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Shakespeare & Biography

by Robert A. Albano

Copyright Robert A. Albano 2013 This is a legally distributed free edition from The authors intellectual property rights are protected by international Copyright law. You are licensed to use this digital copy strictly for your personal enjoyment only: it must not be redistributed or offered for sale in any form.

THE SHAKESPEARE DEBATE During the past few decades there has been a debate going on regarding the identity of William Shakespeare. A number of individuals claimed that a commoner from the rural countryside with no university education at all could not have possibly been the true author of such magnificent and highly intelligent dramatic works of literature. Not surprisingly, the individuals who made such remarks were largely aristocrats from the city with university educations. Their remarks clearly were made out of prejudice or out of some other personal need to satisfy. One of the leading recent proponents of this debate was an aristocrat who claimed that the real author of the plays was his own ancestor, Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford). He claimed that his ancestor wished to remain anonymous, and thus he used Shakespeares name to hide his own identity. The notion that de Vere was the true author actually originated with J. Thomas Looney, a British schoolmaster, who proposed the theory in a book written in 1920. However, documents and literary works that have survived with de Veres name on it reveal a decidedly inferior writer with none of Shakespeares ability in writing. The claim was unsubstantiated. It was, to be blunt, nonsense. But the floodgate was opened. Soon numerous theorists and speculators proposed all kinds of outrageous and outlandish suggestions as to the supposedly true identity of the author of the plays. Every name under the sun was suggested, including many individuals who had died long before the existence of the plays came into being. Among the names proposed were Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and even Queen Elizabeth. Some of these claims were made even before 1920: Francis Bacon, for example, was proposed back in 1785 (by James Wilmot). Christopher Marlowe was offered in 1895 (by Wilbur Ziegler). But the case for Queen Elizabeth as a contender did not come until 1956 (by George Elliot Sweet). During the 1970s there was again the attempt to link de Vere to the plays. And such claims continue to be made or remade today. Many of these claims are just downright absurd. None of them have ever been substantiated. There has never been one real strong piece of evidence to indicate that someone other than the rural commoner named William Shakespeare was indeed the true author of these plays. 2

Two important points to note: first, all of these claims were made long after Shakespeare was dead. No one in Shakespeares lifetime or the in the generations following ever doubted that the man named William Shakespeare was the true author of the plays. Second, the fact that so many contenders are proposed (more than the four mentioned here) also suggests that the evidence for any one of them is flimsy and unaccepted by an overwhelming majority of scholars and even by most of the speculators themselves. A number of people, nevertheless, still persist in making ridiculous claims in an effort to make themselves appear important or knowledgeable. But, rather, to anyone knowledgeable about Shakespeare at all, such claims are absurd; and the people making them are equally absurd. As the famous scholar Louis B. Wright has said, "To those acquainted with the history of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, it is incredible that anyone should be so nave or ignorant as to doubt the reality of Shakespeare as the author of the plays that bear his name." Shakespeare was a genius. A genius can come from any location (city or countryside), any class (common or aristocratic), or any time (modern or past). There are no limitations regarding the source from which genius may spring. But a true genius really gains an advantage when he grows up in time and place of cultural advantage. And, most fortunately, the genius named William Shakespeare grew up in one of the greatest times of cultural and artistic flowering known in the history of mankind, namely, the Renaissance.

SHAKESPEARE DOCUMENTS During the Renaissance the writing of biographies was not a common practice. To be sure, there were Lives: books on the lives of famous people. But the usual subjects for these books were kings or saints. To write a biography about a commoner was just something that was not done. Thus, we do not have a significant amount of details about any author who lived before the 18th century. And, so, sadly, we do not have a significant amount of information on the life of William Shakespeare. There have been attempts in recent times to construct a biography on William Shakespeare. One of the best of these (and, thus, recommended to the student) is Shakespeare (1970) by the British novelist Anthony Burgess. Burgesss scholarly interest in Shakespeare also spilled over into his creative endeavors, as can be seen in his highly speculative and fictional Nothing Like the Sun (1964), which manufactures an account of Shakespeares early life. But even in the biography by Burgess and the other really fine attempts to set his life on paper, the writer must of necessity use his imagination. Thus, all of the biographies rely heavily on speculation and theory. If they relied solely on facts, their books would be very thin and skimpy accounts at best. Thus, the student of Shakespeare must approach any biography on the great playwright with a certain amount of caution. Despite the fact that there was never any attempt made in the Renaissance to write on Shakespeares life, a surprisingly large number of documents have survived that pertain to Shakespeares life in one way or another. There are approximately forty official documents that pertain to the life of William Shakespeare. This is more than what exists on most Renaissance writers or even aristocrats. In addition, there are approximately fifty literary references to Shakespeare made by his contemporaries. Shakespeare was a man who was well known and familiar to the people living in London. And none of these people ever expressed the slightest doubt that the man known as William Shakespeare was indeed truly the author of the plays and poems. Of course, in addition to the ninety or so documents and literary references, there are the plays and poems. The modern biographer has access to all of this material and combines it with the hundreds of historical documents about the Renaissance, more generally, in order to put together a 4

plausible and intelligent account of Shakespeares life. Thus, by reading the better biographies on Shakespeare, the modern reader can obtain a fairly close approximation of what Shakespeares life may have been like. Unfortunately, the modern reader will never be able to know as much about Shakespeare as we do about the authors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There is still much we will never know; there is still a mystery that will never be solved. And because this mystery is there, attempts are made to fill the gaps with every possible theory under the sun.

SHAKESPEARES HEIGHT OF FAME Long before William Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest tragedies, like Hamlet and Macbeth, he was already well known in the theater world of London as one of the best (if not the best) playwrights and poets in Renaissance England. Of the many contemporary literary references to Shakespeare, perhaps the best known is the one penned by Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia (1598). In a fairly lengthy description of Shakespeare, Meres refers to him as the "mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare." Mellifluous (combining the roots of the words for mellow and fluid) indicates that Shakespeares poetic language is flowing, smooth, and tranquil. His language is also sweet and delicious, as suggested by the expression honeytongued. Meres thus indicates that Shakespeare masterfully achieves the goal of the Renaissance poet: to create a golden perfection in language that surpasses nature. Meres praises Shakespeare both as a poet and playwright. Meres specifically mentions that Shakespeare is already famous for such poetical creations as Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, and The Sonnets. In addition, Meres specifically lists twelve plays by name for which Shakespeare is famous. Meres concludes by giving Shakespeare the greatest praise any dramatist could ever receive: Meres compares the playwright to Seneca for tragedy and to Plautus for comedy. During the Renaissance, the writers looked back to the Classical Age for inspiration and direction. In England the dramatists were especially attracted to the Roman playwrights. In Classical Rome the greatest writer of tragedies was Seneca, and the greatest writer of comedies was Plautus. Thus, to compare Shakespeare to Seneca and Plautus is to suggest that he is Englands best writer of both tragedies and comedies. Francis Meres made his comments back in 1598. Shakespeare would continue to write more and even greater dramatic works for another thirteen years. The greatest writer would become greater still.

SHAKESPEARES PARENTS Shakespeares father, John Shakespeare, lived and worked all of his life in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon (Avon is the name of the river that flows by the town). His primary occupation early in life was that of a glover (that is, someone who made gloves). Gloves were made out of leather, and a glover frequently made other leather products when his customers requested him to do so. From glover, John Shakespeare soon also became a shopkeeper and traded in wool and other goods. In a very short time, he became quite prosperous and was able to own property and a farm. Not every merchant at this time achieved this kind of success, and only a small percentage became owners of large properties. As a successful businessman, John Shakespeare became an active and important member of community affairs; and from there he also became a public official in Stratford and held the offices of alderman and mayor. However, life was not always easy for John Shakespeare. Legal records indicate that he had financial difficulties when his son William was in his teens. In 1580, for example (when William was sixteen), John Shakespeare was fined for neglecting a court summons. This was not the only legal difficulty he had at this time. Shakespeares mother, Mary Arden, came from a prosperous family of landowners. In all likelihood, Marys parents probably disapproved of her marriage to John Shakespeare, whom they would have considered to be socially inferior. Most glovers, after all, were not then considered to be headed on a track to success; and no one could predict when the couple was married that John Shakespeare would achieve far more than the other glovers of England. John Shakespeare and Mary Arden had eight children. William was their third child.

BAPTISM and EDUCATION William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, according to the church records. William was probably born, then, on the April 23 because baptisms were traditionally performed three days after the birth of a child. Birth certificates were not used then. So, there is no official record for the birthday itself. As a son of a public official, William would have been allowed to attend the grammar (public) school for free. Although William would never go on to receive any higher education at a university, there was still much that Shakespeare could have learned in such a school that would prepare him for his life as a poet. Latin was still considered to be the language of education then, and so Latin learning, both language and literature, formed the core of the curriculum. Rhetoric and logic were also vital components (aspects) of the standard curriculum. Learning the Latin language is a difficult task that requires a significant amount of rote memorization. Students would be required to memorize case endings (suffixes) for hundreds of nouns and verbs, and this could be quite difficult and monotonous. In all likelihood, many of the boys probably fought to get seats in the back of the classroom so they could sleep during these Latin exercises. But an individual with an eager mind and ready comprehension could learn the Latin language fluently at the grammar school. Students then were also required to read and memorize passages from Latin literary works. William Shakespeare most assuredly would have read and memorized long passages from Ovid, among other poets. The Renaissance writers considered the Roman Ovid to be the premiere poet of the Classical Age. Every writer in England made allusions to Ovid and tried to emulate (copy) his style. Ovids poetry was rich both in style and content, and his tales of the gods and heroes of the ancient world most assuredly would have kindled and sparked the imagination of young William Shakespeare. On occasion, Greek literature and language would also be taught at the grammar school. However, this was not so frequent an occurrence. Grammar schools in the countryside could not always get university-

educated scholars as schoolmasters, and then not all schoolmasters knew as much Greek as they did Latin. Many wealthy parents sent their children to the grammar schools at that time. Shakespeares education would not have been that much different from the education that the aristocratic children were receiving. Of course, it is not the education itself that is important. What is important is how one applies it. And Shakespeare would certainly apply his education in a manner that would exceed nearly all other aristocrats and commoners of his day.

MARRIAGE and CHILDREN One of the official records on Shakespeare that has survived is his marriage license. The license was issued on November 27, 1582. Shakespeare was then eighteen years of age, and Anne Hathaway, the woman he was to marry, was seven or eight years older. Shakespeare was, as circumstances indicate, forced into marriage to protect the honor of Anne Hathaway; for Anne was pregnant with Shakespeares child. As church documents reveal, the wedding ceremony was a hurried affair. Traditionally, the banns or announcements of marriage were made three times in the Anglican Church. But for the marriage of William and Anne, the announcement was only made one time. Anne Hathaway was already three months pregnant by that time, and she probably was already getting a little heavy with the child inside of her. In Shakespeares time a woman who was obviously pregnant would not openly walk down the church aisle as a bride in a wedding ceremony. The dishonor and embarrassment would be too great. William and Annes first child, Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583 six months after the wedding. Because of these few facts, a number of scholars and biographers have suggested that Shakespeare could not have possibly loved Anne and that he was stuck in a marriage that he hated. However, this is merely conjecture (a theory or guess). Shakespeare could have just as easily loved his wife very much despite the difference in their years. In fact, there seems to be more evidence to support this view. While Shakespeare was in London, he continued to support his family in a very extravagant manner as his financial circumstances improved. He bought one of the most beautiful houses in Stratford as well as adjoining property. He saw to it that his family was well cared for even though he was away most of the year in London. He could also have made frequent visits to Stratford. One fact is certain: Shakespeare did continue to have a sexual relationship with his wife after their marriage, for the couple had twins (Hamnet, a boy, and Judith, a girl), who were born on February 2, 1585. As suggested before, students studying the biographical and historical background of Shakespeare should be careful to differentiate fact from 10

fiction. Unfortunately, too many scholars and writers propose extravagant theories and present them as if they were facts.


THE DARK YEARS From the time of Shakespeares marriage in 1582 to the time of Shakespeares departure to London (around 1590), there is no record or evidence of any kind to indicate the kind of work Shakespeare was doing. How did the young genius support his family? Because records do not exist in regards to this matter, these years are occasionally referred to as the dark years. And because the records do not exist, a large number of guesses, theories, and speculations have appeared. These guesses form the Shakespeare legend stories about Shakespeares early life that have no factual support. One of the best guesses or legends is that Shakespeare worked for a time as a school teacher. This is likely. Not all rural towns could obtain a university graduate as a schoolmaster, and so often an individual from the town who showed unusual ability would become the towns teacher. And Shakespeare certainly had such a remarkable ability and could have easily filled the role of schoolmaster. But, of course, that does not mean that he did. Other less likely guesses are that Shakespeare was a soldier in the army or a sailor in the navy or that he became an extensive traveler to Italy and other even more distant lands. More likely, though, is the idea that Shakespeare stayed in Stratford during these years. Also included in the legend are stories that suggest that Shakespeare was forced to leave Stratford because he was a poacher (someone who is hunting deer illegally) and that when he came to London his first job of employment with the theater was that of a groom (to handle the horses of the aristocrats who came to see the plays performed). Of course, the most likely guess of all is that Shakespeare stayed in Stratford and worked as an apprentice in his fathers shop, perhaps making gloves and selling dry goods. The theory is rather uninteresting, though; and that is why so many writers feel the need to invent a more elaborate and adventurous legend about Englands greatest poet.


SHAKESPEARES GROWING SUCCESS As noted earlier, Shakespeare had already achieved a high degree of success and fame by 1598, long before he wrote most of his greatest tragedies. But Shakespeares fame in London actually came much earlier than 1598. One of the earliest references to Shakespeare appeared in print in 1592. This reference is also quite amusing, for the author attacked and criticized Shakespeare. In fact, the author, Robert Greene, who was a playwright himself, refers to Shakespeare as an upstart crow, that is, a young and boastful individual who is making a lot of unnecessary noise about himself. Greene, who was at the end of his career at that time, resented the fact that an individual who had no university education and who had seemingly come out of nowhere was achieving a level of fame that was already surpassing the older university-educated playwrights, such as himself. Greene was jealous! However, by going to such pains to single out the then young Shakespeare as the person most responsible for his own problems, Greene was actually indicating that Shakespeare was already a force to be reckoned with in the world of the London stage. Shakespeare was already well on his way to success. Most Shakespeare scholars seem to agree that Shakespeares first play was The Comedy of Errors, performed in 1591. Thus, Shakespeare had made himself quite well known in the relatively short space of only one year. During the Renaissance, actors belonged to an acting troop, a small group of men who would act only with their fellow troop members and no one else. Usually, each acting troop would be associated with a single theater. That is, they would only perform in that one theater and no other (except when they were touring outside of London). Thus, each theater with its acting troop competed with other theaters with their acting troops to gain the most popularity and the largest audiences. Each acting troop also had its own writer. Shakespeares acting troop performed in the Blackfriars Theater and, later, the Globe Theater (which opened in 1599). In 1594 the acting troop that Shakespeare belonged to became known as The Lord Chamberlains Men. That means that the Lord Chamberlain, a high aristocratic official in London, became their patron. During the Renaissance, writers and acting troops depended on patronage to survive. 13

Most writers and actors would not even make enough money to survive if they did not have a wealthy patron supporting their work. Patrons did not supply writers or actors with a steady salary, but the patrons would make monetary gifts to support such artists. Obviously, writers and actors competed to get the wealthiest of aristocrats as their patrons. In 1603, when King James I became the supreme monarch of England, Shakespeares acting troop had another name change. They became The Kings Men. The highest aristocrat in the nation had chosen Shakespeares troop as the best of the land. And they were the best largely due to Shakespeare, who wrote exclusively for his own troop. The year 1603 marks the time, then, that Shakespeares troop, and Shakespeare himself, had achieved their greatest honor And Shakespeare had not yet written several of his greatest tragedies: Othello (1603-04), Lear (1604-05), and Macbeth (1606).


SHAKESPEARE THE ACTOR Was Shakespeare an actor? The answer is yes, but acting was never a major activity with him. One document from 1598 lists Shakespeare as a principal comedian, and a document from 1603 lists Shakespeare as a principal tragedian. But the word principal was used loosely then, and Shakespeare never apparently performed in any starring or major roles in any play. Back then an acting troop was relatively small, with a dozen or so male actors. Often actors were called upon to play two parts in a single play; and, perhaps not infrequently, stage hands and other members, who usually worked behind the stage, were called upon to play small or non-speaking parts when the play required a larger number of actors. From what the records indicate, Shakespeare did not perform often. And when he did act, it was in minor roles like Adam, the old servant in As You Like It, or the Ghost in Hamlet. Both of these roles are minor ones with very few lines to speak. Even during the Renaissance there were actors who were the big stars of the program. Shakespeare was never a star.


A DARK MOMENT Frequently scholars note that Shakespeare wrote primarily comedies during the 1590s and primarily tragedies during the first decade of the 1600s. Shakespeares plays became darker and more serious in the second half of his career. One of the reasons for this was, most likely, the death of his son. Hamnet died in 1596. He was only eleven years old at the time. Obviously, this death affected Shakespeare immensely. Hamnet was his only son, and his only male heir. Like most fathers, Shakespeare would have looked upon his son to carry on the family name and family traditions. Hamnet, in this sense, was the immortal part of Shakespeare. Not missed by anyone is the similarity between the sons name and Shakespeares greatest tragedy, Hamlet (which was probably written in 1600). Hamlet is a play about (among other things) depression. And this was clearly an emotion that Shakespeare understood extremely well. Shakespeare did not invent the name of Hamlet, his tragic character. But Shakespeare is the one who portrayed Hamlet as a man who cannot overcome his passionate grief for the death of his father. In the first act of the play, Hamlet tells his mother that his sad outward appearance does not even begin to indicate the severity and extent of the grief that he feels within himself: I have that within which passeth show (I, ii: 85). The word passeth here means surpasses. And Shakespeare himself most assuredly would have experienced such a gnawing grief within himself, a grief so severe and so tormenting that his outer appearance, despite the dark look of despair, could not begin to reveal.


SIGNS OF SUCCESS Shakespeare made a great deal of money in his time, but he did not make it as a playwright. Writers made very little money at the time, and most struggled to support themselves. But Shakespeare made money as a businessman. He became actively involved in the business of theater, and worked for theater in such positions that today might be called stage manager or producer. Later, Shakespeare also became one of the owners of the Globe Theater. As noted, Shakespeares acting troop became the most successful in London; and the businessmen associated with their theater did quite well for themselves. One of the earliest indications on record of Shakespeares wealth occurred in 1596. In that year Shakespeare obtained the title of gentleman for his father. Such a title was the highest-ranking title a commoner could hold. It was just one step below the aristocracy. If one did not inherit the title, the only other way to get it would be by buying it. And such a title was not cheap. However, with the death of his father (in 1601), Shakespeare inherited the title. Another indication of Shakespeares monetary success was the purchase of New Place in 1597. New Place was a grand and elegant house in Stratford not unlike, perhaps, what some aristocrats lived in. Shakespeares family lived in New Place for the fourteen years before Shakespeares retirement (in 1611) as well as during Shakespeares retirement years. The family continued to live there long after Shakespeares death (in 1616). Other indications of Shakespeares prosperity occurred in 1602 with the purchases of (1) 107 acres of farmland just outside of Stratford and (2) a cottage and garden near New Place. Shakespeare was one of the most successful commoners of his age despite the fact that he was paid relatively nothing for the plays that he wrote.


SHAKESPEARES DEATH Shakespeare died on April 25, 1616. He was 52 years of age. Anne Hathaway, his wife, died in 1623 and was buried beside him. The cause of Shakespeares death is uncertain. A document from 1664 relates a legend that many accept as truth: "Shakespeare, [Michael] Drayton and Ben Johnson had a merie meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a feavour there contracted." That Shakespeare died by celebrating life seems appropriate, for he was a man whose literary works symbolize the very essence of life.


TERMS Quarto These are cheap printed editions of the plays based on the manuscripts. The actual handwritten manuscripts have not survived. Quarto editions were printed on large sheets of paper: eight pages printed on a sheet, four on each side. The pages would then be cut and assembled. Eighteen (18) plays were printed in Shakespeares lifetime. For some plays, more than one quarto version has survived. These are often referred to as Q1, Q2, and so forth. Most of Shakespeares plays were not printed during his lifetime. During the Renaissance people did not want to read plays they wanted to see them performed. Only actors actually needed copies of the play, and such copies could be handwritten. This term is used to refer to the collected edition of Shakespeares plays in one volume. The First Folio edition appeared in 1623 and contained 36 plays. They were based on the best quarto editions or on manuscripts. A quarto version based (often) on actors' memories, published without the author's permission and usually full of many inaccuracies.


Bad Quarto

Globe Theater The most famous of the Shakespeare theaters. Burned down in 1613. Probably held an audience of 2000 (or perhaps even 3000) people.

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