We are often asked about the many interesting facts about Shakespeare and his life in Tudor England, so here we have compiled a set of answers to some of our most frequently asked questions.
To delve a little deeper, visit our Students and Enthusiasts page.
Shakespeare's Life and Works
What year was Shakespeare born?
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in 1564. The exact date of his birth is not recorded, but it has been calculated that it is most likely to have been 23 April.
Shakespeare was baptised at Holy Trinity Church on Wednesday 26 April. At that time, the Prayer Book instructed parents to ensure their children were baptised no later than the first Sunday after birth. This means that it’s unlikely that Shakespeare was born any earlier than the previous Sunday; 23 April.
We also know that when he died (on 23 April 1616), Shakespeare was described as being in his fifty-third year (i.e. he was fifty-two). This means that he must have already had his birthday that year – if he was born any later than 23 April then he would still have been fifty-one when he died.
Three days would be a reasonable interval between birth and baptism, so this all adds up to the 23 April being the most likely date of Shakespeare’s birth. This is why people all over the world choose to celebrate his birthday on this date.
When did Shakespeare die, and where was he buried?
Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616, and was buried two days later in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.
There is a curse inscribed on Shakespeare's grave which reads: 'Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To digg the dust encloased heare, Blest by the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.'
What is Shakespeare famous for?
Shakespeare is best known for being an Elizabethan actor, playwright and theatre administrator. He wrote many plays, sonnets and narrative poems and is widely recognised as the greatest writer the world has ever known.
Shakespeare was successful and well-known during his own lifetime, provoking both envy and praise from his contemporaries. Ben Johnson described him as follows:
".....Soule of the Age!
The applause! Delight! The wonder of our Stage...
He was not of an age, but for all time!"
What was Shakespeare’s first play?
It’s difficult to determine exactly when Shakespeare wrote each of his plays, so attempts at chronology can vary significantly and they are often simply grouped into ‘early’ or ‘late’ rather than listed in a strict order. Contenders for the earliest play include The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew and Henry VI, Part 2.
See also: Oxford Shakespeare, 2nd edition, 2005
Why has Shakespeare’s work stayed popular for so long?
Shakespeare remains a household name to this day for many reasons. His plays portray recognisable people in situations that most of us experience at one time or another – including love, death, mourning, guilt, difficult choices, separation, reunion and reconciliation.
They are written in a way that allows each new performance to take on a life of its own, so that they remain fresh and infinitely adaptable. The plays provide actors with some of the most challenging and rewarding roles ever written. They help us to understand what it is to be human, and to cope with the problems of being so.
Who were Shakespeare’s mother, father and siblings?
William Shakespeare's parents were John and Mary (neé Arden), who married in about 1557.
John Shakespeare, like many men of his time, was involved in a number of different businesses, including the glove-making and wool-dealing trades. He is also described as a whittawer (a man who prepared a particular kind of leather) and a yeoman. He held various civic offices, culminating in a year as High Bailiff (or mayor) in 1567. However, from that point onward there is increasing evidence of financial embarrassment for John Shakespeare. He stopped attending Council meetings, mortgaged property to raise money and, by 1591, was said to have stopped attending church for fear of being arrested by creditors if he left his house.
William was the oldest surviving child of John and Mary Shakespeare, who lost two infant daughters before William was born. William's younger siblings were Gilbert (born in 1566), Joan (1569), Anne (1571), Richard (1574) and Edmund (1580). Ann died at the age of eight, but the others lived into their adulthoods.
Who was Shakespeare married to?
Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway towards the end of 1582, when he was 18 years old. Anne's exact date of birth is not known, but it is thought to have been approximately 1555, which means she would have been 27 when they married.
Anne was three months pregnant at the time of the marriage, so to avoid the publicity of banns the couple obtained a licence from the Bishop, which authorised the marriage to take place outside the parish of normal residence. The marriage could have taken place in any church within Worcester diocese where no registers survive today to prove the contrary.
Why did Shakespeare leave his wife his 'second best bed'?
William Shakespeare signed his last will and testament on 25 March 1616. Anne Shakespeare (nee Hathaway), his wife of 34 years and the mother of his children, was mentioned near the end of the document:
“Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture” (furniture is used to refer to the curtains and bedcover which formed part of the complete bed).
The bequest of the second best bed is not in itself unusual, nor probably a snub as has been suggested. The best bed was usually regarded as an heirloom to be passed to the heir rather than the spouse. It is quite possible that the best bed would have been reserved for guests, so that the second best was the bed that William and Anne shared. Why this is the only specified bequest to her has never been resolved.
Under medieval common law in England, a widow was entitled to one third of her late husband's estate even if it was not specifically mentioned in the will. In practice however, most wives were mentioned, usually in terms of affection and trust, and were frequently made executrix of the will. Unusually, in Shakespeare's will we find no affectionate reference to Anne.
Do we have artefacts that belonged to Shakespeare and his family?
There are no personal items that have clear documentary proof of ownership by Shakespeare or his family. There were, however, many extravagant claims made for certain objects during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Numerous chairs were pronounced as being 'Shakespeare's Chair', although when dated they were usually too recent for this to be the case.
In 1793 a collection of Shakespeare 'relics', including a card and dice box, a sword, an iron deed box, a lock and a fire grate, was passed from Thomas Hart (a descendant of Shakespeare's sister) to the tenants of Shakespeare's Birthplace; Mr and Mrs Hornby. In 1896 some of these artefacts were auctioned and the collection dispersed. The fire grate and the iron lock, bought from this sale, are currently on loan to the Trust from Charterhouse School.
In the early 19th century a gold seal-ring, bearing the initials 'W.S.', was found in the church yard of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford. This ring is now in the Trust's collection and it is tempting to speculate that it may have belonged to Shakespeare, but unfortunately such an attribution cannot be proved outright. The ring is certainly of the type that was worn by an Elizabethan gentleman and, curiously, Shakespeare’s will bears no seal. The will originally concluded with 'I witness whereof I have herunto set my hand and seal', but the 'and seal' has been crossed out.
Did Shakespeare have descendants?
William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway had three children. The eldest, Susanna, was baptised on 26 May 1583. They also had twins, Judith and Hamnet, baptised on 2 February 1585.
Susanna married John Hall in 1607, and had one child, Elizabeth, in 1608. Elizabeth was married twice, to Thomas Nash in 1626, and to John Bernard in 1649. However, she had no children by either husband.
Hamnet died at the age of 11 and was buried in Stratford-upon-Avon on 11 August 1596. The cause of death is unknown.
Judith married Thomas Quiney in 1616, and the couple had three sons; Shakespeare Quiney, who died in infancy, and Richard and Thomas, who both died in 1639 within a month of each other. Neither of them married, so there is no possibility of any legitimate descents from Shakespeare’s line.
It is possible, however, to claim a relationship to Shakespeare through his sister, Joan. She married William Hart some time before 1600 and there are many descendants of this marriage alive today, in both the male and female lines.
Was Shakespeare gay?
Shakespeare had a wife and family, and he wrote a lot of plays celebrating heterosexual love. Some of his Sonnets - which may or may not be autobiographical - are addressed to a woman; the so-called 'dark lady' with whom the writer clearly imagines an adulterous sexual relationship.
The idea that he may have had a similar relationship with a young man comes from other Sonnets, which express intense and idealised affection for a 'lovely boy'. There is nothing explicitly sexual about the portrayal of this relationship, but a number of critics have argued that it is sexual nevertheless.
We may never know how much of Shakespeare’s work was fiction, or what his true feelings may have been, so there is no simple answer to this question.
Where was Shakespeare educated?
As the son of a member of the borough council it is likely that Shakespeare was enrolled at his local grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon at the age of seven. Not all children went to school in the sixteenth century, but infants could attend a petty school (from the French 'petits' meaning 'little ones') to learn their alphabet and basic reading.
There is no record of Shakespeare going to University. Only a few of Shakespeare’s contemporary playwrights attended University, including Christopher Marlowe who was at Cambridge. Ben Jonson, who prided himself on his learning, did not.
Was Shakespeare right or left handed?
We assume that Shakespeare was, like most people, right-handed. The bust of Shakespeare that was put up by his family in Stratford's Holy Trinity Church after his death shows him holding a quill pen in his right hand, as would have been normal practice at the time. His handwriting has been carefully studied by palaeographers and there is no suggestion in these studies that using his right hand was against his natural inclination.
What religion was Shakespeare?
Shakespeare's father, John, would have been brought up as a Catholic. However, when Henry VIII renounced the authority of the Pope and declared himself head of the Church of England in 1534, Catholicism was outlawed.
Many people who were born before this time had difficulty abandoning their old faith, but were generally left alone if they made no public display of their beliefs. John Shakespeare was cited once (in 1592) for failing to attend church, but he claimed that he was simply in fear of his creditors. Even if we were to assume that John had difficulty in renouncing Catholicism, there is no evidence one way or the other for the beliefs of his son, William.
Efforts have been made to determine Shakespeare’s personal beliefs (not just his religion) from the evidence of his plays, but such an approach can only ever be speculative.
What did Shakespeare's coat of arms look like?
A coat of arms was granted to John Shakespeare, William's father, in 1596. There is no record of it being used in the life-time of either, but it does appear on William's monument in the church, which was erected by 1623. The document by which the grant was made includes a rough drawing and the following technical description:
'Gold, on a bend [diagonal bar] sable [black], a spear of the first [i.e. gold], steeled argent [with a silver tip]; and for his crest... a falcon his wings displayed argent [silver], standing on a wreath of his colours supporting a spear gold, steeled as aforesaid, [i.e. silver] set upon a helmet with mantles and tassles'.
Following this description, the coat of arms could be pictured something like this:
How did Shakespeare make his money?
We do not know exactly how much money Shakespeare made from his writing and theatre management, but we do know that by 1597 he was sufficiently well off to buy New Place, the second largest house in Stratford. From 1594, when William Shakespeare joined the acting company known as the Chamberlain's (later the King's) men, he became a shareholder in the company's overall income. Later he was a member of the syndicates that owned the Globe and the Blackfriars Theatre.
On his father's death in 1601, he inherited the old family home in Henley Street, part of which was then leased to tenants. The land and other property he subsequently purchased were also leased out to provide an additional source of income.
How much property did Shakespeare own?
In Stratford, Shakespeare bought New Place, 107 acres of farm land, a cottage in Chapel Lane and a share in the tithes over a number of years. He also inherited his old family home in Henley Street on his father's death in 1601.
In London, he bought the Blackfriars Gatehouse and was also a share-holder in the Globe and Blackfriars theatres.
How much do we know about 'the lost years' of Shakespeare's life?
The term ‘the lost years’ is sometimes used to refer to two periods of Shakespeare's life. The first is from 1578 when he left school, to 1582 when he married Anne Hathaway. He then spent some time living in Stratford and starting a family, before we lose sight of him again. The second ‘lost’ period is from 1585 when his twin children were baptised, until he surfaces as an established playwright in London 1592. It is not known for sure how he spent these years, although there has been much speculation.
John Aubrey wrote in 1681 that William Shakespeare 'had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country'. John Cottom - who taught at Stratford school - had his family home in Lancashire and some think that this master may have found Shakespeare employment as a tutor for the family of a local landowner Alexander Houghton. Houghton mentioned a 'William Shakeshafte' in his will.
One legend suggests that Shakespeare poached deer from the nearby Charlecote Park and ran away to London to avoid punishment. This tale is known to have been circulating at the end of the 17th century, drawing on an oral tradition which must have gone back much further, but there is no contemporary evidence to substantiate the story.
Other suggestions are that he was apprenticed to a butcher, employed as a lawyer's clerk, or became a soldier or a teacher. It is also possible, and seems quite likely, that he joined one of the companies of players that visited Stratford in the late 1580s.
However, despite much searching, no concrete records have been found of his activities in these years.
Did Shakespeare take his family to London?
There is no evidence that Shakespeare's immediate family ever accompanied him to London. In 1596, his son Hamnet was buried in Stratford, which would have created a motivation for the family to remain in the town. It is also unlikely that Shakespeare would have purchased New Place in 1597 unless he intended it to be his family's home.
The evidence we have for Shakespeare's residences in London strongly suggests that he moved around a succession of addresses, which would not have been ideal for a young family.
There is one mention of Shakespeare arriving in London with a family member, when Stratford’s town clerk visited London in 1616 and noted in his diary the 'coming up to town' of Shakespeare and his son-in-law, John Hall.
Did Shakespeare really write the plays?
This topic is often referred to as ‘the authorship debate’ and it is one that is argued by scholars to this day.
In the sixteenth century authorship was not considered to be as important as it is now. It was perfectly normal to publish work without any mention of who wrote it, and yet Shakespeare’s authorship is supported by ample documentary evidence from his own time and beyond.
His name first appears in print on the dedication in Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). As was customary, his earliest plays were published without citing their author, but as he became popular Shakespeare’s name does begin to appear on the title pages of many plays from 1598 onwards and of the Sonnets from 1609.
Many writers referred to him by name as the author of plays and poems during his lifetime and later, and there are many allusions to Shakespeare’s authorship on manuscripts such as The First Folio of 1623.
Shakespeare’s authorship was not doubted until the late eighteenth century, when people began to question whether such poetic work could come from - in their eyes - humble country origins.
The so called 'authorship debate' gathered force with the work of the American Delia Bacon. In 1856, Delia Bacon sought to open Shakespeare’s grave in the hope of finding evidence to support her case that the plays were written by a committee including Francis Bacon, Edmund Spenser, and Sir Walter Raleigh. This resulted in the forming of both American and English Bacon Societies, which still exist today.
Over the years around 80 candidates, including Queen Elizabeth I downwards, have been proposed as the true author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. In recent times the most popular have been Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and the Earl of Oxford. Anti-Stratfordians often suggest that their candidate could not or did not want to take credit for the work, which is why Shakespeare was used to shield their identity. To achieve this so successfully would require a widespread conspiracy including actors, writers and critics across London and beyond.
The most commonly used anti-Stratfordian arguments are that Shakespeare was of relatively humble origins, is not known to have travelled overseas and could not possibly have received adequate education in his small provincial hometown to have written such extraordinary and expansive plays.
Of course we know now that it is not necessary to be an aristocrat to be a great writer. Jonson, who like Shakespeare did not attend university, was the son of a bricklayer and Marlowe’s father was a cobbler. The plays show no knowledge of foreign countries that could not have been obtained from books or from conversation, and Stratford had a good grammar school whose pupils received a rigorous education in the classics. This would more than account for the learning displayed in the works.
There are dozens of books dedicated to all sides of this debate. You can find out more about where the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust stands on this issue by reading our blogs.
Did Shakespeare visit Italy?
Shakespeare produced a total of six plays with an Italian background and some of them display a detailed knowledge of certain areas, so some people wonder if he may have visited Italy himself.
As it stands, we have no evidence that he went there, but Italian literature was so widely read in Shakespeare’s society that it would be surprising if he did not have knowledge of the Italian language. He could have gained his information from an Italian living in London, and it is very likely that he met John Florio, an apostle of Italian culture in England and tutor to Shakespeare's patron; Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton.
What was Shakespeare's relationship with Queen Elizabeth like?
When Shakespeare was born in 1564, Elizabeth I was on the throne. Queen Elizabeth I was an active and generous patron of the theatre, and had her own acting company called the 'Queen's Men'. She stood against the puritans who wished to close down the theatres and without her support the Elizabethan theatres would probably not have survived. In the 1590s, court performances by acting companies became popular and Shakespeare's company was selected more than any other.
Shakespeare does not refer to Queen Elizabeth very often, making only one direct reference to her: "a fair vestal throned by the west" (A Midsummer Night's Dream). There is a reference to her baptism at the end of 'Henry VIII', but that section of the play is believed to have been written by John Fletcher. It is believed that Elizabeth I liked the character of Falstaff so much in Henry IV, Part One, that she asked Shakespeare to write a play showing the character in love. This supposedly inspired 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'.
When Elizabeth died in 1603 Shakespeare wrote no elegy for her, unlike most of the poets of the day. So although Shakespeare worked for the Queen as she demanded, there is no real indication that their relationship was any closer than that.
Where can I find some Elizabethan recipes?
If you’re interested in trying out some Elizabethan recipes then you might like the following books:
- Food and Feast in Medieval England- P W Hammond
- Dining with William Shakespeare- Madge Lorwin
- The Compleat Cook: or the Secrets of a Seventeenth Century Housewife- Rebecca Price
- Tudor Food and Pastimes- F G Emmison
The diet in Shakespeare’s day was quite different to today. Beverages included beer, cider, perry, wine, fortified wine and spirits. Milk was not generally drunk, and there was no tea or coffee. b
Bread was a staple part of the Elizabethan diet, with pies, tarts and cheese all making an appearance, along with cream and puddings made using milk. Fish was especially popular during the religious season of Lent and on Wednesdays and Saturdays when no meat was supposed to be consumed. The rich had access to a great variety of red and white meats and a great variety of fowl was eaten as well. If the poor could afford meat, it was usually salt pork. A wide variety of vegetables were eaten. Orchard fruits were cooked rather than eaten raw (which was considered unhealthy), and oranges and lemons were imported for the wealthy. Herbs and spices (cloves, mace, nutmeg, ginger, pepper and saffron) were also used.
What are the four humors?
In Shakespeare's time, people believed that the body was made up of a combination of four ‘humors’, or bodily fluids, in a similar way to the universe having four elements (air, fire, water, and earth). The humors were: blood, choler, phlegm and melancholy.
It was believed that these bodily fluids determined a person’s complexion, not just facially but in the sense of physical and mental constitution. If the humors were in their proper proportions, a person would have perfect health in body and peace of mind. Unfortunately this seldom happened and usually one humor was dominant. Medical treatments at the time were heavily influenced by attempts to rebalance the humors and restore health.
The characteristics of the humors were said to be as follows:
- Blood: ruddy, fair, agreeable, cheerful, and courageous, or lusty, riotous, and impractical.
- Choler: lean and yellowish in complexion, prone to anger, rashness and pride.
- Phlegm: pale complexion, fat torpid and dull.
- Melancholy: lean, swarthy, morose and introspective.
The humors could be influenced by a number of external factors including the position of planets and stars, different periods of life, the seasons, your social position, national origin, types of food eaten, day of the week and hour of the day. All of these factors were thought to determine a person's 'humor'. You can find out more about this subject on a visit to Hall's Croft.
How tall were people in Shakespeare's time?
There is a popular misconception that people in the 16th century were much smaller than today. The average height of our sixteenth-century ancestors was actually only 5cm (2") smaller than we are now.
Of course, there was a height range of many centimetres for each sex. The average height of a woman in the sixteenth century was somewhere in the region of 160cm. Whilst it is true that diet has improved and average height has increased during the 20th century, this is generally measured against the poor diet of the bulk of urban working classes during the late 18th century and most of the 19th century, rather than against the much better balanced, albeit restricted diet of earlier centuries.
Is it true that people would only wash once a year in Elizabethan times?
The short answer is, no. Full baths were not taken frequently, but hands and wrists, face, teeth and feet were often washed on a daily basis. The lack of regular bathing reflects the inconvenience of filling a tub with hot water, not a lack of hygiene.
Soap was used depending on social circumstance: the aristocracy used expensive soap balls imported from Venice, and moderately affluent households made their own perfumed soap. Teeth were cleaned by first rinsing the mouth with water and vinegar, and then rubbed with a dry, linen cloth. Tooth-picks were also used. Hair was regularly combed and washed in perfumed water, and sometimes treated with a paste of fuller's earth to remove dirt and grease. Beards were groomed and lathered with soap before shaving with a razor.
What were toilet facilities like in Shakespeare's day?
Toilet facilities were quite rudimentary in Shakespeare's day. The simple pot or pewter chamber pot (a wide jug with a handle) was probably the most common toilet receptacle.
Shakespeare refers to the chamber pot by its nick-name, 'the jordan', in both parts of Henry IV. The origins of this word are obscure but possibly derive from the flasks of water from the river Jordan and brought back from the Holy Land by medieval pilgrims. One bad habit was to empty the contents of the chamber pot or to urinate directly into the hearth. The contents of the chamber pot were normally disposed of into a cess-pit or into the common dung heap. Urine, or 'chamber lye', was sometimes collected and used as an alkaline for laundry purposes.
Garden privies, consisting of a wooden seat with a hole cut in it, were also used over a cess-pit or an open sewer/stream. These were referred to by such euphemisms as 'the house of office' and the 'jakes'. Wealthy households used close stools which were upholstered box stools with a removable receptacle, usually a pewter pan, for the collection of urine and faeces. Close stools were used in bedchambers or in a special closet called a 'stool room' or 'privy', or placed behind a screen for privacy. In large houses and castles such rooms were referred to as 'garderobes' (from the French for 'cloakroom') and consisted of a seat over a chute leading directly to a moat or stream. Sir John Harrington invented the water closet before 1600 but it was not in general use until much later.
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