Shakespeare: History in an Hour – a review

As a high school English Literature teacher I am always interested in exploring new resources that will enable my students to better comprehend the challenging themes and complex elements of Shakespeare’s plays. In order to do this successfully, the students first need to have an understanding of who Shakespeare was and the period in which he wrote.

Shakespeare IAHWith curriculum deadlines and hastened time periods, I have been unable to find to one comprehensive resource that is suitable to create this foundation for my students. Prior to this I have often cited sections of Anthony Burgess’ Shakespeare, which is among the best summative and concise assessments of his life, but contains challenging vocabulary and contextual issues that are too complex for the high school level. What Ms. Fitzgibbon has written is one comprehensive book that meets all my requirements while challenging my students in an engaging manner.

Shakespeare: History in an Hour, much like Burgess’ book, is an outline of The Bard’s life and not his plays or poems. Unlike Burgess’ book this is far more concise and avoids any entanglements with his contemporaries and remains narrowly focused Shakespeare. This book provides insightful commentary on his family, childhood, and marriage without engulfing itself with pedantic facts and timelines. There are, however, a plethora of vital facts and tidbits of information about The Globe and Lord Chamberlain’s Men that my students found engaging throughout its quick pace.

Following the conclusion of this we moved into a short unit on Shakespeare’s sonnets and read Romeo and Juliet, all of which was more engaging due to the foundation of information that Ms. Fitzgibbon provided in Shakespeare: History in an Hour.

Bruce Roderick
New York City Department of Education
English Language Arts Teacher

Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife – a summary

As is the case with her husband, we know remarkably little about the life of William Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway. There is no record of either her birth or her baptism, but the inscription on her gravestone indicates that she was 67 years old when she died in 1623. This suggests she was born in 1556, which would make her eight years older than her husband.

Anne HathawayAnne was the eldest of eight children born to local farmer and landowner, Richard Hathaway. It is assumed that the first three children were borne by Richard’s first wife, and the woman listed as her mother, Joan Hathaway, was, in fact, Anne’s stepmother. We have no information as to the identity of Anne’s biological mother, nor do we know for sure if Richard had ever married her.

(Pictured: Drawing purportedly of Anne Hathaway).


The family was raised in the village of Shottery, about a mile-and-a-half from Stratford-upon-Avon. Their home was a twelve-room farmhouse which has since become known as Anne Hathaway’s Cottage – a rather misleading nickname considering it is much larger than a cottage, and it never actually belonged to Anne. As the eldest girl, Anne would have been expected to help with the care of her younger siblings and with the upkeep of the farmhouse. We have no information about the education she received, although it is doubtful that she attended school. This does not necessarily mean, however, that Anne was illiterate, as has often been suggested. In fact, given that her family were ardent Protestants, it is likely she would have been taught to read, if only to enable her to study the Bible.

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Thomas Middleton – a summary

Thomas Middleton was another leading dramatist and poet of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period. Active from about 1597 onwards, he collaborated with William Shakespeare on Timon of Athens,and recently there has been some speculation that he also had a hand in the writing of All’s Well That Ends Well. Macbeth and Measure for Measure are also believed to have heavily involved Middleton, possibly after Shakespeare’s death.

Thomas MiddletonBorn in London to upwardly mobile parents in April 1580, Thomas Middleton was the first son of William Middleton and his wife, Anne. William’s trade as a bricklayer allowed him to join one of London’s trade guilds, the Honourable Company of Tilers and Bricklayers, which brought him prosperity. By 1568 he enjoyed that status of ‘gentleman’ having been granted a family coat of arms. When William died five years after Thomas’s birth, his estate was valued at £335.

Unfortunately for the young Thomas and his sister, his mother remarried hastily. His new stepfather, Thomas Harvey, made a claim on a trust which had been established for the siblings, and a fifteen-year legal battle ensued. Middleton’s plays would later feature biting satires of the legal profession, probably coloured by this experience.


Middleton enrolled at Queen’s College, Oxford, in April 1598, leaving without attaining a degree. By February 1601, he was in London and writing for the theatre. A prolific and diverse writer, he wrote or co-wrote over thirty plays, as well as fourteen masques, poetry and numerous prose works. Apart from Shakespeare, he is the only one of his contemporaries who is considered to have written masterpieces in every genre of drama – history, comedy and tragedy. The best-known of these works include Women Beware Women, The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Changeling. But unlike Shakespeare, he had no allegiance to a particular playing company, preferring instead to work on a freelance basis.

In 1603, the year of Queen Elizabeth’s death and the ascension of James I to the throne of England, Middleton married a fellow Londoner, Mary (or Magdalen) Marbeck, the granddaughter of the famed musician John Marbeck, and niece of Roger Marbeck, one time chief physician to the queen. The couple had only one child, Edward. Although the exact date of the child’s birth is unknown, he is believed to have been born between November 1603 and November 1604.

Thomas Middleton died at the relatively young age of forty-seven on the first or second July 1627, and is buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Newington. Despite achieving widespread popularity, Middleton left little money behind to look after his widow. She died, impoverished, a year later.

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 John Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father, Richard Burbage, a pre-eminent stage actor of the late Elizabethan era, and Christopher Marlowe.

Ben Jonson – a summary

Ben Jonson was an English actor, poet, dramatist and critic. Active in the early Stuart period, he is one of the most influential literary figures of the time, although perhaps less popularly revered than William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. His plays include Every Man in His Humour, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fayre. He also co-wrote the now-lost play, Isle of Dogs,with Thomas Nashe, which, for reasons unknown, was suppressed by the authorities.

NPG 2752; Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van BlyenberchJonson was born in London on 11 June 1572, a month after his father’s death. His widowed mother struggled financially until her remarriage a few years later to Robert Brett, a bricklayer. The family then took up residence in Hartshorn Lane, near Charing Cross. (Pictured: Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch).

As a child, Jonson attended an educational establishment run by St Martin-in-the-Fields church, before moving on to Westminster School at the age of 7. Here he studied under William Camden, an antiquarian who wrote the first definitive history of Elizabeth’s reign. A tradition of Westminster School was to encourage the study of English translations of Latin and Greek writings, which influenced his future work.

The stage beckons

Once his education had ended, there was a brief foray into the world of labouring. It soon became clear, however, that there was no hope of Jonson entering his step-father’s profession as it was something he ‘could not endure’. In the early 1590s, the young man signed up to fight with English forces in the Netherlands. Upon his return, he was drawn to London’s theatre world, where he began work as both an actor (he is believed to have played the role of Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd’s most well-known play, The Spanish Tragedy) and a playwright.

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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.

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Christopher Marlowe – a summary

Despite a writing career which lasted only six years, Christopher Marlowe was an early leading light in Elizabethan literary culture.  Ambitious and daring in both his life and his work, he is often regarded as the enfant terrible of the English Renaissance period.  Unafraid to experiment with literary form, his works, which include The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus and Dido, Queen of Carthage, influenced many playwrights who came after him, including William Shakespeare.

Christopher MarloweAccording to the baptismal records of St George the Martyr Church in Canterbury, Christopher Marlowe, known as Kit, was christened on 26 February 1564.  Kit was the second child and eldest son of John Marlowe, a cobbler, and his wife, Katherine. 

Despite being born in the same year and into the same social class as his more famous contemporary, Marlowe received a better education than Shakespeare.  While nothing is known of his early education, parish records show that, in January 1579, Kit won a scholarship to the prestigious choir school, King’s School, in Canterbury.  Just over a year later, at the age of 16, he was the recipient of another scholarship, this time to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge.  By 1584, he had gained a Bachelor of Arts, and in 1587, after six-and-a-half-years study, he earned his Master of Arts degree.

From Spy to Playwright

Although there is no hard evidence, it is now widely supposed that during his time at Cambridge, Marlowe was recruited into Sir Francis Walsingham’s wide network of spies. Unexplained and lengthy absences from University and trips to Catholic cities in France circumstantially suggest this, as does the fact that when the University threatened to withhold Marlowe’s degree, the queen’s Privy Council (of which Walsingham was a member) intervened on his behalf.  However, upon leaving university, Christopher Marlowe moved to London, where he took up writing for the theatre.

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Richard Burbage – a summary

Richard Burbage was the pre-eminent stage actor of the late Elizabethan era. He was also a successful theatre impresario and a long-time friend of William Shakespeare.  The two men were founding shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men theatre company, which would become the King’s Men following James I’s ascension to the English throne in 1603.  Burbage was the first person to play a number of Shakespeare’s now-iconic roles, including Lear, Hamlet, Othello and Richard III.

Born 6 January 1567, Richard Burbage was the son of James Burbage, an actor and theatre manager, and his wife, Ellen Brayne.  He was the younger of two surviving children, his older brother being Cuthbert Burbage, who also became an actor of some renown.


Richard BurbageIt is thought that Richard began his acting career in 1584, just as London’s theatre scene began to flourish.  Initially, he worked mainly for The Theatre, one of London’s first purpose-built playhouses, which had been built and was managed by his father.  Such was the power of his performances, he had gained widespread popularity by the age of 20.

When Burbage Senior died in 1597, a dispute arose between his sons and the owner of the land on which The Theatre was built.  When no resolution was forthcoming, Richard and Cuthbert dismantled the playhouse in 1598 and, having transported any salvageable materials across the Thames, they set about building The Globe theatre on a site known today as Bankside.  Construction was completed in 1599.

It was around this time Richard Burbage married Winifred Turner.  Winifred bore eight children, including one born after her husband’s death in 1619, only one of whom would live to see adulthood.

The Bard’s Will

Richard Burbage was mentioned in William Shakespeare’s will – the playwright left a small sum with the instruction that his friend buy a memorial ring in his honour.

Burbage would not long outlive Shakespeare, however – he died 13 March 1619, and is buried in St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch.  He was memorialized in an anonymous poem, part of which reads:

He’s gone and with him what a world are dead.
Which he review’d, to be revived so,
No more young Hamlet, old Hieronymus
Kind Lear, the Grieved Moor, and more beside,
That lived in him have now for ever died.

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 John Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father.

John Shakespeare – father to William: a summary

John Shakespeare, father of William, was born in 1531 to a farming family in Snitterfield, near Stratford.  His father, Richard, rented land and property from the aristocratic and staunchly Catholic Arden family, and it was through this business connection that John met his future wife, Mary Arden.  John Shakespeare chose not to continue in the family business – instead he moved to Stratford and established himself as a glover and leather worker.

The exact date of John’s marriage to Mary is unknown, but it is believed the nuptials took place in 1556 or 1557 in the parish church of Wilmcote, a village about three miles north of Stratford (and also the burial place of Mary’s father, Robert Arden).  The marriage would have been considered unusual at the time, given that Mary hailed from gentry stock, while her husband was of a lower social order.  Certainly, John would have greatly benefitted from the union, in both financial and social terms.

The couple began their married life in a recently purchased house in Henley Street in Stratford.  Both husband and wife were in the habit of using symbols as their official ‘mark’, rather than signatures.  This, however, does not necessarily mean they were illiterate – in fact, John’s later success in business suggests he had some reading skills, however rudimentary.


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

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

In 1558, the couple’s first child, Joan, was born.  The child succumbed to the plague in infancy – the disease was rampant throughout England at the time.   This pattern was repeated with the birth of the couple’s second daughter, Margaret, in 1559.  She lived for barely a year.  Happily, the couple’s third child and first son, William, survived and he was followed by five other siblings – Gilbert, Joan, Anne, Richard and Edmund.

By this stage, John had expanded his business into wool trading and money lending.  The family’s fortunes continued to improve when he was elected to various municipal positions.  An early job as the borough’s ale-taster led to an appointment as Constable of Stratford in 1558.   He later enjoyed other public positions including a burgess (akin to a present-day MP), a chamberlain (a job which involved supervising the town’s finances) and high bailiff, before finally being elected chief alderman in 1571.

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