Remembering the Shakespeares

So today may or may not be (but most say it is) the day in 1564 when Mary Arden Shakespeare gave birth her third child and first son, William. According to the biographical info on Shakespeare Online (, William’s two older siblings, both sisters, died in their infancy, so little William was the only child of the family for nearly two and a half years, before John and Mary Shakespeare had their fourth child, Gilbert. This was an era when babies were often named after their deceased brothers and sisters, so after the first Shakespeare child, Joan, died a few days after her birth, a second Joan, child number five, was born in 1569. Anne Shakespeare (child number 6) died at age 8. The final two sons, Richard and Edmund, lived to adulthood, Edmund arriving about a year after Anne was buried.

I’m going to lay aside the wacky blogger bullshit for a moment and say that, even though I’ve been studying Shakespeare since high school, and seriously studying Shakespeare for most of my adult life, I never learned much about Shakespeare’s childhood. The information was out there, of course, but most of my teachers were far too absorbed in looking at texts, verses, plots, and fictional people to take a moment to discuss who Shakespeare, the writer of all these words, might have been. In fact, most modern and postmodern (and post-postmodern) critical theory deems an author’s biographical details irrelevant and somewhat intrusive. Historical and cultural contexts are far more important to the formation of a piece of literature, theorists say. The linguistic structures a writer uses, the influence the writer has on others–these are the concerns that really matter. When I became an instructor, I based my method of teaching Shakespeare on the models I learned from. Look at these amazing words, I said. Look at these dramatic constructs, these carefully crafted lines, these explorations of human interaction, desire, ambition, madness, despair. Never once did I step back and tell my students, Shakespeare was born into an incomplete family. This wouldn’t have been unusual, since in Shakespeare’s time people had to make do without antibiotics, clean drinking water, and pasteurized milk. For young William, as the third child in a house that was empty of children, as the eldest but not firstborn, life must have a tap dance around loss and potential loss–his parents’ and his own. His identity was constantly shifting: for his first two and a half years, he was an only child. By the time he was ten, he was one of five. Between age 15 and 16, he went back to being the oldest of four children before Edmund came along and restored the second generation’s number to its former state. Today, we like to discuss the psychology of birth order, of being reared in small versus large families, and how children are socialized with and without siblings. Could anyone back then even speculate about such things, when the structure of the family was always an open question? Growing up, how did you figure out who you were if you couldn’t say who in your family would still be around the next time the plague came tearing through?

Of John and Mary’s five children (those who made it through childhood, that is), Joan was the longest lived, followed by William. He was the first to survive and almost lived long enough to bury the rest. While we’re celebrating the birth of the man who created many of the greatest works of English literature, let’s also try to remember that Shakespeare didn’t tumble into the world as a fully grown, fully realized genius. He had a family, and for the next three decades after his birth, which might have happened 450 years ago today, that family was all he was. I invite you to imagine what the world was like before William Shakespeare, when there were only the Shakespeares, John and Mary, who probably didn’t care about amazing words, whose greatest hope was that their third baby would see the first flowers bloom on more than one St. George’s Day.


One response to “Remembering the Shakespeares

  1. Very moving to think about what it was like to be a parent in those days, and very interesting questions about the psychology of birth order in the days before your place in the order could be assumed to stick!

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