For a man who was arguably the most famous writer in the history of the world, we know relatively little about William Shakespeare – for certain. There’s a good chance he was born on April 23, 1564 in or around Stratford-upon-Avon and a good chance he died on April 23, 1616 in the same place. His legacy is 36 – or maybe 38 – plays and over 150 sonnets likely written over about a twenty year period. His genius was recognized by some of his contemporaries, Ben Jonson said, "He was not of an age, but for all time," but he wasn’t widely appreciated for another century or more.
He came from a pretty good family in Stratford-upon-Avon. His father, John Shakespeare, was a leather merchant and held official positions as alderman and bailiff, an office resembling a mayor; his mother, Mary Arden, was a local landed heiress. Bill probably went to the King's New School, in Stratford, which taught reading, writing and the classics.
Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway of Shottery, a small village a mile west of Stratford, on November 28, 1582. He was18, she was 26, and, she was pregnant. Their first child, Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583 and two years later they had twins, boy and a girl.
There are no records of Shakespeare’s activities for seven years after the birth of the twins in 1585 until he surfaced as a managing partner in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a London acting company. He seems to have been something of an entrepreneur while he was becoming a famous playwright. Shakespeare and some business partners built their own theater on the south bank of the Thames River, which they called the Globe, in 1599. In 1605, Shakespeare bought leases of real estate near Stratford for 440 pounds, which doubled in value and earned him 60 pounds a year. His business ventures seem to have been successful enough for him to live and work in London, commuting home to Stratford – 100 miles and four days ride away – a few months of the year.
Shakespeare’s profession was listed as actor in documents from 1592, 1598 and 1603. We know that he acted in his own plays and in a Ben Jonson play. However, between writing, managing a theater and commuting between London and his home in Stratford he doesn’t seem to have taken leading roles. There is some evidence he played the ghost in Hamlet and Adam, a servant in As You Like It. He performed before Queen Elizabeth I and, later, before James I who was a patron of his work.
Life wasn’t always smooth, the Globe Theatre burned down on in June of 1613 after a cannon shot set fire to it during a performance of Henry VIII. He also seems to have been as much an enigma in his own time as he seems to be now. He lived a double life as a famous playwright in London but in Stratford he was a well known and respected businessman and property owner. An Anglican Archdeacon, Richard Davies of Lichfield, who had known Shakespeare, wrote some time after his death that he had been a Catholic, which was illegal in his lifetime.
After the various writers of the Bible, Shakespeare is the second most quoted writer in the English language and two of his plays, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, have been translated into Klingon which gives him a lot of cred with the Star Trek set.
He was buried at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon with the epitaph
Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here:
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
His remains are still undisturbed.
There are 230 surviving folio editions of Shakespeare’s work. Their recent auction value for folio’s in good condition have been over $5 million. If you find one of these on the bookshelf in your back bedroom, you will want to consult your Washington home insurance agent pretty quickly, but it might not be a good idea to try to sell it. These 230 books are among the most studied in history and the history and disposition of every one is known. The first census of folio owners was done by Thomas Dibdin in 1824 and Sidney Lee did a worldwide folio census in 1901, recording the condition and identifying marks of every known copy.