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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