William Shakespeare was baptised on this day in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. We don’t know what day he was born. Although tradition says he was born on April 23rd, there is no evidence. It’s just that he died on April 23rd and it gives his life a pleasing symmetry. In truth we don’t know very much about him at all. We don’t know what he was doing before he was twenty-eight, apart from the fact that he got married and had three children. He never commissioned a portrait so we don’t really know what he looked like, though the portrait on the right might be him. We don’t even know how he spelled his name. There are six surviving examples of his signature and they are all spelled differently. None of them are ‘William Shakespeare’. But spelling was really not quite the rigid thing it is today, and probably if I had to use a quill, I might be tempted to leave off halfway through and just write ‘Willm Shaksp’ too.
So, he married Anne Hathaway in 1582, who gave birth to their daughter, Susannah, six months later. In 1585, Anne gave birth to twins, Judith and Hamnet. Then we know nothing of him until 1592, when he was in London, having left his family behind in Stratford. As a married man, he wouldn’t have been allowed to go to university or to take up an apprenticeship in a trade that had an established guild. But acting companies had looser entry requirements, so maybe that is how he came to take up the theatre. In 1592, several of his plays were being performed in London and he was well known enough to be attacked in print as an ‘upstart crow’ and a ‘Johannes Factotum’ – a jack of all trades by a man named Robert Greene. So, we don’t know how he started his career. If his rise was meteoric, or if he’d been writing for ages. We do know that he also acted and probably played the ghost in ‘Hamlet’.
Two years later, he was part owner of an acting company called the ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Men’. It was they who built the Globe Theatre, but more of that in June. They became the King’s Men after James I came to the throne. We know that he didn’t abandon his family, because in 1597 he bought the second biggest house in Stratford and settled them there. The house was called ‘New Place’, even though it was actually built in 1483, and has a bit of an interesting history. Shakespeare bought it from a man named William Underhill for £60. Underhill died two months later, before the sale had been properly confirmed, and it eventually turned out he had been poisoned by his eldest son. The son, whose name was Fulke, either died or was hanged for murdering his father, so all his inherited property, including New Place was forfeit to the crown. But his younger brother, who had the splendid name of Hercules Underhill, confirmed the sale in 1603.
After Shakespeare died in 1616, it passed to his daughter, Susannah, and then his granddaughter, Elizabeth. After that there were no more heirs. By 1756, it was owned by Reverend Francis Gastrell. He got very tired of people coming to visit Shakespeare’s home and he destroyed a mulberry tree in the garden that was said to have been planted by him. The people of the town were so upset that they broke all his windows. In retaliation, he had the whole place knocked down in 1759. That made everyone so angry that he had to leave town.
Shakespeare produced such a huge body of work, it’s not surprising he didn’t do very much with his personal life. Thirty-eight plays are attributed to him and a hundred and fifty-four sonnets as well as two long narrative poems. Some find it hard to believe that he could actually have written all of them. There are those who think that he couldn’t possibly have had such a large vocabulary without a university education. In fact Shakespeare’s vocabulary was not as massive as people like to make out. It was somewhere between 17,000 and 20,000 words, which was quite large for the time, but he did write a great deal about a lot of different subjects. When compared play for play with his contemporaries, he’s actually about average. Also a university education, it turns out, had very little to do with how large a persons vocabulary was. Top of the list is the Jacobean playwright, John Webster who was the son of a coach-maker. He didn’t go to university either. So Shakespeare’s skill doesn’t really lie in his vocabulary. It’s his talent for arranging them. I give you:
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;”
“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
Lovely. There’s nothing odd or clever about any of those words, it’s the way he puts them together.
Another thing you might hear about Shakespeare, is from people who think he might have been bisexual. Of the one hundred and fifty-four sonnets that he wrote, one hundred and twenty-six of them are addressed to a young man, the ‘Fair Youth’. Twenty-eight are addressed to a woman, the ‘Dark Lady’. We don’t know who either of them were, but people certainly enjoy speculating. Nor do we know if they are in any way autobiographical. Shakespeare devoted a great deal of time to devising characters for his plays and giving them things to say. So how likely is it that he wrote a hundred and fifty-four poems about himself? So we can’t say for certain whether Shakespeare was bisexual or not. And it doesn’t really matter does it? I think maybe because he wrote such a lot and we know so little about what he was really like, people project on to him what they want to see. And that’s probably okay too, because we’ll never know the truth.