In history

Aside from being St George’s Day and World Book Day, 23rd April is also the birth (and death) day of William Shakespeare, perhaps one of Britain’s greatest playwrights, so to celebrate his legacy, here’s everything you need to know about William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford Upon Avon in Warwickshire to John and Mary Shakespeare. His father made gloves for a living and had a prosperous business, while Mary was an heiress from a nearby estate, he had 7 siblings: Joan (who died at 2 months old), Margaret, Gilbert, Joan, Anne, Richard and Edmund.

Unlike many of the youngsters at the time, the Shakespeare siblings were well educated and attended private schools.

At 18, Shakespeare found that his girlfriend, 26 year old Anne Hathaway, was pregnant, the pair got married and their first child, Susanna was born 6 months later.  Both Shakespeare’s childhood home and his wife’s home are now tourist attractions in Stratford Upon Avon. 

After Susanna, there were two more children, twins Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet sadly died young and is thought to be the inspiration behind the play Hamlet.

Despite being married and having a young family, Shakespeare left Stratford upon Avon in the late 1580s hoping to become an actor. He moved to London, living in Bishopsgate for a time before becoming the celebrity writer we know him as today. He didn’t give up on being an actor after he hit the big time either, there is evidence to show he performed in several of his own productions.

In his lifetime, Shakespeare is credited with writing at least 37 plays and 154 sonnets. There are several ‘lost plays’ that we know of but have never been discovered and there were some that it is believed he collaborated with other writers too. That means that he was almost certainly constantly writing. Though he was successful, 36 of them in fact were published posthumously and he was initially panned by critcs, one even referred to him as an ”upstart crow.”

There is some debate as to whether Shakespeare actually wrote his plays, with some historians suggesting other famous writers of the time including Christopher Marlow as being the true authors, however, there is strong evidence to suggest that Shakespeare was a prolific writer and wrote all the known plays.

After getting some success with his plays, Shakespeare became incredibly wealthy and as well as being known for his writing, was also a keen businessman. He had a large property portfolio and formed a stock company with his actors, so he took a share in the profits of the theatre company, as well as earning money for each play published.

Back in Shakespeare’s day, copyright didn’t exist, which meant it was difficult to keep plays from being copied and to stop this from happening too much, actors would only get their lines once the play was actually in progress, meaning that there was almost never any actual rehearsal time.

Copying aside, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Shakespeare is one of the most quoted writers in the English language. His work is the second most quoted in English after the bible!

Once he had become a famous playwright, Shakespeare would travel between both London and Stratford Upon Avon, where his family lived. The house he lived in with his wife and children was called New Place and stood on the corner of Chapel Street and Chapel Lane and at the time, it was the largest house in town. Today, you can visit the site of the home, which can be found behind the home of the RSC.

Speaking of the RSC, did you know that during the Jacobean times, it was illegal for women to perform in theatres, so all the female parts were written for and played by, men. In the earliest versions of Hamlet, there is even reference to this. The first women to act on an English stage didn’t appear until the Restoration.

Much like in recent times, a plague outbreak saw all theatres being closed for two years in the 1590s, so like modern actors and writers, Shakespeare had to branch out while there was so little demand for plays. It was at this time he started writing poetry, so we without the plague, we likely wouldn’t have had his beloved sonnets.

This wasn’t the only venue related issue that Shakespeare had to deal with during his lifetime. His Globe Theatre burned down in the middle of a performance. Much like today, special effects were used during plays, but unlike today, they didn’t have trickery, which meant that actual cannons were shot, and in this particular performance, the shot caught fire to the thatched roof of the theatre. The theatre was rebuilt a year later and can now be visited on the banks of the Thames.

One of the most famous portraits of Shakespeare show him wearing a gold hoop in his left ear – something that was fashionable among the creatives of his era, though there is no concrete proof that he wore an earring, it is likely that he did. Another fun fact – that painting was the first painting to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery.

Shakespeare had royal approval. During his lifetime, his theatre company performed before both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. Elizabeth might have been entertained by him but it didn’t stop her from having one of his relatives executed for plotting against her.

James was a particular fan and made the actors in Shakespeare’s company Grooms of Chamber, which in turn led Shakespeare to change the company’s name to the King’s Men, which made him a firm favourite with the king. James would regularly invite the theatre company to court to perform. In fact, though he is often referred to as an Elizabethan playwright, most of his plays were written after Elizabeth’s death, which makes him a Jacobean playwright.

Though he was incredibly well known, Shakespeare had his application to become a gentleman rejected. That didn’t stop him from getting his own coat of arms, he took his father to the College of Arms and chose a family crest. The crest featured a yellow spear on a yellow shield with the phrase Non Sans Droict, which translates to Not Without Right.

Like we said at the start, Shakespeare died on his birthday, he was just 49 years old. He is buried in Stratford Upon Avon and in his will, left his wife his second-best bed. He also wrote a curse for his headstone, which has so far warded off any would be grave robbers.

Find out more about Shakespeare by visiting Warwickshire, see things to do and places to stay here.

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