Records document that William Shakespeare was christened in the rural English town of Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564; his birth date has traditionally been taken to be April 23. He was the third child and eldest son of Mary Arden and John Shakespeare, a glove-maker, tanner, merchant, and prominent member of the Stratford community, who held several high municipal offices in the course of his lifetime. Coming from such a background, Shakespeare was undoubtedly educated in the local grammar school. Given what we know of Elizabethan school curricula, we can reasonably infer that at the King’s New School, Shakespeare gained a solid grounding in classical learning and was able to read texts in Latin, such as Virgil’s Aeneid and the plays of Plautus, Terence, and Seneca. Shakespeare’s early works especially show evidence of these classical influences. In 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, with whom he was to have three children, two of whom survived him.
Roughly in the middle 1580s, Shakespeare seems to have left Stratford, although nothing is known for sure about his activities at this time. By 1589, he was apparently involved in London’s theater world as both a playwright and an actor. Henry VI, Part One appears to be the first play he wrote (1589–90). For roughly the next two decades, Shakespeare dominated the theatrical scene in London, becoming the most celebrated and commercially successful playwright of the era. Beginning in 1594 and until his death, Shakespeare was associated with a theater company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. In 1595, he became a shareholder in the company, the only playwright in his day to be entitled to a share of a theater’s profits. In 1599, the company opened the Globe Theatre, the stage with which Shakespeare is most closely associated. In 1603, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men became the King’s Men under the patronage of the newly crowned James I. As further evidence of Shakespeare’s importance to his theater company, in 1608 he became a one-seventh shareholder in the Blackfriars Theatre, an indoor venue, which the company leased to cater to a more aristocratic audience. Shakespeare’s activities in the theater made him a wealthy man by the standards of his day, and he invested heavily in real estate, including buying New Place in Stratford in 1597, the second-largest house in the town. In 1610 or 1611 Shakespeare appears to have returned to Stratford to live, perhaps in a form of retirement, although he evidently continued his financial association with the King’s Men and worked on a few more plays for them, probably in collaboration with John Fletcher. Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 and was buried on April 25 in Trinity Church, Stratford, where a monument to him can still be viewed. His greatest monument is the First Folio edition of 36 of his plays, edited by his friends John Heminges and Henry Condell and published in 1623.
Many mysteries remain about Shakespeare’s life and unfortunately we have no documentation about his inner biography (no diaries or letters of his have survived). But thanks to his involvement in a series of legal matters, tax disputes, land purchases, and other business transactions (together with the English propensity to preserve court records), many of the details of Shakespeare’s life, such as his places of residence over the years, are reasonably well-documented, especially for a man of his station of life. We know more about his life than we do about that of any other playwright of the day, with the exception of Ben Jonson. Despite the many claims to the contrary, it is virtually certain that the man we know as William Shakespeare did write the bulk of the plays associated with his name. None of his contemporaries challenged his authorship of those plays and many explicitly speak of him as having written them. People did not begin to question that Shakespeare wrote the plays until a century and a half after his death and their claims are based on dubious evidence, specious arguments, and wild speculation. In fact, Shakespeare’s profile generally fits that of the typical dramatist of his day, especially his middle-class origins (Christopher Marlowe, for example, was the son of a shoemaker) and his experience as an actor. Many of the skeptics concerning Shakespeare’s authorship begin with the question: “How could a mere actor have written such profound plays?” And yet the history of drama is filled with cases of actor-playwrights, including Ben Jonson and Molière; indeed Thespis, the man whose name has become synonymous with “actor” (“Thespian”), was the first to write tragedies.