This April 23 marks the 400th year of Shakespeare’s death, and theater lovers worldwide are celebrating four centuries of his legacy. Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly takes us through a very brief timeline and “fun facts” of Shakespeare’s life and works.
Visit http://www.stahome.org/2016/ or follow the #Legacy400 and #Shx400 hashtags to learn more!
1564: William Shakespeare, his parents’ third-born and first living child, is baptized. The date of William’s actual birth remains unknown due to the high infant mortality rates in England at the time – no child was registered as born until baptized. The date has been designated April 23 to create an attractive correlation with his death, known to be April 23, 52 years later.
Fun Fact: William’s father, John, was a whittawer (a maker, worker and seller of leather goods such as purses, belts and gloves) and a dealer in agricultural commodities. He was a solid, middle class citizen at the time of William’s birth, and a man on the rise. He served in Stratford’s local government successively as a member of the Council (1557), constable (1558), chamberlain (1561), alderman (1565) and finally high bailiff (1568)–the equivalent of town mayor. This allowed him to send his children to Stratford’s Grammar School. In about 1577 John Shakespeare’s fortunes began to decline for unknown reasons, and Shakespeare had to leave school at the age of 13.
Fun Fact: most households in Shakespeare’s time made their own beer and ale, and it was quite common to drink them with breakfast.
1582: Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway, 8 years his senior. Shakespeare has been dating (and some say betrothed to) another Anne: but the pregnancy gives Anne Hathaway precedence in the marriage stakes. Anne’s father, owner of a large, sprawling farm, is affluent enough to provide Anne with a dowry. Many believe that Anne is illiterate, as are most girls of her station: but it is unknown for sure. After their marriage, as is common at this time, Anne moves in with her new husband and his parents in their family home.
1583: Daughter Susannah is born.
1585: Twins, Hamnet and Judith, are born – named after William and Anne’s close friends, Hamnet and Judith Sadler.
Between 1587 and 1592 Shakespeare disappears from all known surviving records. This period is often referred to as the ‘lost years’. Did he leave his wife and three small children during this time? He may have worked as a schoolmaster. But if so, where? The answer is unknown. By 1592, he was living in London as an actor and a dramatist. His family remained in Stratford, living with his parents in John Shakespeare’s family home.
1596: Hamnet dies of the plague. Shakespeare does not return for the funeral. Why not? He may have been informed after the burial, since plague victims have to be buried as soon as possible for the sake of sanitation. We know that at the time it takes three days to get by horse and carriage from Stratford to London – stopping overnight in Oxford and going on to Uxbridge. But a letter (which cost 2 pence to send – a third of an actor’s daily wages) could even take only 2 days.
1597: Shakespeare, now wealthy because of the popularity of his plays in addition to royal patronage (his company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, is Queen Elizabeth’s favorite), buys the second largest house in Stratford, and settles his wife and two remaining children there before returning to London.
1598: Shakespeare writes Much Ado About Nothing, the first play of our 2016 season. “Nothing” is a play on “noting”, a word which in Shakespeare’s day means “to pay attention” (or notice) someone romantically. A woman’s genitals are at this time also referred to as “nothing” because, unlike a man’s, they are not evident (i.e. they are “nothing”) on the outside. So Shakespeare is basically punning on the idea of “Much Ado About Sex.”
1603: Shakespeare writes Othello, fourth up in our 2016 season. The term, “Moor” in Shakespeare’s London refers to everyone of a dark skin tone, and refers to most Africans. The first staging of Othello is performed before King James 1 in the Banqueting House at Whitehall on the 1st of November 1604. Queen Anne, James’ wife, has a fascination with performing blackface. We might wonder how much of an influence her taste had on Shakespeare’s choice of material.
Fun Fact: Shakespeare offers wisdom for the ages. From cautionary examples of the wisdom of not promoting someone whose talents are superior to yours (Macbeth) to examples of how greatness is not enough (Coriolanus, Othello), to the terrible example offered by King Lear (don’t give your worldly goods to your children if you can’t trust them to take care of you as you see fit, not as they do), to the lessons of love in Romeo and Juliet (love doesn’t cure everything) and in Twelfth Night (don’t judge a book by its cover), Shakespeare offers remarkable insight into many of our life situations.