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Shakespeare: 7 burning questions about his life

Did Shakespeare grow tired of his wife? Why was he so wealthy? And which portraits of him can we trust? Here, Paul Edmondson asks some of the most pressing questions about Shakespeare's life

Published: April 18, 2014 at 9:00 am

How do we know when William Shakespeare was born?

It seems that England’s greatest poet first appeared on the world’s stage on the feast day of England’s patron saint: St George’s Day, Sunday 23 April 1564.

The parish register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon records Shakespeare’s baptism on 26 April. According to the Book of Common Prayer, babies had to be baptised either on the next saint’s day after their birth or on the following Sunday. In baby Shakespeare’s case, the next saint’s day was St Mark’s Day, the stolen patron saint of Venice, just two days after his birth. However, Elizabethan folk superstition considered this day to be unlucky, so Shakespeare was baptised after morning or evening prayer on the following day.

For corroborative evidence that Shakespeare was born on 23 April we can look to his monument on the north chancel wall of Holy Trinity Church. This tells us that he died on 23 April 1616, aged 53 – that is at the beginning of his 53rd year. Hence the assumption that he was born and died on the same date.

Shakespeare’s baptismal entry tells us that he is “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare”: William, the son of John Shakespeare. Only one person of that name lived in the town.

The master bedroom of the house now presented as Shakespeare’s Birthplace was upstairs, overlooking the street – the same room that people have been visiting in homage to Shakespeare since the 18th century.

On John’s death in 1601, William inherited the whole of his estate (John had left no will). William allowed his sister, Joan Hart, and her family to live in part of the building (as her descendants did until 1806) and leased another part to become a pub, the Swan and Maidenhead.

The house today is a Victorian renovation of the site and buildings purchased by public subscription in 1847. The Birthplace and four other houses associated with Shakespeare’s life are cared for and conserved by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.


Where did young Shakespeare learn to read and write?

From the ages of 8 to 15, William Shakespeare would have found himself at Stratford-upon-Avon’s grammar school, which had been established under Edward VI to offer a free education to all of the town’s boys.

Founded in 1553 and based on Humanist ideals, Tudor grammar schools were a key element of the government’s stated aim of ensuring that “good literature and discipline might be diffused and propagated throughout all parts of our kingdom, as wherein the best government and administration of affairs consists”.

These were establishments that took education very seriously indeed. Shakespeare would have gone to school six days a week throughout the year, starting at 6am in the summer and 7am in winter, and staying until dusk (though there were half days on Thursdays and Saturdays). The major Christian festivals provided the few annual holidays.

There was little respite, even in the playground, where the boys were expected to talk to each other in Latin. The emphasis of the whole educational enterprise, in light of the teachings of the 16th-century Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1469–1536), was on the development of eloquence in speech and writing. A key textbook was William Lily’s Short Introduction of Grammar (1540), through which Shakespeare became familiar with a vast range of rhetorical devices.

The curriculum was highly demanding. The pupils studied Terence, Virgil, Tully, Sallust, Palingenius, Mantuanus, Cicero, Susenbrotus, Erasmus, Quintilian, Horace, Juvenal and Ovid in their original Latin. The latter’s Metamorphoses seems to have been Shakespeare’s favourite book from his school days, and he alluded to it many times in his work. The only writing in Greek to feature on the syllabus was the New Testament. Shakespeare’s grammar-school education is writ large across the whole body of his work. Above all, it taught him eloquence. As an education it was rigorous but limited and did not, for example, include numeracy.


Was he trapped in a loveless marriage?

Questions about Shakespeare’s marriage and sexuality have divided generations of scholars and critics, and continue to do so.

When he was just 18, William married Anne or Agnes Hathaway (those first names were interchangeable). She was 26 and already pregnant. It has been estimated that around a quarter of late 16th-century women were pregnant before marriage.

Another illuminating statistic has been deduced by local historian Jeanne Jones from records curated by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Between 1570 and 1630 the average age for men to marry in Stratford-upon-Avon was 24. In that 60-year period, and out of 106 cases, there were only three men who married under the age of 20. Of those three, Shakespeare was the youngest and the only one whose wife was already pregnant. They had three children: Susanna (born 1582) and then boy-and-girl twins Hamnet and Judith (born 1585; Hamnet died in 1596).

But were William and Anne happily married? Katherine Duncan-Jones thinks not. In her Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from His Life (2001), she presents a Shakespeare who is trapped in his marriage. In Shakespeare’s Wife (2007), Germaine Greer describes the Shakespeares’ relationship as “a demanding and difficult way of life”. Certainly Shakespeare spent long periods of time in London, but that does not mean that he never saw his wife and children. Townsmen frequently travelled between Stratford-upon-Avon and London. The commute took three days by horseback.

Some commentators have pounced upon Shakespeare’s decision to leave Anne his “second best bed with the furniture” to question the state of his marriage. True, this bequest could have been a put-down. But it could also have been a romantic souvenir, or even, perhaps, a codified permit for Anne to remain resident in the family home, New Place.

Most of the speculation on Shakespeare’s sexuality has been based on his works – for example, the same-sex relationships in his plays. Evidence from his life reveals little. In fact, the only surviving contemporary anecdote of Shakespeare’s personal life is to be found in the diary of John Manningham, a trainee lawyer at Middle Temple. The diary relates how Shakespeare arranged to meet a woman with his fellow actor Richard Burbage, yet got there early to have sex with her before Burbage arrived: “Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third.”


Of the numerous portraits of Shakespeare, which is the most accurate?

Two images are widely accepted as being accurate depictions of Shakespeare, both of them posthumous: the engraving by the artist Martin Droeshout on the title-page of Master William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies of 1623, and the memorial bust in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. This was installed some time between 1616, when Shakespeare died, and 1623, when it is first mentioned in Leonard Digges’s commendatory verse in a collected edition of Shakespeare’s work.

It is possible that both the engraving and the bust were approved by Shakespeare’s widow, family and friends. The playwright Ben Jonson, in his verse printed opposite the engraving, describes it as a good likeness. The bust was made by Gerard Janssen who, in 1614, had also carved the Stratford-upon-Avon tomb effigy for Shakespeare’s friend John Coombe. Janssen’s workshop was in Southwark, near the Globe, so he too probably knew what Shakespeare looked like.

Two portraits of Shakespeare have good provenance and may have been painted from life. One is the Chandos portrait; the other is the Cobbe portrait, which won the support of the world’s leading Shakespeare scholar, Stanley Wells, in 2009.

It has been suggested that the Chandos portrait was painted by John Taylor (an actor from Shakespeare’s period), and was bequeathed to William Davenant, who liked to say he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son. From here it eventually came into the possession of the Duke of Chandos.

The Cobbe portrait passed through the descendants of Shakespeare’s only known literary patron, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. It spawned a succession of near-contemporary copies, the majority of which independently identify the sitter as Shakespeare.

The Cobbe portrait has compositional similarities to the Droeshout engraving and may have been its source, possibly through one of the early copies. X-ray analysis has shown that the earliest of these copies is the one now in the possession of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC has another early copy but does not accept that the sitter is Shakespeare. Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones is among those who have suggested that the portrait represents Sir Thomas Overbury, based on a perceived visual resemblance. Yet none of the many versions and copies of the Cobbe portrait has ever carried an Overbury identification.

What’s more, research at Cambridge University has established that the Cobbe portrait and the undoubted Overbury portrait are unrelated and unlikely to depict the same sitter.

Of all the portraits that might represent Shakespeare, the Cobbe portrait is the most intimate and its provenance and claim to be painted from life make a compelling case.


How did a humble writer grow so rich?

Shakespeare’s will includes numerous bequests that show that he died a wealthy man. But he cannot have owed his riches simply to his plays. A theatre company would pay a freelance writer a few pounds for a new play, but that wasn’t enough to support and sustain a wife and family.

A writer could boost his income by acting as well – and Shakespeare, Ben Jonson (early in his career) and a handful of others appear to have done just that. Yet, all the same, none of the other playwrights of the period were able to invest in the way Shakespeare did.

Shakespeare was wealthy because he was, from 1594, a shareholder in the theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, in which he was also the leading dramatist. Their patron was the lord chamberlain and they performed at court as well as at the Inns of Court, for which they were paid handsomely.

Shakespeare was rich enough to buy a house in 1597, which it has been estimated probably cost him around £120. In 1599, he invested in a tripartite lease on the new Globe Theatre. This meant he would receive a share of the box-office takings which, partly because of the popularity of his plays, were high.

He carried on investing heavily in Stratford-upon-Avon. He bought a massive 107 acres of land for £320 in 1602. Only three years later, he spent £440 on a 50 per cent share in the annual tithes payable to the church. This brought him back around £60 a year. In 1613 he bought a gatehouse at Blackfriars for £140.

A story from William Davenant first published in Nicholas Rowe’s biographical account of 1709 suggests that Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, gave Shakespeare £1,000 “to enable him to go through with a purchase which he heard he had a mind to”. We’ll probably never know whether he did or not, but it would explain how Shakespeare could afford the shares in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and how he was able to buy his grand residence, New Place. And all this at a time when a local schoolmaster’s salary was £20 a year.


Where did Shakespeare call home?

When he was first married, Shakespeare would have had little choice but to live in the family home on Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. He saved money by lodging in London at various places including (in order of residence): the parishes of St Giles Cripplegate; St Helen’s Bishopgate (where he was fined for defaulting on his taxes in 1597 and 1598); St Saviour’s near the Clink, Southwark; and with the Mountjoy family on the corner of Monkswell and Silver Streets, again in the Cripplegate ward.

Shakespeare’s family home from 1597 was New Place, the largest house in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon. The theatres were closed during Lent and Advent, which would have given him plenty of time to spend at home with his family and to get some writing done in relative peace and quiet.

Between 2010 and 2013, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust commissioned an archaeological dig of the site (New Place was demolished in 1759), which confirmed it to be a grand manor house, designed for someone of considerable means and social status.

Shakespeare was a commuter who lodged in London and whose grandest living space was in Stratford-upon-Avon.


Did he agonise over his plays or dash them off?

Defining the way in which Shakespeare went about his work is no easy task because canons of literary work develop over time, as do an author’s mode of writing. What complicates matters is the fact that much of Shakespeare’s writings were published after his death. The Sonnets, a few occasional poems and about half of his plays first appeared during his lifetime. The rest (with the exception of Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen) appeared for the first time in a collected edition of his work in 1623.

In 1986, The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works attempted to cast some light on the issue by putting forward two of the most radical theories to emerge in the past 30 years. The first was that Shakespeare regularly revised what he wrote because of practical theatrical considerations. The second suggested that he collaborated on several plays, most significantly at the beginning and end of his career.

Collaboration was absolutely a standard practice among playwrights of Shakespeare’s time. In 2013 Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen published William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, a collection of little-known works in which Shakespeare may or may not have had a hand. There are also some apparently lost plays including Love’s Labour’s Won and Cardenio.

Collaboration alone should be enough to put paid to any theory that suggests the plays were the handiwork of a lone aristocrat or an alternative single author operating undercover. The way in which the plays are written shows that Shakespeare had a profound knowledge of theatrical practice and knew the actors for whom he was writing.

He didn’t dash off his plays, as the film Shakespeare in Love might like us to believe. Instead, he adapted the sources and stories on which he based his work, reading extensively before putting quill to paper.


Dr Paul Edmondson is head of research and knowledge, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Visit shakespeare.org.uk


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