1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings

William Shakespeare's Birth

William Shakespeare is the most famous playwright in the world, but not all the facts of his life are known. We do know that he was both born (in 1564) and buried (in 1616) in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England – an area of countryside and agriculture.

Because registers of births and deaths were not kept in the sixteenth/seventeenth century, we cannot be sure of the exact dates. However the parish church, Holy Trinity, did keep registers of baptisms and burials (usually held close to the actual birth and death) so it is likely that Shakespeare died on his birthday, April 23rd — the day which also commemorates Saint George, England’s patron saint.

William Shakespeare's Parents

Shakespeare was one of eight children, the first son of Mary and John Shakespeare. His father was a prosperous worker with, and seller of, leather goods such as gloves. At the time of Shakespeare’s birth, John was an increasingly important man in the community, becoming an alderman and high bailiff (i.e. the mayor) of Stratford. By the time William was in his teens, the family fortunes had declined and his father was in debt.

William Shakespeare's Education

There are no certain records but William probably attended the local grammar school, which still exists today. The term grammar school then meant exactly that — pupils (boys only, as girls’ education was considered much less important) learnt Latin grammar, to enable them to study classical Latin texts, and little else.

William Shakespeare's Church

Photo by Jeremy Bolwell available through Creative CommonsWilliam would have attended the local church with his family, since attendance was compulsory by law — although some recent scholarship has suggested that the Shakespeares were still secretly believers in the Catholic faith. He would have been one of the first generation of English men and women to have grown up hearing church services, including readings from the Bible, in English; until the mid-sixteenth century they would have been in Latin. (See Social/political context: Protestant versus Catholic).

More on early language influences: Listening every Sunday to readings in English from the Bishop’s Bible (translated to English in 1568, and a precursor of the more famous Authorised Version of 1611), and to services from the Book of Common Prayer, certainly influenced Shakespeare. The breadth and beauty of his language includes many biblical echoes – including the title of one play, Measure for Measure which is a direct reference to chapter 7 of Matthew’s Gospel. (See Measure for Measure.) Such biblical references can be found in most English authors from the sixteenth to twentieth century.

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