William Shakespeare’s rise from ‘upstart crow’ to England’s greatest playwright

How did an ‘upstart crow’ become England’s greatest playwright? Writing for BBC History Revealed, writer Lottie Goldfinch follows the Bard from humble start to theatrical stardom – and on into literary legend

A portrait of William Shakespeare

For a man whose works have been translated into more than 80 languages, including Klingon and Esperanto, we know remarkably little about England’s most famous playwright. Even his birth, on or around 23 April 1564, is unconfirmed – a proposed date based on an entry in a parish register, which lists the baptism of “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespere” (William, son of John Shakespeare) on 26 April 1564.

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Much of Shakespeare’s early life, too, is shrouded in mystery. We know that he was born in a two-storey, half-timbered house on Henley Street in the heart of Stratford-upon-Avon, and that he lived there until his mid-20s. The house, now open to the public, was purchased as a national monument in 1847 and is key to our understanding of Shakespeare as a boy. Millions of people continue to visit his birthplace in the hope it will reveal the innermost secrets of the great playwright – what he was like, how he wrote, what he thought and how he felt. John Shakespeare lived in the house from the early 1550s onwards, joined there around 1557 by his new wife Mary.

The first documentary evidence linking the family to the house is a fine issued to John Shakespeare in April 1552 for leaving a “sterquinium”, or muckheap, outside the Henley Street property. William was the couple’s first surviving child. Two daughters, Joan and Margaret, had both died before their first birthdays. Five more children followed William’s birth: Gilbert (1566), Joan (1569), Anne (1571), Richard (1574) and Edmund (1580).

Will’s schooldays

As a child, Shakespeare would have heard the types of fables, stories and legends that appear in some of his later works, and it is fair to assume he attended the local boys’ grammar school a short walk from the family home. Attendance for local boys was free, and it would have been here that the young Shakespeare learned Latin, Greek rhetoric and classical literature, and discovered how language could be used.

It’s probable that William, as the eldest son, would have been earmarked to take on his father’s glove-making business, learning the ropes as an apprentice. John Shakespeare ran his business from a workshop at the back of the house, selling his wares through a window onto the street. But in 1582, at the age of 18, Shakespeare’s path took a very different turn when he married a young woman named Anne Hathaway.

Eight years William’s senior, Anne lived with her family on a 90-acre farm in the village of Shottery, less than a mile and a half from the Shakespeare family home. Frustratingly little is known about their relationship, but what we do know is that, on their wedding day in November 1582, Anne was about three months’ pregnant. At 26, Anne was legally able to marry, but William was still classed as a minor. Nevertheless, parental permission was granted and a special licence to marry was granted by the Bishop’s Court in Worcester, which allowed the wedding to take place as soon as possible. To avoid a scandal, the marriage needed to occur before the bride’s condition became too apparent. The couple’s first child, Susanna, was born the following May.

Shakespeare's birthplace on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon
Shakespeare’s birthplace on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon. (Photo by: robertharding/Getty Images Plus)

One of the most enduring questions relating to Shakespeare is whether he really loved his wife or if he was simply obliged to marry her once she fell pregnant. Certainly, by marrying at such a young age, his fortunes would have changed dramatically. As a married man, he would no longer have been legally permitted to enter into an apprenticeship, so inheriting his father’s glove-making business was now an unlikely career path. He and Anne would have lived at the Shakespeare family home – possibly in a two-roomed cottage added to the western end. Surely, as a new father,  Shakespeare must have felt considerable pressure to provide for his growing family – twins Judith and Hamnet were born in 1585.

Poacher or pilgrim?

A seven-year gap in Shakespeare’s biography – between 1585 and 1592 – is another source of frustration to historians. At some point in this period, Shakespeare moved from Stratfordupon- Avon to London, where he emerges, in 1592, as a successful actor and playwright. These crucial seven years saw the making of William Shakespeare as we know him today, yet little-to-no evidence remains about what actually took place in that time.

As with most historical mysteries, people have been keen to fill what are commonly known as the ‘lost years’ with several theories. In 1681, author John Aubrey, writing about the life of Shakespeare, stated that the Bard had “understood Latine pretty well: for he had been in his younger yeares a schoolmaster in the countrey”.

One theory about the 'lost years' states he was caught poaching and fled to London

Local historians of Titchfield near Southampton support this theory, maintaining that Shakespeare worked as a schoolmaster at a school there between 1589 and 1592. Another account, this time from the 18th century, stated that Shakespeare had been caught poaching venison from the estate of Sir  omas Lucy and was forced to flee Stratford for a new life in London.

Meanwhile, a more controversial theory has Shakespeare down as being a secret Catholic who left Stratford on a pilgrimage to Rome. Shakespeare’s religious beliefs are unconfirmed, but some scholars have speculated that he and his family may well have been Catholics, worshipping in secret to avoid persecution in Protestant England. In 2000, an English professor and Shakespeare scholar at the University of Mainz in Germany claimed she had found three Shakespeare signatures in a 16th-century leather-bound guest book belonging to the Venerable English College in Rome – a school of theology for English Catholic priests.

To collaborate or not to collaborate, that is the question

For centuries, scholars and historians have wondered whether Shakespeare alone was responsible for the wealth of written material attributed to him in his lifetime. With the concept of copyright not widely recognised, it was common for playwrights to copy and adapt each other’s works, as well as make major contributions to new plays by others.

Writing plays during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods was a collaborative business, and there’s no reason to think Shakespeare was any different to his contemporaries. What’s more, with the huge appetite among London audiences for new plays, collaborating with another author was the quickest way to meet a deadline. Analysis of Henry VI, Part 1, for example, suggests that Shakespeare wrote less than 20 per cent of the text – in fact, the number of different writing styles within the play would suggest it was written by a team of people.

George Peele is believed to have worked with Shakespeare on Titus Andronicus; Thomas Middleton did work on Macbeth, All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure; while his reputed rival Christopher Marlowe is credited as co-author of the Henry VI trilogy. In fact, 17 of 44 plays attributed to William Shakespeare are now thought to have been written in tandem with other playwrights.

The first entry, dated 1585, is signed by Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis – deciphered as “[King] Arthur’s [compatriot] from Stratford [in the diocese] of Worcester”. A second, in 1587, is by Shfordus Cestriensis, which could translate as “Shakespeare from Stratford [in the diocese] of Chester”, while a third entry from 1589 names the visitor as Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis (“William the Clerk from Stratford”). Shakespeare does seem to have had some knowledge of Italy – around a third of his plays were at least partially based there – but the question of whether he ever visited Rome or Venice or Sicily or Verona is likely to remain unanswered.

Whatever Shakespeare may or may not have done before reaching London, the earliest printed mention of him appears in Greenes Groats-Worth of Witte, a book by the playwright Robert Greene supposedly written on his deathbed. Published in 1592, the book contains public criticism of some of his enemies, including William Shakespeare.“There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey,” he writes.

The “upstart Crow” he refers to is William Shakespeare, whom Greene criticises for believing he can write as well as the best scholars, despite not attending university. Described as an “Johannes fac totum” (Jack of all trades) for being both actor and playwright, Shakespeare clearly inspired jealousy in Greene for his obvious talent and rapid advance. Indeed, by 1592, Shakespeare is already believed to have completed a number of works, including The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew and Henry VI.

Plague stops play

But in June 1592, after Shakespeare had been working for a period of probably four or five years as a writer and actor on the London stage, a devastating outbreak of plague forced the closure of the city’s theatres. Some actors chose to take their plays out of London and on tour, but Shakespeare turned his talents to writing poetry, for which he became equally well known. His first publication, Venus and Adonis, was published in 1593 and dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton – a move possibly acknowledging the patronage of the wealthy young earl. The following year, he published The Rape of Lucrece, a work also dedicated to Wriothesley.

By the summer of 1594, the plague had subsided and London’s playhouses reopened once more. Touring companies returned to the city and took to the stage. Elizabeth I, a lover of the theatre, had in 1559 decided that players should be licensed. By the 1590s, this new rule had seen the many informal troupes of actors replaced by official touring companies, each headed by a patron from among the Queen’s leading courtiers. Elizabeth herself had initially championed her own troup, the Queen’s Men. Following their break-up, two other troupes dominated the London scene: the Admiral’s Men, led by Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, headed by Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon. Shakespeare had made the most of his enforced time off-stage and emerged in 1594 as a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of the most prominent companies in the city.

Shakespeare reading to Queen Elizabeth I, by John James Chalon
Shakepeare performed at Elizabeth I’s court. (Photo: Fine Art Photographic Library/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

As a founding member, actor, playwright and shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s writing talents would have been more in demand than ever before. His role as the troupe’s regular dramatist meant that Shakespeare probably produced an average of two plays a year and, as a shareholder, benefited financially from the company’s income. The group performed at court on more than 170 occasions, often acting Shakespeare’s own plays, and had even invested in its own playhouse: the Globe.

Shakespeare amassed considerable wealth during his time with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, but historians continue to question how, in 1594, he could afford to purchase shares in the company, and buy one of the largest houses in Stratford, New Place, just three years later. At a time when the average wage of a schoolteacher was £20 a year, the house alone cost Shakespeare around £120. This was a huge sum of money.

Some historians have suggested that, instead of being the impoverished writer and actor he is often portrayed as, Shakespeare actually received financial aid from his family that helped him buyup shares in his company, as well as land and property around Stratford and London. Research suggests that John Shakespeare, as well as making gloves, was also dealing in wool – an expensive and highly regulated commodity in the 16th century. Licences to buy and sell wool were restricted to dedicated traders, and it was illegal to do business without one. Yet historian David Fallow has suggested that John Shakespeare was actually investing in wool on a national level, often on the black market, and making a great deal of money as a result.

Elizabethan London was a maze of dirty streets, bustling with traders, prostitutes, animals and thieves

This, he believes, could explain William Shakespeare’s move to London at some point between 1585 and 1592. With the majority of wool exports made through the capital, John would have needed a trusted London representative. Enter William Shakespeare.

Whatever reason Shakespeare had for moving to London, the city would have been a far cry from the gentle pace of life in Stratford-upon-Avon. Elizabethan London was a maze of narrow, dirty streets, bustling with traders, prostitutes, beggars, thieves and animals. All of human life was there, from the very rich to the very poor. Shakespeare himself lived in lodgings during his time in the city – he can be traced to Bishopsgate, Bankside and Cripplegate at various points during his stay. But he was most likely anything but the lonely genius he is often made out to be. Plays like Henry IV, Part 1, which is set almost entirely in a Eastcheap pub, indicate that Shakespeare enjoyed a vibrant social life and was clearly familiar with the capital’s alehouses. He may also have been no stranger to the seedier side of street life – Shakespeare scholar Duncan Salkeld believes the mysterious Dark Lady of his sonnets may have been a London prostitute known as “Lucy Negro” or “Black Luce”, who ran a notorious bawdy house in Clerkenwell.

“What’s done cannot be undone” (Macbeth Act V Scene I)

Shakespeare’s popularity has continued to bloom since his death, and in 1890 one of the Bard’s biggest fans honoured him with an act that would have dramatic unforeseen consequences.

Eugene Schieffelin, an eccentric US drug manufacturer, decided to demonstrate his love for Shakespeare by introducing to North America every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. The list was extensive – more than 60 species. On 6 March 1890, he released 60 starlings into New York’s Central Park, followed by a further 40 the following year.

It’s unclear how many species of European bird Schieffelin managed to set free in America. None of the nightingales and skylarks previously released by the American Acclimatization Society, to which Schieffelin belonged, had survived. Sixty-eight of his starlings also perished in their new environment, but the remaining 32 set up home, fittingly, beneath the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History, just west of the park, and survived the bitterly cold winter.

Today, some 200 million ancestors of those plucky European originals can be found from Alaska to Mexico. But their presence is not cause for celebration: an estimated 00m of crop damage is attributed to starlings every year – something Schieffelin could never have predicted.

While Shakespeare was forging ahead with a successful career in London, Anne and their children appear to have remained in Stratford, although it’s probable that Shakespeare returned to his hometown frequently. In 1597, he moved his family into New Place, one of the grandest houses in Stratford, just a 10-minute walk from where he was born. The house was a public declaration of its owner’s success and wealth, but the purchase would have been tinged with sadness – the previous year the couple’s only son, Hamnet, had died, aged just 11.

If Shakespeare wrote about his son’s death, it has since been lost to history, but in his play King John, thought to have been written in 1596, he describes the near-physical pain experienced by a mother after her son’s death: “Grief fills the room up of my absent child / Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, / Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, / Remembers me of all his gracious parts, / Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.”

In 1611, at the age of 47, Shakespeare retired from London life and returned to his family in Stratford. His eldest daughter, Susanna, had married physician John Hall in 1607 and Shakespeare now had a granddaughter, Elizabeth. From his comfortable home, he attended to his business affairs in Stratford and wrote what was to be one of his last plays, The Two Noble Kinsmen, in collaboration with John Fletcher, around 1613.

Five years after his return to Warwickshire, at the age of 52, Shakespeare breathed his last, and is thought to have died on 23 April 1616. Two days later, he was buried in the chancel of Stratford’s Church of the Holy Trinity. The cause of Shakespeare’s death is unknown – one theory cites that he contracted a fever after a drinking binge with fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. Another, more likely explanation is that Shakespeare was ill for several weeks before he finally died – on 25 March 1616 he dictated his will, which could indicate that he knew his days were numbered.

His grave carries no name – just a chilling curse: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, / To dig the dust enclosed here. / Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.

Lottie Goldfinch is a freelance journalist specialising in history

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This article was taken from the April 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine