Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

Photo: Kevin Berne | Cast of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" 2009

Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

By Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

Today is the designated birthday of William Shakespeare, born in 1564 as the third child (but the first living one) to local heiress Mary Arden and John Shakespeare, leather merchant turned prominent alderman and town bailiff. Because of the high rate of infant mortality at that time, parents of any child less than royalty generally waited a couple of days to record their children’s births in the registry. But the proximity of William’s known death-date (April 23) encouraged historians to give him the same date for both his entry to, and exit from, this world.

The sketchy records of William’s early life show him attending the King’s New School in Stratford, which offered an expensive education in Latin composition and the study of authors like Seneca, Cicero, Ovid, Virgil and Horace. The strong cross-currents of religious unrest are indicated by the fact that during William’s few years at the King’s School, three headmasters stepped down because of their continued devotion to the Catholic religion, newly proscribed by Queen Elizabeth on her accession in 1558. Because of his father’s stature, William got to attend the King’s New School for free. He had to leave the school, however, when his father lost his position in 1577, and William never got to go to university. (By the way, it may be interesting to know that while William left school at age 13, you could get an entire law degree by the age of 16 – “childhood” was very much shorter in that time than it is today.)

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, and they had twins, Judith and Hamnet, shortly thereafter in 1585. William soon deposited his wife and family in Stratford, 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. Hamnet died at the age of eleven, and, given that it took three days to get a message from Stratford to London, and the dangers of the plague were so great (we too know the implications of “contagion” all-too-well in 2022!), by the time Shakespeare received news of Hamnet’s death, his son had already been buried.  Judith and her father never became close, and until the end of William’s life he would favor Susannah.

Over a period of 18 years, William 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: but this is highly unlikely when applied to a man of 47: in other words, I don’t think The Tempest was his “last word,” but I do think that it contained the last words he authored alone; and that it’s likely that he developed Scrivener’s Palsy, a degenerative disease that impeded his capacity to write[1]. If you look at the range of his signatures, they markedly change as his physical state likely deteriorates. He could barely sign his final will, made in March 1616 (he altered his will to convey his displeasure at his daughter Judith’s marriage to a man who had at the same time got another woman pregnant).

William 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: in Shakespeare’s day, families deposited their waste matter in mounds outside the house.

Romeo Y Juliet is Karen Zacarías’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, directed by K.J. Sanchez, and going into preview on May 25.

Timeline of Shakespeare’s play: We meet Romeo on a Sunday morning, pining over Rosaline. By that very evening he has fallen for Juliet at the Capulets’ feast; they are married on Monday afternoon (things move fast in Verona as well as Vegas!); and – along with Tybalt and Paris – are dead by Thursday morning.

Please post your own fun facts, and if we can verify them we will publish them.

[1] Thank you James Keller for this insight


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