Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small town in the middle of the English countryside. His father, John Shakespeare, was a glover and public servant with social ambitions, as suggested by his marriage to Mary Arden, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer. Though born to parents of good social standing, Shakespeare entered the world at a troubled time. In 1564 England was in the midst of an outbreak of plague. Owing to Spanish interruption of the cloth market as well as ongoing conflict between Protestants and Catholics, England also suffered economic hardship and religious upheaval. Despite these ongoing problems, John Shakespeare likely enrolled his son in the King’s New School in Stratford at the age of 7. In grammar school, Shakespeare would have been subjected to intensive training in Latin that lasted all day, six days a week. Grammar schools in Shakespeare’s time had an exclusive emphasis on drills, memorization, and imitation. Though the experience likely wasn’t a creative one, Shakespeare’s studies, and particularly his study of the Latin poet Ovid, influenced him deeply. Shakespeare’s schooling likely ended around age 15, when his father found himself in financial straits and required his eldest son’s help in the family glove-making business.
Although we only have circumstantial evidence based on references that appear in plays he would write much later, it is very likely that Shakespeare had early encounters with theatrical performances and other festive events. In the years 1568–69 John Shakespeare served as Stratford’s bailiff (i.e., its mayor), which meant he was responsible for approving public performances by roving troupes of players. It is possible that he may have taken his son to see some of these performances, many of which were likely morality plays, a popular form of Christian drama that presented lessons about good conduct and virtuous character. It is also possible that Shakespeare witnessed festivities associated with the queen’s royal progress in 1575, when Elizabeth I visited the Earl of Leicester’s Kenilworth estate, just twelve miles away from Stratford. The royal progress featured lavish pageantry, the production of a customary performance known as a Hock Tuesday play, and various other entertainments. In
for instance, Shakespeare references an elaborate water feature that had been on display during the queen’s visit. Aside from these specific events, Shakespeare also would have personally witnessed or at least known about various folk festivities that continued to thrive into the sixteenth century despite attack from Protestant reformers.
Aside from these plausible early encounters with theatrical performances, it is also possible that Shakespeare had contact with acting troupes soon after leaving grammar school. Given his excellent facility with Latin, scholars have speculated that Shakespeare may have served as a schoolmaster in the northern part of the country. No record exists of Shakespeare receiving a license to teach, but it may be the case that around 1580 he went to work in Lancashire as a family schoolmaster for the wealthy gentleman Alexander Hoghton. Hoghton kept a troupe of players, and upon his death in 1581, he bequeathed the instruments and costumes in his possession to his friend Sir Thomas Hesketh, along with a note requesting support for a certain employee, “William Shakeshafte.” If this indeed refers to our Shakespeare, Hesketh may have helped the young man find a place in the house of his neighbor Henry Stanley, Lord Strange, who kept a professional troupe of players known as Lord Strange’s Men. Adding to the likelihood of this story, the main players in Lord Strange’s Men went on to form the core of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, in which Shakespeare would later play a major role.