When I first spotted Peter Ackroyd’s¬†Shakespeare: The Biography¬†in one of my libraries here in Madrid (Biblioteca Pedro Salinas), I picked it up and began to read, falling instantly into the witty prose and the intrigue that surrounds the shrouded and scant details of Shakespeare’s life. I quickly felt guilty for reading in English while in Spain, however, and left the biography for months. However, now that I am only in Spain one more month, I am permitting myself the indulgence of reading one perspective on a fascinating life of one of the most renowned Englishmen of all time. And yes, I’m reading it in English.

The first part of Peter Ackroyd’s biography investigates the first era of Shakespeare’s life in which he is born and lives in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. Given how truly scarce primary evidence about Shakespeare’s life is, any biography of the playwright must necessarily incorporate much background detail and a fair amount of speculation, although much of it is based on as much research and as many “hard facts” as possible. Ackroyd limns the living and familial conditions of Shakespeare’s primogenitors and essentially disabuses the layman of the myth of Shakespeare’s extremely humble origins, noting the prominent positions of both the distaff and paternal sides of Shakespeare’s heritage. Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, was born to a family that owned a significant amount of property in the Warwick area, for example, and Shakespeare’s father held many notable governmental positions in the local government, including alderman (similar to a current American city councilor). John Shakespeare also owned a substantial amount of expensive properties, and the idea that Shakespeare was born to nothing is simply a canard told to perpetuate the idea of his genius by hyperbolizing the gap between where he supposedly started and life and where he ended up. Regardless of where he started, in my opinion, ending as the world’s greatest playwright and having composed a dramaturgical oeuvre replete with some of the most beautiful language and the most riveting philosophy is not a bad place to finish one’s life.

Shakespeare is most commonly assumed to have been born on the 23rd of April, 1564. He was certainly christened on the 26th of April, and given that most infants were christened three days after their birth, as well as the fact that the 23rd of April is St. George’s Day (the patron saint of England) and the day of Shakespeare’s death, it is a compelling date on which to place the assumed birth of the Bard.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing and polemical parts of Shakespeare’s early life is the numerous connections that his family had to recusant Catholics. Born in 1564, Shakespeare was born and first lived under Queen Elizabeth I, a woman who was nominally Protestant and whose religious policies were somewhat concessive towards believers of the Old Faith but solidified as more vehemently anti-Catholic throughout the duration of her reign. Many people in Warwickshire, however, were known recusants and were frequently imprisoned, fined, and even killed for their refusal to submit to the official Protestantism of the country. Shakespeare’s own father was fined multiple times for failing to appear in Sunday Mass, and a curious paper was found in John Shakespeare’s house affirming his status as a staunch Catholic intent never on ceding his beliefs to the New Faith. Despite clues like this, however, there is also contradictory evidence pointing to the Protestantism of the family, such as John Shakespeare’s lime-washing of the old Catholic frescoes in the local church to comply with Protestant standards, for example. Though we cannot say with certainty whether Shakespeare was Catholic, Anglican, atheist or otherwise, we can at least know that the environment of his infancy was one steeped in Catholics during a time of their religious illegitimacy, including Shakespeare’s likely school teacher John Cottam and many other people who lived and worked closely with the Bard in his formative years.

Many scholars have tried to take stabs in the dark about Shakespeare’s early profession(s) and avocations from the allusions in his plays. His work apparently evinces intricate, involved knowledge of various professional and avocational fields, including property law, maritime pursuits, and the flora of the Warwickshire area. From these clues, scholars have attempted to reconstruct a past that left a very thin trail of concrete evidence. What is certainly clear are both Shakespeare’s amazing propensity to absorb language from many different environments (even ones in which he likely didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time) and his familiarity with leather and gloving terms, given that his father worked as a glover for awhile and likely used his son as an apprentice.

Towards the end of his time in Stratford and before his stint in London where he would forge a career and make an eternal name for himself, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. In many ways, this marriage was odd, including the fact that Anne was eight years Shakespeare’s senior, a gap whose disparity would be more exaggerated in Elizabethan times than it is nowadays given the erstwhile life expectancy during the Renaissance that was almost half of what it is today. Also interesting is that Shakespeare married at age 18 and therefore required his father’s permission to marry. Lastly, Shakespeare’s first daughter, Susanna, was born only six months after the marriage, meaning Shakespeare and his wife had certainly copulated before the nuptial vows and did not arrive at the wedding in a purely “chaste” condition. Yes, the greatest writer of English literature had a shotgun wedding.

Ackroyd’s recounting of Shakespeare’s life in Stratford-upon-Avon ends with his marriage to Anne Hathaway. Next await the riveting chapters of Shakespeare’s success in the early modern English theater in London.

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