Shakespeare’s father held a lot of different jobs, and at one point got paid to drink beer.
The son of a tenant farmer, John Shakespeare was nothing if not upwardly mobile. He arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1551 and began dabbling in various trades, selling leather goods, wool, malt and corn. In 1556 he was appointed the borough’s official “ale taster,” meaning he was responsible for inspecting bread and malt liquors. The next year he took another big step up the social ladder by marrying Mary Arden, the daughter of an aristocratic farmer who happened to be his father’s former boss. John later became a moneylender and held a series of municipal positions, serving for some time as the mayor of Stratford. In the 1570s he fell into debt and ran into legal problems for reasons that remain unclear.
Shakespeare married an older woman who was three months pregnant at the time.
In November 1582, 18-year-old William wed Anne Hathaway, a farmer’s daughter eight years his senior. Instead of the customary three times, the couple’s intention to marry was only announced at church once—evidence that the union was hastily arranged because of Anne’s eyebrow-raising condition. Six months after the wedding, the Shakespeares welcomed a daughter, Susanna, and twins Hamnet and Judith followed in February 1585. Little is known about the relationship between William and Anne, besides that they often lived apart and he only bequeathed her his “second-best bed” in his will.
Shakespeare’s parents were probably illiterate, and his children almost certainly were.
Nobody knows for sure, but it’s quite likely that John and Mary Shakespeare never learned to read or write, as was often the case for people of their standing during the Elizabethan era. Some have argued that John’s civic duties would have required basic literacy, but in any event he always signed his name with a mark. William, on the other hand, attended Stratford’s local grammar school, where he mastered reading, writing and Latin. His wife and their two children who lived to adulthood, Susanna and Judith, are thought to have been illiterate, though Susanna could scrawl her signature.
Nobody knows what Shakespeare did between 1585 and 1592.
To the dismay of his biographers, Shakespeare disappears from the historical record between 1585, when his twins’ baptism was recorded, and 1592, when the playwright Robert Greene denounced him in a pamphlet as an “upstart crow.” The insult suggests he’d already made a name for himself on the London stage by then. What did the newly married father and future literary icon do during those seven “lost” years? Historians have speculated that he worked as a schoolteacher, studied law, traveled across continental Europe or joined an acting troupe that was passing through Stratford. According to one 17th-century account, he fled his hometown after poaching deer from a local politician’s estate.
Shakespeare’s plays feature the first written instances of hundreds of familiar terms.
William Shakespeare is believed to have influenced the English language more than any other writer in history, coining—or, at the very least, popularizing—terms and phrases that still regularly crop up in everyday conversation. Examples include the words “fashionable” (“Troilus and Cressida”), “sanctimonious” (“Measure for Measure”), “eyeball” (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and “lackluster” (“As You Like It”); and the expressions “foregone conclusion” (“Othello”), “in a pickle” (“The Tempest”), “wild goose chase” (“Romeo and Juliet”) and “one fell swoop” (“Macbeth”). He is also credited with inventing the given names Olivia, Miranda, Jessica and Cordelia, which have become common over the years (as well as others, such as Nerissa and Titania, which have not).
We probably don’t spell Shakespeare’s name correctly—but, then again, neither did he.
Sources from William Shakespeare’s lifetime spell his last name in more than 80 different ways, ranging from “Shappere” to “Shaxberd.”