The great problem that biographers of William Shakspere of Stratford have always faced is the sheer dearth of archive evidence relating to their subject. As can be seen from this chronology of events of his life, there is simply not a shred of evidence produced in his lifetime showing that he was an author, and surprisingly little evidence that he was even an actor. The only documents that link him with the theatre are two which record him being a shareholder in the Globe Theatre, and three which link him as an associate of known actors of the King’s Men and the Chamberlain’s Men.
There are no letters written by him, even though he lived apart from his wife and children for many years. There are no letters written by his contemporaries which describe any literary activities on his part. Rather, the archive evidence presented here would seem to characterise him as a man interested in only improving his social status to that of a gentleman as a result of his moderate success in becoming a man of property. He took a particular interest in achieving and then augmenting the hard-won Shakspere family shield – and its attendant motto – with the Royal College of Arms. Yet he never sought any civic posts either in his native Stratford or London – indeed, he was repeatedly identified by the authorities in London as a tax delinquent, forever one step ahead of his debts.
Fitting these bare and, frankly, uninspiring facts of Shakspere’s life to the authorship of the works of Shakespeare must, indeed, be an unenviable task given the complete lack of material to work with. Yet this has not stopped generations of biographers from padding out the archive evidence with conjectural flights of fancy. And over the years, the steady accumulation of these creative interpolations have, for orthodox Stratfordians, become so embedded as ‘fact’ that the majority no longer even bother to inform their readers that, for instance, there is no evidence that he received an education, and they instead simply fill whole chapters with an elaborate analysis of the sort of education that he ‘must’ have had.
The purpose of this chronology is to inform objective scholars of the simple facts of Shakspere’s life so that they are better able to judge the fantasy world of orthodox Shakespearian biography.
The following records show that Shakspere divided his time between Stratford and London. To make it easier to distinguish where these records refer to, we have coloured the events relating to Stratford red and the events relating to London purple, and those records which are ambiguous we have coloured black.
1564 April 26 – Baptism of William Shakspere recorded in the Parish Baptism Register of Holy Trinity Church as ‘Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere’ – ‘William son of John Shakspere’.
1582 Nov 27 – The Episcopal register at Worcester records a marriage licence issued to ‘Willelmum Shaxpere’ and ‘Anna Whateley’ of Temple Grafton. (E. K. Chambers,William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 41.)
1582 Nov 28 – The Episcopal register at Worcester records that two yeomen of Stratford, Fulk Sandells and John Richardson, pay a bond of £40 should any legal considerations arise to prevent the marriage of ‘William Shagspere’ and ‘Anne Hathwey of Stratford in the Dioces of Worcester maiden’. Of the marriage itself between William Shagspere and Anne Hathaway, there is no record in the Stratford Parish Register. William was eighteen and Anne was twenty-six and three months pregnant. Raising the considerable sum of £40, in order to pip her rival Anne Whateley to the altar, was the very least that the pregnant Anne Hathaway could do to preserve her honour. (E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 41-42.)
1583 May 26 – Stratford Parish Register records the baptism of ‘Susanna, daughter of William Shakspere’.
1585 Feb 2 – Stratford Parish Register records the baptism of ‘Hamnet and Judeth, sonne and daughter to William Shakspere’.
1595 March 3 – The accounts of the Queen’s treasurer records a payment to ‘William Kempe, William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage, servaunts to the Lord Chamberleyne … for two severall comedies or enterludes shewed by them before her majestie in Christmas tyme laste part viz St. Stephen’s daye and Innocents daye …”. The record was made by the widow of the treasurer, the Dowager Countess of Southampton, three months after the events she records – failing to realise that, according to the noted Shakespearian scholar Schoenbaum, ‘The Innocents Day citation is probably a mistake … The Chamberlain’s players seem to have had another date that day.” It is suggested that, in her desire to square the account books which she had inherited from her late husband, and as the Queen had informed her that they were in arrears, the Dowager Countess of Southampton caused a false entry to be made. (PRO E. 351/542, ff 207b.)
1596 Aug 11 – Burial record in Stratford Parish Register. ‘Hamnet son of William Shakspere’.
1596 October – After initially refusing the submission for a coat of arms for the Shakspere family, the College of Arms archive contains two rough drafts of a coat of arms with the motto ‘Non Sanz Droict’ (Not Without Right). Shakspere is lampooned as the hapless character Sogliardo in Ben Johnson’s Every Man out of His Humour – and his motto becomes ‘Not Without Mustard’. (E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 18-20.)
1596 – Samuel Schoenbaum records a Michaelmas record of the Court of Queen’s Bench, one William Wayte ‘swore before the Judge of Queen’s Bench that he stood in danger of death, or bodily hurt’ from “William Shakspere” and three others. The magistrate then commanded the sheriff of the appropriate county to produce the accused … who had to post bond to keep the peace, on pain of forfeiting the security’. (Samuel Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, 146.)
1597 April – Shakspere buys New Place – the second-largest house in Stratford with a modest garden – paying £60. The smallholding contains two barns, two gardens and two orchards. (E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 95-96.)
1597 November – Shakspere is named in the King’s Remembrancer Subsidy Roll as a tax defaulter in Bishopgate ward, who had failed to pay his very modest annual assessment of 5s. Moderately wealthy county landowners around this time were paying £20 in their county subsidies. He is recorded as “among those who are either dead, departed or gone out of the ward”. (PRO 179/146/354.)
1598 January – In a Bill of Sale, Stratford resident Wyllyn Wyatt Chamberlin pays a ‘Mr. Shakespere for one load of stone’ for the princely sum of ten pence.
1598 January – Stratford resident Abraham Sturley writes to his brother-in-law stating that “our countriman mr Shaksper is willing to disburse some monei upon some od yardeland or other Shottrei or neare about us …”. (E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 101.)
1598 February – In a list of Stratford hoarders, Shakspere is identified as having illegally held 10 quarters (80 bushels) of malt or corn during a shortage. (E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 99.)
1598 September – In the Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer Accounts of Subsidies, Shakspere is listed among those in Bishopgate ward who have departed the district.
1598 October – Shakespere is again listed as a tax defaulter in the King’s Remembrancer Subsidy Roll for failing to pay his assessment of 13s.4d. (PRO E 179/146/369.)
1598 October – In the only letter ever discovered addressed to Shakspere at Stratford, one Richard Quiney writes a letter from the Bell Inn in Carter Lane, London, asking Shakspere for a £30 loan. It is written ‘To my Loveinge good ffrend & contreymann mr wm Shackespre’ who ‘shall ffrende me muche in helpeing me out of all the debettes I owe in London I thancke god & muche quiet my mynde which wolde nott be indebeted’. The letter, found in Quiney’s papers after his death, was never sent to Stratford. (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, MS. ER 27/4.)
1598 October – Adrian Quiney writes to Richard Quiney, ‘yff yow bargen with Wm Sha or recover money therefor, brynge youre money homme’ . (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, Misc. Doc. I, 135.)
1598 November – Abraham Sturley writes to Richard Quiney, ‘our countriman mr Wm Shak. would procure us monei which I will like of as I shall heare when wheare & howe: and I prai let not go that occasion if it mai sort to ani indifferent condicions”. (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, Misc. Doc. I, 136.)
1599 – In a request to the College of Arms, John Shakspere seeks to augment the Arms of his wife – the Wilcote Ardens – to a new Shakspere arms with the addition of the shield of the much grander Beauchamps, Earls of Warwick. This request would be turned down in 1602.
1599 February – A tripartite lease is signed for the Globe Theatre between the landowner Sir Nicholas Brend, the Burbage brothers and five members of the Lord Chamberlain’s company, which included Shakspere. This lease itself has never been found – it is only referred to in a later (1619) Court of Requests action, Witter vs. Heminges and Condell.
1599 October – Shakspere is among those listed in the Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer accounts for London as tax delinquents. A second hand records that he had moved across the river to Surrey.
1600 October – Shakspere is again listed as a tax delinquent in the Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer accounts for the county of Surrey.
1601 March – In the last will and testament of Stratford resident Thomas Whittington it states, ‘Item I geve and bequeth unto the poore people of Stratford 40s that is in the hand of Anne Shaxspere, wyf unto Mr. Wyllyam Shaxspere, and is due debt unto me …’ (Worcestershire Record Office).
1602 Michaelmas term – New Place, Stratford, is reconveyed to Shakspere, who pays a fee equal to one-fourth of the property’s yearly value. (Public Records Office, Court of Common Pleas, Feet of Fines, C.P. 25(2)/237.)
1601 – William Shakspere’s father John dies.
1602 May – Shakspere pays £320 for 107 acres of land and 20 acres of pasture in Stratford from William and John Combe. (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, MS. ER 27/1.)
1602 September – Shakspere purchases Chapel Lane Cottage with a garden and a quarter-acre of land. (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, MS. ER 28/1.)
1603 May – Two copies of a Privy Seal warrant in which King James authorises, ‘William Shakespeare … and the rest of theire Assosiates freely to use and exercise the Arte and faculty of playinge Comedies Tragedies histories Enterludes moralls pastoralls Stageplaies and suche others like as theie have alreadie studied or hereafter shall use or studie as well for the recreation of our lovinge Subjectes as for our Solace and pleasure when wee shall thincke good to see them duringe our pleasure …’ (Public Record Office, Privy Seal Office, Warrants for the Privy Seal, P.S.O. 2/22; Chancery, Warrants for the Great Seal, C. 82/1690.)
1604 July – ‘Willielmus Shexpere’ sues the apothecary Philip Rogers for 35s.10d plus 10s damages, seeking to recover the unpaid balance on a sale of twenty bushels of malt and a small loan made in March. (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, MS. ER 27/5.)
1604 – Members of the King’s Men, naming Shakespeare among their number, are granted four-and-a-half yards of scarlet cloth for a Royal procession by the Master of the Wardrobe. (Public Record Office, Lord Chamberlain’s Department, Special Events, L.C. 2/4(5), f. 78.)
1604 October – An estate survey of Rowington manor records that ‘William Shakespere Lykewise holdeth there one cottage and one garden by estimation a quarter of one acre and payeth rent yearly 2 shillings and sixpence’. (Public Record Office, Exchequer, Special Commission, E. 178/4661.)
1605 May – In the will of Augustine Phillips, ‘Item I geve and bequeathe to my ffellowe william Shakespeare a Thirty shillings peece in gould’. (Public Record Office, Prob. 10/232.)
1605 July – Shakspere purchases various tithes in Stratford for the princely sum of £440. (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, MS. ER 27/2; Misc. Doc. II, 3.)
1606 – In an inventory following the death of Stratford resident Ralph Hubaud is recorded, ‘There was Owinge by Mr. Shakspre thirty-one shillings’.
1607 – Shakspere’s daughter, Susanna, marries Stratford physician Dr. John Hall whose anecdotal writings about the Stratford notables of his day are quite silent on his father-in-law. Nothing of any interest to record – even though, at this time, the poet Shakespeare was supposed to have been a celebrated author.
1608 August-1609 June – Shakspere successfully sues John Addenbrooke for debt and when the latter fails to appear in court, Thomas Horneby, the man who had stood surety for the loan, is pursued to pay the debt. (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, Misc. Doc. V, 116; Misc Doc V, 139; Misc Doc V, 127a; Misc Doc V, 127b; Misc Doc V, 115; MS. ER 27/6; MS. ER 27/7.)
1610 – A Court of Common Pleas fine confirms Shakspere’s ownership of 107 acres of land and 20 acres of pasture around Stratford purchased in 1602 from William Combe (Public Record Office, Feet of Fines, C.P. 25(2)/365; C.P. 24(2)/7.)
1611 – A Stratford Court of Chancery Bill of Complaint records a minor dispute amongst the various holders of Stratford tithes and their tenants, including Shakspere. (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, Misc. Doc. II, 11; Misc. Doc. X, 9.)
1611 September – Shakspere’s name is listed on a Stratford petition supporting a Parliamentary bill for the ‘Repayre of the highe waies and amendinge divers defectes in the Statues alredy made’. (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, Misc. Doc. I, 4).
1612 May & June – Shakspere is called as a court witness in a dispute between one Bellot as complainant and his father-in-law Christopher Mountjoy as defendant over the latter’s failure to pay a dowry bond. The record of Shakspere’s testimony, which consists of his written deposition and written replies to ‘interrogatories’ (questions submitted in writing by the parties), makes it clear that he witnessed negotiations for this marriage in 1604/5, but did not personally appear at the court in London. Described as a ‘gentleman of Stratford’ in this suit being heard in London, the first of Shakspere’s six extant signatures, ‘Willm Shakp’, is penned at the foot of his deposition. (Public Record Office, Court of Requests, Belott v. Mountjoy.) The 1604/5 reference is the only record of evidence of Shakespeare’s presence in London after 1599.
1613 January – In the will of John Combe is a bequest of £5 to ‘mr William Shackspere’. (Public Record Office, Prob. 11/126.)
1613 March – Shakspere, William Johnson, John Jackson and John Hemming purchase the Blackfriars Gate-house from Henry Walker for £140. The conveyance indenture and the mortgage document contain the second and third signatures of Shakspere, written thus respectively: ‘William Shakspë’ and ‘Wm Shakspë’.(MS. in the Guildhall Library; British Library, MS. Egerton 1787.)
1614 October – A covenant between Shakspere and one William Replingham regarding the annual value of his tithes in Stratford arising from future enclosures of common land. (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, MS. ER 27/3.)
1614 Nov to 1615 Sept – Stratford resident Thomas Greene makes several diary entries regarding his ‘Cosen Shakspeare’, in relation to the land enclosures. (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, Corporation Records, Misc. Doc. XIII, 26a, 27-9.)
1615 April – A Court of Chancery bill of complaint, Shakspere is listed among those seeking to obtain Blackfriars property documents.
1615 May – A court plea containing a list of shareholders for the Globe Theatre and Blackfriars property which includes Shakspere’s name.
1616 February – His daughter Judith marries Thomas Quiney without a licence and they are excommunicated.
1616 March 25 – Shakspere makes his will, signing it in three places: the first is virtually unreadable, the second as ‘Willm Shackspere’, the third as ‘William Shakspear’. (Public Records Office, Principal Probate Registry, Selected Wills, Prob. 1/4.)
1616 April 25 – The burial register of Trinity Church Stratford records the burial of ‘Will Shakspere gent’. What is believed to be his gravestone in the chancel of the church does not bear his name and is identified as his only because it lies between that of Anne Shakespeare and his daughter Susanna. The original slab of stone carried the following inscription, as recorded by George Steevens:
Good Friend for Iefus SAKE forbeare
To digg T-E Duft Encoafed HERe
Blese be T-E Man yt fpares T-Hs Stones
And curst be He yt moves my bones.
As epitaphs go? Well, judge for yourself …