“THE known facts of Shakespeare’s life, few as they are, are yet rather more numerous than those concerning most of the other playwrights of his time. Stratford-on-Avon, at the time of Shakespeare’s birth, was a village of about two thousand inhabitants, somewhat off the main routes of travel, eighty miles from London. John Shakespeare, father of William and resident of Stratford, is reported to have been at one time a farmer doing business in hides and meats. His wife was Mary Arden, rather an heiress for her time, who brought into the family a house and fifty acres of land. Two girls were born and died in infancy. William, the third child, was baptized the twenty-sixth of April, 1564. The day of his birth is unknown, but is usually reckoned as three days earlier than his baptism. Five other children were born to John and Mary Shakespeare, and for a time the family prospered. When William was about four years old the father became bailiff, or mayor, of Stratford, and seems to have occupied other positions of prominence in the community. In all probability William went to the free grammar school of the town; but when he was about thirteen years old the father got into financial difficulties, and William, apparently, was taken out of school and put to work at home. In 1582 the license for the marriage of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway was entered in the town records. Three children, Susanna, the eldest, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born to the couple. Hamnet lived only about eleven years, but the two daughters survived their father.
After the birth of the twins, there follows a long gap in the authentic records. There is ground, however, for believing that William, leaving his family at Stratford, went up to London about 1856. At that time Queen Elizabeth had already reigned about twenty-eight years, and London had grown rich and prosperous. The city spread loosely along the north side of the Thames, and had about two hundred thousand inhabitants. Wealthy merchants had built fine houses to the west and south; but the fields at the north and the precincts across the river were rather disreputable. It was in those sections that the first theaters–The Theater, the Curtain, and the remodeled house known as Newington Butts–had been built ten years earlier.
Shakespeare at first took jobs as a man-of-all-work about the theaters. The tradition is that he held horses at the door, and employed boys for this service, so that for a long time these servitors were called “Shakespeare’s boys.” At that time the Scholar Poets belonging to Greene’s circle were in practical possession of the stage, so far as authorship was concerned. About 1587 Greene was somewhat eclipsed by Marlowe and Kyd, whose Tamburlaine and The Spanish Tragedy, respectively, appeared that year. During the years immediately following, Shakespeare must have gained a foothold, both as an actor and playwright. The evidence for this conclusion lies principally in an unfinished pamphlet, called A Groatsworth o’ Wit, left by Greene at his death in 1592, in which he warns his friends, Nash, Peele, and Lodge, against the injustices and difficulties of the theatrical profession, and incidentally refers to one “Shakescene” as an impudent upstart of an actor and a plagiarizing author. In this skit Green parodied a line, “Tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide,” which occurs in what is now considered Shakespeare’s first play, the first part of Henry VI. The probabilities, therefore, are strong that Greene referred to Shakespeare; thus establishing the fact that the younger playwright had already become something of a rival to the university set.
In the early 1590’s Shakespeare’s activities as a theater man were well begun. He was summoned to act at court with Burbage, Heminge, Condell and others, and he received a salary as actor, a share of the profits of the enterprise, and certain sums for each play he wrote. In 1599 the Shakespeare family was granted a coat-of-arms; and “William Shakespeare” became “William Shakespeare, Gent.” He purchased New Place, the largest house in Stratford, for sixty pounds; and thereafter he frequently added to his property in land and houses not only in Stratford, but also in London. He was involved in several cases of litigation concerning mortgages and the recovery of sums of money. One investigator, Professor G.M. Wallace, discovered that for a time Shakespeare lodged in the house of one Christopher Mountjoy, a wig-maker living near Cripplegate. In 1601 John Shakespeare died; the widow, Mary, lived until 1608. In 1607 Susanna married a physician named John Hall and went to live at New Place, the mother remaining, for the remainder of her life, in a small cottage in Henley Street.
During the following years it is probable that Shakespeare detached himself gradually from his London associations, and finally, three or four years before his death, made Stratford his home again. He made his will early in 1616, about the time his daughter Judith married Thomas Quincey; and on the twenty-third day of April, the same day of the same month in which he is supposed to have been born, he died. Two days later he was buried in the chancel of the Church of the Holy Trinity at Stratford, where, on the now famous grave, are carved the lines:
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare
To dig the dust enclosed here;
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
The inscription on the monument in the church at Stratford reads
Judico Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem
Terra tegit, populus maeret, Olympus habet.
Stay passenger, why goest thou by so fast?
Read, if thou canst, whom envious death hath plast
Within this monument: Shakespeare with whome
Quick nature dide; whose name doth deck ys tombe
Far more cost; sith all yt he hath writt
Leaves living art but page to serve his witt.
Obiit ano. doi 1616. Aetatis 53, Die 23 Ap.
Shakespeare may be measured by many tests; but this measurement can only be done, finally, by each reader for himself. It is only by letting the characters speak to you that the real Shakespeare can be revealed. In his plays you may see what he admired, what he laughed at, what he loved and handled tenderly. What did he like in women? Not only beauty and modesty, like all poets, but the clear brain of a Portia, the gay spirits of a Rosalind, the womanly dignity and kindness of Olivia; women who were not squeamish or clinging, but courageous and gallant. His heroes are men of character, though often beset by some demon which temporarily perverts them; they are not cads or rakes. Sincerity, faithfulness in friendship, dependability, loyalty–these are the qualities which he constantly elevates, and whose infringement he punishes. He scoffs merrily at conceit, bombast, vanity, and worldly folly. What emerges more and more, as one reads and thinks, is the wisdom and knowledge of the man combined with his gift of poetry. These qualities have lifted him into eminence. He could make words mean more than they logically mean, and express such commonplace emotions as young love, sorrow, despair, and ambition, in a radiant kind of language so that these experiences seem not commonplace, but the very essence of romance, adventure, pathos.”