William, the third child of John Shakespeare and Mary (nee Arden), was born in April 1564. No one knows for certain the date on which William Shakespeare was born. Many like to believe it is the 23rd April, the same date on which he died 52 years later. It’s plausible. The records of Holy Trinity Church record his baptism on 26th April 1564 and it was customary at the time for newborn babies to be christened on the next Sunday or Holy Day following the birth. It is also widely accepted that he was born at the house now known as ‘Shakespeare’s Birthplace’ on Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon.
In 1847, the house on Henley Street once owned by William Shakespeare’s father, John, and where William Shakespeare is believed to have been born, came up for auction. Rumours circulated that the American P T Barnum, of Barnum & Bailey Circus fame, was going to buy the house and move it to America as a tourist attraction. The construction method of Tudor houses, effectively a large 3D jigsaw filled with panels of wattle and daub, certainly made this a physical possibility. However, the idea that the house where the ‘father of the English language’ was born would be lost to English shores was too much for many to stand by and allow to happen. Prince Albert and Charles Dickens interceded in an attempt to halt the chances of the house going to America. Money was raised to buy the house and an Act of Parliament was passed setting up a charitable trust to buy and run the house on behalf of the people of England. This was the origins of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which now includes 5 houses in Stratford, linked with Shakespeare and his family.
Shakespeare received a grammar school education at King Edward VI Grammar School. The school was free to all boys in the Stratford area. There were no fees and so, in theory, boys from all backgrounds could attend. Of course, that is if their families could afford to let them go rather than work at home or go into a trade.
Boys, from the age of 7 years, would attend 6 days a week from 6am to 5 or 6 pm in the evening. The school was highly disciplined and strict practices and punishments were deemed an acceptable part of a boy’s education. A grammar school education meant just that. The boys would have learned to deconstruct and construct language and how to wield words to build compelling arguments. Latin and Greek made up a large part of the curriculum, Latin from classical texts and Greek from the New Testament. This meant that Shakespeare would have been exposed to European, and not just English, influences. Italian writers seem to have had a great impact on Shakespeare, through his study of classical latin texts and recognisable themes can be seen coming through in his own work.
The school was sited within the Guildhall, built in 1420, the centre of civic life in Stratford. William Shakespeare’s father, John, held a number of civic roles including, at one time, Bayliff (Mayor) and would have known the building well.
We can surmise that William would have also known it well and that this could have been where he first encountered visiting troupes of actors who would perform their acts at the Guildhall in order to gain a license to perform in the town.
He would have met many travellers passing through and so would have been aware of the world outside of his own town.
We can surmise that these early experiences of travelling actors and people from beyond his known world inspired his ambition to write and perform!
Thank you for reading.
- Philippa Brewell
History Writer and History Tour Creator