William Shakespeare: A biography
Since William Shakespeare lived more than 400 years ago, and many records from that time are lost or never existed in the first place, we don’t know everything about Shakespeare’s life. For example, we know that he was baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon, 100 miles northwest of London, on April 26, 1564. But we don’t know his exact birthdate, which must have been a few days earlier.
We do know that Shakespeare’s life revolved around two locations: Stratford and London. He grew up, had a family, and bought property in Stratford, but he worked in London, the center of English theater. As an actor, a playwright, and a partner in a leading acting company, he became both prosperous and well-known. Even without knowing everything about his life, fans of Shakespeare have imagined and reimagined him according to their own tastes.
Looking for more in-depth information? Need something you can cite? Read an essay about Shakespeare’s life from the Folger Shakespeare Editions. Read essay
Visit Shakespeare Documented to see primary-source materials documenting Shakespeare’s life. This online resource of items from the Folger and other institutions brings together all known manuscript and print references to Shakespeare and his works, as well as additional references to his family, in his lifetime and shortly thereafter.
Early life: Birth and childhood
William Shakespeare was probably born on about April 23, 1564, the date that is traditionally given for his birth. He was John and Mary Shakespeare’s oldest surviving child; their first two children, both girls, did not live beyond infancy. Growing up as the big brother of the family, William had three younger brothers, Gilbert, Richard, and Edmund, and two younger sisters: Anne, who died at seven, and Joan.
Their father, John Shakespeare, was a leatherworker who specialized in the soft white leather used for gloves and similar items. A prosperous businessman, he married Mary Arden, of the prominent Arden family. John rose through local offices in Stratford, becoming an alderman and eventually, when William was five, the town bailiff—much like a mayor. Not long after that, however, John Shakespeare stepped back from public life; we don’t know why.
Shakespeare, as the son of a leading Stratford citizen, almost certainly attended Stratford’s grammar school. Like all such schools, its curriculum consisted of an intense emphasis on the Latin classics, including memorization, writing, and acting classic Latin plays. Shakespeare most likely attended until about age 15.
A horn book in the Folger collection, similar to one that Shakespeare might have learned to read from
Marriage (to Anne Hathaway) and children
A few years after he left school, in late 1582, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. She was already expecting their first-born child, Susanna, which was a fairly common situation at the time. When they married, Anne was 26 and William was 18. Anne grew up just outside Stratford in the village of Shottery. After marrying, she spent the rest of her life in Stratford.
In early 1585, the couple had twins, Judith and Hamnet, completing the family. In the years ahead, Anne and the children lived in Stratford while Shakespeare worked in London, although we don’t know when he moved there. Some later observers have suggested that this separation, and the couple’s relatively few children, were signs of a strained marriage, but we do not know that, either. Someone pursuing a theater career had no choice but to work in London, and many branches of the Shakespeares had small families.
Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died in 1596 at the age of 11. His older daughter Susanna later married a well-to-do Stratford doctor, John Hall. Their daughter Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s first grandchild, was born in 1608. In 1616, just months before his death, Shakespeare’s daughter Judith married Thomas Quiney, a Stratford vintner. The family subsequently died out, leaving no direct descendants of Shakespeare.
For several years after the birth of Judith and Hamnet in 1585, nothing is known for certain of Shakespeare’s activities: how he earned a living, when he moved from Stratford, or how he got his start in the theater.
Following this gap in the record, the first definite mention of Shakespeare is in 1592 as an established London actor and playwright, mocked by a contemporary as a “Shake-scene.” The same writer alludes to one of Shakespeare’s earliest history plays, Henry VI, Part 3, which must already have been performed. The next year, in 1593, Shakespeare published a long poem, Venus and Adonis. The first quarto editions of his early plays appeared in 1594.
For more than two decades, Shakespeare had multiple roles in the London theater as an actor, playwright, and, in time, a business partner in a major acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (renamed the King’s Men in 1603). Over the years, he became steadily more famous in the London theater world; his name, which was not even listed on the first quartos of his plays, became a regular feature—clearly a selling point—on later title pages.
Final years and death
Shakespeare prospered financially from his partnership in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men), as well as from his writing and acting. He invested much of his wealth in real-estate purchases in Stratford and bought the second-largest house in town, New Place, in 1597.
Among the last plays that Shakespeare worked on was The Two Noble Kinsmen, which he wrote with a frequent collaborator, John Fletcher, most likely in 1613. He died on April 23, 1616—the traditional date of his birthday, though his precise birthdate is unknown. We also do not know the cause of his death. His brother-in-law had died a week earlier, which could imply infectious disease, but Shakespeare’s health may have had a longer decline.
The memorial bust of Shakespeare at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford is considered one of two authentic likenesses, because it was approved by people who knew him. The other such likeness is the engraving by Martin Droeshout in the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, produced seven years after his death by his friends and colleagues from the King’s Men.
View a timeline of Shakespeare’s life with links to key supporting documents on Shakespeare Documented.
The bust of Shakespeare in the Folger Reading Room is a copy of the statue at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.
Frequently asked questions
Why did Shakespeare leave his wife his “second best bed”?
William Shakespeare wrote in his last will and testament, dated March 25, 1616, “Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture” (furniture is used to refer to the curtains and bedcover which formed part of the complete bed).
This was not an unusual bequest, nor was it likely to have been intended as a snub. The best bed was usually regarded as an heirloom piece, to be passed to the heir rather than the spouse. It is also probable that the best bed would have been reserved for guests, meaning the “second best” was the bed that William and Anne shared.
What did Shakespeare’s son die of?
We don’t really know how Shakespeare’s young son Hamnet died. He had a twin sister named Judith, who lived to adulthood and married, but Hamnet died at the age of 11 and a half. Child mortality was high in the 16th century; there were no antibiotics and many childhood diseases might therefore prove fatal, such as scarlet fever, whooping cough, diphtheria, and even measles. He was buried on August 11, 1596.
What is the inscription on Shakespeare’s grave?
GOOD FREND FOR JESUS SAKE FORBEARE,
TO DIGG THE DUST ENCLOASED HEARE:
BLESTE BE Ye [the] MAN Yt [that] SPARES THES STONES,
AND CURST BE HE Yt [that] MOVES MY BONES.
Did Shakespeare have a coat of arms?
Yes, William’s father, John Shakespeare, was granted a coat of arms in 1596. It was disputed in 1602 by York Herald, Ralph Brooke, saying that the arms were too similar to existing coats of arms, and that the family was unworthy. However, the challenge was unsuccessful, as the Shakespeare coat of arms appears in later heraldic collections and on William Shakespeare’s funeral monument in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Does Shakespeare have descendants?
William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway had three children. The eldest, Susanna, was baptized on May 26, 1583, and married John Hall in 1607. They had one child, Elizabeth, in 1608. Elizabeth was married twice, to Thomas Nash in 1626, and to John Bernard in 1649. However, she had no children by either husband.
William and Anne also had twins, Judith and Hamnet, who were baptized on February 2, 1585. Hamnet died at age 11 and a half. Judith married Thomas Quiney in 1616, and the couple had three sons: Shakespeare Quiney, who died in infancy, and Richard and Thomas, who both died in 1639 within a month of each other. Since neither of the boys married, there is no possibility of any legitimate descendants from Shakespeare’s line.
It is possible, however, to claim a relationship to Shakespeare through his sister, Joan. She married William Hart some time before 1600, and there are many descendants of this marriage alive today, in both the male and female lines.