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  • The man known to history as William  Shakespeare was born between the 21st  

  • and 23rd of April 1564 on Henley Street  in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in  

  • Warwickshire in the English West Midlands.

  • His father was John Shakespeare, son of Richard  Shakespeare and William's mother was Mary Arden,  

  • born in 1536. Richard Shakespeare was a humble  farmer, who had moved to Snitterfield near  

  • Stratford-upon-Avon in 1529. He had leased  land during his lifetime from Robert Arden,  

  • a powerful local landlord who had eight  children including Mary Arden. Several years  

  • before Richard's death in 1561, the ties between  the Shakespeares and the Ardens were cemented by  

  • the marriage of John, who had established  himself as a renowned glover and whittawer,  

  • a specialist in light-coloured leather, to Mary  Arden, Robert's daughter, at Aston Cantlow,  

  • a parish church at Wilmcote. This marriage took  place sometime before the birth of their first  

  • daughter Joan in September 1558. John's marriage  to Mary came with significant financial benefits,  

  • as upon the demise of Robert Arden, his daughter  inherited a large estate in Wilmcote called the  

  • Asbies, which enabled John to start buying up  properties around Stratford-upon-Avon such as  

  • the house and garden on Henley Street in 1556  where William was born eight years later. At  

  • the same time as expanding his property portfolioJohn was also forging a reputation as an important  

  • local dignitary in Stratford-upon-Avon, becoming  an alderman, the equivalent of a city councillor  

  • in modern times, in 1565, and then a bailiff of  the town in 1568 and finally in 1571, assuming the  

  • role of chief alderman and deputy bailiff. These  were offices of such high repute that in the same  

  • year he requested a coat of arms for his family  to signify his meteoric rise in civil society.

  • However, it was Mary Arden's father's status  as a significant landowner in Warwickshire,  

  • which allowed her husband John to advance within  the societal hierarchy of Stratford-upon-Avon and  

  • the surrounding region after they married in  the 1550s. She was named as an executor of her  

  • father's will in November 1556, which implied  that unlike her husband she was literate and  

  • well-educated by the standards of the sixteenth  century. As such, it has been speculated that  

  • Mary was a considerable influence on young  William's budding literary sense when he was  

  • growing up in the 1570s. William was far from  her and John's only child. Their first daughter  

  • was a girl called Joan who was born in 1558, but  she died in infancy, as did their second child,  

  • Margaret, when she was just five months old  in April 1563. Consequently William was the  

  • oldest surviving child of theirs. Five further  children followed, Gilbert in 1566, Joan in 1569,  

  • Anne in 1571, Richard in 1574 and Edmund in 1580.  With the exception of Anne, who passed away in  

  • the spring of 1579 before her eighth birthdayall of William's younger siblings would live  

  • into adulthood. Very little is known about  Shakespeare's relationship with his brothers,  

  • apart from his possible attendance at their  funerals much later in his life, which he may  

  • have also paid for. There is also some indication  that he was fond of his sister Joan, who continued  

  • to live at the family home on Henley Street in  Stratford-upon-Avon, long after William inherited  

  • it as the eldest son of the family. She was also  mentioned as a beneficiary of his will in 1616.

  • In order to understand William Shakespeare's  work, one must take full account of the world  

  • he was living in. The Renaissance, through  which the texts of ancient Greece and Rome were  

  • rediscovered and used to reform European society  in all manner of ways, from the visual arts and  

  • architecture to the way governments functioned  and education curriculums were structured,  

  • had started in Italy in the fourteenth centuryfinding its fullest expression in the city of  

  • Florence. From there it travelled north to  countries like France and England in the late  

  • fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, driven  by individuals like Thomas More who composed  

  • his famous political treatise Utopia in England  in the mid-1510s. The English Renaissance would  

  • peak during the long reign of Queen Elizabeth  I between 1558 and 1603. That period saw Edmund  

  • Spenser compose The Faerie Queen and Philip Sidney  his Arcadia, while the new studia humanitatis  

  • educational curriculum saw individuals across  England being taught Greek and Roman classical  

  • texts and how to write in the fine Italianate  script that had been developed in Florence and  

  • Rome two centuries earlier. In time the English  Renaissance would see its greatest achievements  

  • on the Elizabethan stage, as playwrights like  Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare  

  • himself composed the finest works of the day. Shakespeare's youth had as its backdrop, this  

  • changing cultural world along with the increased  opportunities for children of families of a modest  

  • background to acquire a good education. Asyoung boy of five years old, Shakespeare was  

  • first enlisted into 'petty school' where he began  to learn to read and write. When he was seven,  

  • he was transferred to King's New School, the local  grammar school where as part of his education,  

  • he was first exposed to many Roman and Greek  authors such as the rhetorician and political  

  • commentator Cicero, the greatest poet of the Roman  Empire Virgil and Roman historians such as Livy.  

  • We might, however, speculate that the foremost  influence on him throughout his education were  

  • the great Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, SophoclesAristophanes and Euripides and the Roman comic and  

  • tragic playwrights Plautus, Terence and SenecaShakespeare's love for the stage was further  

  • enhanced by the many traveling theatre groups  of 'players', as they were termed, which visited  

  • Stratford in his youth, such as Leicester's  Men in 1572 and 1576, Warwick's Men in 1574,  

  • Worcester's Men in 1574 and 1581, Lord Strange's  Men in 1578, and Lord Berkeley's Men in 1580 and  

  • 1582, all of whom usually performed in front of  local notables such as John Shakespeare, who may  

  • have brought William along with him to watch  their shows. William might have also attended  

  • the 1575 entertainments organized by the earl  of Leicester for the royal household at nearby  

  • Kenilworth, or the mystery plays and Hocktide  performances that were often put on in Coventry,  

  • as well as the numerous shows put together by  members of amateur dramatics groups in Stratford.

  • While William's love of the theatre was growinghis family's fortunes were declining. In the  

  • 1570s John Shakespeare's business fortunes  took a turn for the worse. In response he  

  • turned to smuggling wool, the most significant  commodity in the English economy at the time,  

  • while also engaging in usury, the practice  of lending money for high interest rates,  

  • which was illegal for Christians across Europe  in medieval and early modern times. He found  

  • himself in legal difficulty as a result of this  activity and by the end of the decade, John's  

  • finances were extremely precarious. In 1578 he was  forced to mortgage many of his wife's properties,  

  • losing nearly all of the estate they had in  1580, after failing to repay lenders. This  

  • would deprive William of much of his inheritanceas John's stature in the community plummeted,  

  • beginning in 1576 when he stopped attending  council meetings and culminating in 1586  

  • when he was stripped of his aldermen title  entirely. By 1592, John Shakespeare was named  

  • as a frequent absentee of the local Protestant  parish church at Stratford-upon-Avon, and although  

  • some claim that this illustrated that John wassecret follower of the Catholic faith in largely  

  • Protestant England, as they have also insisted  for his son William, it is also possible that  

  • the social stigma which surrounded him by thensaw him avoiding public gatherings. As tumultuous  

  • as this period was for the Shakespeares, it might  have been the making of William. Had his father  

  • still possessed a large estate to pass on to his  eldest son in Warwickshire, William might have  

  • been satisfied to settle down as a comfortable  member of the gentry in Stratford-upon-Avon,  

  • but his family's declining fortunes forced  him to carve out his own place in the world.

  • At fifteen years of age in 1579 Shakespeare  left grammar school. The years that followed  

  • are shadowy ones when it comes to evaluating his  life, a common problem for the bard's life story.  

  • Despite his status as the greatest playwright of  all time and the foremost figure of the English  

  • Renaissance, there is a surprising dearth of  sources available for studying significant chunks  

  • of Shakespeare's life, in contrast to figures like  Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney, the latter of  

  • whom was a member of a leading political family  from Kent and who moved in government circles,  

  • generating a lot of correspondence  and historical records concerning him,  

  • which have survived down to the present day. The  same cannot be said of Shakespeare and so the  

  • chronology of his life has to be stitched together  from fragmentary details. As we will see later,  

  • it is this lack of source material that has  led to speculation for the last four centuries,  

  • that Shakespeare did not write all of the  plays which are usually attributed to him.

  • Given the lack of information concerning his life,  a number of theories have emerged concerning his  

  • further education and movements in the 1580s. Some  have argued that he may have started performing in  

  • plays in the Midlands himself during these yearswith John Aubrey, a seventeenth-century writer  

  • stating of Shakespeare that: “when he killedcalf, he would do it in a high style, & make a  

  • speech”, a reference to the common dramatic trope  in which the actor would pretend to butcher a calf  

  • onstage. Another line of thinking, places William  Shakespeare as a schoolteacher in his early adult  

  • years, an argument based on a conversation  that John Aubrey had with the son of one  

  • of Shakespeare's business associates, in which he  states that Shakespeare: “has been in his younger  

  • years a Schoolmaster in the Country.” This ispossibility at a time when an individual who was  

  • well educated could have become a tutor or teacher  in a free-school for a time without specific  

  • qualifications for teaching. What is beyond  doubt, though, is that Shakespeare must have  

  • continued to improve his writing abilities and  read voraciously during these years, as so many of  

  • his works are based on his detailed understanding  of English history and medieval literature.

  • We do, however, stand on firmer ground when it  comes to Shakespeare's marriage. On the 27th of  

  • November 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, the  daughter of family friend, Richard Hathaway,  

  • who John Shakespeare had twice bailed out of debt  and acted as surety for. Anne was 26 at the time,  

  • while William was just 18. She had possibly been  working for John Shakespeare as a stitcher in  

  • his glove-making business. These facts, combined  with Anne already being several months pregnant  

  • when they married, have led scholars to argue that  this was a shotgun wedding, forced on the couple  

  • by their families to prevent the child being  born out of wedlock, something which carried  

  • a major social stigma in the sixteenth centuryWhile these details of their marriage are known,  

  • Anne is a curiously obscure figure for the most  part, one whom people are generally keen to know  

  • more about in the interests of determining whether  William's love plays like Romeo and Juliet or  

  • his sonnets, were influenced by his relationship  with her. She features in William's will of 1616,  

  • but little is known about her besides, other than  the details of their children together. Their  

  • daughter, with whom Anne was heavily pregnant on  the day of their marriage in the winter of 1582,  

  • was born the following year and was christened  Susanna. Twins followed two years later,  

  • a boy named Hamnet and a girl named JudithTragically Hamnet died in 1596 at 11 years of age  

  • from an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Englandwhich even after the initial Black Death of the  

  • fourteenth century continued to ravage Europe  periodically down to the eighteenth century.

  • William and Anne's wedding ceremony was  somewhat unorthodox by the standards of  

  • Elizabethan England, a country which was gradually  moving towards becoming uniformly Protestant  

  • at that time, although there was still a large  minority of Roman Catholics across the country,  

  • particularly the further north one headed from  London. The wedding was overseen by John Frith,  

  • a priest who was characterized as being, quote,  “unsound in religionin a 1586 assessment,  

  • and it was also unusually quick, the couple being  pronounced as husband and wife after only a single  

  • reading of their marriage banns instead of the  usual three. Despite the unusual circumstances,  

  • the marriage was confirmed the next day inlegal document which outlined a £40 surety was  

  • to be paid by Fulke Sandells and John Richardsonassociates of the Hathaways, as Shakespeare was  

  • still technically a minor and needed the  permission of his elders to become Anne's  

  • husband. The peculiar circumstances surrounding  the marriage have led many to speculate that  

  • Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic, a supposition  which is supported by the fact that his mother's  

  • family, the Ardens, were committed Catholicsleading to the supposition that, so too was  

  • John Shakespeare. However, the evidence remains  tenuous and all that can be said for certain  

  • is that William seems to have conformed to the  established Protestant church during his lifetime.

  • Hardly anything is known concerning Shakespeare's  life and movements between the mid-1580s and 1592,  

  • a period of time which has consequently  become known as his 'lost years'. There are  

  • a few references to him in documents outlining  his family's business dealings in Warwickshire  

  • at this time, but little else. As a resultmany writers have woven fanciful narratives  

  • concerning this period. This tendency was in  evidence as early as the first years of the  

  • eighteenth century when the English dramatist  and poet, Nicholas Rowe, writing in a preface  

  • to the 1709 folio edition of Shakespeare's playsconjectured that William became embroiled in legal  

  • trouble during this period, specifically after  being caught poaching deer on the Charlecote  

  • estate of Sir Thomas Lucy, a man whose coat of  arms he would subsequently mock in later years,  

  • in his comedy The Merry Wives of WindsorAccounts like this cannot be entirely dismissed,  

  • as while there is no documentary evidence  to support these versions of events today,