Birth Date. William Shakespeare, surely the world's most performed and admired playwright, was born in April, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, about 100 miles northwest of London. According to the records of Stratford's Holy Trinity Church, he was baptized on April 26. Since it was customary to baptize infants within days of birth, and since Shakespeare died 52 years later on April 23, and--most significantly--since April 23 is St. George's day, the patron saint of England, it has become traditional to assign the birth day of England's most famous poet to April 23. As with most sixteenth century births, the actual day is not recorded. And as with most remarkable men, the power of myth and symmetry has proven irresistible. So April 23 it has become.
Parents and Family. Shakespeare's parents were John and Mary Shakespeare, who lived in Henley Street, Stratford. John, the son of Richard Shakespeare, was a whittawer (a maker, worker and seller of leather goods such as purses, belts and gloves) and a dealer in agricultural commodities. He was a solid, middle class citizen at the time of William's birth, and a man on the rise. He served in Stratford government successively as a member of the Council (1557), constable (1558), chamberlain (1561), alderman (1565) and finally high bailiff (1568)--the equivalent of town mayor. About 1577 John Shakespeare's fortunes began to decline for unknown reasons. There are records of debts. In 1586 he was replaced as alderman for shirking responsibilities, and in 1592 was reprimanded for not coming to church for fear of process of debt.
Mary, the daughter of Robert Arden, had in all eight children with John Shakespeare. William was the third child and the first son. Click on the following link to a genealogical table which will illustrate many of the details of Shakespeare's relationships. When done, use your browser's BACK button to return to this page.
A Shakespeare Genealogy
Birth Place in Henley Street, as it appeared in 1762
Taken from J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare
Birth Place. In the sixteenth century Stratford-upon-Avon was an important agricultural center and market town, its market being licensed in the twelfth century by Richard I. The building in Henley street known today as the "birthplace" was at the time of Shakespeare's birth actually two adjacent buildings that John Shakespeare purchased at different times. Illustrations of it are based on the 18th century water color by Richard Greene made after the two buildings were joined into one. There are no renderings of the original buildings.
The "birth room" was not "identified" until the 18th century when the Shakespeare tourism industry was in its infancy. Any claims to detailed information about Shakespeare's birth are certainly speculative at best. You may find out more about the various buildings associated with Shakespeare's youth from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Tourist information and other interesting details can also be learned from the very good Welcome to Shakespeare's Stratford web site, or the even better, Windows on Warwickshire.
Education. Records for the Stratford grammar school (The King's New School - dedicated by Edward VI) from the time Shakespeare would have attended have been lost, but attend he undoubtedly did since the school was built and maintained expressly for the purpose of educating the sons of prominent citizens. The sons of burgesses attended free.
The curriculum commenced with the hornbook in order to learn the English alphabet, and thereafter was largely devoted to learning the Latin grammar, based on Lily's Grammaticis Latina (this Lily was the grandfather of the playwright John Lily--often spelled Lyly), and later translating and reading the standard Roman authors. They began with what was considered the relatively easy Latin of Aesop's Fables (translated from Greek), then Caesar, and then moved on to Cicero, Virgil, Ovid (the author that seems to have been Shakespeare's favorite), Horace, Suetonius, Livy, and, notably for a dramatist, Seneca, Terence and (perhaps) Plautus . School began at dawn (six or seven depending on the season) and proceeded most of the day, with breaks for meals, six days a week How long Shakespeare attended the school is not known, but from his obvious mastery and love for the Latin authors, the grammar school must have at least begun the process that he later mastered.
The other significant educational opportunity afforded all Elizabethans was mandatory attendance at church, where they were exposed to either the Geneva Bible (translated 1560) or the Bishops' Bible (translated 1568)--not the authorized, or King James, version since it was not published until 1611. Church attendance also brought them under the influence of The Book of Common Prayer (composed 1549), Foxe's Acts and Monuments (1563), homilies and preaching.
No one knows how long Shakespeare remained at the Stratford Grammar School, but Nicholas Rowe (first editor of Shakespeare's Works after the Folio editions and his first biographer--1709) reports that "...the want of his assistance at Home, forc'd his Father to withdraw him from thence." (Rowe, Some Acount of the Life, ). Rowe's source was the actor Thomas Betterton (1634-1710), who made "a journey to Warwickshire on purpose to gather up what remains he could, of a name for which he had so great a veneration." So we cannot be certain, but it would seem likely that William was apprenticed to his father's business in the usual way, perhaps some time around 1577 when John Shakespeare's fortunes seem to take a turn for the worse.
In any event, reckoned as part of William's early education must be the ways of business he would have learned around his father's shop. Concerning this period, there is a legend reported in Aubrey's Brief Lives (Aubrey was a seventeenth century gentleman known as a gossip and raconteur--1681) that "...his father was a Butcher, & I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbors, that when he was a boy he exercised his father's Trade, but when he kill'd a Calfe, he would do it in a high style, & make a Speech." As unlikely as this behavior seems from someone who shows empathy for animals in his poetry--almost alone among his contemporaries--the detail of having been apprenticed to his father (who was not a butcher but a worker in leather, and probably did not do his own butchering) may well be correct.
Finally, as part of Shakespeare's early education and influences, the Warwickshire countryside cannot be ignored. The plays and poetry are full of images taken from nature, gardening, agricultural pursuits, and country folklore. For example, in Henry V we find this description of the land:
Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart,
Unpruned dies; her hedges even-pleach'd,
Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair,
Put forth disorder'd twigs; her fallow leas
The darnel, hemlock, and rank fumitory,
Do root upon, while the coulter rusts,
That should deracinate such savagery;
The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet, and green clover,
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.
This sort of learning was not gleaned from books.
©1995-1998 Terry A. Gray
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