The exact date of Shakespeare's birth is unknown, but 23rd of April 1564 is an assumed date, counting back a few days from the known date of his baptism. No doubt the 23rd was chosen because it is St George's Day. Shakespeare was born in Henley Street, Stratford-Upon-Avon in England's Midlands. His father, John was a glover, and his mother Mary Arden, came from a farming family. The house in Henley Street, Shakespeare's Birthplace where Shakespeare was born and grew up, survives.
Not much is known of Shakespeare's childhood. John Shakespeare was in the business of making gloves and tanning leather. John was more interested in civic duties than his business, however. This led to financial worries for his family, but at least one of John's public positions, that of alderman, gave the privilege of free education at Stratford Grammar School for his children. It is probable that William started school here at age six. Some scholars think he may have left school early, due to his father's money problems. What is known is that in August 1582, at the age of twenty six, Anne Hathaway, who was eight years older than William, her young boyfriend, became pregnant. The couple married towards the end of that year. It is not clear what Shakespeare, now a family man, did for the next few years. It has been suggested that he may have worked as a glover, like his father, or perhaps as a school teacher. Then in 1587 five travelling acting companies visited Stratford. It is thought that the Leicester's Men and the Queen's Men were below strength and may have been looking to take on an aspiring young actor. Although it is unclear what exactly happened, sometime in the late 1580s William Shakespeare started out as an actor. It should not be thought that acting was a "profession" at this time. Actors who did not have protection from a wealthy patron, such as the Earl of Leicester, were considered no better than vagabonds, and were imprisoned. Apart from two theatres in London, The Theatre and The Curtain, there were no purpose built theatre buildings. Shakespeare was embarking on a precarious course, and one with little social prestige. The Beatles heading to Hamburg to live a hand to mouth existence in lodgings behind the screen of a grotty cinema is a good parallel.
The George Inn, Southwark
By 1592 there are references to Shakespeare as an established actor in London. It is possible that he saw and acted in plays at the George Inn, part of which still stands in Southwark, south London. He had already started to write plays. Henry VI, and Titus Andronicus are dated to 1590 - 91. Shakespeare was now a working actor and writer in the tough world of show business. He was writing plays on which his livelihood depended, and used the patterns of language of ordinary people in his audiences. In the words of A.L. Rowse in Shakespeare The Man, there was "no nonsense about hexameters... Shakespeare followed, more subtly, the instinct of language, with its own nature dictating the rhythms. Spoken English falls naturally into iambic pentameter, and this is the norm throughout Shakespeare's work". (Iambic pentameter, if you want to be technical, is a line of verse in a alternating pattern of five unstressed and stressed syllables. Put more simply it is a rhythm that goes "de dum de dum de dum de dum de dum." )
Shakespeare was helped in these early years by the patronage of the Earl of Southampton, a dashing young nobleman. A.L. Rowse suggests that a complicated love triangle grew up between Shakespeare, his patron Southampton, and a woman named Emilia Bassano. Emilia may be the Dark Lady of the Sonnets which were being written at this time. In this early period of his career, from 1592 to 1594, Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, Love Labour's Lost, Richard III, Venus and Adonis, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet . The Comedy of Errors was first performed at Gray's Inn Hall, which has been rebuilt exactly as it was, following destruction in the Second World War, at Gray's Inn, London.
The Globe Theatre
In 1595 Shakespeare left the patronage of Southampton and became a partner in the Lord Chamberlain's Men. He committed himself to plays from this point, leaving the sonnets of his painful love affair behind. By 1598 he was part owner of the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames in Southwark. Building of the Globe had begun the previous year using reclaimed timber from London's first theatre building, The Theatre, built by James Burbage in 1576 and demolished on the expiration of its lease. Shakespeare had become a successful, hard working theatrical entrepreneur.
The Globe has been recreated on Bankside close to its original location. Sitting in its galleries you survey the scene in which many of the most famous plays in literature were first seen: Even on a visit when no play is being performed you get a feeling for what a busy, colourful place this must have been. When I last visited, groups were walking about listening to talks. An enthusiastic school group was having a go at Romeo and Juliet on stage. Shakespeare's time was very communal. People lived close together. The Globe was on the day of a performance, a seething mass of jostling humanity. Today theatres are more likely to have an audience sitting quietly in the dark. Actors are often separated from the audience by a proscenium arch. No such barrier existed in Shakespeare's time. Asides to the audience were common, and crowds would be vocal in their support or displeasure of an actor's performance. The Globe Theatre, like the houses of the time, was an open hall. It was here at the Globe that some of Shakespeare's most famous plays were first performed: As You Like It (1598), Much Ado about Nothing (1598), Henry V (1599), Julius Caesar (1599), Twelfth Night (1600), Hamlet (1601), The Merry Wives of Windsor (1601), All's Well That Ends Well (1603), Measure for Measure (1604), Othello (1604), Macbeth (1605 - 6), King Lear (1606), Anthony and Cleopatra (1607), A Winter's Tale (1611), The Tempest (1612).
Shakespeare went into semi retirement in Stratford towards the end of his life, buying New Place in 1597. New Place has not survived, but its foundations are preserved in the grounds of the subsequent house called Nash's House . This was home to Shakespeare's granddaughter Elizabeth. There are period furnishings, and displays on the history of Stratford. In the garden there is a mulberry tree grown from a cutting planted by Shakespeare. He died at New Place on 23rd of April 1616.
In visiting places related to Shakespeare there are of course the properties linked to Shakespeare in Stratford, all owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust - Shakespeare's Birthplace, Anne Hathaway's Cottage, Mary Arden's House, Hall's Croft and Nash's House/New Place. And there's the wonderful recreated Globe on Bankside in London. But just as interesting are other buildings which actually appeared in Shakespeare's plays. In many ways buildings became characters in the plays. This is true, for example, of the Tower of London in Richard III or Warkworth Castle in King Henry IV Part 2. Castle walls are often used as an ambivalent symbol of security in Shakespeare's work, around which the insecurity of life plays itself out. In Richard III the Tower's walls are protective. The mother of the Princes in the Tower asks them to look after her children. But those same walls are also threatening prison walls. The two princes disappear into the Tower and are never seen again. Similar contradictions play out around Warkworth's walls. These walls reflect ironically on confused loyalties in the play. A ghostly character called Rumour opens the play by drifting about Warkworth's fortifications. He spreads the deception that rather than dying at Shrewsbury, Hotspur triumphed, and it was King Henry who died. It is in this confused, fluctuating situation that King Henry IV Part 2 begins. And the first thing that happens in Act 1 is the opening of the gate of Warkworth Castle. The walls seem so solid and strong, but the divisions they represent are as changeable as Rumour itself.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford performs a constant programme of Shakespeare's plays. There is also the Swan, a theatre built to resemble the galleried inns and theatres where the plays were originally performed. The Swan gives a much more authentic feel for how the plays would have been experienced in the sixteenth century. I saw The Taming of the Shrew there, and I have to say it was the most enjoyable evening I've ever had at the theatre.
web site: for Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: www.shakespeare.org.uk
for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan: www.rsc.org.uk