By Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg
Today is Shakespeare’s birthday (also nominated as his death day 52 years later).
William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to John Shakespeare (leather merchant turned prominent alderman and town bailiff—equivalent to town mayor) and Mary Arden (local heiress). No birth records exist for William, but the records of the local church in Stratford-Upon-Avon indicate that a “William Shakespeare” was baptized on April 26 of that year. From this we deduce that he was born on or about April 23: infant mortality at that time was very high (25% of children died before the age of 2, and, indeed, three of Shakespeare’s siblings died in early childhood), which meant that children were baptized a few days after their birth.
William was the third of eight children. The very sketchy records of his early life have encouraged Oxfordians in their belief that “Shakespeare” was a local lout whose name was used as a cover for the Earl of Oxford who really wrote his plays. When challenged with this hypothesis at the grove, I remind Oxfordians that it was very common in the sixteenth century not to have much in the way of childhood records. Historians surmise that William Shakespeare was able to till his naturally gifted mind by virtue of being a public official’s child, entitled to attend the King’s New School in Stratford, which gave a classical education. His father’s fortunes declined when young William was about 13, however, and he had to leave school and never got to go to university. (The period of “childhood” was truncated then, compared to today: some children of the upper classes, the product of private tutors, began university studies at 15 or 16 and would have a law degree by the age of 18!)
In 1582, when William was 18, Anne Hathaway, a 26 year-old woman of some family means, became pregnant to him. They married late in that year, before the birth of their first daughter, Susannah. William’s wife and family lived in Stratford, including the couple’s twins, Hamnet and Judith, born in 1585. Hamnet died at the age of eleven. Judith and her father were not close, and Susannah remained William’s favored child until the end of his life.
As a man of the theater, William spent much of his life in London near the theater, living away from his family in Stratford. Over a period of 18 years he wrote 37 plays (give or take one “discovered” extra and a couple of collaborations) and 154 sonnets. He stopped writing about three years before his death in 1616. Some scholars have speculated that he stopped writing because he had nothing left to say: however, I think this theory is highly unlikely when applied to a man of 47 who wrote a late play as gifted as The Tempest. It’s much more likely that he developed Scrivener’s Palsy, a degenerative disease that impeded his capacity to write. If you look at the range of his signatures, they markedly change as his physical state deteriorates. He could barely sign his final will, made in March 1616 (to register his displeasure at his daughter Judith’s marriage to a man who had at the same time got another woman pregnant).
Shakespeare, registered as “Will Shakespeare gent”, was buried on 26 April 1616 at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford Upon Avon. His tombstone is inscribed with the unlikely quatrain said to have been prepared by him, its stark ugliness compounding the mystery of who this man was:
Good Friend for Jesus sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
Dr Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).