Despite the fact that at least one of his works (or some derivative thereof) appears on the curriculum and reading list of just about every English literature course in the world, despite the fact that no one born in an English-speaking country reaches puberty without having quoted him at least once, and despite the fact that his characters and situations have defined love and parenthood and friendship and despair for generations, actually very little is known about the life of William Shakespeare.

Scholars generally agree that Shakespeare was probably born on the same day he died. There is no record of the birth, but the register of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon contains the record of the April 26, 1564 baptism of "Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare," which is Latin for "William, son of John Shakespeare."

As children were baptized very soon after birth—and since he died on April 23 (a few years later, of course) and since April 23 is St. George’s day, which is England’s national day—April 23 is traditionally designated as the date of Shakespeare’s birth.

Nothing much is heard from little Gulielmus until 1582 when two marriage entries appear in the Episcopal register in Worcester. One grants "Wm Shaxpere [and] Annam Whateley" a license to marry, and the other affirms that there are no banns impeding the marriage of "William Shagspere on the one party and Anne Hathwey of Stratford in the diocese of Worcester, maiden."

The "maiden" Anne Hathwey is, of course, pregnant. She and Will are married in November, and their daughter, Susanna, is born in May. Twins Hamnet and Judith are born to the couple a little less than two years later.

Then Shakespeare disappears without a trace in 1585.

He turns up in London in 1592. A London playwright named Robert Greene (who is today famous for nothing else) writes this notice in a theatrical trade publication:

“There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”

No one really knows what Greene meant, but it can’t be good to be an “upstart crow,” and to have a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide” sounds rather fraudulent. Most scholars assume Greene is criticizing Will for his lack of University education. How dare such a country bumpkin presume to try to write plays?

The playwright Ben Jonson, both a friend and rival of Shakespeare’s, also comments on William’s “small Latine, and lesse Greeke,” but he also appreciates the fact that, while writers like Johnson, Marlowe, and Green write with their minds, Shakespeare writes with his heart.

From his 1592 emergence in London, the rest is, as they say, history. Shakespeare knows heartache—son Hamnet (one of the twins born in 1585) dies suddenly at the age of 11. Daughter Judith (Hamnet’s twin) marries a man who brings scandal upon her family in 1616, only weeks before her father’s death.

Judith (31 years old) marries Thomas Quiney (27) on February 10. Quiney is a prosperous vintner and tavern owner—a suitable match for the daughter of the famous playwright and successful real estate investor. Within days of the wedding, however, it is discovered that another local woman is pregnant with Quiney’s child, and Quiney failed to secure the necessary permission from the Church to get married during Lent. He and Judith are excommunicated, and he is prosecuted for his adultery and fornication.

Shakespeare also knows great joy as well. He attains the status of bestselling dramatist in England. His daughter Susanna marries a wealthy doctor and gives him the only grandchild he will know—Elizabeth.

In April 1616, determined to live a life bound by symmetry and coincidence, Shakespeare dies on the day he was born (only several years later). While the date of death (presumed to be April 23, 1616) is uncertain, the date of his burial in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford is recorded as April 25.

In March, he’d been visited in Stratford by a group of friends, including Ben Jonson, and grew sick very shortly afterward. Possibly suspecting that he was dying, he changed his will to provide for Judith’s financial security but to leave most of his fortune to daughter Susanna.

In 1623, the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected works is published. In his preface, Ben Jonson calls the man who’d been dismissed as an “upstart crow” and criticized for his “small Latin and less Greek,”

Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!

More than four and a half centuries after his birth and nearly four centuries after his death, his work is still ubiquitous in classrooms and on stages around the world. He’s inspired countless symphonies, ballets, operas, film, television shows, adaptations, and dramatizations in every media ever invented. His work is quoted more frequently than the Bible (though, admittedly, many people believe they’re quoting the Bible when they’re actually quoting Shakespeare).

April 23, St. George’s Day, is a fitting date to celebrate the birth and commemorate the death of perhaps the only element all of English-speaking culture holds in common—even if it’s not the real date of either event.