A Quick Introduction to William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, descended from tenant farmers and landed gentry. His traditional birth date, April 23, 1564, is conjectural. Baptism was on April 26, so April 23 is a good guess—and a tidy one, since that date is also St. George’s Day as well as the date of Shakespeare’s own death.
One of Shakespeare’s grandfathers, Richard Shakespeare of Snitterfield, rented land from the other, Robert Arden of Wilmcote. Shakespeare’s father, John, moved to nearby Stratford-upon-Avon, became a prosperous shop owner (dealing in leather goods) and municipal officeholder, and married his former landlord’s youngest daughter, Mary Arden. Thus Shakespeare—the third of eight children but the first to survive infancy—was born into a solidly middle-class family in a provincial market town.
During Shakespeare’s infancy, his father was one of the town’s leading citizens. In 1557, John Shakespeare had become a member of the town council and subsequently held such offices as constable, affeeror (a kind of assessor), and chamberlain (treasurer). In 1568, he became bailiff (mayor) and justice of the peace. As the son of a municipal officer, the young Shakespeare was entitled to a free education in the town’s grammar school, which he probably entered around the age of seven. The school’s main subject was Latin...
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Any discussion of Shakespeare's life is bound to be loaded with superlatives. In the course of a quarter century, Shakespeare wrote some thirty-eight plays. Taken individually, several of them are among the world's finest written works; taken collectively, they establish Shakespeare as the foremost literary talent of his own Elizabethan Age and, even more impressively, as a genius whose creative achievement has never been surpassed in any age.
In light of Shakespeare's stature and the passage of nearly four centuries since his death, it is not surprising that hundreds of Shakespeare biographies have been written in all of the world's major languages. Scanning this panorama, most accounts of the Bard's life (and certainly the majority of modern studies) are contextual in the sense that they place the figure of Shakespeare against the rich tapestry of his "Age" or "Times" or "Society." This characteristic approach to Shakespeare biography is actually a matter of necessity, for without such fleshing out into historical, social, and literary settings, the skeletal character of what we know about Shakespeare from primary sources would make for slim and, ironically, boring books. As part of this embellishment process, serious scholars continue to mine for hard facts about the nature of Shakespeare's world. The interpretation of their meaning necessarily varies, often according to the particular school or ideology of the author.
Whatever the differences of opinion, valid or at least plausible views about Shakespeare, his character and his personal experience continue to be advanced. Yet even among modern Shakespeare biographies, in addition to outlandish interpretations of the available facts, there persists (and grows) a body of traditions about such matters as Shakespeare's marriage, his move to London, the circumstances of his death and the like. The result of all this is that there is now a huge tapestry of descriptive, critical, and analytical work about Shakespeare in existence, much of it reasonable, some of it outlandish, and some of it hogwash.
II. Three important points about Shakespeare
In examining Shakespeare's life, three broad points should be kept in mind from the start. First, despite the frustration of Shakespeare biographers with the absence of a primary source of information written during (or even shortly after) his death on 23 April 1616 (his fifty-second birthday), Shakespeare's life is not obscure. In fact, we know more about Shakespeare's life, its main events and contours, than we know about most famous Elizabethans outside of the royal court itself.
Shakespeare's life is unusually well-documented: there are well over 100 references to Shakespeare and his immediate family in local parish, municipal, and commercial archives and we also have at least fifty observations about Shakespeare's plays (and through them, his life) from his contemporaries. The structure of Shakespeare's life is remarkably sound; it is the flesh of his personal experience, his motives, and the like that have no firm basis and it is, of course, this descriptive content in which we are most interested.
Second, the appeal of seeing an autobiographical basis in Shakespeare's plays and poetry must be tempered by what the bulk of the evidence has to say about him. Although there are fanciful stories about Shakespeare, many centering upon his romantic affairs, connections between them and the events or characters of his plays are flimsy, and they generally disregard our overall impression of the Bard. In his personal life, Shakespeare was, in fact, an exceedingly practical individual, undoubtedly a jack of many useful trades, and a shrewd businessman in theatrical, commercial and real estate circles.
Third, the notion that plays ascribed to Shakespeare were actually written by others (Sir Francis Bacon, the poet Phillip Sidney among the candidates) has become even weaker over time. The current strong consensus is that while Shakespeare may have collaborated with another Elizabethan playwright in at least one instance (probably with John Fletcher on The Two Noble Kinsman), and that one or two of his plays were completed by someone else (possibly Fletcher on an original or revised version of Henry VIII), the works ascribed to Shakespeare are his.
III. Birth and Early Life
Parish records establish that William Shakespeare was baptized on 26 April, 1564. Simply counting backwards the three customary days between birth and baptism in Anglican custom, most reckon that the Bard of Avon was born on 23 April, 1564. This is, indeed, Shakespeare's official birthday in England, and, it is also the traditional birth date of St. George, the patron saint of England. The exact date and the precise cause of Shakespeare's death are unknown: one local tradition asserts that the Bard died on 23 April, 1616, of a chill caught after a night of drinking with fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. Shakespeare was, in fact, buried three days later, exactly 52 years after his baptism.
Shakespeare was born and raised in the picturesque Tudor market town of Stratford-on-Avon, a local government and commercial center within a larger rural setting, and it is likely that the surrounding woodlands of his boyhood were reflected in the play As You Like It, with its Forest of Arden. Shakespeare's mother Mary Arden was a daughter of the local gentry, holding extensive properties around Stratford-on-Avon in his name. In marrying Shakespeare's father, the glover and tenant farmer John Shakespeare, Mary Arden took a step down the social ladder of the Elizabethan Age, for her husband was of the yeoman class, a notch or two below the gentry. Yet long before his son's fame as a playwright fell to his good fortune, John Shakespeare's talents enabled him to rise modestly on his own accord as he became a burgess member of the town council. Despite evidence of a family financial setback when William was fifteen, Shakespeare's family was comfortable, if not privileged. Shakespeare's eventual fame and success spilled over to his parents in the form of both money and title, and on the eve of his death in 1601, Queen Elizabeth granted the Bard's father a "gentleman's" family coat-of-arms.
We have good cause to believe that Shakespeare attended Stratford Grammar School where he would have received a tuition-free education as the son of a burgess father. There young William was exposed to a standard Elizabethan curriculum strong on Greek and Latin literature (including the playwrights Plautus and Seneca, and the amorous poet Ovid), rhetoric (including that of the ancient Roman orator Cicero), and Christian ethics (including a working knowledge of the Holy Bible). These influences are pervasive in Shakespeare's works, and it is also apparent that Shakespeare cultivated a knowledge of English history through chronicles written shortly before and during his adolescence. Shakespeare left school in 1579 at the age of fifteen, possibly as the result of a family financial problem. Shakespeare did not pursue formal education any further: he never attended a university and was not considered to be a truly learned man.
There is a period in Shakespeare's life of some seven years (1585 to 1592) from which we have absolutely no primary source materials about him. We do know that in November of 1582, at the age of eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway (a woman eight years his senior), and that she gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, six months later. Two years after that, the Shakespeares had twins: Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet, Shakespeare's only son, would die at the age of eleven. Speculation has it that Shakespeare was not happy in his marriage, and that this may have played a role in his decision to move to London's theater scene. In fact, during the late 1580s and early 1590s, Shakespeare traveled back and forth between London and Stratford-on-Avon, but by this time, the momentum of Shakespeare's life was toward his career and away from family, hearth, and home. Although we lack hard facts, we may surmise that before he took up a career as a playwright, Shakespeare engaged in a variety of occupations, probably working with his father in commercial trades (leathers and grains), probably working as a law clerk, and possibly serving as a soldier or sailor for an England threatened by Spain. Shakespeare displays a command of the argot and the practices of many such crafts, as in his portrayal of the law profession in trial scenes of The Merchant of Venice.
IV. The Playwright
Between the early 1590s (The Comedy of Errors) and the second decade of the seventeenth century (The Tempest written in 1611), Shakespeare composed the most extraordinary body of works in the history of world drama. His works are often divided into periods, moving roughly from comedies to histories to tragedies and then to his final romances capped by a farewell to the stage in The Tempest. The question of how and whether the Bard's career should be divided into periods aside, we do know that Shakespeare received a major boost in 1592 (the earliest review of his work that we have), when playwright-critic Robert Greene condemned the future Bard as an impudent "upstart" beneath the notice of established literary men or University Wits. Greene's critical diatribe was soon retracted by his editor as a number of leading Elizabethan literary figures expressed their admiration for his early plays. Retreating from London in the plague years of 1592 through 1594, Shakespeare briefly left playwriting aside to compose long poems like Venus and Adonis and at least some of his sonnets. But during this period, Shakespeare garnered the support of his first major sponsor, the Earl of Southampton. Soon, as a leading figure in the Chamberlain's Men company he would garner even greater patronage from the courts of Queen Elizabeth and her successor, King James.
Just as the rise of Shakespeare's success, popularity, and fame began to accelerate, he experienced a personal tragedy when his son Hamnet died in 1596. Shakespeare undoubtedly returned to Stratford for Hamnet's funeral and this event may have prompted him to spend more time with his wife and daughters. In 1597, Shakespeare purchased a splendid Tudor Mansion in his hometown known as the New Place. During the period between 1597 and 1611, Shakespeare apparently spent most of his time in London during the theatrical season, but was active in Stratford as well, particularly as an investor in grain dealings. Shakespeare also purchased real estate in the countryside and in London as well, the latter including Blackfriar's Gatehouse which he bought in 1613. In 1612, four years before his death, Shakespeare went into semi-retirement at the relatively young age of forty-eight. He died on or about 23 April of 1616 of unknown causes.
William Shakespeare's family lineage came to an end two generations after his death. His two daughters followed different paths in their father's eyes. His older daughter, Susanna, married a prominent local doctor, John Hall, in 1607 and there are indications that a close friendship developed between Hall and his renowned father-in-law. Susanna gave Shakespeare his only grandchild, Elizabeth Hall in 1608. Although she inherited the family estate and was married twice (her first husband dying) Elizabeth had no children of her own. Shakespeare's other daughter, Judith married Thomas Quiney, a tavern owner and reputed rake given to pre-marital and extramarital affairs and the fathering of illegitimate children. They had three legitimate sons, all of whom died young.
V. Shakespeare's World
Most of Shakespeare's career unfolded during the monarchy of Elizabeth I, the Great Virgin Queen from whom the historical period of the Bard's life takes its name as the Elizabethan Age. Elizabeth came to the throne under turbulent circumstances in 1558 (before Shakespeare was born) and ruled until 1603. Under her reign, not only did England prosper as a rising commercial power at the expense of Catholic Spain, Shakespeare's homeland undertook an enormous expansion into the New World and laid the foundations of what would become the British Empire. This ascendance came in the wake of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the former regaining Greek and Roman classics and stimulating an outburst of creative endeavor throughout Europe, the latter transforming England into a Protestant/Anglican state, and generating continuing religious strife, especially during the civil wars of Elizabeth's Catholic sister, Queen Margaret or "Bloody Mary."
The Elizabethan Age, then, was an Age of Discovery, of the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and the exploration of human nature itself. The basic assumptions underpinning feudalism/Scholasticism were openly challenged with the support of Elizabeth and, equally so, by her successor on the throne, James I. There was in all this an optimism about humanity and its future and an even greater optimism about the destiny of England in the world at large. Nevertheless, the Elizabethans also recognized that the course of history is problematic, that Fortune can undo even the greatest and most promising, as Shakespeare reveals in such plays as Antony & Cleopatra. More specifically, Shakespeare and his audiences were keenly aware of the prior century's prolonged bloodshed during the War of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York. Many Elizabethans, particularly the prosperous, feared the prospect of civil insurrection and the destruction of the commonwealth, whether as a result of an uprising from below or of usurpation at the top. Thus, whether or not we consider Shakespeare to have been a political conservative, his histories, tragedies and even his romances and comedies are slanted toward the restoration or maintenance of civil harmony and the status quo of legitimate rule.
Tips for Reading Shakespeare
In this section:
- Shakespeare’s Language
- Shakespeare’s Sentences
- Shakespeare’s Words
- Shakespeare’s Wordplay
- Shakespeare’s Dramatic Verse
- Implied Stage Action
Shakespeare’s language can create a strong pang of intimidation, even fear, in a large number of modern-day readers. Fortunately, however, this need not be the case. All that is needed to master the art of reading Shakespeare is to practice the techniques of unraveling uncommonly-structured sentences and to become...
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Fun Facts About Shakespeare!
It wasn't his training: Shakespeare left school at age 15, and his contemporary Ben Johnson said Shakespeare had “little Latin and less Greek.” It wasn't where he was born: Stratford is still a pretty small town even today. It wasn't a long career: Shakespeare wrote all of his great works in about a twenty-five-year span and died relatively young at 52. It wasn't even his story ideas: the Bard adapted almost all his plots from known sources. No, what's impressive about Shakespeare is that his genius seems to have come from nowhere except himself. He penned comedies, tragedies, and lyric poems; and his mastery of language, character psychology, and emotion combined to make him the greatest writer in English.
- Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he was 18. She was eight years older and gave birth six months after the wedding...suggesting they may have had to get married.
- Shakespeare’s will leaves his “second best bed” to his wife. Who got the best bed—and why?
- In 1890, Eugene Schieffelin released eighty starlings into New York’s Central Park because they were mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. There are now hundreds of millions of starlings in America.
- Actors try to avoid saying “Macbeth” in a theater. Tradition (superstition?) says that it brings bad luck, so actors call it the “Scottish play” instead.
- Some say that Shakespeare didn’t write any of the works staged under his name. This theory became popular in the nineteenth century, and some say you can find clues to the real author (Francis Bacon?) all through the works...if you read closely enough.
1564: William Shakespeare is born in Stratford-upon-Avon. His notice of baptism is entered in the parish register at Holy Trinity Church on April 26th. While the actual date of his birth is not known, it is traditionally celebrated on April 23rd.
1571: Shakespeare probably enters grammar school, seven years being the usual age for admission.
1575: Queen Elizabeth visits Kenilworth Castle, near Stratford. Popular legend holds that the eleven-year-old William Shakespeare witnessed the pageantry attendant on the royal progress and later recreated it in his dramatic works.
1582: Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway of Shottery. The eighteen-year-old Shakespeare and twenty-six-year-old Hathaway are married on November 27th at Temple Grafton, a village about five miles from Stratford.
1583: Susanna, the first child of William and Anne Shakespeare, is born. Susanna's birth occurs five months after Shakespeare and Hathaway wed. Susanna dies in 1649.
1585(?): Shakespeare leaves Stratford sometime between 1585 and 1592, and joins a company of actors as a performer and playwright.
1585: Twins Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare born. Hamnet dies in 1596. Judith dies in 1662.
1589-90: Shakespeare probably writes Henry VI, Part One. The dates given for the composition of Shakespeare's plays, though based in scholarship, are somewhat conjectural.
1590-91: Shakespeare probably writes Henry VI, Part Two and Henry VI, Part Three.
1592: Shakespeare was known in London as an actor and playwright by this time as evidenced by his being mentioned in Robert Greene's pamphlet A Groats-worth of Wit. In this pamphlet (published this year), Greene chides Shakespeare as an "upstart crow" on the theater scene. Greene charges that Shakespeare is an unschooled player and writer who "borrows" material from his well-educated betters for his own productions.
London theaters are closed due to plague.
1592-93: Shakespeare probably writes Venus and Adonis, Richard III, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
1592-94: Shakespeare probably writes The Comedy of Errors.
1593: Shakespeare probably begins composing his sonnets. He will eventually write 154 sonnets.
Shakespeare's narrative poem Venus and Adonis is published.
1593-94: Shakespeare probably writes The Rape of Lucrece, Titus Andronicus, and The Taming of the Shrew.
1594: Shakespeare performs with the theater troupe the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The group includes leading actor Richard Burbage and noted comic performer Will Kempe.
1594-95: Shakespeare probably writes Love's Labour's Lost.
1594-96: Shakespeare probably writes King John.
1595: Shakespeare probably writes Richard II. The play is first performed the same year.
Shakespeare probably writes A Midsummer Night's Dream. The play is probably composed for performance at a wedding.
Shakespeare probably writes Romeo and Juliet.
1596: Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain, and patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, dies.
Shakespeare's company comes under the patronage of George Carey, second Lord Hunsdon.
Shakespeare probably writes The Merry Wives of Windsor. The play was performed before the Queen during the Christmas revels.
1596-97: Shakespeare probably writes The Merchant of Venice, and Henry IV, Part One.
1597: Shakespeare purchases New Place and the grounds surrounding the spacious Stratford home.
1598: Shakespeare appears in a performance of Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, and is listed as a principal actor in the London performance.
Shakespeare probably writes Henry IV, Part Two.
1598-99: Shakespeare probably writes Much Ado About Nothing.
1599: Shakespeare probably writes Julius Caesar, Henry V, and As You Like It.
The Lord Chamberlain's Men lease land for the Globe Theatre. Nicholas Brend leases the land to leading shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, including Shakespeare. Later this year, the Globe Theatre opens.
Earliest known performance of Julius Caesar. Thomas Platter, a German traveler, mentions the production at the Globe Theatre on September 21st in his diary.
John Weever publishes the poem "Ad Guglielmum Shakespeare," in which he praises Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, Romeo and Juliet, and other works.
1600-01: Shakespeare probably writes Hamlet.
1601: Shakespeare probably writes the narrative poem The Phoenix and Turtle.
1601-02: Shakespeare probably writes Twelfth Night; or, What You Will and Troilus and Cressida.
Shakespeare probably writes All's Well That Ends Well.
1603: A Midsummer Night's Dream is performed before the Queen at Hampton Court.
Queen Elizabeth dies. The new king, James I (James VI of Scotland), arrives in London a month later, and proves to be a generous patron of the theater and of acting troupes.
King James grants a patent, or license, to Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The patent is required for the troupe to perform. They take the name the King's Men to honor the new king.
The King's Men enact a play, probably As You Like It, before King James at Wilton.
Shakespeare appears in a performance of Ben Jonson's Sejanus. This is the last recorded occasion of Shakespeare appearing in a theatrical production.
An epidemic of the Black Death kills at least 33,000 in London. This is the worst outbreak of disease in London until the plague recurs in 1608.
1604: Shakespeare probably writes Measure for Measure. The play is staged at court before King James.
Shakespeare probably writes Othello. The play is first performed at Whitehall on November 1st.
1605: Shakespeare probably writes King Lear.
The Merchant of Venice is performed at court. The play is performed twice and is commended by the king.
Shakespeare probably writes Macbeth. This play's Scottish background was almost certainly intended to celebrate the new king's ancestry.
1606: Shakespeare probably writes Antony and Cleopatra.
1607: Hamlet and Richard III are performed. The plays are acted aboard the British ship Dragon at Sierra Leone.
1607-1608: Shakespeare probably writes Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, and Pericles.
1608: The King's Men lease the Blackfriars Theatre. The Blackfriars was the first permanent enclosed theater in London. Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Cuthbert Burbage, Thomas Evans, John Hemminges, Henry Condell, and William Sly lease the theatre for a period of twenty-one years. Stage directions indicate that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest with specific features of the new playhouse in mind.
London theaters are closed due to plague. This is one of the longest periods of theater closure due to plague: the playhouses are shut from spring 1608 throughout 1609.
1609: Shakespeare's sonnets are published. This publication of Shakespeare's sonnets is unauthorized.
1609-10: Shakespeare probably writes Cymbeline.
1610: The King's Men perform Othello at Oxford College during the summer touring season. An Oxford don records his impressions of the play in Latin, finding the spectacle of Desdemona's death, in particular, deeply moving.
1610-11: Shakespeare probably writes The Winter's Tale.
1611: Shakespeare probably writes The Tempest.
1612-13: Frederick V, the elector platine and future king of Bohemia, arrives in England to marry Elizabeth, King James's daughter. The King's Men perform several plays, including Othello and Julius Caesar.
Shakespeare probably writes Henry VIII, most likely collaborating with John Fletcher, another highly reputed dramatist, on this history play.
Shakespeare probably writes Cardenio, the only play of Shakespeare's that has been completely lost.
1613: Shakespeare probably writes The Two Noble Kinsmen. An entry in the Stationer's Register for 1634 indicates that this play was jointly written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher.
The Globe Theatre burns down.
1614: The Globe Theatre reopens on the opposite bank of the Thames.
1616: Shakespeare dies on April 23rd. His burial is recorded in the register of Stratford's Holy Trinity Church on April 25th.
1619: Hamlet and several other of Shakespeare's plays are performed at court as part of the Christmas festivities.
1623: Anne Hathaway Shakespeare dies.
Shakespeare's fellow actors, John Hemminges and Henry Condell, compile and publish thirty-six of the dramatist's works. This collection is known as the First Folio.
Biography (eNotes Publishing)
Details about William Shakespeare’s life are sketchy, mostly mere surmise based upon court or other clerical records. His parents, John and Mary (Arden), were married about 1557; she was of the landed gentry, he a yeoman—a glover and commodities merchant. By 1568, John had risen through the ranks of town government and held the position of high bailiff, similar to mayor. William, the eldest son, was born in 1564, probably on April 23, several days before his baptism on April 26, 1564. That Shakespeare also died on April 23, 52 years later, may have resulted in the adoption of this birthdate.
William no doubt attended the local grammar school in Stratford where his parents lived, and would have studied primarily Latin rhetoric, logic, and literature [Barnet, viii]. At age 18 (1582), William married Anne Hathaway, a local farmer’s daughter eight years his senior. Their first daughter (Susanna) was born six months later (1583), and twins Judith and Hamnet were born in 1585.
Shakespeare’s life can be divided into three periods: the first 20 years in Stratford, which include his schooling, early marriage, and fatherhood; the next 25 years as an actor and playwright in London; and the last five in retirement back in Stratford where he enjoyed moderate wealth gained from his theatrical successes. The years linking the first two periods are marked by a lack of information about Shakespeare, and are often referred to as the “dark years”; the transition from active work into retirement was gradual and cannot be precisely dated [Boyce, 587].
John Shakespeare had suffered financial reverses from William’s teen years until well into the height of the playwright’s popularity and success. In 1596, John Shakespeare was granted a coat of arms, almost certainly purchased by William, who the next year bought a sizable house in Stratford. By the time of his death, William had substantial properties, both professional and personal, which he bestowed on his theatrical associates and his family (primarily his daughter Susanna, having rewritten his will one month before his death to protect his assets from Judith’s new husband, Thomas Quiney, who ran afoul of church doctrine and public esteem before and after the marriage) [Boyce, 529].
Shakespeare probably left school at 15, which was the norm, and took some sort of job, especially since this was the period of his father’s financial difficulty. Numerous references in his plays suggest that William may have in fact worked for his father, thereby gaining specialized knowledge [Boyce, 587].
At some point during the “dark years,” Shakespeare began his career with a London theatrical company—perhaps in 1589—for he was already an actor and playwright of some note in 1592. Shakespeare apparently wrote and acted for Pembroke’s Men, as well as numerous others, in particular Strange’s Men, which later became the Chamberlain’s Men, with whom he remained for the rest of his career.
When, in 1592, the Plague closed the theaters for about two years, Shakespeare turned to writing book-length narrative poetry. Most notable were “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” both of which were dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, whom scholars accept as Shakespeare’s friend and benefactor despite a lack of documentation. During this same period, Shakespeare was writing his sonnets, which are more likely signs of the time’s fashion rather than actual love poems detailing any particular relationship. He returned to play writing when theaters reopened in 1594, and published no more poetry. His sonnets were published without his consent in 1609, shortly before his retirement.
Amid all of his success, Shakespeare suffered the loss of his only son, Hamnet, who died in 1596 at the age of 11. But Shakespeare’s career continued unabated, and in London in 1599, he became one of the partners in the new Globe Theater [Boyce, 589], built by the Chamberlain’s Men. This group was a remarkable assemblage of “excellent actors who were also business partners and close personal friends . . . [including] Richard Burbage . . . [who] all worked together as equals . . . ” [Chute, 131].
When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and was succeeded by her cousin King James of Scotland, the Chamberlain’s Men was renamed the King’s Men, and Shakespeare’s productivity and popularity continued uninterrupted. He invested in London real estate and, one year away from retirement, purchased a second theater, the Blackfriars Gatehouse, in partnership with his fellow actors. His final play was Henry VIII, two years before his death in 1616.
Incredibly, most of Shakespeare’s plays had never been published in anything except pamphlet form, and were simply extant as acting scripts stored at the Globe. Only the efforts of two of Shakespeare’s company, John Heminges and Henry Condell, preserved his 36 plays (minus Pericles, the thirty-seventh) [Barnet, xvii] in the First Folio. Heminges and Condell published the plays, they said, “only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare” [Chute, 133]. Theater scripts were not regarded as literary works of art, but only the basis for the performance. Plays were a popular form of entertainment for all layers of society in Shakespeare’s time, which perhaps explains why Hamlet feels compelled to instruct the traveling Players on the fine points of acting, urging them not “to split the ears of the groundlings,” nor “speak no more than is set down for them.”
Present copies of Shakespeare’s plays have, in some cases, been reconstructed in part from scripts written down by various members of an acting company who performed particular roles. Shakespeare’s plays, like those of many of the actors who also were playwrights, belonged to the acting company. The performance, rather than the script, was what concerned the author, for that was how his play would become popular—and how the company, in which many actors were shareholders, would make money.
William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, and was buried two days later in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church where he had been baptized exactly 52 years earlier.
Shakespeare in London
Some time between 1585 and 1592, it is believed that Shakespeare left Stratford for London and joined a company of actors as a performer and a playwright. Legend long held that Shakespeare left Stratford because he was being pursued by the law for poaching deer on private property. By 1592 Shakespeare had received some recognition, though not entirely positive, as an actor and playwright. He was mentioned in a pamphlet (A Groats-worth of Wit) written by Robert Greene. Greene refers to Shakespeare as an "upstart crow" in the London theater and charges that Shakespeare was an unschooled player and a writer who used material written by his better educated contemporaries. Also during this year, the theaters in London closed due to the plague. By 1594 Shakespeare had joined a theater troupe known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Scholars attribute several of Shakespeare's plays to this time period. Although no one can be certain of the dates of composition for any of the plays, a considerable amount of scholarship has gone into the endeavor of accurately determining an approximate time period during which Shakespeare wrote each play. Some believe that The Comedy of Errors, a farcical play centering on the mistaken identities of two sets of twins, may have been Shakespeare's first play. A few counter that The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which focuses on the conflict between romantic love and friendship, may have been Shakespeare's first play. Some scholars suggest that these plays may have been written as early as 1588 or 1589, while many others date both plays several years later, suggesting that they were written between 1592 and 1594. Other plays written during this early period include one of the history tetralogies: Henry VI, Part One (1589-90); Henry VI, Part Two (1590-91); Henry VI, Part Three (1590-91); and Richard III (1592-93). Many people believe that Henry VI, Part One was Shakespeare's first play. This tetralogy treats the Wars of the Roses, the conflict between two factions of nobles. The last play of the sequence, Richard III, ends with the establishment of the Tudor dynasty, to which belonged Queen Elizabeth, who ruled during much of Shakespeare's life. It is also believed that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus (1592-94), The Taming of the Shrew (1593-94), and Love's Labor's Lost (1593-95) during this period of his life. Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's earliest tragedy, deals with the cycle of revenge which destroys the families involved in the play's action. The Taming of the Shrew is a lively comedy featuring the willful Kate and her "tamer," Petruchio. Kate's "taming" (her apparent and uncharacteristic submission to her husband) often troubles modern audiences. Love's Labor's Lost has been described as a satirization of the courtly and somewhat artificial love of male nobles, and of the academic pursuits, which were often more fashionable than serious in Shakespeare's time, of the nobility. In addition to these dramatic works, it is believed that Shakespeare wrote the poem Venus and Adonis and began composing his sonnets in 1592 or 1593. He eventually wrote 154 sonnets. Between 1593 and 1594, he probably wrote the poem The Rape of Lucrece.
In 1596 the patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, the Queen's Chamberlain) died, leaving Shakespeare's company under the patronage of his son, George Carey, second Lord Hunsdon. The next year, Shakespeare bought a spacious Stratford home, known as New Place. Shakespeare continued to be noted as an actor; in 1598 he appeared in a performance of Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humor, and was listed as a principal actor in the London performance of the drama. Soon after, in 1599, Shakespeare and other members of the Lord Chamberlain's Men leased land for the Globe Theater, which opened later that year. Also in 1599, the poet John Weever published a poem ("Ad Guglielmum Shakespeare") in which he praised Shakespeare as a poet and playwright. During this period of his life, from about 1595 through 1600, Shakespeare wrote a number of plays, including the second historical tetralogy (Richard II ; Henry IV, Part One [1596-97]; Henry IV, Part Two ; and Henry V ) . This tetralogy deals with the events leading up to the Wars of the Roses: Richard II is usurped by Henry Bolingbrook and later assassinated. The new king, Henry IV, worries over his role in Richard's death and about the ability of his "madcap" son, Hal, to rule. A subplot focuses on Hal's wild adventures with the comical knight, Sir John Falstaff. Hal becomes King Henry V after his father's death; he conquers France and restores peace. King John, a historical drama dealing with the reign of King John and the tragedy of the young Arthur, is estimated to have been written between 1594 and 1596. A Midsummer Night's Dream and the famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet were probably written in 1595 or 1596. A Midsummer Night's Dream, a fantastical comedy complete with fairies and magic, deals with such topics as love, imagination, and art. One of Shakespeare's most popular and well-known plays, Romeo and Juliet is the story of ill-fated lovers who attempt to escape the disapproval of their feuding families. The comedies The Merchant of Venice and The Merry Wives of Windsor are believed to have been written between 1596 and 1597. Identified by critics as a problem play (one that raises moral dilemmas which it does not resolve), The Merchant of Venice is like The Two Gentlemen of Verona in that it deals with the relationship between romantic love and masculine friendship; the play also focuses on the theme of mercy. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a farce dealing with middle class life and values; it features the knight Falstaff, who was introduced in Henry IV, Part One as Hal's drunken and wayward companion.
Other plays written during this period of Shakespeare's life include Much Ado about Nothing (1598- 99); Julius Caesar (1599); and As You Like It (1599- 1600). Much Ado about Nothing is the witty comedy featuring Beatrice and Benedick. The play is sometimes considered flawed by critics due to what they and many audiences see as the insensitive treatment of the female characters, particularly the falsely accused Hero. The Roman tragedy Julius Caesar dramatizes the downfall of the title character and examines the nature of political rivalry, ambition, and power. As You Like It depicts the beautiful Forest of Arden as a haven from the trappings of courtly life.
In 1603 Queen Elizabeth died. The new king, James I, granted a license (or patent) to Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The group needed the patent to be allowed to perform, and in honor of the new king, they renamed themselves the King's Men. It is also reported during this year that Shakespeare appeared in another Ben Jonson play (Sejanus). The plague also struck again, killing at least 33,000 people in London; in 1608 the plague again forced the closure of London theaters. Also in 1608, the King's Men leased the Blackfriars Theater. This was the first permanent enclosed theater in London. From notes in the stage directions, it seems that The Tempest was written with the specific features of the new theater in mind. During this period, Shakespeare wrote a number of plays, including what are considered his best tragedies: Hamlet (1600-01); Othello (1603-04); King Lear (1605); and Macbeth (1605-06). Probably Shakespeare's best known play, Hamlet is like many of Shakespeare's other tragedies in that the theme of revenge takes center stage. But the title character in this drama is paralyzed by indecision and for most of the play he is unable to act on his thoughts of revenge. The play and the issues it raises have been hotly debated by critics for centuries. Othello is a tragedy dealing with jealousy and murder. The title character is a Moor in the Venetian army who is driven into a jealous rage against his wife Desdemona by the scheming Iago. King Lear dramatizes the tragic effects of the king's and the earl of Gloucester's misjudgement of their children. Like other Shakespearean tragedies, Macbeth deals with the theme of ambition. The play also delivers a heavy dose of the supernatural in the form of the witches, or weird sisters, who feed the flame of Macbeth's desire for power. During this period, perhaps between 1600 and 1601, Shakespeare also wrote the narrative poem The Phoenix and the Turtle.
Shakespeare also wrote several comedies during these years, including All's Well That Ends Well (1601-03); Twelfth Night (1601-02); and Measure for Measure (1604). All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure have both been tagged as problem plays. The first comedy ends abruptly with Bertram's sudden acceptance of his wife Helena, whom he had essentially abandoned earlier in the play. In Measure for Measure, deception plays a central role in the play's action; this includes the deception perpetuated by a character depicted as a paragon of virtue, Isabella. Twelfth Night is typically seen as one of Shakespeare's more mature comedies. Like other comedies, it features some disguise and role-playing, such as that of one the central figures, Viola, who disguises herself as the page Cesario. The play also concerns gender roles and class differences.
In this period Shakespeare also produced Greek and Roman dramas, including Troilus and Cressida (1601-02); Antony and Cleopatra (1605-07); Coriolanus (1607-08); and Timon of Athens (1607- 08). Troilus and Cressida, a Greek drama, emphasizes the differences between the ideal and the real by portraying legendary Greek figures as people with less-than-admirable qualities. Antony and Cleopatra is the story of the love and passion between the famous Roman general and the sensuous, legendary Egyptian queen. Coriolanus is a Roman political tragedy dealing with issues of character and pride. Feelings of bitterness and disillusionment permeate the Greek drama, Timon of Athens. Shakespeare also wrote Pericles, Prince of Tyre probably between 1607 and 1608. Pericles is an adventurous tale of a prince who suffers the loss of his wife and daughter, but is, in the end, reunited with his family. Pericles is thought by some scholars to have been a collaborative effort.
After 1608 Shakespeare's dramatic production lessened somewhat. The Globe Theater burned down, but was rebuilt a year later on the opposite bank of the Thames River. During these years, Shakespeare wrote romantic tragicomedies (that is, romances featuring elements of both tragedy and comedy). The romantic tragicomedies include Cymbeline (1609-10); The Winter's Tale (1610-11); and The Tempest (1610-11)., Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale are both stories of loss and pain, but, like Pericles, they end with a happy reunion. The Tempest features the same elements of loss and reunion, but it also emphasizes the balance of wisdom and power that Prospero achieves at the play's end. It has been noted that The Tempest was probably the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own, and that the character of Prospero, as one who manipulates events, stages masques, and directs the actions of other characters, represents Shakespeare the playwright and his farewell to the theater. During this later period, Shakespeare also wrote two plays that most scholars believe were composed in collaboration with the dramatist John Fletcher: Henry VIII (1612-13), a historical drama, and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613), the story of the love two men have for the same woman. It is also believed that Shakespeare wrote another play around 1612 or 1613, Cardenio, but it has been completely lost.
The First Folio
Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, the cause of death not reported. The date of his burial is recorded as April 25, 1616 in the register of Stratford's Holy Trinity Church. In 1623 the same year that Shakespeare's widow, Anne Hathaway Shakespeare, died, the first collection of Shakespeare's works was published. Several of Shakespeare's fellow actors compiled thirty-six of Shakespeare's plays; the published collection was known as the First Folio. (The word "folio" refers to a book made up of sheets of paper folded once to form two leaves of equal size, or four pages.) The First Folio did not include Pericles, Prince of Tyre or The Two Noble Kinsmen. Scholars suggest that the reason for this exclusion may have been the likely dual authorship, though it was believed that Henry VIII was coauthored by John Fletcher, and yet it appears in the First Folio. The mystery remains unsolved.
The First Folio contained eighteen plays which had never been previously published. These eighteen plays included: All's Well That Ends Well; Antony and Cleopatra; As You Like It; The Comedy of Errors; Coriolanus; Cymbeline; Henry VI, Part One; Henry VIII; Julius Caesar; King John; Macbeth; Measure for Measure; The Taming of the Shrew; The Tempest; Timon of Athens; Twelfth Night; Two Gentlemen of Verona; and The Winter's Tale. These plays were presumably printed from some type of authoritative manuscript, or unpublished original copy. The other eighteen plays which appeared in the First Folio had been published before, in what is known as a quarto edition. (The word ''quarto'' refers to a book made up of sheets of paper folded twice to form four leaves of equal size, or eight pages.) Scholars have distinguished the quarto editions of these plays as being either good quartos or bad quartos. A good quarto was one which was printed from an authoritative, reliable manuscript. Bad quartos were those which contained textual inaccuracies, such as unintelligible language, omissions, repeated lines, inaccurate speech headings, and other types of defects. Shakespearean scholars attribute these types of problems to a couple of possible causes. One theory is that the text of bad quartos was based on the memory of an actor or group of actors who had performed in the play. Another theory is that the text was composed by people who wrote down the play, or transcribed it, as it was being performed. When the First Folio was compiled, it is believed that quarto editions of the plays were in some cases reprinted with a few minor modifications. In other cases the quartos were revised using some form of authoritative manuscript, for example, Shakespeare's original manuscript (often referred to as the "foul papers") or a prompt book, or version of the play used by the actors. (Prompt books were usually transcribed from a playwright's foul papers.)
The second collected edition of Shakespeare's plays, or the Second Folio, was published in 1632. It is primarily a reprint of the First Folio, but a number of changes were made in order to modernize spelling and correct stage directions and names. The Third Folio was published in 1663 and it contained corrections to the text of the Second Folio but also introduced errors not found in earlier editions. The Third Folio was reprinted in 1664 and included seven new plays. One of these plays, Pericles, is generally accepted as Shakespeare's work (though some believe another dramatist may have collaborated). The other six plays were not considered by later editors to be Shakespeare's. A Fourth Folio was published in 1685 and was the last of the folio editions of the plays. This edition introduced new errors as well as some modernization of the text.
For Futher Study
Alexander, Peter. Shakespeare's Life and Art. New York: New York University Press, 1961.
Bentley, Gerald E. Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Bindoff, Stanley T. Tudor England. Middlesex, UK: Penguin Press, 1964.
Bradbrook, Muriel C. Artist and Society in Shakespeare's England. Brighton, UK: Harvester Press, 1982.
Buxton, John. Elizabethan Taste. London: MacMillan, 1963.
Chute, Marchette. Shakespeare of London. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1949.
Elton, Geoffrey R. England under the Tudors. London: Methuen, 1955.
Fraser, Russell. Shakespeare: The Later Years. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
Halliday, Frank E. Shakespeare in His Age. London: Duckworth, 1956.
Holmes, Nathaniel. The Authorship of Shakespeare. New York: Houghton, 1886.
Reese, Max M. Shakespeare: His World and His Work. London: Arnold, 1953.
Wilson, J. Dover. Life in Shakespeare's England. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, Rev.Ed., 1959.
Wilson, J. Dover. The Essential Shakespeare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1967.
Chronology of Shakespeare's Works
Note: All dates are based on The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed., 1997.
1 Henry VI 1589–92
2 Henry VI 1590–91
3 Henry VI 1590–92
Richard III 1591–93
Venus and Adonis 1592–93
The Comedy of Errors 1592–94
Titus Andronicus 1593–94
The Rape of Lucrece 1593–94
The Taming of the Shrew 1593–94
The Two Gentlemen of Verona 1594
Love’s Labor’s Lost 1594
King John 1594–96
Richard II 1595
Romeo and Juliet 1595
A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1595–96
Henry IV, Part 1 1596
The Merchant of Venice 1596–97
Henry IV, Part 2 1596–97
The Merry Wives of Windsor 1597
Much Ado About Nothing 1598–99
Henry V 1599
Julius Caesar 1599
As You Like It 1599–1600
The Phoenix and Turtle 1601
Twelfth Night 1601–02
Troilus and Cressida 1601–02
All’s Well That Ends Well 1602–03
A Lover’s Complaint 1602–08
Measure for Measure 1604
King Lear 1605
Antony and Cleopatra 1606–07
Timon of Athens 1607–08
The Tempest 1610–11
The Winter’s Tale 1611
Henry VIII 1613
The Two Noble Kinsmen 1613
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Like many commoners who lived and died during the Renaissance, William Shakespeare left only a meager record on which scholars have been able to make inferences about his life both in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon and in London. Nevertheless, painstaking research of available church and civic records has allowed biographers to construct a reasonable portrait of the man commonly considered the greatest English writer and one of the world’s most significant literary artists. The documentary record, collected and analyzed painstakingly in scholarly monographs such as Samuel Schoenbaum’s William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975), suggests Shakespeare led a comfortable middle-class life, marketing his plays and...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
William Shakespeare was born in the provincial town of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and died there in 1616. He spent most of his adult life in the London theaters and quickly attained a reputation as a dramatist, actor, and poet. Shakespeare’s company prospered under the reign of James I, and by the time of his retirement from playwrighting about 1612, Shakespeare had acquired a respectable fortune. His career as a poet, distinct from his more public career as a dramatist, was probably confined to perhaps a decade, between 1591 and 1601, although the sonnets were later collected and published (perhaps without his permission) in 1609. Because of the absurd controversies that grew, mainly in the nineteenth century, about whether...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
William Shakespeare, greatest of English poets and dramatists, was born at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and died there in 1616. Biographical information about him is scant, and much must be inferred from brief references to him by his contemporaries and from various church and civil records and documents regarding performance of his plays. His parents were John and Mary Arden; his father was a respectable middle-class businessman. Young William Shakespeare probably attended grammar school in Stratford (a small city in western England), where he apparently received a fundamental education in Christian ethics, rhetoric, and classical literature. Although he did not attend a university, his plays indicate his familiarity with ancient and...
(The entire section is 1231 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
William Shakespeare’s status as an artist is succinctly captured in the opening line of Matthew Arnold’s sonnet dedicated to the dramatist: “Others abide our question; thou alone art still.” Although eighteenth century writers, critics, and playgoers found his work too artificial, too complicated, and too much given to extravagant wit and wordplay, since the nineteenth century he has been accorded primacy of place among English writers of all genres. Even in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, when new critical approaches to literature caused serious revision in the reputation of many other writers, Shakespeare remained universally revered as a writer of the first order, able to bring to life fictional...
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William Shakespeare’s exact birthdate is unknown, but he was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, the eldest son of John Shakespeare, a glove maker and wool merchant, and his wife, Mary Arden, the daughter of a prominent landowner. Details of Shakespeare’s early life are conjectural, since no records exist. He probably attended the local grammar school and may have studied there until the age of sixteen, during which time he would have received a thorough grounding in the Latin classics. Documents show that in 1592, at age eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior. The following year, Shakespeare’s first child, Susanna, was born. Two years later came twins, Judith and Hamnet.
Sometime in the mid-1580s, Shakespeare left Stratford and eventually came to London. Legend has it that he was forced to flee his hometown because he was caught poaching deer, but this cannot be verified. Nothing is known for certain of this period of Shakespeare’s life until 1592. In that year, Robert Greene, a university-educated playwright, warned his friends of an “upstart crow,” an actor who had turned to playwriting and was “in his own conceit the only Shakes-scene in a country.” It is clear from this reference that Shakespeare had already made an impact on the London theatre business.
Within two years, Shakespeare published two long poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). It was also during this period, perhaps 1592 to 1595, that the sonnets were probably written. Shakespeare’s chief work, however, was for the theatre. In 1594, he was a charter member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which became the King’s Men in 1603. Shakespeare continued to act as well as write. The roles he played are not known, although legend has it that he played the ghost in Hamlet and the servant, Adam, in As You Like It. He also acted in two of Ben Jonson’s plays.
Shakespeare was also, it appears from the records, an astute businessman. From 1599, he held a one-tenth interest in the Globe Theatre, where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed and therefore had an influence on the policy of the company. He prospered financially, making investments in Stratford real estate. These included the purchase of New Place, the second largest house in town, in 1597.
Shakespeare remained a member of the same theatrical company until his retirement to Stratford in about 1612. Over a period of twenty years he had become the most popular playwright in London, writing a total of thirty-seven plays.
Shakespeare died in Stratford on April 23, 1616, and was buried within the chancel of the Holy Trinity church.
William Shakespeare (1564–1616) is generally considered to be the greatest playwright and poet that has ever lived. His appeal is universal and his works have been translated, read, and analyzed throughout the world. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, many poems, and 37 plays which have been grouped into comedies, histories, and tragedies.
Shakespeare’s plays combine natural human conflict with dramatic flair producing entertainment that appeals to the audiences of today as well as the audiences for which they were written. Shakespeare understood human nature, and he created characters that portrayed human tragedy and human comedy. Some of his characters were fantastic and unworldly, yet they brought to the stage the...
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The Life and Work of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare (1564–1616) is perhaps the most widely read English poet and dramatist in the world. His plays and poems have been translated into every major language, and his popularity, nearly 400 years after his death, is greater now than it was in his own lifetime. Yet very little is known about his personal and professional life.
He was born in Stratford-on-Avon, a rural town in War¬wick¬shire, England. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but he was baptized in Holy Trinity Church on April 26, 1564, and was probably born on April 23. His father, John Shakespeare, was a leather tanner, glover, alderman, and bailiff in the town. His mother,...
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