A Highly Speculative Chronology of William Shakespeare’s Life & Times
Birth of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s future mentor
1568 Shakespeare’s father John is selected as Bailiff (mayor) of Stratford.
1571 Birth of Robert Catesby, future terrorist; in Lapworth, just north of Stratford, in Warwickshire
Shakespeare begins his formal education at the King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford.
1572 Birth of Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s future rival
1576 John Shakespeare applies for a coat-of-arms. He is denied.
James Burbage, father of Richard, builds the Theatre, England’s first playhouse.
1577 The Curtain, England’s second playhouse, is erected near the Theatre in Shoreditch. It is used primarily as an “easer” or overflow space.
1578 Struggling with heavy debts, John Shakespeare mortgages his property. Due to the family’s financial problems, 14-year-old William is forced to leave school after only nine years of formal education. He will never attend school again.
1579 Birth of John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s future successor as company playwright
1580 Birth of Edmund, Shakespeare’s youngest brother and future fellow actor
The Theatre and the Curtain survive an earthquake that rocks London.
1582 In September, Shakespeare, aged 18, has unprotected sex with Anne Hathaway, aged 26.
In December, Shakespeare marries the pregnant Miss Hathaway.
1583 Birth of Shakespeare’s first child, Susanna (May 26)
Shakespeare struggles to find a way to support his wife and daughter. One old story suggests that he was a schoolmaster. Some have speculated that he might have been a law clerk, as his early plays demonstrate an uncommon knowledge of legal terms and principles. He also may serve in the military at some point during the next five years.
1584 Marlowe graduates from Corpus Christi College with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
1585 Birth of Shakespeare’s twins, Judith & Hamnet (February 2)
1586 This year sees the premiere of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the first great English stage tragedy, starring 19-year-old Richard Burbage as Jeronimo.
1587 Philip Henslowe builds the Rose playhouse in the Liberty of the Clink, Bankside, as the principal home for the Lord Admiral’s Men. Their chief playwright is Marlowe, their leading actor is Ned Alleyn and their premiere productions are Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Pts. 1 & 2.
In a performance of Tamburlaine, Pt. 2, during the scene in which Baghdad’s governor is executed by firing squad, one of the muskets turns out to be loaded with live ammunition. The actor, suddenly realizing this, aims away from his fellow actors at the last moment. The stray bullet strikes a pregnant woman in the audience and kills her.
Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus premieres at the Rose with Ned Alleyn in the title role, and possibly featuring Dick Burbage as Mephistofeles.
Historians Raphael Holinshed and William Harrison publish their second edition of The Whole Volume of Chronicles, a well-written and oft-used plot source for Shakespeare and other dramatists.
Marlowe earns his Masters degree from Corpus Christi College.
The Queen’s Men, an acting troupe on tour of the countryside, performs in Stratford this year. Their repertoire includes The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, The True Tragedy of Richard the Third, King Leir, and The Troublesome Reign of King John—but not Shakespeare’s versions of these stories, of course. Some historians speculate that he may have joined up with the Queen’s Men at this time.
1588 Sometime this year Shakespeare may have composed or collaborated on a play called Edmund Ironsides. Its authorship remains disputed.
1589 Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta premieres, probably featuring Edward Alleyn in the title role.
If Shakespeare didn’t join the Queen’s Men back in ’87, then he may have hooked up instead with Lord Strange’s Servants (later the Lord Chamberlain’s Men), another troupe on tour this year. Their leading man is Dick Burbage, who will become Shakespeare’s life-long business partner. Shakespeare may have written The Comedy of Errors already, perhaps offering it to the company as an incentive to hire him. While his theatrical career sometimes is portrayed as a desertion of his family, it was more likely an honest effort to secure a profession that would earn more money for their support.
Arden of Faversham (or Feversham) is a domestic tragedy that is well received by audiences. It will remain popular for over fifty years, with revivals in the 18th and 19th centuries. A quarto edition is published in 1592, and there is a second printing in ’99 and a third in 1633. No author is ever credited, but some scholars have speculated that it might have been an early work of Shakespeare’s, perhaps even his very first play. A play catalog (of dubious credibility) published in 1656 assigned its authorship to Shakespeare, while subsequent critics have perceived the pen of Marlowe or Kyd. Stylometric analyses of the text are inconclusive.
Arden of Faversham recounts the true story of a cuckold named Arden who was murdered on Valentine’s Day in 1551 by a pair of thugs (one nicknamed “Shakebag”) hired by Arden’s unfaithful wife. It is linked to Shakespeare for three reasons: the story appears in Holinshed’s Chronicles, a frequent plot source for Shakespeare; the famous murder victim was related to Shakespeare through his mother, Mary Arden; and, finally, it’s a pretty good play, featuring that peculiar mix of comedy and tragedy found in the poet’s best work. Since it was still popular when the First Folio was published, it seems likely that it would have been included if it were indeed the work of Shakespeare (though the editors had to negotiate for the rights to publish The Taming of the Shrew, also an early play, and that could have been the case with Arden as well). But if Shakespeare didn’t write it, then who did? If nothing else, Arden of Faversham, like Edmund Ironsides and Edward III, is an anonymous play that exhibits those touches of promise that could indicate the early efforts of a future, great writer.
1590 Shakespeare’s plays produced this year:
? Inspired by Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy
? Shakespeare’s authorship of Edward III has been argued for centuries. The consensus today is that he probably wrote at least some of it.
Marlowe’s Tamburlaine is a huge hit in its revival at the Rose by the Lord Admiral’s Men. Ned Alleyn stars.
1591 Shakespeare’s plays produced this year:
The Taming of the Shrew
? Possibly based on an unfinished work by Marlowe
? Possibly featuring Robert Gough as Katherina the Shrew
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella is published, kicking off a popular craze for sonnets that will last through the ’90’s.
1592 Shakespeare’s plays produced this year:
Henry VI, Pts. 1, 2 & 3
? Co-authored with Marlowe, and probably featuring Shakespeare as a supporting actor
In January, Shakespeare’s “Harey the 6” is performed by the Admiral’s Men (Alleyn, Henslowe and company) at the Rose. The number of performances indicates that the Henry VI plays, especially the first one, are very popular.
The second Spanish Armada is wrecked during its attempt to invade England.
Back in Stratford, John Shakespeare finds himself once again in danger of arrest for debt.
Robert Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit is published, in which he bitterly chides the new actor-playwright “Shake-scene” as a plagiarist and an “upstart.” After Greene’s death this same year, his publisher Henry Chettle issues an apology in the book Kind Heart’s Dream, praising Shakespeare as a fine fellow and an admired actor.
While this chronology includes details of the life of Robert Catesby, there is no historical evidence that Shakespeare and Catesby ever met. If they did, it might have been around this time when both were known to hang out at the Mermaid Tavern. (They also could have known each other from Warwickshire where they both grew up. Evidence suggests that their fathers may have been acquainted as recusants involved in the traffic of outlawed Catholic literature. If Shakespeare was ever a schoolmaster, as many scholars have proposed, then Catesby, seven years his junior, could’ve been his student.) Certainly there can be no question that they knew of each other. In any case, their paths will cross, and the courses of their lives are interesting to compare.
On September 7, the London Council reacts to one of the worst outbreaks of plague in history by ordering the closure of all playhouses. Except for one brief re-opening in January of ’93, London’s playhouses stay boarded up for over a year and a half, finally re-opening in the summer of 1594. During this period of closure, the death toll in London will mount to 11,000 out of population of 250,000.
1593 His nascent theatre career suddenly put on hold, Shakespeare joins in the sonnet-writing craze, composing over 150—and possibly many more—during the course of the next five or six years.
Playwright Thomas Kyd is arrested for heresy. He is imprisoned and tortured. On the rack, he implicates Marlowe as a heretic and atheist. Atheism is tantamount to treason in Elizabethan England.
Robert Catesby marries Catherine Leigh, a Protestant whose dowry is ₤2000 a year. They name their first child William. He dies in infancy.
In ’93 and ’94 Shakespeare composes the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, dedicating both to earl Henry Wriothesley of Southampton. After Venus, Southampton becomes Shakespeare’s patron. Southampton extends his patronage to other writers as well, including his language tutor John Florio, who is writing an Italian-English dictionary, and the satirical playwright and pornographic poet Thomas Nashe.
Shakespeare may spend part of his time in Stratford and part on the earl’s estate at Titchfield. There he could have met Emilia Lanier, nee Bassano, Southampton’s mistress and the wife of one of his musicians. Lanier, an artist and writer herself, may have taken part in a menage à trois with Shakespeare and Southampton—emotionally if not sexually—a situation alluded to in several of the sonnets according to some readers’ interpretation. The woman in the sonnets is described as “black,” i.e., dark-haired and not fair-skinned. Emilia Lanier, being half-Italian, would fit this description.
London’s playhouses briefly reopen in January. Marlowe’s controversial Massacre At Paris is performed. But when plague flares up before the end of the month, the playhouses are all shuttered again.
Shakespeare’s erotic poem Venus and Adonis is entered in the Stationers’ Register on April 18 and published thereafter. It is very popular, particularly among “the younger sort” according to a letter written by fellow poet Gabriel Harvey. The poem is reprinted in no less than ten editions over the course of the next decade.
On May 27, an informer named Robert Baines delivers a report on Marlowe to the Privy Council. The report accuses Marlowe of promoting atheism and making various heretical statements, such as claiming that the world is older than 6,000 years and that Jesus and his disciple John were lovers. The report ends with the recommendation that Marlowe’s “mouth should be stopped.” Three days later . . .
. . . on May 30, Marlowe is stabbed to death by Ingram Frizer in Eleanor Bull’s lodging house in Deptford, a London suburb. Robert Poley and Nick Skeres, the two “witnesses” to the crime, are both veteran spies and provocateurs. They claim it was the result of a fight over the tavern bill. However, Marlowe had been a sometime-spy for the crown, and he may have been murdered as a result of his clandestine activities.
1594 Shakespeare’s plays produced this year:
Love’s Labor’s Lost
? Starring Richard Burbage in the title role
Poet George Chapman vies for Southampton’s attention and patronage by publishing a pair of poems in a volume entitled The Shadow of Night. In the preface he makes a veiled jab at Shakespeare and his Venus and Adonis. Chapman may be the Rival Poet alluded to in Shakespeare’s sonnets.
It is likely that, early this year, the first version of Love’s Labor’s Lost is written and staged in a private performance for Southampton and his friends. The play is full of inside jokes and topical references to the court life of the day. One of the notables who gets skewered is Sir Walter Raleigh. The earls of Southampton and Essex consider him a rival, and since he is currently out of favor with the Queen he is ripe for mockery. Three years later, however, when Raleigh is popular again and the play is performed for her Majesty at Christmas, the script is revised. All references to Raleigh are removed and his character is re-cast as a Spaniard.
Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece is entered in the Stationers’ Register on May 9 and published shortly thereafter. Southampton rewards its author with a financial gift, possibly around a ₤100 or more.
On June 3, the playhouses are finally reopened by order of the London Council. They have been closed since September of 1592. Shakespeare heads back to London where he becomes a partner (a “sharer”) in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (formerly Lord Strange’s Servants), possibly using the money he just received from Southampton. The Chamberlain’s Men is a prestigious acting company headed by James Burbage and his sons, Cuthbert and Richard. They are partly funded and protected through the patronage of Lord Hunsdon, the Queen’s Chamberlain.
Shakespeare rents lodgings in the parish of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, within walking distance of the three chief playhouses where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men will perform: the Theatre, the Curtain, and the Cross Keys Inn on Gracechurch Street. At first, however, both the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the Lord Admiral’s Men share Henslowe’s performance space at Newington Butts. The Chamberlain’s Men’s opening show there is The Taming of the Shrew.
Richard III premieres later this summer. With Richard Burbage in the title role, the show is a big hit. (One of the historical characters portrayed in the play is William Catesby, Robert’s great-great-great-grandfather.)
A play called King Leir and His Three Daughters (author unknown) is performed in London. Shakespeare’s later work is either based on this play or on the same source material.
In September the mysterious poem Willobie His Avisa is published under the pseudonym “Hadrian Dorrell.” It may be the work of a poet named Henry Willoughby, though some critics suggest another writer, Matthew Roydon. Its preface mentions “Shake-speare” as the author of The Rape of Lucrece. This is the earliest-known occurrence of Shakespeare’s name appearing in print. The poem’s meaning and intentions remain unclear. One interpretation is that it, like Shakespeare’s own sonnets, alludes to a menage à trois in which “W.S.” (Shakespeare) and “H.W.” (Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton) took part. While the sexual angle may not be the case, there can be little doubt that the initials “W.S.” and “H.W.” refer to Shakespeare and Wriothesley.
Henry Wriothesley comes of age in October, gaining his full inheritance and control over his affairs as the Third Earl of Southampton. (Since the death of his father, he had been the ward of Lord Burghley.)
The Lord Chamberlain requests a permit on October 8 from the Lord Mayor of London to allow his “new company of players” to perform a winter season of plays at the Cross Keys Inn.
England suffers a notably bad harvest this year.
Shakespeare may have written A Midsummer Night’s Dream during the final months of 1594 to be performed for the wedding celebrations of Earl William Stanley of Derby and Elizabeth Vere. The wedding took place on January 26, 1595 at Greenwich Palace in the presence of Queen Elizabeth.
The Comedy of Errors is performed at Gray’s Inn on December 28.
1595 Shakespeare’s plays produced this year:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
? Featuring Will Kemp as Bottom, with Shakespeare possibly enacting either Theseus or Oberon
? Possibly starring Shakespeare in the title role
Shakespeare collaborates on a script entitled Sir Thomas More. Three pages of it scribbled in Shakespeare’s hand still exist, the only surviving example of one of his original first drafts.
Thomas Kyd dies, never having recovered from the tortures he suffered in prison.
The Swan playhouse is built by Francis Langley in the Liberty of Paris Garden, Bankside. It is used for various entertainments, from plays to prizefights.
A law is passed this year prohibiting the performance of plays in innyards like the one at the Cross Keys on Gracechurch Street, which had been a favorite of the Chamberlain’s Men.
1596 Shakespeare’s plays produced this year:
Romeo & Juliet
? Starring Burbage as Romeo, Will Kemp as Peter, and possibly featuring Shakespeare as either Friar Laurence or Mercutio
The Merchant of Venice
? Starring Burbage as Shylock and possibly featuring Shakespeare in the title role of Antonio
A letter written by novice playwright John Marston remarks on Shakespeare’s popularity, noting that people quote lines from Romeo & Juliet in everyday conversation.
A second edition of Willobie His Avisa is published.
Edward III, possibly one of Shakespeare’s first plays, is published.
The Lord Chamberlain Henry Lord Hunsdon dies on July 22, leaving Shakespeare’s company without a patron. The Lord Mayor and the London City Council—dominated by Puritans who regard playhouses as dens of iniquity—seize the opportunity to close down the Theatre, England’s oldest playhouse. With neither a playhouse nor the protection of a nobleman’s patronage, Shakespeare’s acting company is suddenly out of business.
On top of his business misfortunes, Shakespeare faces the death of his 11-year-old son Hamnet on August 8.
King John may have been written (or re-written) and first produced in late 1596. The scenes depicting the death of the little boy Arthur and his mother’s grief are particularly poignant.
Poisoning is suspected when the Queen falls ill, and many known Catholic-sympathizers and recusants are rounded up and imprisoned in the Tower. Among them is Robert Catesby. All are released when the Queen recovers a short time later.
In the fall, Shakespeare’s troupe reforms under the patronage of the new Lord Hunsdon (George, the Chamberlain’s son) and temporarily resumes performing at the Swan in Southwark. Shakespeare moves from Bishopsgate across the river to Southwark, too, taking a room near the Bear Garden.
On October 20, Shakespeare suddenly becomes a second-generation gentleman overnight when, through Southampton’s influence and his own, his father is finally granted that coat-of-arms for which he had longed so many years before.
In November, the Justice of the Peace in Southwark tries to stop the Lord Hunsdon’s Men from performing at the Swan. He sends his stepson William Wayte to evict the players. There is an altercation outside the playhouse between Wayte, his companions and several players, including Shakespeare.
The Sheriff of Surrey issues an arrest warrant on November 29 which names Francis Langley and Shakespeare among others, charging them with threatening Wayte’s life. The matter is settled out of court—and in Shakespeare’s favor apparently, as he and his company are performing at Whitehall for the Queen a month later. It probably didn’t hurt that Shakespeare had recently acquired that coat-of-arms and the social standing of a gentleman.
1597 Shakespeare’s plays produced this year:
Henry IV, Pts. 1 & 2
? Starring Burbage as Prince Hal, John Heminges as Falstaff, Kemp as Justice Shallow (in Pt. 2), and possibly Shakespeare in the title role
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Much Ado About Nothing
? Featuring Will Kemp as Dogberry, Richard Cowley as Verges, and possibly starring Shakespeare as Benedick
Death of James Burbage, the father of Richard and of modern theatre
King James of Scotland writes a book about his belief in witchcraft and the supernatural. It will later provide inspiration for Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Spain’s third attempt to invade England fails when their latest Armada is shipwrecked.
The number of performances and the wide publication of pirated editions indicate that Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Pts. 1 & 2 are huge hits. The character of Falstaff is enormously popular. Surviving correspondence between Lady Southampton and Sir Charles Percy refers to characters from these plays.
In April, Lord George (Carey) Hunsdon is elevated to the office of Lord Chamberlain, succeeding his late father. Thus Shakespeare’s troupe is once again known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
On his way to Stratford to close a real estate deal, Shakespeare probably passes through Oxford. And he probably stays overnight at the Davenant’s inn. And he probably can’t help but notice how charming Jane Davenant is, and what a lucky man his friend John Davenant is to have such a wife.
Enriched by the success of his Henry IV plays, Shakespeare purchases a new home for his family on May 4. Priced at ₤60, “New Place” is the second-largest house in Stratford. His wife, children and his parents move in from the old house on Henley Street, which is taken over by Shakespeare’s sister Joan and her husband, a hatter named William Hart.
According to tradition, Queen Elizabeth asks Shakespeare to write a new comedy that depicts Falstaff in love—and she gives him only three weeks to do it. The result, The Merry Wives of Windsor, does appear to have been hastily written, and it is the only play of Shakespeare’s with an entirely original plot. Some historians believe it was first performed during a celebration at the installation of Knights of the Garter held in May, 1597. At that particular ceremony, the patron of the Chamberlain’s Men, the new Lord Hunsdon, was made a Knight of the Garter.
Ben Jonson and Gabriel Spencer spend several months together in Fleet Prison due to their performances in Thomas Nashe’s “lewd and seditious” The Isle of Dogs, produced at the Swan by Pembroke’s Company. In the ensuing scandal the Privy Council closes all the playhouses in London and even tries to have them demolished.
Leading man Ned Alleyn marries Philip Henslowe’s stepdaughter and officially retires from the stage—a retirement that won’t last long.
The newly-revised Love’s Labor’s Lost is given a command performance before Queen Elizabeth on Christmas Day, 1597.
1598 John Florio publishes his Italian-English dictionary, A World of Words.
Robert Catesby’s family—wife, father and eldest son—all die this year.
Francis Meres publishes his review of popular culture, Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury, in which he describes Shakespeare as one of England’s most gifted and promising playwrights.
George Chapman, one of Shakespeare’s rivals, publishes his English translation of The Iliad.
Marlowe’s final unfinished work, the poem Hero and Leander, is published for the first time. Shakespeare makes oblique references to it—and arguably to Marlowe’s murder as well—in his upcoming play As You Like It.
Some evidence suggests that Shakespeare may have produced an early version of Hamlet this year which was withdrawn after several performances.
On the first of June, various books are labeled as “unseemly satires and epigrams” in a series of “commandments” issued by Archbishop and chief censor John Whitgift. On June 4, the books named in Whitgift’s commandments are publicly burned in the yard of Stationers’ Hall (the official record office where published works and approved plays are registered). The works of Thomas Nashe are particularly singled out. His books, poems, plays and pamphlets are to “be taken wheresoever they may be found” and destroyed, and none of his work shall “be ever printed hereafter.” This marks the end of Nashe’s career, and he dies in poverty two years later. Another work singled out for destruction is Marlowe’s translation of Ovid’s erotic Elegies, a.k.a. the Amores, to which Shakespeare makes reference in his upcoming play As You Like It.
In September, the Chamberlain’s Men stage Ben Jonson’s comedy Every Man In His Humour at the Curtain. Though it was considered and passed over by Henslowe and the Admiral’s Men, Shakespeare and the Chamberlain’s Men take the rejected script and turn it into Jonson’s first big hit. The production stars Shakespeare as Old Knowles, Burbage as Mr. Kitely, Christopher Beeston as Mrs. Kitely and Harry Condell as Captain Bobadil.
Jonson quarrels with Gabriel Spencer, the actor with whom he had been imprisoned a year earlier. They have a duel on September 22, and Jonson stabs Spencer to death.
In October, Jonson is indicted for murder at the Old Bailey and imprisoned at Newgate. Within the month he beats the rap by claiming “benefit of clergy,” an old law still on the books which grants a reprieve on a first offense to anyone who can read Latin. Jonson is released, but not before being branded on the thumb with a “T” for Tyburn, the site of the gallows, which identifies him as a pardoned offender. (Some believe that Jonson may have only been threatened with branding.) Immediately after this experience, Jonson converts to Catholicism, a faith he renounces twelve years later.
In November, Southampton is imprisoned in the Tower by Queen Elizabeth for having impregnated and married one of her ladies-in-waiting without her knowledge and approval. The Earl of Essex uses his influence to get Southampton released within a month.
The Burbages lose their land-lease on the Theatre. The problem is that they own the building but not the land beneath it. The property’s owner, Giles Allen, announces his plans to tear the building down right after Christmas. Undaunted, Shakespeare, Burbage and company come up with a novel and amazingly bold solution. They gather in the middle of the night on December 28, tear down the Theatre with axes, swords and crowbars, and ferry the timber across the Thames, where they will rebuild their playhouse on a new site. Giles Allen files a lawsuit over this, but in the end the judge rules in the actors’ favor. And that’s how the timbers of England’s first playhouse were used to build England’s most famous playhouse, the Globe.
1599 Shakespeare’s plays produced in 1599, a very eventful year:
? Starring Burbage in the title role and possibly featuring Shakespeare as Rumour (a.k.a. Chorus)
? Featuring Burbage as Brutus and John Heminges as Caesar
As You Like It
? According to tradition, Shakespeare played Adam and Robert Armin played Touchstone. Burbage may have played Orlando.
Jonson writes Every Man Out of His Humour, a sequel to his first big hit. Like so many sequels, it doesn’t do as well as the original.
Shakespeare and Burbage build the Globe on a plot of land in Bankside, using the timber from the old Theatre. The first show there may possibly be either Henry V or Julius Caesar.
Henslowe and the Admiral’s Men build a new playhouse, the Fortune, to compete with the Globe. Alleyn comes out of retirement to be the leading man, and England’s most popular clown Will Kemp quits the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to come on board as well. (Kemp may have been glad to part company with Shakespeare in view of their artistic differences over Kemp’s improvisational style. He is replaced by Robert Armin, a comedian more to Shakespeare’s liking.) But ticket sales for both the Globe and the Fortune suffer from the competition of children’s companies—the latest fad—who perform at the indoor Blackfriars playhouse.
Poet John Weever publishes his Epigrams, which includes a flattering sonnet addressed to “honey-tongued Shakespeare.”
William Jaggard publishes a poetry collection called The Passionate Pilgrim which includes some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. There is a later record of Shakespeare’s protest about this unauthorized publication.
The third edition of Willobie His Avisa is deemed libelous, condemned and ordered to be burned by the public censor. Odds are it was Shakespeare and Southampton who considered it libelous.
The playwright Dr. John Hayward is arrested and imprisoned by the Queen for writing a play which reenacts the deposition of Richard II—even though Shakespeare got away with depicting that same controversial event four years earlier.
The Earl of Essex, appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland, leaves London at the end of March on his quest to subdue the Earl of Tyrone and the Irish rebels.
Julius Caesar is performed at the Globe on September 21, 1599 according to the diary of Swiss tourist Thomas Platter. The performance starts at 2:00 p.m. and features a cast of 15 players who act their parts “extremely well.”
Against the Queen’s direct orders, Essex agrees to a truce with the Irish rebel Tyrone and returns to London at the end of September.
As You Like It premieres in October.
The Chamberlain’s Men perform for the Queen at her Court in Richmond during the Christmas holidays.
1600 Twelfth Night premieres this year, starring Robert Armin as Feste.
The Chamberlain’s Men perform in Oxford this year. Shakespeare probably stays with his friends John and Jane Davenant.
Thomas Nashe dies.
By late summer Essex is thoroughly out of favor with the Queen. He makes rash threats against her in public, calling for a public uprising and her removal from the throne. His most infamous remark: “Her mind is as crooked as her carcass.”
The Chamberlain’s Men return to Whitehall to perform for the Queen during the winter holidays.
1601 On February 5, Lord Monteagle books a one-day revival of Richard II for Saturday afternoon at the Globe. Although the play is not new and is still rather controversial, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men agree to perform it for an additional 40 shillings over the door receipts.
The performance of Richard II that Saturday, February 7, is attended by Sir Charles Percy, Lord Monteagle, Robert Catesby and other Essex conspirators. They believe the scene depicting the deposition of King Richard will inspire their followers in their quest to overthrow Elizabeth.
The Essex Rebellion takes place the next morning, Sunday, February 8. Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham and three other officials are taken hostage at Essex House. Essex and his followers march on the City but fail to gather enough popular support for an uprising. By evening the revolt has ended in utter failure. The earls of Essex and Southampton retreat to Essex House, where they finally surrender to authorities.
Before the month is out, Essex and Southampton are condemned to death for treason. Southampton is later spared the death penalty but remains imprisoned for over two years.
Robert Catesby’s role in the rebellion was relatively minor. Nevertheless, he is ruinously fined and subsequently forced to sell off most of his property to pay the judgment. Another minor participant in the rebellion who ends up with a prison sentence is Nick Skeres, the man who witnessed and may have conspired in the murder of Christopher Marlowe.
Representing the Chamberlain’s Men, Augustine Phillips is called before Lord Chief Justice Popham and two other judges to explain their involvement with the Essex conspirators. In the end, since the Chamberlain’s Men were hired to perform and claim they were ignorant of Essex’s plans, the judges rule them guiltless of complicity.
The Chamberlain’s Men perform (possibly The Merry Wives of Windsor?) for the Queen on February 24, the same day she signs Essex’s death warrant. On the following day, Ash Wednesday, Essex is beheaded.
Hamlet premieres this year at the Globe, starring Burbage in the title role, Shakespeare as King Hamlet’s Ghost, John Heminges as Polonius, and William Sly as Osrick.
Later in the year, the Chamberlain’s Men tour through Oxford, giving Shakespeare another opportunity to visit the Davenant’s.
Shakespeare’s short poem The Phoenix and the Turtle is published in a collection of works by various poets, including Chapman and Jonson, under the title Love’s Martyr. Despite the volume’s dedication to the obscure “Sir John Salisburie,” it is likely that the poems were intended as veiled tributes to the late Earl of Essex.
Shakespeare’s father dies this month in September.
The Chamberlain’s Men again perform for the Queen at Whitehall during the winter holiday season.
1602 Shakespeare’s plays produced this year:
All’s Well That Ends Well
Troilus & Cressida
A Cambridge lawyer named John Manningham records in his diary his attendance at a production of Twelfth Night on February 2 at the Middle Temple Hall. Another diary entry on March 13 relates a popular, sexy anecdote about Shakespeare that was making the rounds, to wit:
“Upon a time when Burbage played Richard the Third there was a citizen grew so far in liking with
him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name
of Richard the Third. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and
at his game ere Burbage came. Then, message being brought that Richard the Third was at the door,
Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third.”
As an investment, Shakespeare purchases 107 acres of farm land with a cottage in Chapel Lane.
Come Christmas, the Chamberlain’s Men once again perform for the Queen at Whitehall and Richmond.
1603 A pirated edition of Hamlet is published.
On March 24, 1603, Queen Elizabeth dies. She had ruled England for 45 years. She is succeeded by King James I.
And Elizabeth isn’t the only person to die this year. The actor Thomas Pope succumbs to the plague, as does Ben Jonson’s 7-year-old son. An estimated 30,000 others will “all fall down” in London alone, where the death rate reaches 1,100 victims per week by mid-summer.
On April 10, King James frees Southampton from prison, where he has languished since the Essex Rebellion over two years before.
The actor John Lowin joins the Chamberlain’s Men.
The King, a devoted theatre fan, selects Shakespeare’s troupe for the honor of his patronage and, on May 19, the Chamberlain’s Men officially become the King’s Men. It is the ultimate acknowledgement of their preeminence over all other acting companies in England.
Laurence Fletcher, who happens to be one of King James’s favorite actors, suddenly gets offered a plum position with the King’s Men.
A bit actor and set painter at the Globe named John Sanders decides to whip up a miniature-on-wood portrait of his celebrated boss. The painting will remain in the Sanders family for twelve generations as a secret treasured heirloom until they finally decide to reveal it to the world on May 11, 2001 in Ontario, Canada.
The King’s Men spend the summer touring Ipswich, Maldon, Coventry, Shrewsbury, Bath, Cambridge and Oxford, performing Hamlet and other plays. In Oxford, Shakespeare has another opportunity to cross paths with the delightful Jane Davenant.
On July 25, 1603, James I is officially crowned King of England and Scotland.
Jonson’s Sejanus premieres at the Globe starring Burbage (in the title role) and Shakespeare, but it doesn’t do particularly well. This really bugs Jonson because he prided himself on the historical accuracy of Sejanus in comparison to Shakespeare’s anachronistic Julius Caesar—which an ignorant public, of course, adored.
As a guest of the Countess of Salisbury at Wilton House, King James is entertained by a performance of As You Like It on December 2.
1604 Shakespeare’s plays produced this year:
Measure For Measure
? Starring Burbage in the title role
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is performed at Hampton Court on New Year’s Day.
Ned Alleyn retires from the stage. Again.
Shakespeare’s youngest brother Edmund, 24, moves to London and begins his brief career as an actor.
Shakespeare moves to Silver Street, north of the Thames, where he lets a room in the house of Huguenot wigmaker Christopher Mountjoy and family.
After an initial period of tolerance toward Catholics, King James orders all priests to leave England (February 22).
On March 15, Shakespeare and eight other members of the King’s Men march in the Royal Procession through London.
The Globe reopens in April after a brief closure (a week or two?) due to plague.
On April 24, King James sends the House of Commons a bill designating all Catholics in the realm as ex-communicates—essentially, outlaws. Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes and the other Gunpowder Plotters begin their conspiracy to assassinate the King.
Overreacting to rumors of a plot against his life, King James has Southampton and several other nobles arrested and imprisoned in the Tower on June 24. They are all just as suddenly released the following day, and all documents concerning the arrests and the alleged plot are destroyed.
Shakespeare and eleven other players are hired to serve as grooms waiting upon the Constable of Castile, who is visiting London to sign a peace treaty between England and Spain. Shakespeare serves as his Groom of the Chamber from August 9 through 27. The twelve players are paid a sum total of ₤21, 12s.
The King’s Men perform a series of plays for the King at Whitehall between now and mid-January: Othello (on November 1), followed by Merry Wives of Windsor, Measure For Measure, Comedy of Errors, Henry V, Love’s Labours’ Lost and Merchant of Venice. The latter is repeated in an encore performance at the King’s request. Payment is ₤110.
On December 11, the Gunpowder Plotters begin digging a mine under the Houses of Parliament from the basement of a nearby rental property.
1605 Significant plays produced by the King’s Men this year:
Marston’s The Malcontent
? Starring Burbage as Malevole
? Starring either Burbage or John Lowin as Volpone
Jonson collaborates with architect and set designer Inigo Jones in producing popular Court masques. These are incredibly expensive and wildly elaborate performance art pieces, rich with music, dancing and sophisticated special effects. Jonson and Jones are the supreme practitioners of this art form—and they hate each others’ guts.
By March the Gunpowder Plotters’ tunnel under Parliament is about half-finished. They eventually abandon the tunnel when they locate another property with an old cellar that extends directly beneath Parliament. Conspirator Thomas Percy rents that property and the plotters shift their efforts to the new site.
Shakespeare’s longtime partner and friend Gus Phillips dies sometime between the 4th and 13th of May at his home in Mortlake, Surrey. His will bequeaths special rings to Shakespeare, Burbage, Beeston, and some of his other old showbiz pals.
Popular comedian Will Kemp rejoins the King’s Men as a company member.
The King’s Men’s summer tour takes them through Barnstaple, Saffron Walden and Oxford, where they perform Volpone and other plays.
Jonson, Marston, and Chapman are imprisoned for their play Eastward Ho, which is considered insulting toward King James and Scotland. The King is out of town at the time and has nothing to do with the arrests. The three are sentenced to have their noses slit and their ears cut off, but Jonson’s mother manages to get a message through to James, begging for mercy. She also obtains poison for her son, so he can fulfill his pledge to die rather than suffer the indignity of mutilation. But the King is a big fan of Jonson’s, and he arranges for the immediate pardon and release of the Eastward Ho Three. Then he orders the judge to be “dunked thrice in the Thames” and retired from the bench.
If Shakespeare ever consummates an affair with Jane Davenant, he does it this July while his company is touring through Oxford.
In October, Lord Monteagle—the same man who booked Shakespeare’s players to perform Richard II before the Essex Rebellion—receives an anonymous note, urging him to avoid the opening ceremony at Parliament coming up next month. He immediately passes the information along to Robert Cecil, the Lord Salisbury.
On November 4, Salisbury’s agents visit Thomas Percy’s property next to Parliament. There they encounter Guy Fawkes standing guard and looking very nervous. They search the basement and discover behind a pile of firewood no less than 36 barrels containing over a ton and a half of gunpowder. Fawkes is placed under arrest. It is less than 24 hours before the planned detonation of the explosives. Under torture, Fawkes names Percy, Robert Catesby and others as co-conspirators.
On November 8, Catesby and Percy are tracked down in Staffordshire and slain by the Sheriff of Warwick’s men in a shoot-out at Holbeach House. Percy is struck by a musket ball which passes through his body and kills Catesby as well.
The King’s Men perform ten plays at Whitehall between December 5, 1605 and March 1606, for which they are paid ₤100.
1606 Shakespeare’s plays produced this year:
? Burbage starred in the title role. John Rice may have played Lady Macbeth, and Shakespeare may have been King Duncan.
? Starring Burbage in the title role and Armin as the Fool.
Guy Fawkes and the other surviving conspirators are tried before Lord Chief Justice Popham and found guilty of high treason on January 27. They are hanged on January 31. Afterwards, their heads are chopped off and mounted on pikes atop London Bridge. Catesby and Percy are disinterred so their heads can be lopped off and displayed as well. While their skulls are rotting, Shakespeare’s darkest and scariest play, Macbeth, holds its premiere.
Jane Davenant gives birth to a son on March 3. She and her husband name him William in honor of their dear friend Shakespeare, whom they ask to be the child’s godfather. But is he only the godfather of this child?
Parliament passes a bill on March 24 prohibiting the utterance of God’s name onstage.
Summer in London means plague—as usual—and for actors, that means touring the countryside. This year takes the King’s Men to Marlborough, Leicester, Maidstone, Oxford and Dover. In Dover, Shakespeare sees the White Cliffs, which he uses as a dramatic setting in his final masterpiece, King Lear.
The King of Denmark comes to England in July to visit his sister Queen Anne and brother-in-law King James. He catches a performance by the King’s Men at Greenwich.
A month later the King’s Men entertain the King of Denmark again, this time at Hampton Court, where they are paid ₤30 for two performances. The Danish king’s visit is marked by unprecedented drinking parties and debauchery at court. It’s all fairly scandalous, and Shakespeare and other writers openly express their disapproval of it.
The King’s Men perform nine plays for King James at Whitehall during the Christmas holidays, including a performance of King Lear on December 26 in which Shakespeare may have played Gloucester. Queen Anne, as usual, is absent, and the King is accompanied by his new boyfriend Robert Carr, the Groom of the Bedchamber.
Will Kemp dies sometime between 1605 and 1609.
Meanwhile, back in London, Shakespeare’s kid brother Edmund has unprotected sex with an unmarried woman.
1607 Shakespeare’s plays produced this year:
Antony & Cleopatra
? Starring Burbage in the title role
? This play may have been a collaboration or an adaptation of someone else’s script
Sometime between 1606 and 1608, Shakespeare writes the dreadful, bitter play Timon of Athens. The script reads like an unfinished first draft, and there is no evidence that it was ever produced. It may be the only surviving first draft of an unfinished Shakespeare play.
The settlement of Jamestown is founded in Virginia.
King James confiscates Catholic landowners’ estates in Ulster and gives them to English and Scottish settlers. Ireland’s Earl of Tyrone flees to Rome. Thus began “the Troubles.”
Plague strikes London again this summer. The King’s Men go on tour through Marlborough, Barnstaple, Dunwich, Cambridge and Oxford.
On June 5, Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Susanna marries Dr. John Hall, a respected physician.
An infant named Edward, “bastard son of Edmund Shakespeare” according to the coroner’s report, is buried on August 12, 1607.
A record-breaking winter storm socks London on Christmas Eve. The Thames freezes over and people practically take up residence on it. Vendors sell their wares out on the ice. The water-taxi business and the outdoor-theatre business take hard hits.
The King’s Men perform thirteen plays at Court between December 26, 1607 and February 7, 1608.
Shakespeare’s youngest brother and fellow actor Edmund Shakespeare dies on December 29 at the age of 27, four months after the death of his illegitimate son. The cause and circumstances of Edmund’s death remain a mystery.
His funeral takes place on New Year’s Eve, 1607. It is an unusually elaborate and—at 20 shillings—costly affair that is ordered and paid for by Shakespeare. It is also unusual in that it takes place in the morning, probably so actors could attend before their afternoon matinees. Edmund is laid to rest at St. Saviour’s Church in Southwark.
1608 A performance of Pericles this year is attended by the Venetian ambassador and other diplomats.
A one-act play entitled A Yorkshire Tragedy is published this spring with William Shakespeare named as its author on the title page. It had been performed previously at the Globe along with three other short dramas which were all presented together as All’s One, or Foure Plaies in One. A Yorkshire Tragedy reenacts a scandalous multiple-murder which took place in 1604. While not great, the script is not without merit, and though Shakespeare probably was not its sole author he may have had a hand in touching it up.
This summer Shakespeare files suit against John Addenbroke of Stratford for a debt of ₤6. (A trifle? Not really. A large house cost only ₤60 in those days.) The case drags on for a year before it is settled.
Another serious plague epidemic hits London in July, the last bad outbreak during Shakespeare’s lifetime. In August and September, Richard Burbage and his wife Winifred face the deaths of their son Richard, aged 7 or 8, and daughter Julia, aged 6.
Coriolanus premieres this year.
? Starring Burbage in the title role
The King’s Men take over the lease on Blackfriars, the indoor playhouse, on August 9.
Actor William Sly dies in mid August.
Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden dies in Stratford on September 6.
The King’s Men tour Marlborough and Coventry in the fall.
The King’s Men perform twelve plays for the King at Whitehall during the Christmas holiday season, for which they are paid ₤120.
1609 Significant plays produced this year:
Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle
Thomas Thorpe publishes a book made up of 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It is entered in the Stationers’ Register on May 20. It is uncertain whether Shakespeare had any say in the release of this book or if he even authorized the publication.
Thorpe’s volume is dedicated to “the only begetter” of the sonnets, “Mr. W.H.,” which probably refers to the person who provided them to Thorpe. The identity of “W.H.” remains unknown. Leading contenders are Earl Henry Wriothesley of Southampton, his stepfather Sir William Harvey, and Earl William Herbert of Pembroke, to whom the First Folio is dedicated. Other candidates are Henry Willobie, Willie Hewes, William Hatcliffe and even Sir Walter RaleigH. None of these possibilities is entirely satisfactory.
Some of the sonnets are very personal, emotional and revealing—and not always very attractively so. It’s questionable whether Shakespeare would have wanted them read by the general public. Also, their appearance in print may have precipitated a rift between Shakespeare and Southampton which seems to have taken place about this time.
If Shakespeare didn’t intend for them to be published, then it’s possible they were stolen. One intriguing proposal for the thief’s identity is the infamous Dark Lady, the unnamed inspiration for many of the poems. According to the theory, she wormed her way back into his life because she needed money. When he wouldn’t help her out or accept her again as his mistress, she remembered where he hid all his writings, ripped him off, sold the poems to Thomas Thorpe and ran off with the money.
The sonnets only went through one edition and were not reprinted again in Shakespeare’s lifetime, despite the popularity of both the author and the sonnet form. This suggests that something was wrong with their initial publication, or that someone (Southampton? Herbert? Shakespeare himself?) was offended by their personal revelations and had them suppressed. The sonnets stayed buried for years. They didn’t really become popular and widely read until the 19th Century. These 154 poems, their inspiration. and the reason for their publication and subsequent suppression are at the center of the most enduring mysteries of Shakespeare’s life.
The King’s Men tour Ipswich, Hythe and New Romney through November.
The King’s Men perform at Blackfriars and Whitehall, staging thirteen plays for the King during the Christmas holidays for which they were paid ₤130.
1610 Jonson’s The Alchemist premieres with Burbage in the lead.
Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher begin collaborating on plays.
This may be the year that the “Chandos portrait” of Shakespeare is painted. For many years it was thought to be the work of the multi-talented Dick Burbage, who was an accomplished painter, but most historians now credit it to an artist named John Taylor. In any case, until the Sanders Portrait was revealed in 2001, the Chandos Portrait was widely regarded as the only known painting of the poet done in his lifetime. It was owned successively by King’s Men actor Joseph Taylor, Shakespeare’s godson William Davenant, the dukes of Chandos and, finally, the National Portrait Gallery of Great Britain.
The King’s Men open at the Globe in April with a popular revival of Othello starring Dick Burbage. Othello proves to be one of his most acclaimed roles.
Othello is performed by the King’s Men at Oxford in July. They also tour through Dover, Shrewsbury, Stafford and Sudbury. Shakespeare probably gets to spend considerable time back home in Stratford during this period.
This September, a few English survivors of a shipwrecked voyage to Virginia manage to find their way home. Two popular narratives of their adventures are published which later inspire Shakespeare to write The Tempest.
The Winter’s Tale premieres in the fall.
The King’s Men perform fifteen plays for the Court at Whitehall over the winter holidays. They are paid ₤180.
1611 The King James Bible is published. As a popular but decidedly non-religious author, Shakespeare is extremely unlikely to have had anything to do with the writing of it.
The Globe opens its season in April with a revival of The Winter’s Tale.
A revival of Macbeth follows The Winter’s Tale at the Globe, opening on April 20.
The Tempest is staged in midseason. It is generally considered to be Shakespeare’s last play, apart from a few collaborations with John Fletcher. To some, the character of Prospero (probably played by Burbage) represents Shakespeare bidding farewell to the theatre.
Later in the year, Shakespeare retires and moves back to Stratford. His place in the acting company may be taken by Nathan “Nid” Field, a former child actor, playwright, and protégé of Ben Jonson. In some accounts, however, Field doesn’t officially join the King’s Men till 1616.
The Winter’s Tale is performed for the King at Whitehall on November 1. Between October 1611 and April 1612 the King’s Men perform 22 times before the King, either at Whitehall or Greenwich. One of the plays performed during this period is Twelfth Night.
1612 On January 25, Shakespeare’s younger brother Gilbert dies, unmarried.
The King’s Men tour through Winchester and New Romney during the spring.
Shakespeare is named as a witness in a lawsuit over a marriage settlement dispute involving Christopher Mountjoy’s daughter. Shakespeare had rented a room in Mountjoy’s house several years earlier (see 1604). He gives evidence in court on May 11, 1612, and the court record of his deposition still exists. Unfortunately, it is not revealing. The transcript is not verbatim, of course, as such records were written in the third person back then due to a distinct lack of tape recorders. On top of that, Shakespeare was a useless witness who couldn’t recall any relevant details of the matter in dispute.
In October, King James announces the engagement of his 16-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, to the 15-year-old Elector of Palatine.
One month later, the King’s eldest son and heir, Prince Henry, suddenly dies. His death casts a pall over his sister’s wedding plans. The King’s son Charles becomes the new Prince of Wales.
The King’s Men perform twenty plays before the court at Whitehall between December 1612 and April 1613—six for the King and fourteen for the Princess, the Elector and Prince Charles. The plays include Henry IV (1&2), Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Othello and Julius Caesar. The pay is ₤153, 6s., 8d.
1613 John Fletcher dumps his old writing partner Francis Beaumont and starts collaborating with Shakespeare instead. Together they co-author at least three plays: Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Cardenio. The latter play, also known as The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, is based on an episode from Don Quixote. The play was considered lost for centuries until 1994, when it was rediscovered (i.e., re-identified) by handwriting expert Charles Hamilton.
Burbage names his new son William in Shakespeare’s honor.
On February 11, Shakespeare’s younger brother Richard dies, unmarried.
The annual Accession Tilt, a ceremonial jousting match, is held at Whitehall on March 29. Francis Manners, the 6th Earl of Rutland, had commissioned Shakespeare to design and Burbage to paint an “impresa” (a decorative shield) which would be entered in the annual design contest. Their impresa doesn’t win, but Shakespeare and Burbage pick up 44 shillings apiece for the job.
Henry VIII premieres under the title All Is True starring John Lowin in the title role and featuring Burbage as Cardinal Wolsey.
On Monday, June 29, St. Peter’s Day, the Globe burns down during a performance of Henry VIII after a sound-effect cannon accidentally sets fire to the thatched roof. Everyone is evacuated in time and there are no injuries. One audience member’s clothing catches fire, but an onlooker puts it out with a bottle of ale. It’s possible that some original manuscripts of Shakespeare’s work are destroyed in the fire.
John Fletcher officially takes over as the King’s Men’s principal dramatist.
1614 John Webster’s sensational The Duchess of Malfi is produced this year by the King’s Men, starring Burbage as Ferdinand, John Lowin as Bosola, John Underwood as Delio, Robert Benfield as Antonio, and Harry Condell as the Cardinal.
The Globe is rebuilt—with a tile roof instead of a thatched one.
Shakespeare visits the Davenant’s in Oxford to look in on his godson. Some time this year, for the first time in his life, 8-year-old William hears the rumor from a local parson that his famous godfather is actually his true father. It will have a huge impact on his life.
1615 In March a warrant is sworn out against Richard Burbage, John Heminges and other members of the King’s Men requiring them to appear before the Privy Council for having performed during Lent, in violation of an injunction by the Lord Chamberlain. Since there is no further record of the matter, the charge was probably dropped. The absence of Shakespeare’s name in the warrant confirms that he is no longer a member of the company, having retired three or four years earlier.
1616 Playwright Francis Beaumont dies.
The great producer Philip Henslowe dies at the age of 66.
Shakespeare drafts his will on January 25.
Jonson publishes his plays this year under the somewhat pretentious title Works. It is the first time that plays have been collected and published as literature in book form.
On February 10, Shakespeare’s younger daughter Judith marries Thomas Quiney. But, shortly after their wedding, Quiney is exposed as a cad. It turns out he had impregnated and abandoned a local woman, Margaret Wheeler, prior to marrying Judith. To add to the scandal, Margaret dies during childbirth on March 15. The infant dies as well.
Shakespeare revises his will on March 25, cutting his new son-in-law out.
On April 23, 1616, his 52nd birthday, William Shakespeare dies. Since he had been out of the spotlight for a few years, there is little public notice of his passing.
The cause of his death is unknown. The lack of record seems odd, considering that his son-in-law Dr. Hall was probably his physician and he kept notes on other patients. According to the most enduring account, Shakespeare contracted a fever following a late-night drinking bout with old friends Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson. That, too, seems odd, since Shakespeare was known for his avoidance of excessive drinking and partying.
Could Shakespeare have been murdered? It’s a salacious suggestion but, of course, an intriguing possibility. He had recently changed his will in a fit of pique, and his son-in-law/physician suddenly found himself in a superb position to murder a father-in-law and collect the bulk of his estate. After all, at the time he altered his will, Shakespeare described himself as being “in perfect health and memorie.” (That was a common sort of phrase in people’s wills, true, but not everyone employed it. Burbage’s will, for example, acknowledged that he was “sick in body, but of good and perfect remembrance,” while Gus Phillips’ stated that he was “sick and weak of body.”)
Another suspect is Ben Jonson. He may have heard about the possible naming of a national “poet laureate,” a prestigious position that would include a nice stipend. Such an honor might fall upon Jonson—but only if his lifetime rival were out of the way. Did Jonson see Shakespeare prior to the latter’s death? Immediately prior, according to the old story. Did Jonson possess poison? He had obtained some poison a few years earlier during the Eastward Ho! scandal. Was he capable of murder? Unquestionably. He had already committed murder, only managing to escape the gallows by the splitting of a legal hair.
On the other hand, Shakespeare had just written his will. Maybe he felt his health was in decline. Maybe he just got sick and died. No one really knows.
He is buried on April 25, 1616 in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church. His gravestone bears a curse, warding off any who might wish to disturb his resting place.
Jonson’s play The Forest is staged, featuring the hit song of the season, “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.”
1618 Jonson visits Scotland and stays for a couple weeks with the poet William Drummond. Drummond interviews him extensively about his life and the many people he has known, including Shakespeare. In 1632 Drummond publishes his notes of these interviews as Ben Jonson’s Conversations With Drummond of Hawthornden.
In November, Richard Burbage makes what is likely his final appearance on stage, performing in Fletcher’s The Loyal Subject.
1619 On March 2, Queen Anne dies. All playhouses are ordered closed until after the royal funeral, which takes place in mid-May.
On Friday, March 12, Richard Burbage, partially paralyzed and unable to speak, indicates his dying wishes to his brother Cuthbert, who prepares a will on his behalf.
On Saturday, March 13, Burbage dies at the age of 50, survived by his pregnant wife and three children. True to form, he upstages royalty even in death. His funeral is a huge public event. Several poems are written in his honor, mourning the loss of England’s greatest actor and all the wonderful characters—Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Macbeth and so on—who die with him.
Then again, Hamlet is performed at court around Christmas this year, so apparently those characters didn’t die after all.
Ben Jonson is named England’s first Poet Laureate.
1622 Jane Davenant dies on April 16, followed two weeks later by her husband John.
1623 Sometime in early summer, Shakespeare’s family erects an elaborate monument to him on the north chancel wall of Holy Trinity Church, five feet from his grave.
Shakespeare’s widow Anne dies on August 16. Despite her wish to be buried at her husband’s side, it cannot be arranged. No gravedigger will dare touch Shakespeare’s gravestone for fear of the curse engraved upon it.
The First Folio is published. It is entered in the Stationers’ Register on November 8, over seven years after Shakespeare’s death. Jonson writes a flattering dedication in which he describes Shakespeare as “the soule of the age.” It is one of many flattering dedications that Jonson writes for anybody who needs one. The collection of 36 plays is edited by Shakespeare’s fellow actor Harry Condell and business manager John Heminges, and it includes 17 scripts that have never been published before. The book is expensive, like a modern coffee-table book, but it sells well. In fact, from this time on, these plays will never go out of print.
1624 While leading a military expedition in Holland, earl Henry Wriothesley of Southampton contracts a deadly fever, as does his son and much of the regiment. His son dies on November 5. The Earl himself passes away on November 10 at the age of 51.
1626 Edward Alleyn dies at the age of 60.
1627 William Davenant’s first play, The Cruel Brother, is produced. Davenant goes on to become one of the most successful playwrights and producers of his day. Among his accomplishments are the introduction of scenery and female performers to the English stage. He never denies the longstanding rumor that he is Shakespeare’s natural son.
1632 Due to popular demand, The Second Folio is published.
1637 Ben Jonson dies at the age of 65. Renowned as England’s first Poet Laureate, he is entombed in Westminster Abbey.
1638 Jonson’s successor as Poet Laureate is William Davenant.
Chief sources: S.H. Burton, Shakespeare’s Life and Stage (1989); E.K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (1930); Marchette Chute, Shakespeare of London (1949); J. Payne Collier, Memoirs of the Principal Actors in the Plays of Shakespeare (1846); Martin Fido, Shakespeare (1978); Hesketh Pearson, A Life of Shakespeare (1961); Henry Tyrrell, The Doubtful Plays of Shakspere (1860); Louis B. Wright & Virginia A. LaMar, The Folger Guide to Shakespeare (1973).
About this chronology
Today, the popular appreciation of Shakespeare’s life and work is warped by the pull of opposing extremes. He is regarded as an object of unquestioning idolatry on the one hand and of unreasoning doubt on the other.
Idolizing him is bad enough. The fact is that his body of work is of variable quality. While several plays exemplify his genius, others are simply good, entertaining scripts (which, in itself, is a worthy accomplishment). Still others are difficult to produce on stage effectively and are rarely done. Yet, somehow, a belief has taken root in certain quarters that his writings are so supremely brilliant, so unfathomably profound, that they border on the superhuman. This is the same kind of addled thinking that leads some to consider the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge to be so awesome that they could not possibly have been built by ordinary men. They must be the work of ancient astronauts!
As for Shakespeare, we now have a host of wacky conspiracy theories concerning the “true authorship” of the plays. It doesn’t matter that there is neither a precedent in history for such a conspiracy nor a convincing motive for one in this case. It doesn’t matter that universities do not offer courses in “How to Be a Genius,” that Shakespeare’s natural gifts and relative lack of education were widely remarked upon in his own day, or that the plays themselves are very clearly the product of a professional actor who knew what works on stage, and whose chief interests appear to have been gardening, play-acting and historical events as recorded in popular books. Frankly, it is insulting to actors everywhere to pluck one of their greatest artists from their ranks because—well, after all—he couldn’t possibly have been one of them.
I find the ceaseless attention granted by the media to anti-Stratfordians, Oxfordians and other misguided souls to be very frustrating. Although it has been said over and over by individuals far more scholarly and wise than myself, let me add my small voice to the chorus: There is abundant historical evidence which supports beyond any reasonable doubt that Shakespeare wrote his own damn plays!
Not only that, but there is plenty of reason to believe that he lived an amazing life. Just because we don’t know for certain all the details of that life, it doesn’t mean that his life was lacking in details. People seem to think that Shakespeare the Man sounds boring. After all, the reports always describe him as so nice. Ben Jonson was a soldier and a duelist, Kit Marlowe was a spy and a homosexual—now, those guys were interesting. But Shakespeare? Nothing cool ever happened to him.
That’s where my Highly Speculative Chronology comes in. Just as the anti-Stratfordians dispute every single piece of the historical record, so I take that record at face value and run with it. Did Shakespeare indulge in a kinky sex life? Maybe. Did he write any one-act plays? Probably. Was he more involved in a plot to overthrow the government than we’d like to believe? Could be. Was he friends with Robert Catesby, the Catholic terrorist? We don’t know that he was—and we don’t know that he wasn’t.
You may not agree with some of my speculations. That’s okay. I just hope you come away from this little history with an increased sense of Shakespeare as a person—one who lived a full life during a remarkable era, who deserves to be remembered for what he accomplished, and whose legacy should not be stolen from him.
~ Scott Lynch-Giddings, www.robinhoodplay.com
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