The Chandos portrait, thought to be of Shakespeare, painted between 1600 and 1610

Continuing Influence
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Shakespeare Had a Good Mommy (Probably)

April 23 traditionally marks both the birth and death of William Shakespeare (1564—1616), one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—English poet and playwright.

As with every person of note, Shakespeare is the target of conspiracy theories.

How, conspiracists demand, could the son of a glover, growing up in small-town Stratford-upon-Avon (pop. 2,500), have written so many brilliant plays and poems?

I think the answer may be that he got plenty of verbal stimulation during his preschool years.

The pre-school years matter

Shakespeare had a secure childhood

Tiny by modern standards, Stratford was an important market town in the 1560s and possessed a reputable grammar school: King’s New School. Its curriculum included Latin, Greek, theology, and rhetoric.

If there was tuition, Shakespeare’s parents could afford to pay it. John Shakespeare, his father, was a successful glover [a maker of gloves] and prominent citizen. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a prosperous farmer.

Because his parents enjoyed a good income, Shakespeare was well nourished as a child. A good diet and verbal interaction with caring adults work together to build a good brain in a preschooler. With a large vocabulary, he began school ready to learn to read—if he hadn’t already learned at home.

What Shakespeare read at school

Readers and sociable people know stuff

The person who wrote the plays and poems credited to Shakespeare was a voracious reader. He knew the stories of Plutarch and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He knew the history of England from Holinshed’s Chronicles. He had a store of general knowledge and a curious and creative brain. He could read and write to the level of his intellect.

In London, the young Shakespeare developed acquaintances and friendships with a variety of people, including wealthy and educated members of the aristocracy. Wouldn’t he, like any of us, have learned things from listening and asking questions?

A little general knowledge goes a long way

frontispiece Holinshed's Chronicles, (1577)
Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577)—history of England, Scotland, and Ireland from first habitation to mid-16th century. Shakespeare used Holinshed for more than a third of his plays, including Macbeth and King Lear.

The plays show an acquaintance with terms and ideas associated with the law, aristocratic pursuits like falconry, military matters and more. For this reason, the not-Shakespeare faction pooh-pooh the idea that a man without first-hand, professional experience of these topics could have written about them.

Journalists who specialize in writing about politics, science, business, or other disciplines don’t have to be lawyers, biologists, or business moguls to write their articles. They interview the experts. They hang around people who can point them to sources. They read.

A case in point

My first published novel is set in Palestine. I have never been to Palestine. I looked up traveler’s accounts of the area as I wrote my book. After it was published, I received comments from people who had lived there. Two of them congratulated me on how well I captured the atmosphere of the area. A little information can go a long way in setting a scene.

Shakespeare was known to his fellow playwrights

One argument against the authorship of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is based on legal documents. His signature is found on or in several legal documents, but he never signed any of his plays. This argument concludes that the Shakespeare of  the legal documents is not the man who wrote the plays.

However, a poem by a contemporary playwright proves convincingly that the man from Stratford and the playwright were one and the same.

The First Folio Poem

Nineteen of the plays were published in separate printings before the First Folio of 1623. For the Preface to this collection, Ben Jonson (1597-1637) wrote a poetic tribute to the man whom he had known for decades, both as colleague and friend. The following lines make clear that Jonson was writing about the man from Stratford. First, there is the pun on the name Shake+spear:

. . .so the [reflection]
Of Shakespeare’s mind and manners brightly shines
In his well-turned, and true-filed lines;
In each of which he seems to shake a lance,
As brandish’d at the eyes of ignorance

and links him to his birthplace:

Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames,
That so did take Eliza and our James! *

* Shakespeare lived during the reigns of Elizabeth I (1558—1603) and James I (1603—1625).

To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare –from the Preface to the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1623)