The son of a glovemaker, William Shakespeare was baptised in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26 April 1564. Very little is known about his early life, except that he went to a local grammar school and in 1582 married a farmer’s daughter, Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children. It is believed that at this time Shakespeare made a living as a local schoolmaster; however the ambitious young man had far grander objectives.
By 1592 he had moved to London, leaving his family behind in Stratford, and was already a successful poet. He was so successful that he was regarded as something of an interloper by the university educated poets and playwrights of the city, with one Robert Greene going so far as to refer to him in print as “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers”.
A true Johannes Factotum (jack-of-all-trades) Shakespeare worked as an actor whilst producing plays for his audience and poetry for his patrons. As collected Shakespeare books were not published until later in his life, it is impossible to know accurately when he wrote each play. However, as historical dramas were immensely popular at the time, Shakespeare’s earliest plays were probably his ‘Histories’ and historical tragedies including Richard III, Henry VI (parts 1 - 3) and Titus Andronicus. These complex, often gruesome tales of corrupt monarchs, patriotism and political intrigue were popular enough to allow Shakespeare to buy a grand house in Stratford for his family - ‘New Place’.
Writing roughly two plays a year, Shakespeare soon moved into writing inspired by the classics and renaissance Italy. This period began with Romeo and Juliet, set in romantic Verona, the play was written almost entirely in rhyming couplets and was to become one of his most beloved and well known works. After this A Midsummer Night’s Dream revelled in role reversals and magic, whilst Much Ado About Nothing took wit and wordplay to hilarious extremes.
By the beginning of the 17th century it is believed Shakespeare no longer worked as an actor and focused entirely on playwriting. Shakespeare began to write his great tragedies. Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth are widely regarded as Shakespeare’s most accomplished, abandoning clever witty plots for flawed characters and ruminations on the meanings of life, death and fate – written in beautiful and inventive language.
Shakespeare retired to his home in Stratford in 1611. His last play was The Tempest the story of an aged Duke, exiled to a mysterious island with his daughter. The island is an allegory for the world of the theatre itself and it can be seen as the older, wiser Shakespeare reflecting on his life and great achievements on the London stage.
Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616. He is buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. Affectionately known by actors as simply ‘The Bard’, since his death, Shakespeare's influence has grown until he is now regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. His prestige is such that George Bernard Shaw even coined a word for those who excessively praise the genius of Shakespeare – ‘Bardolatry’.