William Shakespeare is considered by many to be the greatest playwright of the Renaissance era. Although his most famous years were spent in London, Shakespeare’s family figured heavily into his life, and some believe influenced his writing. There is little known for sure about the life of William Shakespeare, but the few details existing of Shakespeare’s family suggest they were a complicated group often left behind in the playwright’s busy city life.
William Shakespeare is believed to have been born on St. George’s Day, 23 April 23 1564. He was the second child of Mary Arden and John Shakespeare to survive infancy. Shakespeare’s oldest sibling, Joan, was born in 1558 and died sometime before 1569. A second sister, Margaret, died at five months old. Shakespeare had three younger brothers and two younger sisters, one of whom, Anne, died at the age of eight in 1579. His remaining siblings all survived to adulthood, with all but one predeceasing him.
Little is known about Mary Arden, the mother of Shakespeare. Mary was the daughter of Robert Arden, a wealthy landowner of the Warwickshire area. The family gave their name to the nearby Forest of Arden, which William Shakespeare would later incorporate into his comedy As You Like It.
Shakespeare’s family was not wealthy, despite his mother’s connections. John Shakespeare, William’s father, worked as a glove-maker and farmer before becoming a council-member or Alderman for the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. He held several village offices early in his career, but seems to have lost most of his money during the 1560s. Records show John avoided going to church for fear of being arrested for unpaid debts. He also was accused of being involved in illegal wool smuggling, and retired from public office in 1576.
Shakespeare’s family were professed Protestants, but a letter signed by John Shakespeare was discovered in the 18th century, swearing his loyalty to the Catholic faith. It is generally accepted to be accurate and not a forgery. If John Shakespeare was a true Catholic, it is likely that William Shakespeare would have received some secret Catholic education along with his public Protestant learning. A long standing fight in the literary community rages over textual support of his faith in Shakespeare’s plays. Though religion clearly influenced his writing, the debate over what he believed and the extent to which Shakespeare’s family influence him may never be solved.
In November 1582, the 18 year old Shakespeare married the 26 year-old Anne Hathaway. This local farm girl was pregnant with Shakespeare’s daughter and gave birth in early 1583. Debate continues over the marriage, with some critics arguing that Shakespeare only married Anne because of her pregnancy. This belief is challenged however, as betrothal was legally considered as marriage in that time, and many couples did not officially marry until the woman became pregnant.
In 1585, Shakespeare’s family was complete, with the addition of his twin children Judith and Hamnet. While Judith and Shakespeare’s older daughter Susanna, survived childhood, the boy Hamnet died at age 11 in 1596. Reports suggest that Shakespeare was extremely grieved, and some scholars suggest that the tragedy Hamlet, written shortly thereafter, expressed Shakespeare’s feelings of hopelessness after his young son’s death.
Some critics suggest that William did not get along with his wife and family, as he spent most of his adult life in London. However upon retiring from the stage in 1613, Shakespeare abruptly left his popular life and returned to his family’s home in Stratford. Anne Hathaway asked to be buried beside her husband, which experts believe an unlikely request if they were truly estranged. Scholarship may never fully understand the influence of Shakespeare’s family upon his work, yet it is clear he retained affection for them throughout his career, and left a glittering life in London to be die in his family’s peaceful Stratford home.