The exact date of William Shakespeare’s birth is not known, but his baptism, traditionally three days after a child’s birth, was recorded on April 26, 1564. His father John Shakespeare was a tanner, glover, grain dealer and prominent town official of the thriving market town of Stratford-upon-Avon. His mother Mary Arden was the daughter of a prosperous, educated farmer. Though the records are lost, Shakespeare undoubtedly attended Stratford’s grammar school, where he would have acquired some knowledge of Latin and Greek and the classical writers. There is no record that Shakespeare acquired a university education of any kind. Some skeptical scholars have raised doubts about whether Shakespeare, due to his relatively average level of education and humble origins, could have possibly written what has long been considered the best verse drama composed in the English language. But not until 1769, 150 years after Shakespeare’s death, did these theories arise—and, to all appearances, Shakespeare’s contemporaries and immediate successors never seemed to question whether William Shakespeare wrote the celebrated works attributed to him.
At eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. They had one daughter Susanna, followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died at age eleven. From 1585, the year in which the twins were baptized, until 1592, when he is first referred to as a dramatist in London, we know nothing of Shakespeare’s life. Consequently, these seven so-called “lost years” are filled with legend and conjecture. We may never know what brought Shakespeare to London or how he entered its world of theater. The first reference to Shakespeare as an actor and playwright appears in 1592 and was made by Robert Greene, a rival playwright and pamphleteer, who attacked Shakespeare as an “upstart crow” for presuming to write plays (when he was only a mere actor) and copying the works of established dramatists.
Subsequent references to Shakespeare indicate that as early as 1594 he was not only an actor and playwright, but also a partner in a new theatrical company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which soon became one of London’s two principal companies. The company’s name changed to the King’s Men in 1603 with the accession of James I, and it endured until the Commonwealth closed the theaters in 1642. Beginning in 1599 the company acted primarily at the Globe playhouse, in which Shakespeare held a one-tenth interest.
During his career of approximately twenty years, Shakespeare wrote or collaborated on what most scholars now agree upon as thirty-eight plays. His earliest plays, including Love’s Labor’s Lost, The Comedy of Errors, Richard III, King John and The Taming of the Shrew , were written between 1589 and 1594. Between 1594 and 1599, Shakespeare wrote both Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar as well as other plays, including Richard II, The Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It . His great tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, were composed between 1599 and 1607, and were preceded by his last play traditionally categorized as comedy, Measure for Measure . The earlier histories, comedies and tragedies made way for Shakespeare’s final dramatic form—the so-called “romances,” which were written between 1606 and 1611 and include Cymbeline, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest . These were the plays of a playwright no longer bound by the constraints of his earlier historical and tragic forms.
Shakespeare seldom devised his own plots for his plays, but creatively borrowed here and there from histories, prose romances, poems, and plays of his own and others. Shakespeare was an ingenious dramatic artist with a vast imagination. He created masterpieces out of conventional and unpromising material.
In Shakespeare’s time, ancient stories were told and re-told. The important thing was not the originality of the plot but how the story was told. In the telling of a story, there are few writers who rival Shakespeare in theatricality, poetry, and depth of character. By 1592 Shakespeare had emerged as a rising playwright in London, where he continued to enjoy fame and financial success as an actor, playwright and part-owner of London’s leading theater company for nearly twenty years. Shakespeare retired in 1611 to live as a country gentleman in Stratford, his birthplace, until his death on April 23, 1616.
Shakespeare was the man, who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of Nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily; when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there. —JOHN DRYDEN, 1688