By Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg
William Shakespeare and Shirley Temple share the same birthday – and so much more! Both have starred in movies (WS by proxy), both have had a ton of merchandise named after them, including dolls; and both had lovely curly hair; and both married in their teens (Shirley at 17 and William at 18).
Now, since this is the California Shakespeare Theater and not the California Shirley Theater, I’ll elaborate on the life of William. While no birth records exist for him, the records of the local church in Stratford-Upon-Avon indicate that a “William Shakespeare” was baptized on April 26, 1564, which puts his birthday on or about April 23: parents waited two to three days to baptize their children after birth, and it’s been historically convenient for the world to align William’s birthday with his death day (April 23).
William was the third of eight children and the first one to survive beyond infancy. As a public official’s child, he was entitled to attend the King’s New School in Stratford, which gave him a classical education until the age of 13 (which took him quite far – you could, for example, graduate with a law degree at 16).
In 1582, when William was 18, Anne Hathaway, a wealthy 26-year-old woman, became pregnant with his child. They married late in that year before the birth of their first daughter, Susannah. Twins Hamnet and Judith followed three years later. William set his young family up in Stratford and went to London to build his theater company, presumed to have returned 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 (and, it’s been lately argued, King Lear). Hamnet died in 1596 at the age of eleven. His twin Judith and her father were not close, and Susannah remained William’s favored child for the next two decades until his death.
Over a period of 18 years, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays (or 39) and 154 sonnets. About three years before his death in 1616, he stopped writing altogether. I think it’s 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 likely deteriorated. He could barely sign his final will, made in March 1616. He died of an infection acquired at a tavern.
The range of Shakespeare’s knowledge is astonishing. Particularly intriguing in these days of Covid19 is his knowledge even of the power of vaccination: In Henry IV Part Two he has Northumberland say:
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 glum and unappreciative quatrain: