William Shakespeare Additional Biography

Extended Introduction

I. Introduction
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...

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Tips for Reading Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Language
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 familiar with the poetic use of uncommon words. We must realize that during the 400-year span between Shakespeare’s time and our own, both the way we live and speak has changed. Although most of his vocabulary is in use today, some of it is obsolete, and what may be most confusing is that some of his words are used today, but with slightly different or totally different...

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Shakespeare Chronology

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...

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Shakespeare Biography

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...

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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...

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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...

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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....

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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...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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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(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical 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...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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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(Shakespeare for Students)

William Shakespeare Published by Gale Cengage

William Shakespeare’s exact birthdate is unknown, but he was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, the eldest son of John...

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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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