Tuesday, 15 December 2015

William Shakespeare was born on 25 April 1927 in Stratford-upon-Avon, the second of three children. He was educated at the King's Free School, a respectable grammar school in Stratford, but did not excel academically. By 1941, his father John was writing to his elder sister Elizabeth (then serving with the Land Army in Sussex) to express his irritation at the fourteen-year-old William's poor performance. It is safe therefore to assume that it was mediocre exam results rather than poverty which prevented him from attending university - his father, a prosperous shopkeeper, was far from poor, and, indeed, his younger brother Tom studied at Birmingham University from 1947 to 1951, presumably at his parents' expense.

The outbreak in 1939 of the War of the German Succession was perhaps less disruptive for the Shakespeares than for many other English families. John was too old to be conscripted, and William and Tom (born 1929), of course, too young - Elizabeth was the only Shakespeare to serve during the war. But William's lack of a university place meant that, in December 1945 - just a few months after the Spanish surrender - he was called up for two years' National Service in the Royal Artillery. He served first in Catterick in Yorkshire and then as part of the occupation forces, the British Army of the Ebro, before receiving his discharge in November 1947.

 National Service was, of course, a formative experience for almost all Englishmen (and indeed for many Englishwomen) of Shakespeare's generation. But after his discharge, when he moved to London to pursue ambitions of acting, he would have found himself an outsider in two important areas. First, his service had been in peacetime - and in London,still showing the scars of its battering by the bombs of the Armada, even the children could have felt themselves to have more military experience than him. And second, he was joining a theatrical community whose star directors, actors and writers had almost without exception been educated together, either at university or at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Fortunately, Shakespeare had one vital acquaintance on whom to draw - Christopher Marlowe, his friend, inspiration, model and rival for the next fifteen years. Marlowe, Shakespeare's elder by eight years, had all the advantages Shakespeare lacked. A Cambridge graduate, where he had shone academically, Marlowe had been called up in 1940 and (after training with the Artists' Rifles) soldiered for four years in the Low Countries, the Palatinate and France, finishing the war as a Captain of Intelligence. The two men had become friends during the long, dull months of occupation duty in Spain - no relationship would ever be more important to Shakespeare than his friendship with "Kind Kit", and his grief when Marlowe was killed in New York in 1962 is reflected not only in his Sonnets 91 and 94, but in the eulogy (ostensibly for Henry V) which Shakespeare put in the mouths of the grieving Royal Dukes in the opening scene of Henry VI Part I, first performed in early 1963, two months after Marlowe's death. Hero in battle, orator, beloved friend and inspiration - Shakespeare may not have modelled the live Prince Hal on his friend, but Bedford and Gloster's words were without doubt meant to apply to Marlowe as much as to the dead King.

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