As a student in the American public school system, I distinctly remember being told that very little was known about William Shakespeare the man. I came to understand that other than the records of his baptism, death, and other notable events which would be entered into the parish register at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, details of his life simply did not survive. No doubt it was the sparse records of his life which fuel the speculation that someone used the name William Shakespeare as a nom de plume, and that the glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon was unable to write the great plays of the modern age.
Indeed, the parish register at Holy Trinity Church records “William, son of John Shakespeare” was christened on April 26, 1564 (Fig 1). There, in Holy Trinity church, a copy of the parish register page listing the christening hangs beside the old font from which the water to baptize baby William would have been drawn. Beside the record of his birth is the page of the register from 1616 which records his death: “April 25, Will. Shakespeare gent.” Could these meager records be all the primary source evidence of the great poet?
Delving into the life of Shakespeare, many details of his life emerge from primary source documents. Many of these were collected and cataloged as early as 1904 by D.H. Lambert and published in a chronological catalog he called the Cartae Shakepeareanae.
John Whitgift, future Archbishop of Canterbury, was the current Bishop of Worcester when William Shakespeare received a license to marry Anne Hathaway. In 1582, Bishop Whitgift recorded the issuance of the license, which does not survive, in the Episcopal Register.
A marriage bond, dated November 28, 1582, also survives. The banns were to be read only once, instead of the normal three times (probably because Anne was with child). The bond holds William Shakespeare responsible for ‘his own proper costs and expenses [to] defend and save harmless the right reverend Father in God Lord John Bishop of Worcester and his officers for licensing them … to be married together with once asking of the banns of matrimony.”
Birth of Children
Just 7 months following the marriage, the parish register records “1583, May 26, Susanna, daughter to William Shakespeare.”, followed less than a year later by the entry “1584, February, Hamnet and Judeth son and daughter of William Shakespeare.” Sadly, the parish register records the death and burial of Hamnet at just twelve years old: “1596, August 11, Hamnet filius (son of) William Shakespeare.”
The Public Record Office holds a record of the fines and taxes which were levied on William Shakespeare when he bought the second best house in Stratford-upon-Avon from William Underhill in 1597. Records in the 1598 Lay Subsidy Roll at the Public Record Office record the assessment of Shakespeare’s property in the parish of St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate in London.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust also holds multiple property records. Among them are a deed of conveyance of over 100 acres of land in Warwickshire from the Combe family to William Shakespeare on May 1, 1602 (Fig 2) Also in the collection are records of a transfer of premises in Chapel Lane, Stratford from Walter Getley to William Shakespeare on September 28, 1602.
The Public Record Office holds documents which record the fines and taxes levied on the purchase of the estate from William and John Combe (above).
The Guildhall Museum in London preserves in the archives a Deed of Bargain and Sale of a house in Blackfriars, London from Henry Walker to “William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon in the County of Warwick, gentleman.” on March 10, 1613. Records in the British Museum record the mortgage on the property
Records of His Career
Records of Shakespeare’s career abound. Early records of printing, the records of scribes who copied his plays, and numerous title pages from early editions of poems and plays bear the name of Shakespeare. For a complete accounting, see Cartae Shakepeareanae, complied by D.H. Lambert. Among the most notable records to survive:
The Public Record Office maintains the records of court expenditures, and the records there contain the record of a payment on March 15, 1595 to “William Kempe, William Shakespeare, and Richard Burbage … for two several comedies or interludes showed by them before her Majesty in Christmas time last past.” The record details the payment, but also a reward from the queen.
On September 20, 1596 a pamphlet appeared in London which is the earliest surviving record to mention Shakespeare as an established playwright, but also contains an intellectually snobbish attack:
“for there is an vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Iohannes fac totum (jack-of-all-trades), is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.” (Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, 1592)
On May 17, 1603 a Royal Warrant was issued by King James I for a patent authorizing the performances of the theatrical company to which Shakespeare belonged, mentioning him by name: “know you that we … do license and authorize, these our servants, Laurence Fletcher, William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage … freely to use and exercise the art and faculty of playing comedies, tragedies, histories, interludes, morals, pastorals, stage-plays, and such others …“ The warrant and the subsequent patent both remain in the custody of the Public Record Office.
Though not pertaining to his career as an actor or playwright, a further document in the Public Record Office demonstrates that Shakespeare was fulfilling his patriotic duty as a trained soldier. A Muster Roll for the County of Warwick, dated September 23, 1605, lists William Shakespeare among the trained soldiers.
Though far from complete chronology, primary source records do record the life of William Shakespeare. Thus, the common myth that relatively nothing is known about his life is a fallacy: primary source records demonstrate evidence of a life fully lived.