April 23 is Shakespeare’s birthday. Probably.
We do know that he was baptized on April 26, 1564, which would make him 449 today. He died on April 23, 1616, which is the real reason that his birthday is also celebrated today. People liked the idea that he was born and died on the same day.
If you look at what we have documented information for, a lot of the biographical information about him would also be annotated with that same word, “probably”.
There was a grain merchant who was born, grew up, married, and died in Stratford-upon-Avon. There was an actor in the London theatre scene who was a part of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men under Queen Elizabeth, and a member of the King’s Men under James the first. There was a poet and playwright that wrote some of the most celebrated literature in the English language. Each of these men was named William Shakespeare. These three men were the same guy. Probably.
I’ts that third guy, the writer, that gives some people fits, because there’s no paper trail for him. Unlike the other two, which have written records that are contemporaneous.
We have the baptismal date, date of marriage, and family information for the guy from Stratford. And some legal proceedings as well. When he died, the town honored him with a monument showing him holding a bag of grain. Not quill pen and paper, not books, not a man on a stage, but grain. He left a will, which mentions nothing about his writings or again, about any books.
For the guy from London, we have documents describing when certain plays were performed and by which company, and Mr. Shakespeare (or Shakspere or Shackspeare) appears on those lists, as he does in the list of shareholders in the Globe Theatre.
As for the writer, well, all the plays associated with his name were published by someone else, after Shakespeare’s death. This has given rise to a minor industry of speculation about the possibility that someone else might have written those plays, and let the actor take credit for them. Why would they do that? Well, it turns out that it was considered bad form to be a courtier and publish popular entertainments, and those who did publish, often did so under assumed names, or assigned them to other people. There are many candidates bandied about as the “real Shakespeare”, including Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, and a whole host of minor candidates.
Despite all this, there is reasonable evidence that these three guys were all one. For instance, the actor and writer are tied together by the description that Robert Greene wrote, describing an “upstart crow” who was an actor with pretensions to write for the stage. In 1610, a man named John Davies published a set of poems praising the gliterati of the day. One was dedicated to Will Shake-speare and marks him as both actor and playwright.
The linking of the Stratford grain merchant to the player and writer comes directly from his last will and testament. In it, he bequests John Hemynges and Richard Burbage money for rings. These two men were also actors in the King’s Men, and also shareholders in the Globe theatre. If that was mere coincidence, it would be one of the strangest in history.
So Shakespeare the merchant, Shakespeare the actor, and Shakespeare the writer were really the same guy. Probably.