thomas Lucy’s wrath. Now obviously there are several things which don’t ring quite true about that story, firstly for instance Sir Thomas Lucy did not actually have a licence to run deer on his land so if Shakespeare did poach something from sit Thomas Lucy it was far more likely to have been a coyote or a rabbit than a deer, slightly less dramatic perhaps. Other stories that account for Shakespeare’s lost years for instance include the idea that he spent some time in Lancashire as a school master with a renowned Catholic family. That of course ties in well with people who believe Shakespeare’s family were secret Catholics. But there’s no hard evidence to support that claim, it’s another thing which is 90% speculation. There are other stories too, but I’ll leave you with those two, perhaps the most common stories that you’re likely to hear. But we really don’t know. We only know that in 1592 Shakespeare is recorded in connection with the theatre in London. One more thing, he didn’t go by train. He would have gone on foot or perhaps later in his life on horseback.
8. How did Shakespeare make money in London?
We’re here at Shakespeare’s Globe, or at least a scale model of it, which lives in my office, to talk about how Shakespeare made money in London. Now we don’t know how much money he did make from this but we do know he owned a share in the Globe theatre as did many of the actors from the Lord Chamberlain’s men. Some of them had two shares; Shakespeare had just one which was about 12.5%. Now it’s interesting that the theatre was actually owned by the actors who shared the shares amongst them. Later in Shakespeare’s career he also had shares in the second theatre, the indoor theatre, the Blackfriars Theatre. But it’s worth looking back a little bit as well. The Globe was built around about the middle of Shakespeare’s career in 1599. Before that there was another theatre imaginatively referred to or called The Theatre, which was owned and used by the same company across the river. It was literally dismantled and rebuilt to become the Globe Theatre. But The Theatre, so called, was where Shakespeare would first have worked, where he joined the resident company in the 1580s, definitely as an actor and then later as a playwright. So it’s interesting that Shakespeare’s career spans acting and playwriting and also involved him in having shares in the theatre, although as I say, we don’t know whether he made significant amount of money from those shareholding rights or whether it was simply a nicety, if you like, of him being part of the company.
9. Was Shakespeare popular in his own lifetime?
Another question that’s often asked is: was Shakespeare popular in his own lifetime? Well, like many people who make their mark in their own lifetime and that Shakespeare certainly did, of course some people loved him, and some didn’t. So, the evidence there is, for instance, Robert Green who didn’t like Shakespeare, compared him to an upstart crow, saying he was beautified with the feathers of other writers. What he meant by that of course was that Shakespeare didn’t have perhaps the academic background, university education, et cetera; of some of his fellow playwrights and rather that he stole ideas or whatever to beautify his own works. So there was somebody who didn’t admire Shakespeare in his own lifetime. But there were others who did. Sir Francis Meres, for instance, writing about Shakespeare compared Shakespeare to Ovid, who was in Shakespeare’s time the equivalent of Shakespeare, somebody whom every child would have studied at school and who everybody recognised as being an extremely well respected writer. So, to compare somebody to Ovid was a high compliment in Shakespeare’s day. He also described Shakespeare’s language as “honey-tongued,” and described his verse as “mellifluous,” in other words, “flowing, like honey.” So, there was somebody who very much admired Shakespeare, and no doubt most people fell into one of those two categories. Shakespeare probably inspired fairly strong reactions in people; some of them positive and some of them negative.
10. Was Shakespeare rich?
Another question that’s often asked is: was Shakespeare rich? Well, it’s difficult to say. He certainly wasn’t “filthy” rich as we would now think of some celebrities or successful writers or artists as being. But he certainly wasn’t poor either. This document here records his purchase of New Place which was the largest, then largest residential property in Stratford-upon-Avon. What this shows, or records, is that he paid £60 for that property. However, as a quirk of the legal system in those days, it was usually recorded only half the value of the money which actually exchanged hands for the property. So he probably paid more like £120 for this property. Now, converting that into modern money yields a figure that’s something like 15,000. Well, you certainly couldn’t get much of a property in Stratford-upon Avon for that nowadays. There’s some argument that the property of New Place at the time when Shakespeare bought it was not in a very good state of repair so he may have got, if you like, a discount for that. However, even if he did purchase it on the cheap because of its state of repair, it still implies he felt he had the resources to do it up, if you like, to make it habitable. So, certainly Shakespeare was in possession of some money by this stage. The date of this document is 1596, which is in the middle part of Shakespeare’s career by which time he was established and recognised as a successful playwright. So possibly this is a stage in his career where he felt he could make a purchase on this scale purchasing this large property, and this legal document remains here to prove his ownership.
11. Why and when did Shakespeare return to Stratford-upon-Avon?
Why and when did Shakespeare return to Stratford? Well, unfortunately neither of those questions is particularly easy to answer. Nobody knows why Shakespeare returned to Stratford or why he decided at some point to stop writing, but we do know where, at least, he returned to, and I'm standing just next to the site which would have been his main domestic home, the site of New Place, which was purchased in 1597, many years before he moved full time back to Stratford. People like to speculate that some of his later plays he wrote from his home here in Stratford, commuting, if you like, in the Tudor way, to and from the theatre in London. But nobody actually knows how much of his time he or didn’t spend here in Stratford.
12. When did Shakespeare die?
Another piece of evidence, and if you like, the final piece of evidence about Shakespeare’s life here down in the archives, and that is of course the record of his burial. There we go, April we can see up there, scroll down 25th, Will Shakespeare, gent, so there’s where he was buried. Legend has it of course that he died on his birthday but since we don’t know the precise date of his birthday the same thing is true about his death day, we don’t really know that he died precisely on the same day that he was born, but certainly within a few days those dates are the same. Another interesting thing of course is the “gent”. During Shakespeare’s lifetime he had applied for and been granted a coat of arms to make him legally a gentleman and that there is recorded there on his death, which of course if he hadn’t been dead he might have been quite proud of but potentially his family were proud of that. So, a story of upward mobility definitely recorded there in the documents down here in the archives.
13. What did Shakespeare leave in his will?
So, we might ask ourselves what did Shakespeare leave his family and friends in his will. Well, there are numerous details in the will but I’ll share with you a few highlights. To his daughter Judith he left a silver bowl and also a significant amount of money. To his sister Joan he leaves also a smaller amount of money but the right to live for a very nominal rent in the property that he owned. Then to some of his people he would have known through his acting contacts in London; to John Hemmings, Richard Burbage and Henry Condell he left a small amount of money with which he specified they were to purchase a ring; that he was going to finance that. And to his wife of course famously he left the second best bed which people seem to think means that there was a rather cynical interpretation of their relationship, but of course the second best bed was the bed in which the couple slept. The best bed was kept for visitors, so we don’t necessarily have to end Shakespeare’s life on a bleak note.
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