The world’s most celebrated playwright has captivated audiences for centuries, yet so little is known about his life. Did you ever wonder why? William Shakespeare’s works are often considered timeless masterpieces that have inspired literature and theatre for centuries. But with all these plays, sonnets, and other poems, you would think he would have left us with more – something like an autobiography at least.
So why is so little known about Shakespeare’s life? You might be amazed to learn that the explanation rests in how his works were published – or rather how they were not published – during his lifetime. In this article, we’ll dive into some of the most common and popular theories about why so little is known about Shakespeare’s life.
1. William Shakespeare: Biography
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon (thereby the title “Bard of Avon“), England, in 1564 to parents John Shakespeare and Mary Shakespeare (Mary Arden).
John and Mary had eight children together. They lost two daughters as infants, and then William became the couple’s eldest son. John Shakespeare worked as a glove manufacturer but rose to prominence in the town of Stratford by holding municipal offices. Because of his heightened position, he was even more inclined to send his children, including William, to the local grammar school.
William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was twenty-six at the time when he was eighteen. Because Anne was already pregnant at the time of the wedding, the ceremony was hastened. They have three children together. Six months after their wedding, their first daughter, Susanna, was born, followed by twins Hamnet and Judith but Hamnet died when he was merely 11 years old, after a while, he went to London to pursue his career as an actor and playwright.
1.1 What was Shakespeare’s Writing?
Shakespeare composed at least 37 plays and worked on numerous more between around 1590 and 1613. The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing are two names among 17 comedies. Henry V and Richard III are among his ten historical dramas. Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth are some of his most well-known tragedies. Poetry: Shakespeare also composed four poems including the well-known Sonnets collection, which was originally published in 1609.
1.2 The First Folio
The First Folio, printed in the large “folio” style, is the earliest collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays. After he died in 1616, his two fellow actors and friends Henry Condell and John Heminge edited and published the First Folio in 1623.
The book contains the whole text of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays. “The main publishers were Edward Blount (1565-1632), a London bookseller and publisher, and Isaac Jaggard (died 1627), son of William Jaggard (approximately 1568-1623), a printer and publisher long linked with Shakespeare who died the year the folio was published”. The number of copies printed for the First Folio is unclear.
1.3 Queen Elizabeth 1 and William Shakespeare
Concerning the Elizabethan era: As per William Neilson who was the author of several critical works on Shakespeare, “Shakespeare lived in a period of change. In religion, politics, literature, and commerce, in the habits of daily living, in the world of ideas, his lifetime witnessed continual change and movement.”
Theatre flourished under the reign of Elizabeth 1. She had been on the throne for about 30 years when Shakespeare began his writing career. History has it, she was the most popular monarch. While most of Shakespeare’s plays were penned by him after Queen Elizabeth’s death, “she did watch a few of Shakespeare’s plays that he had performed at Court”.
1.4 King James 1 and William Shakespeare
In the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s part-owned acting company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had performed. Shakespeare was also a co-owner of the theatre- |The Globe.
“Shakespeare’s plays that were performed around the Globe early on included: Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Here the Lord Chamberlain’s Men enjoyed much success and gained the patronage of King James I in 1603, subsequently becoming The King’s Men”.
2. The “Lost Years” of Shakespeare’s Life
2.1 The Mysterious Gap Between 1585 to 1592
As per various researchers, it seems to be a sure-shot fact that his plays were produced between 1592 to 1616 but what happened from 1585 to 1592 in Shakespeare’s life? Shakespeare’s lost years are the seven years after the births of Judith and Hamnet because knowledge concerning him is insufficient and inconsistent. Shakespeare did, however, come to London in his late twenties, in 1588, to pursue a career as a playwright and actor.
2.2 So How Did Shakespeare Get Up in the London Theatre Scene?
According to one idea, Shakespeare as a young man may have joined a travelling theatre team and travelled to London as a member of their troupe. If he did spend time in the North before his marriage and was in touch with Lord Strange’s Men, it’s feasible that he reconnected with them and joined their ranks.
It’s also possible that Shakespeare joined one of the numerous troupes that performed in cities surrounding Stratford in the year or two following the births of Hamnet and Judith. According to one fascinating idea, Shakespeare joined Queen Elizabeth’s court actors, a group known as the Queen’s Men.
In 1587, the Queen’s Men performed at Stratford, and they were shorthanded when one of their main performers, William Knell, was slain in a scuffle with another actor. If Shakespeare joined the Queen’s Men as a newcomer, it might have been his ticket into the London theatre scene.
2.3 Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Lucy
Shakespeare’s biographers in the seventeenth century, such as Richard Davies and Nicholas Rowe, thought it impossible that he would leave Stratford without provocation, and they theorized that Shakespeare became engaged in deer poaching.
Shakespeare’s connection with Sir Thomas Lucy, a local Stratford-upon-Avon landowner, is the subject of a famous tale. According to oral legend, Shakespeare stole deer from Sir Thomas Lucy’s estate, the adjacent Charlecote Park. He was said to have escaped to London to avoid penalties.
Contemporary academics are sceptical of this narrative and believe Shakespeare’s quarrel with Lucy was caused by the gentleman’s engagement in strong anti-Catholic actions. According to popular belief, Shakespeare may have left Stratford to conceal his Catholic beliefs.
2.4 Prosperous Life of Shakespeare After 1590
Shakespeare and his family relocated to London in 1590, where he worked for an acting company known initially as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and then as the King’s Men (in 1603 when King James 1 was inaugurated). His career with this company was extremely successful since he was able to develop, produce, and publish numerous of his works, as well as act on stage.
3. Investigating the Scarcity of Knowledge Concerning Shakespeare’s Life: Few Records
Have you ever wondered why so little is known about the life of the world’s most famous playwright, William Shakespeare? Who wouldn’t be interested in the genius behind masterpieces like Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet?
Sadly, relatively few records from Shakespeare’s lifetime have survived. The majority of what we know about him comes from church records, court paperwork, commercial contracts, and tax returns—materials that provide just the most basic details about his existence.
This dearth of knowledge has given rise to decades of speculation, ranging from speculations attributing Shakespeare’s works to another author to devoted biographers digging through every scrap of data in quest of details to shed light on his existence. One thing is certain: we can never fully comprehend Shakespeare’s life, but we may continue to research and enjoy his extraordinary legacy.
3.1 Few Biographical Details
Shakespeare didn’t go to college but his school records also aren’t available.
One of the reasons why so little is known about Shakespeare’s life is because his writings include little biographical data in compared to other authors of Shakespeare’s time. The Elizabethan period was a fertile age for English literature, although Shakespeare’s works include less personal aspects than those of other playwrights.
This might be due to the Elizabethan era’s harsh censorship regulations. Some themes were forbidden for writers to write about, and expressing personal thoughts or feelings was perilous. This meant that authors had to stick to the plotlines and characters of their works rather than deviating from personal observations.
4. Theories on Why is So Little Known About Shakespeare’s Life
Have you ever wondered why there is so little information regarding Shakespeare’s life? Scholars and historians have pondered this subject for ages. Numerous intriguing possibilities are floating about, but none have been confirmed convincingly. Let’s go through a couple of the more popular ones:
4.1 Was Shakespeare Even a Person?
Along the way, some people questioned the existence of Shakespeare and claimed such a person never existed.
4.1.1 Some Speculate That Christopher Marlowe Was Shakespeare
Some also speculate that Marlowe was assassinated on the Queen’s instructions. Others think Marlowe’s death was staged and that he is the true creator of Shakespeare’s plays. According to legend, Marlowe pretended to die, escaped, and disguised in to keep working under the patronage of Thomas Walsingham. But this theory has been debunked time and again with little but concrete information about Shakespeare’s life.
4.2 Investigating the Possibility That ‘Shakespeare‘ Was a Pen Name
Something you might not know is that Shakespeare could have been a pen name. Because Shakespeare was so prolific and there is so little knowledge regarding his personal life, some historians believe he was a group of authors who adopted the pen name “Shakespeare” to produce their works.
4.3 Authorship Controversies
Further evidence for this hypothesis comes from long-standing authorship controversies. Over the centuries, various individuals have been proposed as the “real” William Shakespeare, including Edward de Vere and Francis Bacon, among others.
While none of these claims has been definitively proven, they do lend support to the idea that an individual may not have written all of Shakespeare’s plays and poems after all.
Though there is no concrete evidence to support it, the theory that “Shakespeare” was several people or just one individual using this pen name has certainly gained traction over the centuries – and only adds to the mysteriousness surrounding one of history’s most famous playwrights.
5. Was Shakespeare Even Famous During His Lifetime?
By 1592, Shakespeare’s reputation as a writer and performer was such that envious competitor Robert Greene referred to him as an “upstart crow” and “Johannes Factotum” (a “Johnny do-it-all”) “in his pamphlet Groats-worth of Wit (a groat being a small coin)”. Although the exact sequence of Shakespeare’s works is unknown, it is thought that by 1592, he had written 11 plays, including Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His plays were well-received: the first performance of Henry VI, Part 1 at the Rose in 1592 grossed £3 16s. 8d., the most for the season.
6. Was He the Greatest Plagiarist of All Time?
The Elizabethans did not have a current understanding of plagiarism. The authors adapted stories from anywhere they could get them to feed a ravenous audience.
It seems improbable that Shakespeare ever created an original storyline. He most of the time browed plots from other writers, sometimes quite near to him, such as his good friend Thomas Kyd’s, adapting his stories of Hamlet and King Lear into his plays. He borrowed accounts verbatim from the English historian Raphael Holinshed, as well as from his contemporary Thomas North’s translation of the Roman historian Plutarch, who wrote about Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius, Cleopatra, Brutus, and others.
7. Shakespeare’s Retirement and His Final Years
Shakespeare retired to his home in the town of Stratford upon Avon at the age of 47, after a highly prosperous career in London as a professional actor, playwright, and theatre proprietor. He had gone back to the comfort of his family who had remained in Stratford all the years in which he was working and living in London.
Interestingly, Shakespeare’s retirement was financially actively monitored, and continued to work with younger playwrights, collaborating with them on plays, and visiting London frequently. His daughter Susanna was married to a doctor, John Hall in Stratford and had a child whom they had named Elizabeth.
His younger daughter: Judith Shakespeare 1616 got married to a vintner, Thomas Quincey who at a local court was charged with “fornication”, after this disgrace, William Shakespeare revised his will to protect Judith’s interest and from possible transgression on Quincey’s part.
8. Shakespeare’s Death
William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, at the age of fifty-two, in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, England. His death happened on or around his birthday (the exact date of his birth is not confirmed), possibly inspiring a later legend that “he became ill and died after a night of heavy drinking with two other writers, Ben Jonson, and Michael Drayton”. He was buried in the Holy Trinity Church on 25 March 1616. Anne Hathaway passed away in 1623 and was buried beside Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church itself.
Overall, the enigma surrounding “why is so little known about Shakespeare’s life” makes William Shakespeare’s life more interesting and one-of-a-kind. There is no ONE explanation for why so less is known about his life, although it is reasonable to assume that it has something to do with the scarcity of records and biographies written throughout the Elizabethan period. Furthermore, some of the knowledge that may have been known has most certainly been lost or destroyed over time.
Despite the mysteries and speculations, Shakespeare will be the greatest inspiration and one of the most read authors forevermore and this is rightly woven into words by his friend Ben Jonson for him, “he was not for an age but for all time”.