WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE BORN IN STRATFORD-UPON-AVON
In the mid-16th century Stratford was a small but thriving market town. William was the eldest son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. He survived an outbreak of plague the year he was born. His two older sisters both died as babies, and he had five younger siblings, four of whom lived to adulthood. Shakespeare attended the King Edward VI grammar school, which is still in operation.
HIS FATHER, JOHN SHAKESPEARE, BECOMES MAYOR OF STRATFORD-UPON-AVON
John was a local businessman, a glover by trade, who rose up through the ranks of local government early in William’s life.
HIS FATHER CHARGED WITH ILLEGAL WOOL DEALING, FAMILY FORTUNES DECLINE
Wool was one of the most valuable commodities in Britain, and its sale was strictly regulated. John Shakespeare was hit with large fines for selling wool without a licence. He was forced into debt and started to withdraw from public life, eventually losing his position on the town council.
MARRIES ANNE HATHAWAY
William was 18 at the time of their marriage. Anne was 26 and pregnant. When Shakespeare died, he left Anne his “second-best bed” in his will. This has often been interpreted as an insult, but it could also be an affectionate gesture. A family’s best bed was often reserved for guests, and the second-best bed was the one the couple shared. Anne died in 1623, having outlived William by seven years.
DAUGHTER SUSANNAH BORN
Susannah’s daughter, Elizabeth Hall (born 1608), was the only grandchild Shakespeare met. Shakespeare’s direct line ended in 1670 when Elizabeth died childless.
TWINS JUDITH AND HAMNET BORN
Shakespeare writes about twins in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night. Comedy was written before Hamnet died, and Twelfth Night after, but both are comedies tinged with sorrow and loss.
THE ‘LOST YEARS’
There are no existing records of Shakespeare’s life during these years. Theories include that he was a country schoolteacher, a touring actor, a soldier stationed overseas, or even on the run from the law after poaching deer from a neighbour.
FIRST MENTION OF SHAKESPEARE IN LONDON – ROBERT GREENE’S ‘UPSTART CROW’ PAMPHLET
Greene was a playwright who, unlike Shakespeare, had a university education. In Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, he mocked Shakespeare for being a mere ‘player’ trying to rise above his station and write verse. Shakespeare went on to fame and fortune as a writer. Greene is now only remembered for this pamphlet.
THE LORD CHAMBERLAIN’S MEN ESTABLISHED
The Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey (Baron Hunsdon), was a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I. His patronage ensured financial support and political protection for the company. The ‘sharers’ (owners) of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men included William Shakespeare, lead actor Richard Burbage, and comic actor Will Kempe.
HAMNET DIES AGED 11
Shakespeare was away in London at the time. Hamnet’s cause of death remains a mystery.
SHAKESPEARE FAMILY GRANTED COAT OF ARMS
Shakespeare’s father had initially applied for the Coat of Arms 27 years earlier.
SHAKESPEARE BUYS ‘NEW PLACE’, THE LARGEST HOUSE IN STRATFORD-UPON-AVON
This was a sign of Shakespeare’s growing affluence. New Place was his family home in Stratford from 1597 until he died there in 1616. The house was demolished in the mid-18th century.
THE GLOBE THEATRE OPENS
The Globe is the most famous landmark associated with Shakespeare. It was built out of old pieces of The Theatre – an earlier home of Shakespeare’s company – on the south bank of the Thames. A maximum of 3,000 people could pack into the Globe, many of them ‘groundlings’, paying a penny to stand in the yard and look up at the stage. For two pennies you could sit on a bench in the lower galleries, and for another penny you could rent a cushion to sit on.
JOHN SHAKESPEARE DIES
At different times of his life he was a farmer, a leatherworker and glover, official ale taster, town councillor, High Bailiff of Stratford (equivalent to mayor), and an illicit wool trader. His fortunes rose then fell, but for the last five years of his life he was able to enjoy a restored reputation, with the grant of the family coat of arms.
SHAKESPEARE’S COMPANY BECOMES THE KING’S MEN
King James ascended the throne in March 1603. Less than two months later, Shakespeare’s company had secured his patronage, and changed their name to the King’s Men. Shakespeare included many elements in Macbeth (1606) that would appeal to James, including mysterious witches, warnings against regicide, and a positive portrayal of James’s supposed ancestor, Banquo.
THE KING’S MEN TAKE OVER THE BLACKFRIARS THEATRE
The company performed in an indoor venue for the first time. It was lit by candles, much more intimate, and attracted a higher-paying audience. Blackfriars also meant that Shakespeare’s company could now perform year-round instead of just during the warm months.
SHAKESPEARE’S MOTHER, MARY ARDEN, DIES
Mary Arden was from a wealthy land-owning Warwickshire family. The father of her husband (John Shakespeare) was a tenant farmer on her family’s land.
THE GLOBE THEATRE BURNS DOWN
During a performance of Henry VIII, a canon misfired and set the thatched roof of the theatre alight. The entire building burned down very quickly, but fortunately there were no casualties. The Globe was rebuilt the following year with a tiled roof this time. It was finally closed down by the Puritans in 1642 and dismantled two or three years later.
SHAKESPEARE DIES IN STRATFORD-UPON-AVON
He died at the age of 52 on April 23, which was probably his birthday. He left a legacy of at least 37 plays, 154 sonnets, three poems, hundreds of neologisms, and an impact on art, culture and language that is unsurpassed.