(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The documentary record of William Shakespeare’s life to 1592 is sparse. Even his birthdate is uncertain. The Stratford-on-Avon parish register notes only the baptism of “Gulielmus filius Johannis Shakespeare” on April 26, 1564. About 1743, William Oldys first suggested April 23 as the date of birth, convenient since Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616. That is St. George’s Day; the national poet and the patron saint of England thus could share the celebration.

The records of the Stratford grammar school for the 1570’s do not survive. Presumably Shakespeare would have been sent to King’s New School, though the first mention of his attendance appears in Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 biographical preface to his edition of the plays. Rowe reports that John Shakespeare had bred [his son] for some time at a free-school, where ’tis probable he acquir’d that little Latin he was master of; but the narrowness of his circumstances, and the want of his assistance at home, forc’d his father to withdraw him from thence, and unhappily prevented his further proficiency in that language.

Documents testify to a decline in John Shakespeare’s fortunes. In 1565 he was elected an alderman of Stratford, and in 1568 he became bailiff, equivalent to the city’s mayor. As late as 1575 he was still adding to his properties, buying two houses in that year. Then in 1577 he stopped attending aldermanic meetings (though he remained an alderman until 1586) and began selling and mortgaging his lands. By 1590 his real estate holdings had been reduced to the one house on Henley Street where Shakespeare was born.

Even if Shakespeare had remained at the grammar school, by the age of fifteen he would have been apprenticed, probably to his father. From his birth to 1582, however, no documents trace his activity. On November 27, 1582, he was issued a special marriage license, and the next day a marriage license bond provided “that William Shagspere on thone partie, and Anne Hathwey of Stratford in the Dioces of Worcester maiden may lawfully solennize matrimony together.” The special license argues haste; six months later, on May 26, 1583, Shakespeare’s first child, Susannah, was christened, and on February 2, 1585, his other children, the twins Hamnet and Judith, were also.

In 1588 Shakespeare is named in a suit along with his parents in an unsuccessful effort to recover property from John Lambert, the future playwright’s first cousin. Then in 1592 the mists clear. On March 3 of that year, Philip Henslowe, manager of the Rose Theatre, London, recorded a new play, “Harey the vj,” acted by Lord Strange’s Men. Thomas Nashe in Pierce Pennilesse (1592) wrote of the triumph of “braue Talbot” on the stage, a reference to Shakespeare’s 1 Henry VI, and Robert Greene attacked an vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit that onely Shake-scene in a countrey. The line that Greene italicized derives from 3 Henry VI. By 1592, then, Shakespeare was in London writing popular plays; “Harey the vj” was performed fourteen times between March and June, when the theaters were closed first because of disorderly conduct and then because of plague.

The period between 1585 and 1592 is, however, a blank, commonly known as the “Lost Years,” and this is the period that Eric Sams seeks to illuminate. His search takes him north of Stratford to Lancashire, where on August 3, 1581, Alexander Hoghton of Lea made a will that said in part, “And I most hertelye requyre the said Sir Thomas [Heskethe Knyghte] . . . to be ffrendlye unto ffoke Gyllome & William Shakeshafte nowe dwellinge with me & eyther to take theym vnto his Servyce or els to help theym to some good master, as my tryste ys he wyll.”

John Cottom is also mentioned in this will. Cottom, a Lancashire native, served as schoolmaster at Stratford from 1577 to 1581 or 1582. On May 13, 1582, Cottom’s Jesuit brother Thomas was executed at Tyburn, and by that date Cottom had returned to Tarnacre, about ten miles from Lea. Sams argues that Cottom recognized Shakespeare’s talents and recommended the young man as schoolmaster to Hoghton. John Aubrey in his Brief Lives (1681) reports that Shakespeare “understood Latine pretty well; for he had been in his younger years a scholmaster in the country.” As Shakespeare indicates in The Taming of the Shrew (1593/1594), this role often entailed musical instruction, and the will suggests that it involved playacting.

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