Chapter 1: Origins
Not a lot is known for certain about the life of William Shakespeare. Despite having been an extremely prolific playwright there is no definitive list of his works and there are no more than 14 words surviving in his own handwriting – six signatures and the words ' by me' in his will. As it happens none of those six signatures uses the spelling ' Shakespeare' commonly used today.
Indeed, so little can be definitively known, that there is controversy about whether the plays attributed to a man named Shakespeare were in fact written by William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon who is usually credited with them. It is fair to say that the evidence in favour of the playwright being the man from Stratford is sufficient to have convinced the vast majority of serious academics and historians. This article therefore assumes that William Shakespeare of Stratford is the real Shakespeare and his life story is presented accordingly.
The exact date of Shakespeare’s birth is unknown, he was christened on 26 April 1564 in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. This suggests a birthdate of sometime in mid-to late April of that year and 22 nd April is postulated by his biographer Anthony Holden.
His parents were John Shakespeare, and Mary Arden, daughter of a tenant farmer from a village on the outskirts of Stratford.
Shakespeare was born in 1564, a year when England was ravaged by plague. In Stratford, nearly two-thirds of children born that year died, but not, fortunately for all generations after, baby William.The family’s home was Henley Street in the eastern part of town of Stratford, which at that time was a prosperous merchant town with links to nearby Coventry, Banbury, Warwick and Oxford. Stratford, with a population of some 2,000 was also a large town, by sixteenth century standards.
John Shakespeare, although a farmer in his youth, had become a glover and ‘ whittawer’, that is a dresser of a certain type of high quality leather. At some point John Shakespeare became involved in the wool trade, which throughout the Middle Ages had brought huge wealth to the region of the country just to the south of Stratford.
John Shakespeare was a man of some repute in the town and
frequently undertook the various public offices expected of the town's merchants
– ale taster, borough treasurer alderman and even mayor in 1568, entitling him
to the title of ‘
Master’, rather than Goodman. This evidence of civic
respectability encouraged him to request the grant of a coat of arms in 1569.
He was to be disappointed as the College of Heralds declined his application.
Unfortunately it appears that Shakespeare senior was an indifferent businessman and he is frequently found in court records being sued for debt. His public career came to rather than abrupt end in 1576, possibly because he was indicted for usury.
Mary Arden was born into a prosperous family of tenant farmers, and believed herself to be the relative of gentry family, the Ardens of New Park, Warwickshire. This would have elevated her status, and may be one of the reasons why first John Shakespeare and then William himself applied for a coat of arms.
William was the couple’s oldest son and may have attended the King’s New School in Stratford, open to every boy in the town who could read and write. The Stratford school was funded more generously than most similar establishments, and had three masters in succession who were Oxford graduates – if Shakespeare did attend the school, he would have received as good an education as any man of his class in the country.
There is no firm evidence about his education, but, as with many other aspects of the poet’s life, people have drawn information from his work to suggest parallels with his own life, and the school master in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ appears to echo the master at the Stratford school.
Another aspect of Shakespeare’s education which has been the subject of controversy for 400 years is his religious position. Shakespeare’s parents were of that generation born during the reign of Henry VIII, in whose early childhood religion was almost unchanged from some eight hundred years of Catholic practice. Although the King had established himself Head of the Church of England there were minimal changes to doctrine and practice and little change would have been seen in the local parish church. It was not until 1549, when John Shakespeare would have been around 17 and his wife-to-be about 12, that an avowedly Protestant Church and doctrine became the law in England. In 1553, with the accession of Mary I, Catholic practice was immediately reintroduced, to last for another five years, covering the period during which John Shakespeare and Mary Arden were married.
By the time of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564 the established Church of England was Protestant, but not Puritan. The vast majority of the population conformed to the law, regardless of their private inclinations. It has been postulated that John Shakespeare was in fact a recusant, based on the evidence of a Catholic tract found in the wall of his home in the late 18 th century, apparently signed by him. As the original has disappeared, modern scholars are unable to investigate. He was also fined on several occasions for failure to attend church. His reason – fear of process for debt – may have been genuine, or a cloak for recusancy.
Certainly there are many people who have believed that Shakespeare’s writings show him to have been a Catholic, but given the pace at which habits and customs change, it is perfectly possible that many of the traditional customs continued in the period of Shakespeare’s youth even though the populace was largely content to follow the religion as laid down by law.
Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, married a known Puritan, a match which Shakespeare clearly approved as his will strongly favoured Susanna over his other living child. This would suggest that even if Shakespeare had Catholic sympathies, they were not so strong as to seek Catholic husbands for his daughters.