Most historians agree that William Shakespeare - actor, playwright and poet - was a single person, one for whom we have considerable historical records.
(Note that Elizabethan English did not use standardised spelling; although his surname most commonly appears as Shakespeare, Shakespere also recurs frequently, and the name sometimes appears as Shakespear, Shaksper and even Shaxberd.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in April 1564, the son of John Shakespeare, a glove-maker, and of Mary Arden. His baptismal record dates to April 26 of that year and (given traditional timings of baptisms) tradition considers April 23 as his birthday. Shakespeare's father, prosperous at the time of William's birth, was prosecuted for participating in the black market in wool, and later lost his position as an alderman. Some evidence exists that both sides of the family had Roman Catholic sympathies.
As the son of a prominent town official, Shakespeare most likely attended the Stratford grammar school, which provided an intensive education in Latin grammar and literature. There is no evidence that his formal education extended beyond this.
Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior, on November 28, 1582 at Temple Grafton, near Stratford. Two neighbors of Anne, Fulk Sandalls and John Richardson, posted bond that there were no impediments to the marriage. There appears to have been some haste in arranging the ceremony: Anne was three months pregnant. After his marriage, William Shakespeare left few traces in the historical record until he appeared on the London literary scene.
On May 26, 1583 Shakespeare's first child, Susanna, was baptised at Stratford. There soon followed on February 2, 1585 the baptisms of a son, Hamnet, and of a daughter, Judith.
By 1592 Shakespeare had enough of a reputation for Robert Greene to denounce him as "an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey." (The italicised line parodies the phrase, "Oh, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" which Shakespeare used in Henry VI, part 3.)
In 1596 Hamnet died; he was buried on August 11, 1596. Because of the similarities of their names, some suspect that his death provided the impetus for Shakespeare's The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
By 1598 Shakespeare had moved to the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, and appeared top of a list of actors in Every man in his Humour written by Ben Jonson.
Shakespeare became an actor, writer and ultimately part-owner of an acting company known as The Lord Chamberlain's Men. The company took its name, like others of the period, from its aristocratic sponsor, the Lord Chamberlain. The group became sufficiently popular that after the death of Elizabeth I and the coronation of James I (1603), the new monarch adopted the company and it became known as The King's Men.
Various documents recording legal affairs and commercial transactions show that Shakespeare grew increasingly affluent in his London years. He did well enough to buy a property in Blackfriars, London, and owned the second-largest house in Stratford, New Place.
In 1609 he published his Sonnets, love Poems variously addressed: some to a 'dark lady', and some to a young man (or 'fair lord').
Shakespeare retired in approximately 1611 and died in 1616, on April 23, perhaps part of the reason behind the tradition of his birthday being this same day. He remained married to Anne until his death. His two daughters, Susannah and Judith, survived him. Susannah married Dr John Hall, and later became the subject of a court case.
His tombstone reads, "Blest be the man who cast these stones, and cursed be he that moves my bones." Popular myth claims that unpublished Works by Shakespeare may lie within the bard's tomb, but no-one has ever verified these claims, perhaps for fear of the curse included in the quoted epitaph.