Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

‘We want to take these great classical plays and feel their resonance in the work we make today. To draw on their deep humanity in understanding our own; and to look forward and backward, bringing our contemporary understandings and situations to reinvent our relationships with them.’ Thus speaks Eric Ting, Obie-award winning Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Theater.  This year we celebrate the 452nd birthday (and the 400th death day) of this remarkable playwright, poet and bit-part actor, William Shakespeare.

William was born in 1564 to John Shakespeare (leather merchant turned prominent alderman and town bailiff – equivalent to town mayor) and Mary Arden (local woman of means). No birth records exist for William in 1564, 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,  Shakespeare’s three older siblings died in early childhood), which meant that children were not baptized until a few days after their birth.

William was the third of eight children. The very sketchy records of his early life have generated endless speculation as to how he obtained the immense breadth of erudition demonstrated in his plays. Historians surmise that William’s status as a public official’s child entitled him to attend the King’s New School in Stratford, which afforded a classical education. His father’s fortunes declined when young William was about 14, however, and he never got any formal education after that point.

In 1582, when William was 18 and dating two women called Anne, one of them, Anne Hathaway, a 26 year-old woman of some family means, became pregnant with his child. He ditched the other Anne and married Anne Hathaway late in that year, before the birth of their first daughter, Susannah. William soon deposited his wife and family in Stratford – including the couple’s twins, Hamnet and Judith, born in 1585 – and the playwright went to London to build his theater company and pursue his art, returning to Stratford only when onslaughts of the plague forced the closure of the theaters in London. It was in these fallow years that he wrote most of his sonnets as well as his longer poems.

Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at the age of eleven, and distances were so great then (and the contagion of the plague so great – it was very like Ebola today) that by the time Shakespeare received news of his death, his son had already been buried.  He did not return for the funeral. Hamnet’s twin Judith and her father were not close, and Susannah remained William’s favored child until the end of his life. It seems that William’s relationship with his wife was distant, even cold. It is fascinating to me that, again and again, Shakespeare wrote about the mysteries and perils of familial relationships, and that many of his plots are based on fathers and husbands perilously mis-hearing what they ought to understand.

Over a period of 18 years, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays (give or take two recently discovered and believed to be his, and a couple of collaborations) as well as 154 sonnets. He stopped writing about three years before his death in 1616. Some scholars have speculated that this was 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 presumably deteriorates. He could barely sign his final will, made in March 1616 (altered to convey his displeasure at his daughter Judith’s marriage to a man who had at the same time gotten 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:

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.

To this I will presume to add a far more fitting epigraph written by Shakespeare many years before his death: ‘Thanks, and thanks; and ever thanks.’ William Shakespeare, graves at your command have indeed oped and let their sleepers out, giving them life and human ambiguity on stages all over the world today.

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One thought on “Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

  1. This is a fascinating article, rich with detail about the man (his parents & siblings, his relationships with his children and spouse), William Shakespeare, and the era (the death rate of children, the effect of the Plague). I’m amazed that the fact that there aren’t constant tributes to Shakespeare on the the 400th anniversary of his death.
    A couple of questions: how could it be that his three older siblings died in childbirth, yet he was the third of eight children? Also, wouldn’t the burial and funeral have taken place at the same time, so that if Shakespeare’s son was buried before he got the news of his son’s death, then the funeral would also already have taken place, leaving him no option of attending?

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