Unfortunately, written records give little indication of the way in which Shakespeare’s professional life molded his marvelous artistry. All that can be deduced is that for 20 years Shakespeare devoted himself assiduously to his art, writing more than a million words of poetic drama of the highest quality.
Shakespeare lived at a time when ideas and social structures established in the Middle Ages still informed human thought and behaviour. Queen Elizabeth I was God’s deputy on earth, and lords and commoners had their due places in society under her, with responsibilities up through her to God and down to those of more humble rank. The order of things, however, did not go unquestioned. Atheism was still considered a challenge to the beliefs and way of life of a majority of Elizabethans, but the Christian faith was no longer single. Rome’s authority had been challenged by Martin Luther, John Calvin, a multitude of small religious sects, and, indeed, the English church itself. Royal prerogative was challenged in Parliament; the economic and social orders were disturbed by the rise of capitalism, by the redistribution of monastic lands under Henry VIII, by the expansion of education, and by the influx of new wealth from discovery of new lands. An interplay of new and old ideas was typical of the time: official homilies exhorted the people to obedience; the Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli was expounding a new, practical code of politics that caused Englishmen to fear the Italian “Machiavillain” and yet prompted them to ask what men do, rather than what they should do. In Hamlet, disquisitions—on man, belief, a “rotten” state, and times “out of joint”—clearly reflect a growing disquiet and skepticism. The translation of Montaigne’s Essays in 1603 gave further currency, range, and finesse to such thought, and Shakespeare was one of many who read them, making direct and significant quotations in The Tempest. In philosophical inquiry the question “How?” became the impulse for advance, rather than the traditional “Why?” of Aristotle. Shakespeare’s plays written between 1603 and 1606 unmistakably reflect a new, Jacobean distrust. James I, who, like Elizabeth, claimed divine authority, was far less able than she to maintain the authority of the throne. The so-called Gunpowder Plot (1605) showed a determined challenge by a small minority in the state; James’s struggles with the House of Commons in successive Parliaments, in addition to indicating the strength of the “new men,” also revealed the inadequacies of the administration.
Stratford enjoyed a grammar school of good quality, and the education there was free, the schoolmaster’s salary being paid by the borough. No lists of the pupils who were at the school in the 16th century have survived, but it would be absurd to suppose the bailiff of the town did not send his son there. The boy’s education would consist mostly of Latin studies—learning to read, write, and speak the language fairly well and studying some of the Classical historians, moralists, and poets. Shakespeare did not go on to the university, and indeed it is unlikely that the scholarly round of logic, rhetoric, and other studies then followed there would have interested him.
Instead, at age 18 he married. Where and exactly when are not known, but the episcopal registry at Worcester preserves a bond dated November 28, 1582, and executed by two yeomen of Stratford, named Sandells and Richardson, as a security to the bishop for the issue of a license for the marriage of William Shakespeare and “Anne Hathaway of Stratford,” upon the consent of her friends and upon once asking of the banns.
Several years after Shakespeare died in 1616, colleagues of his in the King’s Men, John Heminge and Henry Condell, undertook the assembling of a collected edition. It appeared in 1623 as Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, Published According to the True Original Copies. It did not contain the poems and left out Pericles as perhaps of uncertain authorship
Readers and playgoers in Shakespeare’s own lifetime, and indeed until the late 18th century, never questioned Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays. He was a well-known actor from Stratford who performed in London’s premier acting company, among the great actors of his day. He was widely known by the leading writers of his time as well, including Ben Jonson and John Webster, both of whom praised him as a dramatist. Many other tributes to him as a great writer appeared during his lifetime. Any theory that supposes him not to have been the writer of the plays and poems attributed to him must suppose that Shakespeare’s contemporaries were universally fooled by some kind of secret arrangement. Yet suspicions on the subject gained increasing force in the mid-19th century. One Delia Bacon proposed that the author was her claimed ancestor Sir Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Albans, who was indeed a prominent writer of the Elizabethan era. What had prompted this theory? The chief considerations seem to have been that little is known about Shakespeare’s life (though in fact more is known about him than about his contemporary writers), that he was from the country town of Stratford-upon-Avon, that he never attended one of the universities, and that therefore it would have been impossible for him to write knowledgeably about the great affairs of English courtly life such as we find in the plays.
Then must you speak Of one that loved not wisely but too well, Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought, Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes, Albeit unused to the melting mood, Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees Their medicinable gum. Set you down this, And say besides that in Aleppo once, Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog And smote him thus. (V.ii.341-354)
I must eat my dinner. This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first, Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me Water with berries in't, and teach me how To name the bigger light, and how the less, That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee And show'd thee all the qualities o' the isle, The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile: Cursed be I that did so! All the charms Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you! For I am all the subjects that you have, Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me The rest o' the island.