William Shakespeare was christened on April 26, 1564--the year of Michelangelo's death, and Calvin's--at the Church of the Holy Trinity, in Stratford-on-Avon, a small market town in Warwickshire, about 100 miles northwest of London. He was the eldest child of six (to survive infancy)--four boys, two girls--born to John Shakespeare, a leatherworker, and Mary Arden, the daughter of a prosperous landowner.
John Shakespeare was active in town politics and in 1568 was elected bailiff, what we now call mayor, which would have permitted William to attend the local grammar school free of charge. The curriculum stressed rhetoric, Christian ethics, and classical literature; it seems a virtual certainty that Shakespeare, who did not attend university, acquired the formal part of his education at this school. The documentary record loses track of him, however, between his birth and the marriage license that was obtained on November 27, 1582. His wife, the former Anne Hathaway, was 26, eight years his senior. Their first child, Susanna, was born six months later. There has been much speculation about Anne, to whom 34 years later Shakespeare bequeathed his "second best bed," and the details of their marriage in general--whether, for example, it was a "shotgun wedding." It's evident that during the twenty years or so that Shakespeare spent mainly in London, acting and pursuing business interests related to the theatre and composing 38 dramas, a dozen or so being widely regarded as among the very greatest works of the world's literature, they lived apart, she remaining at Stratford-on-Avon, where twins Hamnet and Judith were born in 1585. The biographical record being too scanty to satisfy curiosity on this point and others, his literary output has naturally been mined for clues, and some have found significance in the passage in The Winter's Tale wherein a shepherd laments that from the ages of 16 to 23 young men do nothing "but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting."
After the birth of the twins, Shakespeare again drops from sight until, in 1592, he is attacked in a pamphlet by the writer Robert Greene, a university-educated playwright who appears to have taken offense at the way in which a lowly actor was now establishing himself as a dramatist. So between 1585 and 1592 Shakespeare had moved to London and acquired enough of a reputation in the theatre to have aroused a fellow practitioner's envy. He also seems to have had defenders, for the publisher of the pamphlet soon issued a written apology in which some personal traits of the young dramatist are mentioned:
I am as sory as if the originall fault had beene my fault, because my selfe haue seene his demeanor no lesse ciuill than he excelent in the qualitie he professes: Besides, diuers of worship haue reported his vprightnes of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writting, that approoues his Art.
From now on the broad outlines, if not the details of daily living, are chronicled in theatre records, property deeds, business documents, court records, and the like. The picture that emerges is of a practical man of affairs, extremely busy in his work life, where he excelled and prospered. It has not escaped notice that on a couple of occasions he used the courts to enforce the payment of relatively small debts. In 1597, he purchased, for sixty pounds, the second most valuable residence in Stratford-on-Avon. Had he died in the same year, he would have lived three years longer than did Marlowe, the second greatest dramatist of the period, and it is possible the two would be regarded similarly. But starting right around 1600, the year in which Hamlet was likely composed, Shakespeare's work turned. To the next six or seven years belong the tragedies of Othello, Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. For those inclined to read Shakespeare's autobiography in his plays, Hamlet seems a break through. It is longer by half than anything before it, a linguistic analysis reveals more than 600 words that had not been deployed in more than twenty earlier plays (and two long poems), and plausibility is sacrificed in order to achieve disturbing effects--for example, the "antic disposition" adopted by the hero makes perfect sense in Shakespeare's source but not in the play that he wrote, where it is nevertheless preserved. The audience, wondering whether Hamlet will indeed take revenge for the murder of his father, is confronted with unexpected soliloquoys in which the topic of suicide is at the fore. One critic has remarked that, of all Shakespeare's characters, only Hamlet could have written his plays. Many have sensed or supposed that Hamlet is the character closest to Shakespeare the man.
One approach to all such speculation is to dismiss it as overwrought and purely conjectural. Those otherwise inclined will note that Shakespeare's son Hamnet was buried in 1596, his father in 1601. The critic Edward Dowden identified four periods to Shakespeare's career and labeled them "In the workshop," "In the world," "Out of the depths," and "On the heights." This seemed to indicate that autobiography was the principal force exerting itself on this "practical man of affairs" and has been dismissed as too pat. Yet it is true that there is much gaiety in the plays composed before 1600, that his work for most of the next decade was characterized by savagery and nihilism, which then modulated into something like serene acceptance in such late works as The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. He retired and returned to Stratford-on-Avon in about 1612. He made a will in March of 1616 and died on the 23rd of the following month, almost exactly 52 years after his birth. The recurring word in the testimony of contemporary acquaintances is "gentle," which then was more closely related to gentilesse than it is today. "The best verbal vignette," according to Alfred Harbage, "was written by his rival Ben Jonson, the more impressive for being imbedded in a context mainly critical":
. . . . I loved the man, and doe honour his memory (on this side idolatry) as much as any. Hee was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature: had an excellent Phantsie, brave notions, and gentle expressions. . . .