The Childhood of William Shakespeare

On this, the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, Sinead Fitzgibbon relates the bard’s childhood and eduction.

The works of William Shakespeare are, without doubt, the most studied and admired in the English language. Indeed, they have inspired such a level of acclaim that, in 1901, George Bernard Shaw came up with the term ‘bardolatry’ in an attempt to describe our collective tendency to heap acclaim on our beloved verse-maker. Despite this, and the fact that he has been the subject of innumerable scholarly researches and biographies, we actually know surprisingly little about the man himself.

James Brydges, the Duke of Chandos's portrait of William Shakespeare

In fact, William Shakespeare made only four appearances on various official records before he turned up in London in the 1580s – at the time of his birth, his marriage, and the birth of his children. This was not unusual for the time – lower levels of literacy meant that there was less emphasis on record-keeping and bureaucracy while, in many cases, those documents that did exist have subsequently been lost to the passage of time.

Another reason for this paucity of biographical information lies in the fact that the fashion for diary-keeping and memoir-writing (and the reading of these writings) only began to emerge in the mid-17th century, some forty years after Shakespeare’s death. And even then, no-one had the foresight to record for posterity the reminiscences of his last surviving daughter, Judith, before her own demise in 1662. As a consequence, William Shakespeare remains a ghost-like presence in his own story, a shadow that remains tantalizingly opaque. The first puzzling biographical detail we encounter is the question of his date of birth.

Birthday

It has long been agreed that William Shakespeare was born on or close to April 23, 1564. There is pleasing synchronicity in this, considering he died fifty-two years later on the same date. The poetic resonance of this anniversary is further amplified when one realises that England’s national poet shares his birthday with the feast day of England’s patron saint, St George. The co-incidence is certainly compelling – or it would be, if it were true. Unfortunately, much like many other aspects of Shakespeare’s life, we simply cannot be sure of the veracity of this famous birth date.

Shakespeare's birthplaceThe problem can be traced to the 16th century preference for recording baptismal dates instead of birthdates. The recently-born William Shakespeare makes his first official appearance in the baptismal records of The Holy Trinity Church in the Warwickshire parish of Stratford-upon-Avon, on April 26, 1564. Due to high infant mortality rates, and considering the prevalent belief that a child who dies unbaptized could not enter heaven, it was thought imperative to get newborns to the baptismal font as soon as possible, usually between two and four days after the birth. In Shakespeare’s case, this would put his birthday somewhere between April 22 and 25.

Pictured: William Shakespeare’s birthplace, Henley Street, Stratford.

But the controversy does not end there. If we adjust this date range to reflect the fact that Shakespeare was born under the Julian Calendar (the Gregorian Calendar was not introduced until 1582), we find that his birth date falls somewhere in the first week of May. So the choice of April 23, it would seem, is completely arbitrary – and, in all likelihood, incorrect.

Parentage

Luckily, there is no such uncertainty surrounding the identity of Shakespeare’s parents. His father, John Shakespeare, a maker of gloves and other soft leather goods, originally hailed from the neighbouring village of Snitterfield. He relocated to Henley Street in Stratford in 1556 or 1557, a move which coincided with his marriage to Mary Arden, the daughter of a relatively wealthy local farmer. William was the third of eight children, and the first to survive infancy. Indeed, the very fact that he lived to see his schooldays was something of an achievement – quite aside from the usual diseases like measles, smallpox and dysentery, an outbreak of plague hit Stratford when William was just three months old which carried away one fifth of town’s population.

Education

Assuming his parents followed the conventions of the day, young William would have been sent to school around the age of seven. No educational records survive, but it is likely he would have attended the local grammar school, King’s New School, which accepted any boy from the town, provided he had rudimentary reading and writing skills. By this stage, Shakespeare’s father was fast becoming a respected member of the Stratford community, taking on a series of municipal jobs which would eventually see him rise to the post of chief alderman of the town. The increasing stature of the Shakespeare family makes it even more probable that King’s New School would have opened its doors to William.

Aside from its famous alumnus, King’s New School is remarkable for having a very highly-paid headmaster – the records show that he drew a salary of £20 per annum, a significant sum for the time, and, it is believed, more than the remuneration received by the headmaster at Eton. This suggests that King’s New School was a decent educational establishment, and the instruction the boy received was likely to have been better than average.

The 16th century curriculum was very unlike its equivalent today. The core subject was Latin, and students would have spent most of the twelve-hour school day learning to write, read, and speak this ancient language. There was little or no emphasis on other subjects – history and geography were both neglected, as was English, which could account for the infuriating lack of uniformity of spelling in Elizabethan literature.

If we continue with the assumption that young Shakespeare followed the custom of the time, he would have left formal education – furnished with fluent Latin but not much else – by the age of fifteen. At this point, circa 1579, he disappeared from the records completely for three years. We know he did not attend university like most of his fellow playwrights, a fact which Ben Jonson highlighted when he commented, somewhat derogatorily, that Shakespeare had ‘small Latin and less Greek’. So, what was his occupation during this time? Did he remain in Stratford, or move to London? Or did he travel even further afield? Unfortunately, we have no idea, as there is little evidence to support any speculations to the contrary.

Shakespeare IAHSinead Fitzgibbon

William Shakespeare: History In An Hour by Sinead Fitzgibbon, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

See also article on Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare.