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The Life and Times of William Shakespeare (Biography)

July 25th, 2010

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William Shakespeare of Elizabethan England lived a mysterious and sometimes scandalous existence, causing puzzlement and great fantastic stories, both true and false, to abound. His education remains to be speculated at as does his marriage. After leaving for England, what profession did he take up before appearing on stage? The most prominent mystery surrounding the magnificent bard’s life is the idea that he may have not even written any of his own play or poems at all. Exploring these unknown facts and rumors sheds light on our understanding of the immortal genius.

England’s greatest poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, the third of the eight children of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. According to the parish register of the Holy Trinity Church, he was baptized on April 26, 1564. Following ancient custom, babies in Stratford were baptized on the third day of life, placing William Shakespeare’s date of birth to be April 23, 1564. This date was also marked St. George’s Day and the day of his own death fifty four years later. Young William was born of John Shakespeare, a successful landowner, moneylender, dealer of wool and agricultural goods, and glover. William’s father moved to Stratford-upon-Avon in the mid-sixteenth century, and in 1556 he purchased a home on Greenhill Street, in addition to a house adjoining his place of occupancy on Henley Street. It is in this “double-house” on Henley Street (ninety miles northwest of London) in the county of Warwickshire that the brilliant poet was said to have been born. In 1557, John Shakespeare had married Mary Arden, the mother of William. Her family was Roman Catholic but when she married John Shakespeare she became part of the English church to escape persecution by the Queen. Mary Arden was a land-owning heiress with a fifty-acre estate by the name of Asbies recently inherited from her father, Robert Arden, in 1556. The name of Shakespeare is quite an old one in Warwickshire, dating back as far as 1248, when William Sakspere was executed for thieving. By 1561, John Shakespeare was elected as one of Stratford’s fourteen burgesses where he served as one of two chamberlains, administering government property and revenues. William’s father became an alderman in 1568 and three years later he was elected Bailiff, the modern day equivalent of mayor. Around 1576, John Shakespeare fell upon hard times, losing is council position and was even listed as one of nine mean who failed to go to church for fear of being arrested for their debts.

Little is known about William Shakespeare’s childhood, but what can be deciphered is that it was time in his life with mixed emotion; moments of happiness were stained by heart-breaking tragedies, which perhaps later dictated how he expressed the world through his plays. Stratford-upon-Avon, although a small town, had a long history of excellent free education. It is fairly certain that William Shakespeare attended the King’s New School from the age of seven to thirteen, renamed in Edward’s honor, which at the time had a reputation that rivaled Eton. The teachers of this prestigious grammar school were all graduates of Oxford, so William probably greatly profited from their lessons. Students would spend nine hours a day in school for the entire calendar year and when a student misbehaved, the teachers were allowed to physically punish the student. The only surviving school desk from Stratford is a standing desk, and it has been speculated that on many occasions a schoolmaster would fight off a the winter morning frosts by beating his boys when he first got to the school to warm himself. While there are no records to prove that William Shakespeare attended the King’s New School, adding to the mysteries about his life, his knowledge of Latin and Classical Greek would support this theory. Also Shakespeare’s first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, wrote that John Shakespeare had placed William “for some time in a free school. ” (Pressley) William’s father would have been able to enjoy the absence of tuition for his young son as a benefit of his position. Furthermore, John Shakespeare took a special interest in grammar school, being a member of the committee responsible for major restorations and for nominating the headmaster. More support for this claim comes in his play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, where he re-enacts a school-room scene, right down to the learning of Latin by memorization. In 1575 when William was eleven years old, a great plague swept the country and Queen Elizabeth journeyed out of London to avoid its consequences. She stayed for several days at Kenilworth Castle near Stratford during the hot month of July, enjoying festivities arranged by her host Lord Leicester. It was probable that these events may have made a strong impact on the developing mind of the young poet and playwright.

Throughout the sometimes free spirited, high times of Shakespeare’s youth, he was haunted by growing debts of his father and the deaths of relatives very dear to him.

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