William Shakespeare (1564–1616), `The Bard of Avon', English poet and playwright wrote the famous 154 Sonnets and numerous highly successful oft quoted dramatic works including the tragedy of the Prince of Denmark, Hamlet;
"Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!"
--Lord Polonius, Hamlet Act I, Scene 3
While Shakespeare caused much controversy, he also earned lavish praise and has profoundly impacted the world over in areas of literature, culture, art, theatre, and film and is considered one of the best English language writers ever. From the Preface of the First Folio (1623) "To the memory of my beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare: and what he hath left us"--Ben Jonson;
"Thou art a Moniment, without a tombe
And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live,
And we have wits to read, and praise to give."
Over the centuries there has been much speculation surrounding various aspects of Shakespeare's life including his religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sources for collaborations, authorship of and chronology of the plays and sonnets. Many of the dates of play performances, when they were written, adapted or revised and printed are imprecise. This biography attempts only to give an overview of his life, while leaving the more learned perspectives to the countless scholars and historians who have devoted their lives to the study and demystification of the man and his works.
England's celebration of their patron Saint George is on 23 April, which is also the day claimed to be the birth date of Shakespeare. Although birth and death dates were not recorded in Shakespeare's time, churches did record baptisms and burials, usually a few days after the actual event. The infant William was baptised on 26 April 1564 in the parish church Holy Trinity of Stratford upon Avon. He lived with his fairly well-to-do parents on Henley Street, the first of the four sons born to John Shakespeare (c1530-1601) and Mary Arden (c1540-1608), who also had four daughters. John Shakespeare was a local businessman and also involved in municipal affairs as Alderman and Bailiff, but a decline in his fortunes in his later years surely had an effect on William.
In his younger years ShShakespeare attended the Christian Holy Trinity church, the now famous elegant limestone cross shaped cathedral on the banks of the Avon river, studying the Book of Common Prayer and the English Bible. In 1605 he became lay rector when he paid ￡440 towards its upkeep, hence why he is buried in the chancel. Early on Shakespeare likely attended the Elizabethan theatrical productions of travelling theatre troups, come to Stratford to entertain the local official townsmen, including the Queen's Men, Worcester's Men, Leicester's Men, and Lord Strange's Men. There is also the time when Queen Elizabeth herself visited nearby Kenilworth Castle and Shakespeare, said to have been duly impressed by the procession, recreated it in some of his later plays.
Although enrolment registers did not survive, around the age of eleven Shakespeare probably entered the grammar school of Stratford, King's New School, where he would have studied theatre and acting, as well as Latin literature and history. When he finished school he might have apprenticed for a time with his father, but there is also mention of his being a school teacher. The next record of his life is in 1582, when still a minor at the age of eighteen and requiring his father's consent, Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway (1556–1623) married in the village of Temple Grafton. Baptisms of three children were recorded; Susanna (1583-1649), who went on to marry noted physician John Hall, and twins Judith (1585-1662) who married Richard Quiney, and Hamnet (1585-1596) his only son and heir who died at the age of eleven.
It is not exactly clear what Shakespeare was doing in the first few years after the marriage, but he did go to London and worked at The Globe theatre, possibly as one of the Queen's Men whose works were harshly anti Catholic in a time of rising Protestantism. He was writing poems and plays, and his involvement with theatre troupes and acting is disparagingly condemned in a 1592 pamphlet that was distributed in London, attributed to Robert Green the playwright titled "Groats Worth of Witte" haughtily attacking Shakespeare as an "upstart crow";
"Yes trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tyger's hart wrapped in a Player's hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Iohannes fac totum [Jack-of-all-trades, Master of none], is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey. O that I might entreate your rare wits to be employed in more profitable courses: & let these Apes imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions."
By 1593 the plague was haunting London and many who were able fled the teeming city for the cleansing airs of open country. While it was a time for many upstart theatres, the popular public entertainment of the day, they were often shut down and forbidden to open for stretches of time. Shakespeare probably spent these dark days travelling between London, Stratford, and the provinces, which gave him time to pen many more plays and sonnets. Among the first of his known printed works is the comedic and erotically charged Ovidian narrative poem Venus and Adonis (1593). It was wildly popular, dedicated with great esteem to his patron Henry Wriothesly, third earl of Southampton, the young man that some say Shakespeare may have had more than platonic affection for. It was followed by the much darker The Rape of Lucrece in 1594, The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599 and the allegorical The Phoenix and the Turtle (1601).
At this time of prolific writing, Shakespeare began his association until his death with The Lord Chamberlain's Men. With the accession of James I they became the King's Men, who bought and performed most of Shakespeare's plays. The troupe included his friend and actor Richard Burbage. They performed frequently at court, and in the theatres that Shakespeare was co-owner of including the Blackfriars, The Theatre, and The Globe in London until it burnt down during a performance of King Henry VIII. It is said that Shakespeare himself acted in a number of roles including the ghost in Hamlet and Old Adam in As You Like It. In the late 1590s he bought `New Place' on Chapel Street in Stratford, one of his many real estate investments.
Shakespeare wrote most of his plays as `quarto texts', that being on a sheet of paper folded four ways. A few of his plays were printed in his lifetime, though they appeared more voluminously after his death, sometimes plagiarised and often changed at the whim of the printer. First Folio would be the first collection of his dramatic works, a massive undertaking to compile thirty-six plays from the quarto texts, playbooks, transcriptions, and the memories of actors. The approximately nine hundred page manuscript took about two years to complete and was printed in 1623 as Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. It also featured on the frontispiece the famous engraved portrait of Shakespeare said to be by Martin Droeshout (1601-c1651).
Under the favour of the court The Kings' Men became the eminent company of the day. Most likely Anne and the children lived in Stratford while Shakespeare spent his time travelling between Stratford and London, dealing with business affairs and writing and acting. In 1616 his daughter Judith married Quiney who subsequently admitted to fornication with Margaret Wheeler, and Shakespeare took steps to bequeath a sum to Judith in her own name. William Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616, according to his monument, and lies buried in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford upon Avon. While there is little known of her life, Anne Hathaway outlived her husband by seven years, dying in 1623 and is buried beside him. It is not clear as to how or why Shakespeare died, but in 1664 the reverend John Ward, vicar of Stratford recorded that "Shakespeare, Drayton and Ben Johnson had a merie meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a feavour there contracted." His tombstone is inscribed with the following epitaph;
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare
To digg the dust encloased heare
Blessed by y man y spares hes stones
And curst be he y moves my bones
It is generally agreed that most of the Shakespearean Sonnets were written in the 1590s, some printed at this time as well. Others were written or revised right before being printed. 154 sonnets and "A Lover's Complaint" were published by Thomas Thorpe as Shake-speares Sonnets in 1609. The order, dates, and authorship of the Sonnets have been much debated with no conclusive findings. Many have claimed autobiographical details from them, including sonnet number 145 in reference to Anne. The dedication to "Mr. W.H." is said to possibly represent the initials of the third earl of Pembroke William Herbert, or perhaps being a reversal of Henry Wriothesly's initials. Regardless, there have been some unfortunate projections and interpretations of modern concepts onto centuries old works that, while a grasp of contextual historical information can certainly lend to their depth and meaning, can also be enjoyed as valuable poetical works that have transcended time and been surpassed by no other.
Evoking Petrarch's style and lyrically writing of beauty, mortality, and love with its moral anguish and worshipful adoration of a usually unattainable love, the first 126 sonnets are addressed to a young man, sonnets 127-152 to a dark lady. Ever the dramatist Shakespeare created a profound intrigue to scholars and novices alike as to the identities of these people.
Some probably inspired by Shakespeare's study of Lives (trans.1597) by Greek historian and essayist Plutarch and Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1587). Some are reworkings of previous stories, many based on English or Roman history. The dates given here are when they are said to have been first performed, followed by approximate printing dates in brackets, listed in chronological order of performance.
Titus Andronicus first performed in 1594 (printed in 1594),
Romeo and Juliet 1594-95 (1597),
Hamlet 1600-01 (1603),
Julius Caesar 1600-01 (1623),
Othello 1604-05 (1622),
Antony and Cleopatra 1606-07 (1623),
King Lear 1606 (1608),
Coriolanus 1607-08 (1623), derived from Plutarch
Timon of Athens 1607-08 (1623), and
Macbeth 1611-1612 (1623).
Shakespeare's series of historical dramas, based on the English Kings from John to Henry VIII were a tremendous undertaking to dramatise the lives and rule of kings and the changing political events of his time. No other playwright had attempted such an ambitious body of work. Some were printed on their own or in the First Folio (1623).
King Henry VI Part 1 1592 (printed in 1594);
King Henry VI Part 2 1592-93 (1594);
King Henry VI Part 3 1592-93 (1623);
King John 1596-97 (1623);
King Henry IV Part 1 1597-98 (1598);
King Henry IV Part 2 1597-98 (1600);
King Henry V 1598-99 (1600);
Richard II 1600-01 (1597);
Richard III 1601 (1597); and
King Henry VIII 1612-13 (1623)
Comedies, again listed in chronological order of performance.
Taming of the Shrew first performed 1593-94 (1623),
Comedy of Errors 1594 (1623),
Two Gentlemen of Verona 1594-95 (1623),
Love's Labour's Lost 1594-95 (1598),
Midsummer Night's Dream 1595-96 (1600),
Merchant of Venice 1596-1597 (1600),
Much Ado About Nothing 1598-1599 (1600),
As You Like It 1599-00 (1623),
Merry Wives of Windsor 1600-01 (1602),
Troilus and Cressida 1602 (1609),
Twelfth Night 1602 (1623),
All's Well That Ends Well 1602-03 (1623),
Measure for Measure 1604 (1623),
Pericles, Prince of Tyre 1608-09 (1609),
Cymbeline 1611-12 (1623),
Winter's Tale 1611-12 (1623).
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2006. All Rights Reserved.
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