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Have you ever ventured into the Octagon, which used to be the Queen Mary library, for meetings or lectures and has your eye started wandering around the room? In doing so your gaze may have rested on several busts clinging to the edge of life on the balcony, looking down on us. This week the focus is on William Shakespeare. A series by Special Collections Information Assistant Anne Marie McHarg.

Bust of Shakespeare in the Octagon

Bust of Shakespeare by Francis Verheyden commissioned by the People's Palace c. 1888.

His Early Life

William Shakespeare is one of the most recognised literary figures the world has known. His great works have been quoted for hundreds of years. In spite of being so famous his birth date and early life are very sketchy. To start with the date of his birth: we think, but are not sure, that he may have been born on 23 April or 26 April 1564. The only known date was when he was baptised in the parish church of Stratford, on April 26, 1564.

His father John Shakespeare was a prosperous merchant and local dignitary, fulfilling civic positions; he also owned several houses in Stratford. Two of his properties were in the street known as Henley Street and this is where Shakespeare was born. His mother was Mary Arden the daughter of a wealthy farmer. William’s older sisters both died in infancy leaving William the eldest of eight children.

His father’s elevated status meant that he was likely to have sent his children, including William, to the local grammar school. This was the King's New School in Stratford, a free school chartered in 1553, about a quarter mile from his home. William would have learned the basic Latin text that was standardised by royal decree and the school would have provided an intensive education in grammar based upon Latin, Greek, theology and rhetoric. He may also have seen plays by the travelling theatre groups touring Stratford in the 1560s and 70s which may have filled his imagination with the various characters he would have seen.

By 1577 John Shakespeare’s business was getting into debt and because of this William may have had to leave school and help his father.


We do know that in 1582 at the age of eighteen William married Anne Hathaway who was twenty-six years of age. In the following year 1583 their first child was born, a daughter, Susanna. Then three years later came the birth of twins, a boy called Hamnet and a girl named Judith.

Missing Years

We are again not sure about the details of Shakespeare’s life in the period of 1587 – 1592. These seem to be lost years where no record can trace him.

It is thought that owing to his need to look after his family he had to get a job or seek his fortune. There is some documentary evidence of Shakespeare as a rising actor and playwright in London in 1592. There are several stories that surrounds this year but one story that stands out. It is believed that Shakespeare was caught poaching deer from an estate, Charlecote Park, which was the home of the nobleman, Sir Thomas Lucy. “The criminal prosecution” referred to has been connected with an incident mentioned by Nicholas Rowe and also by Richard Davis who became rector of Sapperton, Gloucestershire in 1695. According to Rowe, Shakespeare was prosecuted for stealing a deer from the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy and left Stratford to avoid further prosecution; according to Davis, he was whipped and imprisoned by Lucy. Despite discrepancies of detail, likely originating in village gossip handed down orally, there may be some kernel of truth in the story. Shakespeare retaliated by writing a rude poem about the affair. This was too much for Sir Thomas, Shakespeare thought better of it and left Stratford post haste to avoid further scandal.

In London

By 1592 we know that Shakespeare was in London.  He had joined a company of actors as a player and had begun writing plays. He was well enough known to make a least one older playwright jealous of him, Robert Greene. Robert Greene wrote a very angry attack on him that accused him of “stealing” his work and other men’s plays and pretending that it was his own. This had been very unfair, and not long after that the man who had published the pamphlet with Greene’s bitter words in it apologised to Shakespeare, saying “he knew an honest person he was, and how good an actor and author he was”.

From June 1592 to April 1594, London Theatres were closed, first through riots and then the plague, the exception being a month at Christmas time. A few companies would move to the provinces. During his time in London Shakespeare wrote his first two long poems, firstly "Venus and Adonis" (1593) and then "The Rape of Lucrece" (1594). We hold books in our collections containing both of these poems: The works of Mr. William Shakespear. Volume the Seventh and Complete works : the text and order of the first folio with quarto variants & a choice of modern readings noted marginally. Both these poems were printed by Richard Field, who was Shakespeare’s school friend who had gone to London from Stratford as a printer's apprentice in 1579. Shakespeare also became a founding member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company of actors. He was the company's regular dramatist, producing on average two plays a year, for almost twenty years.

In 1596 Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died but the rest of the Elizabethan reign seems to be a happy and prosperous time for Shakespeare. With his newfound wealth in 1597 he was able to purchase one of the largest houses in Stratford called New Place. Shakespeare kept close links in London, with his professional life in the theatre and his family home in Stratford upon Avon. In the year that followed in 1598 he became a partner in the profits of the Globe Theatre, which had been built in London for his company to act in. On the death of his father in 1601. Shakespeare inherited the old family home in Henley Street part of which was then leased to tenants. In 1602 he purchased of 107 acres of land as further property investments.  

Shakespeare’s Death

On 25 March 1616 Shakespeare wrote out his will and one month afterwards he died on 23 April aged 52.  He was buried two days later in the same parish church where he had been baptised, Holy Trinity.

There is some speculation on how he died. We know that he wrote his will a month before he died, stating that he was “in perfect health & memorie, god be praysed". During the Tudor period this was a phrase which was commonly used so Shakespeare could simply have been putting his affairs in order in accordance with the conventions of the day. There is no extant contemporary source explaining how or why he died but there are written notes from the notebook of John Ward vicar of Stratford written half a century later:

Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and, it seems, drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted. 

What Was Shakespeare Like?

We know very little of William Shakespeare’s personality. What we can glean is from friends, fellow actors and men who encountered him throughout his life. John Aubrey asserts that he was “a handsome well shap’t man: very good companie and a very readie and pleasant smooth witt,” that he liked a quiet life, not being fond of gay drunken parties nor of the polite manners of the court – “If invited to court, he was in pain.”

You can read some of Aubrey’s works in our collections Letters written by eminent persons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; to which are added, ; Hearne's Journies to Reading, and to Whaddon Hall; the seat of Browne Willis Esq. And Lives of eminent men . and Miscellanies upon various subjects.

We also hold Nicholas Rowe’s "account of Shakespeare", which was published in Rowe’s The works of Mr William Shakespear. The Rowe-Tonson edition of Shakespeare's plays (1709) is an important event in the history of both Shakespeare studies and English literary criticism. Though based substantially on the Fourth Folio (1685), it is the first, "edited" edition: Rowe modernized spelling and punctuation and quietly made several sensible emendations. It is the first edition to include dramatis personae, the first to attempt a systematic division of all the plays into acts and scenes, and the first to give to scenes their distinct locations. It is the first of many illustrated editions. It is the first to abandon the clumsy folio format and to attempt to bring the plays within reach of the understanding and the pocketbooks of the average reader. Finally, it is the first to include an extended life and critique of the author.

Title page Supplement to the edition of Shakespeare's Plays published in 1778, volume the first

His great friend Ben Johnson said of him he knew “small Latin, and less Greek – but he was very fond of him. Shakespeare was “honest and of an open and free nature”, Jonson recorded in later years – “I loved the man and do honour his memory…. as much as any.”

In Shakespeare’s lifetime writers of all walks of life joined in praising Shakespeare for his plays and poems, leaving them with no doubt in their minds that he stood out as being the greatest among them all.


Supplement to the edition of Shakespeare's plays published in 1778 /in two volumes. Vol.1 / Samuel Johnson and George Steevens [Ref. PR2752 SHA]

We have no idea of his likes and dislikes, his moods of despair if any, the fun-loving life brings to you as it was never described by his friends. In Shakespeare’s lifetime writers of all walks of life joined in praising Shakespeare for his plays and poems, leaving them with no doubt in their minds that he stood out as being the greatest among them all. We have no idea of his likes and dislikes, his moods of despair if any, the fun-loving life brings to you as it was never described by his friends. We know he was a great observer and had curiosity about life, and that he thought deeply about life and its sufferings around him. It is the plays and poems themselves that give us some insight to his character. From his writings we know that he was wise, clever, had a good sense of wit and humour and was kindly, that he loved people, even those we would deem stupid or annoying. The later plays “The Tragedies” showed the grief and suffering of people caught in terrible situations. Shakespeare would have known suffering especially after the death of his son Hamnet who died in 1596; and his father who he was very close to in died 7 September 1601.

Many of the actual events of his life can only be guessed at or surmised from hearsay. We do know however, he wrote sonnets which were probably about himself. Some of them were written to the lady with dark hair and eyes and black eyebrows. She too – the “Dark Lady of the sonnets” as she was called remains a mystery. If this mysterious Lady was real Shakespeare could possibly had fallen in love with her; but at the same time may have hated her for what she made him suffer.

Westminster Abbey Poet’s Corner

It was not until 29th January 1741 (1740 in Old Style dating) that a memorial statue to him was finally erected in Poets' Corner (although the Dean and Chapter had given leave to erect a monument to him back in 1726 at the request of John Rich; perhaps funds were not forthcoming at this time).

Every Friday our Special Collections librarian Anne-Marie will be introducing you to each of the writers featured in the Octagon in this blog series.



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