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William Shakespeare

1564-1616

William Shakespeare

The playwright and poet William Shakespeare is widely considered to be the greatest writer of all time. He was born in April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, the son of John Shakespeare, a glover and a burgess of the borough, and Mary Arden, who came from an ancient family. Shakespeare was entitled to a place at the local grammar school because of his father's civic position and, while there are no written records of the school's pupils during Shakespeare's time, his works are in keeping with a solid grammar school education. Shakespeare would have spent nine hours a day year round being taught by Oxford-educated scholars at the Stratford School, which was known, like other schools of its time, as being strict and sometimes dull. Shakespeare's great contemporary and fellow dramatist, Ben Jonson, wrote that Shakespeare knew 'little Latin and less Greek', and this certainly fits well with the fact that Shakespeare did not go to University. In 1582, he married Anne Hathaway, a farmer's daughter from a neighboring village who was eight years his senior. Six months later, Shakespeare's first daughter, Susanna, was born. In 1585, Anne gave birth to twins, Judith and Hamnet.

Shakespeare's writing is generally divided into four periods: prior to 1594, 1594-1600, 1600-1608 and after 1608. His work demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of human nature, and he had the ability to create realistic characters and place them in the most strenuous, though still probable, circumstances and still have a convincing chain of events. While he liked to use magic in some of his plays, the vast majority of his writing involved true to life characters who used their intellectual abilities to rise above and defeat the problems that they faced or to struggle against them before finally succumbing. This further endeared Shakespeare to his patrons, especially as other dramatists of the Elizabethan era tended to create characters to which the audience could not easily relate. Shakespeare also had a command of a variety of subjects and professions, ranging from the law to petty thievery, making his characters and their trials all the more believable for his audiences. Add to this a profound poetic gift, and it is easy to see why Ben Jonson's belief that Shakespeare "was not of an age, but for all time," has proved to be accurate.

Shakespeare's writing likely began before the twins' births, but he was not immediately successful, and since no records of his life exist from the time of the twins' arrival to his debut in London, many people refer to this time as 'The Lost Years'. Some modern literary critics refer to this period as 'In the Workshop', alluding to the fact that Shakespeare was learning his craft at the time. Shakespeare arrived in London sometime in 1588, and his style of writing at this stage of his career had a more formal and less inventive construction than his later work and had a more conventional verse structure. Shakespeare wrote mainly comedies and histories during this time, and examples of his early works include Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III (which showed in both Stratford and London), The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew and Love's Labour's Lost. These first plays often borrowed plots from history, other Elizabethan dramatists and Roman writers. Because of this and his early successes, Robert Green, a 'university wit' and writer of the time, became jealous and accused Shakespeare of being an 'upstart crow, beautified with our feathers' in his pamphlet Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance, which attacked acting companies and Shakespeare in particular who, he believed, had abused the talents of university-educated playwrights, such as himself. Shakespeare apparently took exception to the publication, as Greene's editor, Henry Chettle, later wrote an apology for the incident. Despite the publication of Groatsworth in 1592, Shakespeare was making important friends, and he was becoming successful as an actor and a playwright.

An outbreak of plague meant that the theatres had to be closed, and they did not reopen until the summer of 1594. In the hope of spreading his name further, a mildly successful Shakespeare focused on poetry, which Elizabethans considered of far higher esteem than plays, writing The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, both of which brought him great popularity and saw many publications; he also began work on his sonnets. The plays he wrote during his second period, by some referred to as 'In the World' because of his popularity at the time, had taken on a highly definitive style that can only be called 'Shakespearian'. A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Henry V, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar are just a few examples of the success and diverse writing during this stage of his career.

By 1596, Shakespeare was the most celebrated playwright in all of London. He was part owner of a theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which was the source of most of his wealth. Whereas he had previously been either an actor or the featured playwright (and sometimes both) and had been paid only for those duties, he now was allotted a considerable portion of each play's performance monies in addition to those wages and royalties. The combination of the fine actors in the company and Shakespeare's writing resulted in unequivocal success. While with the company, in a short four-year period, he wrote five comedies, three histories and a tragedy, all of which riveted London. Shakespeare and his plays were so popular that the language used within them became both contemporary and modern clichés and part of the everyday vocabulary of those who saw his works performed.

In late 1596 came the dual shock of his father's demise and Hamnet's death of an unknown illness at the age of eleven, and Shakespeare's priority for the time became his family rather than his involvement with the theatre. After these sad events, he purchased one of the largest homes in Stratford, New Place, and held back nothing monetarily in its refurbishment so that his wife and daughters could move into a fine home. During this time, the Lord Chamberlain's Men began having troubles with their landlord and were forced to dismantle, relocate and rebuild their playhouse, newly called the Globe Theatre, on the south bank of the Thames in London. It was an open air theatre with the largest stage of the London theatres, tiered seating (a floor section for standing patrons, seats on the lower level, and a balcony), and could accommodate state of the art stage effects for the time; no other theatre could compare.

With a transition to the third period of his life, sometimes appropriately referred to as 'In the Dumps' because of his emotional state, Shakespeare rejoined his company and began writing again. After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, the theatre acquired a new and well-paying patron in her cousin and successor, King James I, who paid the company twice as much as Elizabeth had. The king's patronage and license gave the company leave to rename itself 'The King's Men - His Majesty's Servants'. James enjoyed the company's productions and saw them as many as thirteen times in one year, a vast difference from Elizabeth's three requests per annum, which were both record requests of any playwright by a monarch. Much of the writing done at this time, such as Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth, was of a darker tone with profound messages within, suggesting perhaps Shakespeare's lingering grief over the death of his son.

In 1608, the beginning of the end of Shakespeare's life, the King's Men acquired the competing Blackfriars Theatre and used the enclosed, indoor stage to perform during the winter while reserving the open-air Globe for summer showings. Shakespeare soon began to lessen his obligations with the company, and by 1612, his withdrawal from them was complete. Family events, such as his daughters' marriages and his mother's death, called him back to Stratford. He did not stop writing, however, producing among others The Winter's Tale and The Tempest during this time on his own and collaborating with John Fletcher on Henry VIII. The romantic tragicomedies of this period reflected pain and suffering during the bodies of the plays but they often had endings that brought about some form of redemption.

Shakespeare's work was not limited to the plays with which most people associate him. His poetry was, and is, also very popular. His remarkable sequence of 154 sonnets were in circulation among friends by 1598, but not published until 1609. Sonnets 1 to 126 explore the poet’s love for a beautiful youth whose identity is open to debate, but often believed to be the poet’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton. The first 17 of these concentrate on the transience of beauty, a standard Elizabethan theme, and urge the youth to marry so that his beauty may survive in his children. The remaining poems to the young man explore in more detail the difficulties of the relationship. Sonnets 127 to 154 are about Shakespeare’s relationship with a ‘Dark Lady’, an unfaithful mistress.

Shakespeare died on 23 April, 1616. His last direct descendant was a granddaughter by Susanna named Elizabeth who died in 1670, bringing an end to the family line. His works may well have been lost, too, if it were not for John Hemminge and Henry Condell, two of his friends and colleagues in The King's Men. They preserved his manuscripts and had them published in the First Folio of 1623; most subsequent editions of his texts have been based on this collection. Shakespeare was buried in the church where he had been christened in Stratford-on-Avon under a marker with no name, only this inscription, perhaps his own words:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones
And curst be he that moves my bones.



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