The Sonnets of Shakespeare
About the life of Shakespeare, who did not live in an era of literary biography, we know as much as, or even more than, might have been hoped. Yet the hard facts could, without undue compression, be set down in an article the length of this one. E. K. Chambers, for instance, provides such an outline in under four pages of his Sources for a Biography of Shakespeare, before describing the main source, of information in Tenurial, Ecclesiastical, Municipal, Occupational, Court, National, and Personal Records, and telling anybody who cares for the labor how to add to the facts by record research as in this century Wallace and Hotson have done. For a reference book one could put it:
W. Shakespeare, b. 1564 (or perhaps 1563), to John Shakespeare and Mary Hathaway (mis-spelled “Whateley” in one document) Nov. 1582. d Susanna (b. 26 May, 1583); twin s. and d. Hamnet and Judith, 2 Feb. 1585 (Hamnet dec. 1596). Known residences: Henley St., Stratford; Bishopsgate, (1595); Southwark, 1599; Cripplegate 1604; Blackfriars, 1613 (owned, perhaps not occupied, by S.). Much property in Stratford. Will, 25 March, 1616, dec. 23 April, 1616. Various litigation in lower courts; testified in action Belott vs Mountjoy (his Huguenot landlord in Cripplegate), 1612. From 1594 “sharer” (shareholder) in Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later King’s Men) and Groom in Ordinary of the Chamber. Dedicated two books to the Earl of Southampton. Procured grant of arms for father (1599?). Made impresa for Earl of Rutland, 1613. Dramatic works pub. various dates and collected 1623.
There are a few facts I haven’t squeezed in, and a fair number of contemporary allusions to the author and his works. Traditions of various kinds—concerning his youth, his friends and his women, his early days in London and his acting, his fortune and his last years, were soon added to the mix. Some of the works, notably the sonnets, occasionally invite biographical inferences. It might be added that there is a notable lack of information as to Shakespeare’s activities at certain periods, especially for several years preceding Greene’s dying attack on him in his Groatsworth of Wit (1592).
Obviously you could make this vita much longer before launching into fiction, and Chambers’ sober William Shakespeare: Facts and Problems uses two volumes to get in everything reasonably sensible and relevant that was known in 1930. Also you can write about sixteenth-century Stratford or about London at the turn of the century, and about playhouses and publishers and patrons; but your book may turn into a Life and Times with the two halves very tenuously connected, unless you can show a certain degree of positive involvement by Shakespeare in the historical events and conditions described—the kind of thing Masson could more easily achieve with Milton. Here is the short cut to fiction and eccentric guessing; and here also is an explanation of the fact that we now…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.