William Shakespeare

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At a Glance

William Shakespeare left school at age fifteen, and his contemporary Ben Jonson said Shakespeare had “little Latin and less Greek”—so it wasn't his training. It wasn't where he was born, either: 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 fifty-two. 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 one of the greatest writers in the English language.

Facts and Trivia

  • Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he was eighteen. She was eight years older and gave birth six months after the wedding—suggesting why they may have married due to a pregnancy.
  • 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.

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A Quick Introduction to William Shakespeare

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 10,148 words.)