William Sleator is noted for his popular and suspenseful science fiction and fantasy for young adults. And like many of his other books,...
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Article abstract: The leading playwright in the great flowering of Renaissance English drama, Shakespeare created some of the world’s most enduring literary and dramatic masterpieces.
William Shakespeare was descended from tenant farmers and landed gentry; one of his 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, and chamberlain; 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 studies—grammar and readings drilled into the schoolboys year after year. The Avon River, the surrounding farmlands, and the nearby Forest of Arden offered plenty of opportunities for childhood recreations.
When Shakespeare was a teenager, his family fell on hard times. His father stopped attending town council meetings in 1577, and the family’s fortunes began declining. Matters were not improved in 1582 when Shakespeare, at the age of eighteen, hastily married Anne Hathaway, the twenty-six-year-old daughter of a farmer from the nearby village of Shottery; she presented him with a daughter, named Susanna, approximately five months later. In 1585, the couple also became the parents of twins, Hamnet and Judith. As was then customary, the young couple probably lived in his parents’ home, which must have seemed increasingly crowded.
The next mention of Shakespeare is in 1592, when he was an actor and playwright in London. His actions during the seven-year interim have been a matter of much curious speculation, including unproved stories of deer poaching, soldiering, and teaching. It may have taken him those seven years simply to break into and advance in the London theater. His early connections with the theater are unknown, although he was an actor before he became a playwright. He might have joined one of the touring companies that occasionally performed in Stratford-upon-Avon, or he might have gone directly to London to make his fortune, in either the theater or some other trade. Shakespeare was a venturesome and able young man who had good reasons to travel—his confining family circumstances, tinged with just enough disgrace to qualify him to join the disreputable players. The theater was his escape to freedom; he therefore had strong motivation to succeed.
The London theater, in Shakespeare’s day, was composed of companies of men and boys (women were not allowed on the Renaissance English stage but were played by young men or boys) who performed in public playhouses roughly modeled on old innyards. The theaters were open to the air, had balconies surrounding the pit and stage, and held from two to three thousand people. A group known as the University Wits—John Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, and Christopher Marlowe—dominated the drama. Shakespeare learned his art by imitating these Oxford and Cambridge men, but for him they were a difficult group to join. They looked down on most actors and on playwrights, such as Thomas Kyd, who had not attended a university. Shakespeare offended on both counts, and Robert Greene expressed his resentment in the posthumously published book Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592), which included a famous warning to three fellow “gentlemen” playwrights:
Yes, trust them [the players] not: for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapt 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.
Greene’s literary executor, Henry Chettle, later printed an apology for this slur on Shakespeare, with its pun on his name and its parody of a line from Henry VI, Part III. Upon meeting him, Chettle found Shakespeare’s “demeanor no less civil than he, excellent in the quality he professes. Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art.”
Actually, Greene’s judgment of Shakespeare’s early work is more accurate. The early plays are far from excellent; they include some of the most slavish imitations in Renaissance English drama, as Shakespeare tried his hand at the various popular modes. The interminable three-part history play Henry VI (1589-1592) makes, as Greene notes, bombastic attempts at Marlowe’s powerful blank verse. In The Comedy of Errors (c. 1592-1594), based on Plautus’ Menaechmi, and in the Senecan tragedy Titus Andronicus (c. 1593-1594), Shakespeare showed his ability to copy Roman models down to the smallest detail, even if he did lack a university degree. Apparently, he also lacked confidence in his own imagination and learned slowly. Richard III (c. 1592-1593), however, showed promise in the malignant character of Richard, while The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1593-1594) offered its rambunctious love-fight.
Despite their imitative nature and many other faults, Shakespeare’s early plays—notably Henry VI—were popular onstage, but his greatest early popularity came from two long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Shakespeare wrote these two poems during the two years that the plague closed down the London theaters. He dedicated the poems to a patron, the young Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, who may have granted him a substantial monetary reward in return. In any event, when the theaters reopened in 1594 the acting companies were almost decimated financially, but Shakespeare was in a position to buy or otherwise acquire a partnership in one of the newly reorganized companies, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Henceforth, Shakespeare earned money not only from the plays he had written or in which he acted but also from a share of the profits of every company performance. The financial arrangement seemed to inspire his creative efforts, for he set about writing the plays that made him famous, beginning with Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595-1596) and going on to the great history plays and comedies, including Richard II (c. 1595-1596), the two-part Henry IV (c. 1597-1598), Henry V (c. 1598-1599), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595-1596), The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-1597), Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598-1599), As You Like It (c. 1599-1600), and Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (c. 1601-1602).
At about the time Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, he probably also began his great sonnet sequence, not published until 1609. The 154 sonnets, tracing a friendship with a young man and a romance with a “dark lady,” raise the question of how Shakespeare lived when he was away from Stratford, where his wife and children presumably remained. The young man might be a patron—perhaps Wriothesley, though other names have also been proposed—and the “dark lady” strictly imaginary, created to overturn the sonnets’ trite Petrarchan conventions. Other speculations favor a more personal interpretation, seeing an actual ménage à trois of the poet, the young man, and the “dark lady.” All the questions raised by the sonnets remain open, and the only evidence about how Shakespeare spent his spare time in London indicates that he sometimes frequented taverns (notably the Mermaid) with his fellow playwrights and players.
Evidence also indicates that he remained in close contact with Stratford-upon-Avon, to which he probably returned as frequently as possible. He used his earnings from the theater to install himself as the town’s leading citizen, buying New Place as a family residence in 1597 and thereafter steadily amassing other land and property. In 1596, his father was granted a hereditary coat of arms and thus became a gentleman, a status he had never achieved on his own. Unfortunately, also in 1596, Shakespeare suffered a setback when his son, Hamnet, died at the age of eleven. His affection for his two remaining children, Susanna and Judith, may be reflected in the witty, saucy, but lovable heroines of his great comedies.
Shakespeare’s company in London prospered. In 1599, it stopped renting theaters and built its own, the Globe, which increased company profits. The company was a favorite of the reigning monarchs, who paid well for special performances at court—first Elizabeth I, then after 1603, James I, who loved the theater even more and renamed Shakespeare’s company the King’s Men. The company also began performing most of the plays of Ben Jonson, who ranked second only to Shakespeare and who excelled at satiric comedy. Shakespeare turned to tragedy, first writing Julius Caesar (c. 1599-1600) and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c. 1600-1601) and then—one after another—Othello, the Moor of Venice (c. 1604-1605), King Lear (c. 1605-1606), Macbeth (c. 1605-1606), and Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606-1607).
Yet even during this period—perhaps the high point in the history of world drama—Shakespeare’s company had its problems. One was the competition of the boys’ companies which performed in the private theaters—small indoor theaters that charged higher admission and appealed to a more exclusive audience than the public theaters. In 1608, the King’s Men acquired one of the private theaters, the Blackfriars, plus the services of two playwrights who wrote for it, the collaborators Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. With their light, witty comedy and melodramatic tragicomedy, represented by such plays as The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607), Philaster: Or, Love Lies A-Bleeding (1608-1610), and A King and No King (1611), Beaumont and Fletcher introduced a new cavalier style into Renaissance English drama that ultimately eclipsed even Shakespeare’s popularity and perhaps hurried his retirement. It is uncertain whether they or Shakespeare introduced tragicomedy, but Shakespeare’s final complete plays are in this fashionable new mode: Pericles, Prince of Tyre (c. 1608-1609), Cymbeline (c. 1609-1610), The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610-1611), and The Tempest (c. 1611-1612). After Beaumont married an heiress and stopped writing plays in 1612 or 1613, Shakespeare collaborated with Fletcher, and possibly others, on Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Cardenio (now lost), all performed during 1612-1613.
By 1608, when his productivity dropped to one play per year, Shakespeare may have spent part of each year in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1607, his elder daughter had married Dr. John Hall, the local physician, and in 1608, with the birth of their daughter, Elizabeth, Shakespeare became a grandfather. Around 1613, he retired completely to Stratford-upon-Avon, though he also joined John Heminge, a partner in the King’s Men, and William Johnson, the host of the Mermaid Tavern, in purchasing the gatehouse of the Blackfriars priory, probably for London visits. On February 10, 1616, his younger daughter, Judith, at the age of thirty-one, married Thomas Quiney, a member of another prominent Stratford family. On March 25, 1616, Shakespeare made out his last will and testament, leaving most of his estate to Susanna, a substantial amount of money to Judith, and his “second best bed” to Anne. He died on April 23, 1616, and was buried in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.
In 1623, Shakespeare’s surviving partners in the King’s Men, John Hemings and Henry Condell, published the First Folio collection of his plays. The portrait included in the First Folio depicts Shakespeare with a short mustache, large staring eyes, and an oval face accentuated by his high, balding forehead and the remaining hair that almost covers his ears. The bust erected above his grave is similar, except that he has a goatee and the balding has progressed further. The First Folio portrait resembles a soulful intellectual, while the Stratford bust suggests a prominent burgher.
The two portraits of William Shakespeare portray the two parts of his nature. On the one hand, he possessed immense intellectual curiosity about the motives and actions of people. This curiosity, plus his facility with language, enabled him to write his masterpieces and to create characters who are better known than some important figures in world history. On the other hand, reflecting his middle-class background, Shakespeare was himself motivated by strictly bourgeois instincts; he was more concerned with acquiring property and cementing his social position in Stratford than he was with preserving his plays for posterity. If his partners had not published the First Folio, there would be no Shakespeare as he is known today: still acted and enjoyed, the most widely studied and translated writer, the greatest poet and dramatist in the English and perhaps any language.
Besides his ability to create a variety of unforgettable characters, there are at least two other qualities that account for Shakespeare’s achievement. One of these is his love of play with language, ranging from the lowest pun to some of the world’s best poetry. His love of language sometimes makes him difficult to read, particularly for young students, but frequently the meaning becomes clear in a well-acted version. The second quality is his openness, his lack of any restrictive point of view, ideology, or morality. Shakespeare was able to embrace, identify with, and depict an enormous range of human behavior, from the good to the bad to the indifferent. The capaciousness of his language and vision thus help account for the universality of his appeal.
Shakespeare’s lack of commitment to any didactic point of view has often been deplored. Yet he is not entirely uncommitted; rather, he is committed to what is human. Underlying his broad outlook is Renaissance Humanism, a synthesis of Christianity and classicism that is perhaps the best development of the Western mind and finds its best expression in his work. This same generous outlook was apparently expressed in Shakespeare’s personality, which, like his bourgeois instincts, defies the Romantic myth of the artist. He was often praised by his fellows, but friendly rival and ferocious satirist Ben Jonson said it best: “He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature,” and “He was not of an age, but for all time.”
Alexander, Peter. Shakespeare’s Life and Art. London: Nisbet, 1939, reprint 1961. A short but much-admired critical biography, treating Shakespeare’s life in relation to his work.
Bradbrook, Muriel C. Shakespeare, the Poet in His World. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978. An excellent study by one of the leading scholars and critics of Renaissance English drama.
Chute, Marchette. Shakespeare of London. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1949. The most readable and accurate of the popular biographies. Based on documents contemporary to Shakespeare.
Frye, Roland Mushat. Shakespeare’s Life and Times: A Pictorial Record. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. Introduces the most important information about Shakespeare through 114 illustrations and captions of one to three paragraphs each.
Halliday, F.E. Shakespeare and His World. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956. Another short introduction containing the essential facts and 151 illustrations.
Quennell, Peter. Shakespeare: A Biography. New York: World Publishing Co., 1963. Another fine critical biography, scholarly and readable.
Reese, M.M. Shakespeare: His World and His Work. Rev. ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. A full, well-written introduction to Shakespeare’s life, the drama which preceded his, the Elizabethan stage, and his art.
Schoenbaum, Samuel. Shakespeare’s Lives. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Not a biography per se, but rather an evaluation of the portraits of Shakespeare, the contemporary references, the legends, and the many biographies written about him up to 1970. Fascinating but dense reading. An important scholarly reference work.
Schoenbaum, Samuel. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. A scholarly biography that scrupulously examines the facts, documents, and myths of Shakespeare’s life, supported by the author’s considerable knowledge of previous biographies.