LET US, for the adequacy of this record, summarize what half the world knows about Shakespeare. Now that devout scholarship has rummaged among his relics for three centuries, it is remarkable how much we do know—far more than enough to set aside, as not meriting debate, all doubts about his authorship of nearly all the plays ascribed to his name.
However, we are not sure about his name. Elizabeth allowed more freedom of spelling than of religion; the same document might use different spellings of the same word, and a man might sign his name variously according to his haste or mood. So contemporaries wrote Marlowe as Marlo, Marlin, Marley, Morley; and Shakespeare’s six surviving signatures appear to read Will Shaksp, William Shakespē, Wm Shakspẽ, William Shakspere, Will Shakspere, and William Shakspeare; the now prevalent spelling has no warrant in his autographs. The last three signatures are all on the same will.
His mother was Mary Arden, of an old Warwickshire family. She brought to John Shakespeare, son of her father’s tenant, a goodly dowry in cash and land, and gave him eight children, of whom William was the third. John became a prosperous businessman in Stratford on Avon, bought two houses, served his town as ale taster, constable, alderman, and bailiff, and contributed liberally to the poor. After 1572 his fortunes fell; he was sued for thirty pounds, he failed to answer, and an order was issued for his arrest. In 1580, for reasons unknown, he was required by the court to give security against a breach of the peace. In 1592 he was listed as “not coming monthly to church according to her Majesty’s laws”; some have concluded from this that he was a “recusant” Catholic, others that he was a Puritan, others that he dared not face his creditors. William later restored his father’s finances, and when the father died (1601) two houses in Henley Street remained in the Shakespeare name.
The Stratford parish church registered William’s baptism on April 26, 1564. Nicholas Rowe, his first biographer, recorded in 1709 the Stratford tradition, now generally credited, that the father “bred him … for some time at a free school … But the narrowness of his circumstances, and the want of his assistance at home, forced his father to withdraw him from thence.”1 Ben Jonson, in the elegy prefixed to the First Folio edition of the plays, addressed his dead rival, “Thou hadst small Latin and less Greek.” Apparently the Greek dramatists remained Greek to Shakespeare, but he learned enough Latin to clutter his lesser plays with Latin odds and ends and bilingual puns. If he had learned more he might have become another scholar, laborious and unknown. London was to be his school.
Another tradition, recorded by Richard Davies about 1681, described young William as “much given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits, particularly from Sir [Thomas] Lucy, who had him oft whipped and sometimes imprisoned.”2 On November 27, 1582, when said miscreant was eighteen, he and Anne Hathaway, then about twenty-five, obtained a marriage license. Circumstances indicate that Anne’s friends compelled Shakespeare to marry her.3 In May 1583, six months after the marriage, a daughter was born to them, whom they named Susanna. Later Anne presented the poet with twins, who were christened Hamnet and Judith on February 2, 1585. Probably toward the end of that year Shakespeare left his wife and children. We have no record of him between 1585 and 1592, when we find him an actor in London.