Although William Shakespeare is generally considered the greatest dramatist in the English language, few facts are known about his life. Only a handful of legal documents verify his existence. Tradition has it that he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small market town, on April 23, 1564. His father was a glove maker who became High Bailiff of Stratford, a position similar to our mayor.
As the son of a leading citizen and public official, Shakespeare would have gone to school as soon as he learned to read and write. The Stratford grammar school was excellent compared to similar schools in bigger towns. School was in session year round, and students attended for nine hours a day. The curriculum was limited, consisting almost entirely of Latin: grammar, reading, writing, and recitation. By the time Shakespeare was a youth, many traveling theatre companies of significance had visited Stratford, so it is fair to guess that Shakespeare had seen some of them and admired their art.
At age 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior; they had three children, Susanna, Hamnet, and Judith. Little is known of Shakespeare’s life at this time. It is clear that by the early 1590s, however, Shakespeare was a part of the theatrical scene in London, although we know nothing of the circumstances by which he left Stratford and his family to become an actor and playwright in the city. By 1594 Shakespeare was established at the center of theatrical activity, for he is recorded as a shareholder in the Globe Theatre.
Over the next fifteen years, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, several narrative poems, and more than 150 sonnets. He became the most popular playwright in London’s highly competitive theatrical world. He was granted a coat of arms, thus officially making him a gentleman, and he bought sizeable pieces of real estate in and around Stratford with his earnings. His plays exhibit not only a fine sense of poetry and stagecraft, but also an excellent awareness of the tempestuous political and literary atmosphere in which he lived. Shakespeare used his plays metaphorically to suggest how, in a changing society, order could be made out of chaos.
Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616—his 52nd birthday— and was buried in the church chancel in Stratford. A tribute to his genius occurred in 1623, when two of his fellow actors and a London printer published a collected edition of his plays. This kind of publication was rare in its day, as plays were valued for their commercial appeal on the stage, with little thought of them as literature to be preserved. No doubt some of the texts were reconstructed from memory or from a stage manager’s promptbook. In any case the First Folio, as this collection has come to be called, is a document of great historic and literary importance, for it preserved for posterity some of the greatest writing in the English language, allowing us to study and perform Shakespeare’s plays more than 400 years later and for generations to come.