William Shakespeare’s exact birthdate is unknown, but he was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, the eldest son of John Shakespeare, a glove maker and wool merchant, and his wife, Mary Arden, the daughter of a prominent landowner. Details of Shakespeare’s early life are conjectural, since no records exist. He probably attended the local grammar school and may have studied there until the age of sixteen, during which time he would have received a thorough grounding in the Latin classics. Documents show that in 1592, at age eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior. The following year, Shakespeare’s first child, Susanna, was born. Two years later came twins, Judith and Hamnet.
Sometime in the mid-1580s, Shakespeare left Stratford and eventually came to London. Legend has it that he was forced to flee his hometown because he was caught poaching deer, but this cannot be verified. Nothing is known for certain of this period of Shakespeare’s life until 1592. In that year, Robert Greene, a university-educated playwright, warned his friends of an “upstart crow,” an actor who had turned to playwriting and was “in his own conceit the only Shakes-scene in a country.” It is clear from this reference that Shakespeare had already made an impact on the London theatre business.
Within two years, Shakespeare published two long poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). It was also during this period, perhaps 1592 to 1595, that the sonnets were probably written. Shakespeare’s chief work, however, was for the theatre. In 1594, he was a charter member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which became the King’s Men in 1603. Shakespeare continued to act as well as write. The roles he played are not known, although legend has it that he played the ghost in Hamlet and the servant, Adam, in As You Like It. He also acted in two of Ben Jonson’s plays.
Shakespeare was also, it appears from the records, an astute businessman. From 1599, he held a one-tenth interest in the Globe Theatre, where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed and therefore had an influence on the policy of the company. He prospered financially, making investments in Stratford real estate. These included the purchase of New Place, the second largest house in town, in 1597.
Shakespeare remained a member of the same theatrical company until his retirement to Stratford in about 1612. Over a period of twenty years he had become the most popular playwright in London, writing a total of thirty-seven plays.
Shakespeare died in Stratford on April 23, 1616, and was buried within the chancel of the Holy Trinity church.
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