William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, in the English town of Stratford-upon-Avon to John Shakespeare, a glove-maker and merchant, and Mary Arden, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. The date of his birth is not known. There are no records of his schooling, though it is believed that he attended Stratford grammar school and received an education in the classics.
In November 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior, who was pregnant with their first child, Susanna. Susanna was born on May 26, 1583, and twins called Hamnet (a boy who died aged 11) and Judith were born February 2, 1585.
Nothing is known about when or why Shakespeare left Stratford for London. The first sign of his presence in London came in 1592, in the form of a derogatory reference to an unnamed actor whom scholars have identified as Shakespeare. The reference was made in a pamphlet called Greenes Groatsworth of Wit, attributed to rival playwright, Robert Greene.
In 1593, the first work published under the name William Shakespeare appeared, a long poem called Venus and Adonis. The poem was dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the young Earl of Southampton, who is believed to have been Shakespeare's patron. Although he also wrote another long narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece, and 154 sonnets, his main work was writing plays for the theater.
In 1594 Shakespeare became a shareholder and playwright of a successful theater company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which became the King's Men in 1603. Shakespeare held a one-tenth interest in the company, and shared the profits. In 1599 the Lord Chamberlain's Men built and occupied the Globe Theater, on the south bank of the river Thames in London.
Shakespeare prospered well enough in London to make investments in real estate in Stratford, including the purchase in 1597 of the second largest house in town.
In his entire career, Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays, including comedies, tragedies, histories, and romances. The dating of the plays is open to argument, but it is possible that Shakespeare's first play was The Comedy of Errors or Love's Labor's Lost, written sometime between 1588 and the early 1590s. His last play may have been Henry VIII (1612-13). Cymbeline was probably written in 1609 or 1610. It is one of a group of late plays known as romances. The others are The Tempest, The Winter's Tale and Pericles. No collected edition of his plays was published in his lifetime, but in 1623 John Heminge and Henry Condell, two members of his acting company, published the first collection, now referred to as the First Folio.
Shakespeare retired from the theater around 1612, and returned to live in Stratford. He died on April 23, 1616, and was buried in the chancel of the church at Stratford. He was outlived by his wife but left the majority of his estate to his daughter Susanna.
It may be of interest to some students that a controversy has grown up, largely in the United States, around the question of who wrote the plays. Some scholars do not believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford was the true author. They think that the name was a pseudonym used by a playwright who wished to remain anonymous. Rival candidates for authorship have included Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon, and even Queen Elizabeth I, but the leading candidate is currently Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.