Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

By Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

Today we celebrate Shakespeare’s 460th birthday – as well as his 408th death day, since both his birth and death are registered on April 23rd. In 1564, William was the third-born child but the first to live, born to local heiress Mary Arden and John Shakespeare, leather merchant turned prominent alderman and town bailiff (or mayor).

The sketchy records of William’s early life show him attending the King’s New School in Stratford, which offered an upper-class, expansive education in Latin composition as well as the study of Latin authors like Seneca, Cicero, Ovid, Virgil and Horace. But he was forced to leave the school when his father’s fortunes declined and he lost the mayoral position that had permitted his son a free education. William never received any formal schooling from the age of 13 onward.

In 1582, when William was 18, he and 26 year-old Anne Hathaway conceived their first child, Susannah, marrying late in that year before her birth. Susannah was followed by twins, Judith and Hamnet, in 1585, and soon thereafter William deposited his family in Stratford so that he could relocate to London, building his theater company and pursuing his craft. He would return to his family home in Stratford only when onslaughts of the plague compelled the closure of the theaters in London. It was in the fallow plague years that Shakespeare wrote most of his beautiful sonnets, as well as his longer poems, as a way of generating income from wealthy patrons, in particular the Earl of Southampton.

Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died of the plague in 1596 at the age of eleven. Given that it took three days to get a message from Stratford to London, by the time Shakespeare received news of Hamnet’s death, his son had already been buried so as to avoid the spread of contagion. William never much liked Hamnet’s twin, Judith – Susannah, the first-born, remained his favored child until the end of his life. (In this regard it’s fascinating that William would write so often about fathers steeped in unfounded bigotry toward cast-off daughters– I’ve often wondered whether this was the playwright’s pre-Freudian attempt to wrestle with his prejudice toward Judith.)

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). He stopped writing altogether about three years before his death in 1616. Some scholars have speculated that this was because he had nothing left to say: but I think this theory is highly unlikely when applied to a man in his late 40s who was at the top of his game in authoring The Tempest. It’s much more likely that Shakespeare developed an illness – possibly Scrivener’s Palsy, a degenerative disease that may have been related to what we now know as Parkinson’s disease. East Bay playwright/scholar James Keller has noted that Shakespeare’s signatures markedly changed as his physical state was most likely deteriorating. He could barely sign his final will, made in March 1616.

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 quatrain:

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.

The Greatest Gift of All

OMG, you guys! Let’s talk about the legendary William Shakespeare, like, seriously, major respect for this literary icon. He was like the ultimate trendsetter of

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