Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
By: Hannah Brevoort
William Shakespeare, arguably the most famous writer in the English language, was born and died on the same day: April 23 (in 1594 and 1616, respectively). At least, that’s what most scholars believe. Like many aspects of Shakespeare’ life, certainty about his birthdate remains elusive. We know that he was baptized in Stratford-Upon-Avon on April 26, 1594. Given that the custom at the time called for baptism two to three days after birth, April 23 seems the likeliest date.
Even though we can’t be certain about his birthdate, there is a lot more we do know about Shakespeare’s life. We know that his father was, for a time, a successful businessman and civil servant. We know Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway and had three children with her. We know that by 1592 he moved to London and became a prominent actor and playwright, and that he wrote around 38 plays, possibly more, sometimes with other playwrights. We know that he was successful enough to buy the second-largest house in Stratford in 1597, and that he was living there at the time of his death in 1616. There are six known signatures, all spelled differently, and several references to him in court cases.
This may seem like a remarkably small amount of information about someone as influential as Shakespeare, which helps to explain the number of conspiracy theories about who really wrote his plays. David Thomas at the National Archives in England, however, reminds us that “the documentation for William Shakespeare is exactly what you would expect of a person of his position at that time. It seems like a dearth only because we are so intensely interested in him.”
That intense interest, which began soon after his death, carried over to British settlements in America, a place Shakespeare likely knew about, but never visited. The earliest known staging of his plays in the colonies was in 1750. By the 19th century, Shakespeare’s plays were frequently performed everywhere from massive theaters in New York City to mining camps in the American West. A replica of the Globe Theatre, originally built in London in 1599 by Shakespeare’s acting company, was constructed in Cleveland for the 1936-37 Great Lakes Exposition. America’s interest in Shakespeare continues to this day. The Folger Shakespeare Library, the preeminent scholarly organization dedicated to Shakespeare, is not in London or Stratford-Upon-Avon, but Washington, D.C.
Want to learn more about Shakespeare?
Research question (3rd grade):
The link below shows all of Shakespeare’s known signatures side by side. What differences do you see? Why might someone use different spellings of their own name?
Research question (9-12th grade):
2016 marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. For the 300th anniversary in 1916, the Daily Journal-Herald in Delaware, Ohio ran the biography linked below. Compare that biography to a modern one from the Folger Shakespeare Library. What is different? What has stayed the same?