Happy 451st Birthday Shakespeare!

By Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

“With Shakespeare’s depth of humanity as our touchstone, we build character and community through authentic, inclusive and joyful theater experiences.” This is Cal Shakes’ mission, and today we celebrate the 451st birthday (399th death day) of our bard. William 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 caused endless speculation as to how he obtained the immense breadth of education demonstrated in his plays. Historians surmise that William 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 afforded a classical education. As was the case in all Elizabethan grammar schools, Latin was the primary language for learning. Although Shakespeare likely had some lessons in English, Latin composition and the study of Latin authors like Seneca, Cicero, Ovid, Virgil, and Horace would have been the focus of his literary training. (Just as an extra point of interest, during the years that Shakespeare attended the school, at least one and possibly three headmasters stepped down because of their devotion to the Catholic religion proscribed by Queen Elizabeth.) William’s father’s fortunes declined when young William was about 14, however, and he never got to go to university.

In 1582, when William was 18, Anne Hathaway, a 26 year-old woman of some family means, became pregnant with his child. They married 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 craft, 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, given that it took three days to get a message from Stratford to London, and the contagion of the plague so great that by the time Shakespeare received news of his death, his son had already been buried.  Judith and her father were not close, and Susannah remained William’s favored child until the end of his life.

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) and 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 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 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:

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.

FUN FACTS:

  • Vegetables discovered in Shakespeare’s day: cabbage and carrots
  • Households made their own beer and ale
  • Flush toilets were a long time coming: families deposited their waste matter in mounds outside the house.

 

 

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