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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > April 2019 > William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

How did an ‘upstart crow’ become England’s greatest playwright? Lottie Goldfinch follows the Bard from humble start to theatrical stardom – and on into literary legend
The Flower Portrait is one of the most famous paintings of Shakespeare, but it’s now believed to be a 19th-century forgery
BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1, SARAH J COLEMAN / CENTRAL ILLUSTRATION AGENCY

For a man whose works have F been translated into more than 80 languages, including Klingon and Esperanto, we know remarkably little about England’s most famous playwright. Even his birth, on or around 23 April 1564, is unconfirmed – a proposed date based on an entry in a parish register, which lists the baptism of “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespere” (William, son of John Shakespeare) on 26 April 1564.

Shakespeare’s birthplace on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon

Much of Shakespeare’s early life, too, is shrouded in mystery. We know that he was born in a two-storey, half-timbered house on Henley Street in the heart of Stratford-upon-Avon, and that he lived there until his mid-20s. The house, now open to the public, was purchased as a national monument in 1847 and is key to our understanding of Shakespeare as a boy. Millions of people continue to visit his birthplace in the hope it will reveal the innermost secrets of the great playwright – what he was like, how he wrote, what he thought and how he felt.

John Shakespeare lived in the house from the early 1550s onwards, joined there around 1557 by his new wife Mary. The first documentary evidence linking the family to the house is a fine issued to John Shakespeare in April 1552 for leaving a “sterquinium”, or muckheap, outside the Henley Street property. William was the couple’s first surviving child. Two daughters, Joan and Margaret, had both died before their first birthdays. Five more children followed William’s birth: Gilbert "1566#, Joan "1569#, Anne "1571#, Richard "1574# and Edmund "1580#.

WILL’S SCHOOLDAYS

As a child, Shakespeare would have heard the types of fables, stories and legends that appear in some of his later works, and it is fair to assume he attended the local boys’ grammar school a short walk from the family home. Attendance for local boys was free, and it would have been here that the young Shakespeare learned Latin, Greek rhetoric and classical literature, and discovered how language could be used.

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About History Revealed

William Shakespeare had humble beginnings – how did he transform into England’s greatest playwright? We explore how the ‘upstart crow’ became so widely celebrated. Plus: The mysterious assassins of the medieval Muslim world are explored, we dig into the diaries of Samuel Pepys and take a look at the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.