William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, descended from tenant farmers and landed gentry. His traditional birth date, April 23, 1564, is conjectural. Baptism was on April 26, so April 23 is a good guess—and a tidy one, since that date is also St. George’s Day as well as the date of Shakespeare’s own death.
One of Shakespeare’s grandfathers, Richard Shakespeare of Snitterfield, rented land from the other, Robert Arden of Wilmcote. Shakespeare’s father, John, moved to nearby Stratford-upon-Avon, became a prosperous shop owner (dealing in leather goods) and municipal officeholder, and married his former landlord’s youngest daughter, Mary Arden. Thus Shakespeare—the third of eight children but the first to survive infancy—was born into a solidly middle-class family in a provincial market town.
During Shakespeare’s infancy, his father was one of the town’s leading citizens. In 1557, John Shakespeare had become a member of the town council and subsequently held such offices as constable, affeeror (a kind of assessor), and chamberlain (treasurer). In 1568, he became bailiff (mayor) and justice of the peace. As the son of a municipal officer, the young Shakespeare was entitled to a free education in the town’s grammar school, which he probably entered around the age of seven. The school’s main subject was Latin studies—grammar and readings drilled into the schoolboys year after year. The Avon River, the surrounding farmlands, and the nearby Forest of Arden offered plenty of opportunities for childhood adventures.
When Shakespeare was a teenager, his family fell on hard times. His father stopped attending town council meetings in 1577, and the family’s fortunes began to decline. Matters were not improved in 1582 when Shakespeare, at the age of eighteen, hastily married Anne Hathaway, the twenty-six-year-old daughter of a farmer from the nearby village of Shottery. She presented him with a daughter, named Susanna, approximately five months later. In 1585, the couple also became the parents of twins, Hamnet and Judith. As was then customary, the young couple probably lived in his parents’ home, which must have seemed increasingly crowded.
The next mention of Shakespeare is in 1592, when he was an actor and playwright in London. His actions during the seven-year interim have been a matter of much curious speculation, including unproved stories of deer poaching, soldiering, and teaching. It may have taken him those seven years simply to break into and advance in the London theater. His early connections with the theater are unknown, although he was an actor before he became a playwright. He might have joined one of the touring companies that occasionally performed in Stratford-upon-Avon, or he might have gone directly to London to make his fortune, in either the theater or some other trade. Shakespeare was a venturesome and able young man who had good reasons to travel—his confining family circumstances, tinged with just enough disgrace to qualify him to join the disreputable players. The theater was his escape to freedom; he therefore had strong motivation to succeed.