Guest Blog, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: Who was William Shakespeare?

This year marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare and, to celebrate his enduring legacy, three UK £2 coins have been released. This month, on the anniversary of his birth, we celebrate a poet, playwright, actor and literary great, whose legacy has not only survived but thrived for 400 years. From his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, that in itself is a celebration of his works, life and times, to a nation that still study, appreciate and enjoy his work, William Shakespeare’s legacy is unrivaled and its influence unquestionable.

In this blog post, the first in a series written by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for The Royal Mint blog, we find out more about William Shakespeare the man, where he was from, his family and his life.

William Shakespeare’s birthplace

Who was William Shakespeare?

William Shakespeare was a great poet and playwright who knew what it was to entertain; he knew the full, rhetorical power of language which he used to powerful effect in his plays – whether for political persuasion, or for portraying what his characters are feeling. Outside of his work he was a family and business man who divided his time between the two main centres of his life: Stratford-upon-Avon and London.

William Shakespeare was the son of John and Mary Shakespeare, and was born in the house which belonged to his father on Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon on Sunday 23 April 1564. He was baptized three days later in the nearby Holy Trinity Church. There was a severe outbreak of plague in the town that year which killed two hundred people – around ten per cent of the population at the time. The young William Shakespeare was lucky to survive.

Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon where Shakespeare is buried

Stratford-upon-Avon was a thriving market town with its eye on progress. His father, John, was a tradesman, a qualified maker of white-leather and gloves, but also gave readily of his time for a variety of offices on the borough council (including bailiff, the equivalent of mayor in 1568-9). He also dealt considerably in wool, the nation’s booming industry.

Growing up, Shakespeare must have attended the town’s grammar school (the curriculum of which is writ large throughout his works), but the attendance records only date back as far as the beginning of the nineteenth century. By eighteen he’d made rather a mess of things. He had to marry his girlfriend, Anne Hathaway from nearby Shottery, who had become pregnant by him. Being married meant that he couldn’t legally undertake an apprenticeship. They would go on to have three children: their first, Susanna, and then twins, a boy and a girl, Hamnet (who died aged 11) and Judith.

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

Without an apprenticeship, Shakespeare probably started free-lancing as a playwright in London from the late 1580s, and is first alluded to there in 1592. His great success came the following year with the publication of his comic and erotic poem, Venus and Adonis. It was his first major work (certainly the first time his name appeared in print), and it was to become the most printed of all his works in his lifetime. If you want to see how and why Shakespeare’s contemporaries first became excited by him, then read and relish Venus and Adonis.

In 1594 he co-founded a brand new theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. His company shares helped to establish him as a wealthy businessman. In 1597, at the age of just thirty-three, he was able to buy the largest house in the borough of Stratford-upon-Avon, New Place. It was a place where all of his family could live, and remained the fixed point of his busy and hectic life in London (where he was only ever an intermittent lodger). His company always needed the next blockbuster, and Shakespeare was their main playwright. No doubt his Stratford-upon-Avon base provided a useful retreat in which he could get his head down and produce the work. His theatre troupe performed regularly at court before the monarchs Elizabeth I and James I (in fact at least 170 performances were given by them in Shakespeare’s lifetime), and usually during the Christmas period.

Knot Garden at Shakespeare’s New Place

Shakespeare has thirty-eight plays attributed to him (some of which are collaborative), two narrative poems, and a volume of 154 sonnets. Together, this output contains some of the best poetry and drama ever-written.

He died on 23 April 1616 and was buried on 25 April, close to the altar in Holy Trinity Church. Above him, on the north wall, is a monument that compares his mind to Socrates, his art to Virgil’s, and invites us to see ‘all that he hath writ’.

Shakespeare's Bust in Holy Trinity Church
Shakespeare’s Bust in Holy Trinity Church

by Paul Edmondson, Head of Research, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. @paul_edmondson


Find out more! Watch an animation about Shakespeare’s life based on Paul Edmondson’s introduction to Shakespeare for the general reader, Shakespeare: Ideas in Profile by clicking here.

Or, listen to some imagined first-person accounts of the voices from his life, based on the latest research published in The Shakespeare Circle: An Alternative Biography, edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells by clicking here.

Look out for the next blog in the series from Shakespeare birthplace trust in which we find out more about Shakespeare and money…

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