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William Shakespeare - Playwright

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Shakespeare surrounded by lines from Hamlet

William Shakespeare is traditionally said to have been born on 23 April, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. However, there is no record of his birth, so this date is merely speculation based partly upon the date of his baptism - 26 April, 1564. This is also a convenient date to choose as it is both St George's Day1 and the day on which Shakespeare would die 52 years later2. This date is now also recognised as National Poets Day.

Shakespeare was one of seven children born to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. His siblings were Joan, Margaret, Gilbert, Joan (named after the first-born, who died at an early age), Anne, Richard and Edmund. Joan and two other siblings died in childhood of a plague (hicincipit pestis) that came to Stratford in 1564, taking the lives of 200 people living within the town.

Hard Times

During Shakespeare's early adolescence, his father went through good and bad times. The elder Shakespeare succeeded at business and politics, becoming an Alderman in 1565. He proceeded to rise in the town's favour, to the Guild Hall, and would take a very important position in the church when the theatre came to perform in Stratford. John Shakespeare reached an even higher position in society by being elected Chief Alderman and applying to the College of Heralds for a coat of arms. Although designs were drawn up, they were never completed as he was replaced when one of his colleagues revealed that 'Mr Shaxpere doth not come to the halls when they do warn, nor hath not done for long time'. Shakespeare's father had fallen on hard times. To make ends meet he mortgaged some of his wife's inheritance. In 1582 he was attacked by four of his fellow citizens. Then in 1592 he was arrested by the Stratford authorities, along with eight other men, for keeping away from the church due to debt. Fortunately, his son recouped the family fortune in the newly established professional theatre.

School

William and his father were very differently educated - John merely made his mark on official documents instead of signing his name, suggesting that he may have been illiterate. His son, on the other hand, received some formal education in his childhood. However, unlike many other playwrights of his era such as Christopher Marlow, Shakespeare never attended university.

Although school records at this time have not survived, as Shakespeare's father was a man of substance and an Alderman, William would have probably attended King's New School in Stratford where he would have been taught for free.

At school, Shakespeare is most likely to have been taught Latin and possibly a little Greek as, during the Renaissance, emphasis was placed on increasing the linguistic skills of the students. There was also likely to be a great deal of emphasis placed on training students in public speaking. Within King's School, Shakespeare would also have been given exercises useful for a potential playwright or for writing speeches.

Marriage

In 1582, at the age of 18, Shakespeare was married to Anne Hathaway. Shakespeare's marriage to Anne - eight years his senior at the age of 26 - became a necessity after their relationship led to her pregnancy. Friends of her family procured - in haste - a marriage license from the Bishop of Worcester so that the marriage would not appear to be a spur of the moment reaction to the pregnancy, and at the end of November, 1582, William and Anne were married. There was good reason for their haste as on the 26 May, 1583, Susanna, their first child was born and three years later on the 2 February, 1585, twins Hamnet (1585-1596) and Judith were born.

Very little is known about this part of Shakespeare's life. Anne remains a shadowy figure and therefore little can be said about their marriage and the years they spent together. Shakespeare spent a great deal of time in London but it seems unlikely that Anne joined him there. He never considered London to be his home, and therefore it is not surprising that he kept his family in Stratford.

Lost Years

Between 1582 and 1592 very little is known about what Shakespeare did. All that is known for certain is that, in order to improve his career prospects, he managed to travel around a hundred miles to London from Stratford as it was easier to obtain a job in the theatre there. This was clearly an important move for Shakespeare as, because he was a poor man, to travel the hundred miles to London meant a four-day walk.

As little is known about this part of Shakespeare's life, there are still many unanswered questions:

  • How long after his marriage did he leave for London?

  • Did he linger in Stratford whilst attempting to save his family's fortune?

  • Was the Theatre his first career after arriving in London?

Many believe that he could have been a promising lawyer, sailor, soldier, school master or he may have set off with the intention to become an actor or playwright. These questions could have many answers but without being able to return to this time in Shakespeare's life we can't be sure exactly how he came to London or what he did there. All we can say is that Shakespeare worked and made his name there - almost everything else is speculation.

London and the Theatre

When Shakespeare came to London it was a huge, busy, very smelly and unpleasant city where disease and illness plagued the streets. London in Shakespeare's time was populated by only a few thousand people, but this was still nearly ten times bigger than the other large cities (like Norwich and Bristol). Despite this vast difference in size, London was considered England's demographic drain - people were dying faster than they were born. Only the influx of immigrants coming to London from all around the country sustained its population.

London was also a place where many activities were occurring, there were brothels and theatres (including The Rose3, The Swan and The Hope). In great halls of the Inns of Court, palaces and makeshift stages, theatre had been around London for years, but it was James Burbage who realised its potential and opened 'The Theatre' in 1576.

However, theatre wasn't made for the masses, but for the nobility of London society. The general public were only permitted the enjoyments of the theatre during the rehearsal time of the companies preparing for performances in front of the high society. The actors of the company were to be at the nobility's beck and call.

Public Quarantine

As Shakespeare arrived in London as an actor and a playwright he - most likely - stepped into the profession as an actor for the Lord Chamberlain's Men prior to becoming more exclusively a playwright in the late 1580s. This gave him a secure footing in the theatrical scene, but in 1593 the public showings of his plays came to an abrupt halt. Plague swept the city of London claiming thirty or more lives a week and in this year the dreaded plague-orders were issued by the Privy Council:

We think it fit that all manner of concourse
and public meetings of the people at plays,
bear-baitings, bowlings and other like
assemblies for sport be forbidden.

The theatres would not reopen until the winter of the following year, by which time 11,000 or more Londoners had perished. Poetry became Shakespeare's solace over the two years. He wrote dark and gruesome tales such as the lurid The Rape of Lucrece: he was trying to break into a completely different market. After the hiatus he didn't want to pursue a career in poetry, he simply wished to show how adaptable he could be, though he continued to write poetry, as the Sonnets prove.

The Globe Theatre

In 1599 the Globe Theater was assembled south of the Thames on Bankside, the noisy entertainment district of Elizabethan London. It was built from the timbers of the theater where Shakespeare formerly played, called 'The Theatre'. It was owned by a syndicate made of up of Richard and Cuthbert Burbage who shared in half the profits and expenses, and a group of actors, Shakespeare among them, who divided the other half between themselves.

The layout of the Globe itself was made so that nobility would be sitting in one of three galleries around the stage and yard4, and the groundlings5 would then only have standing room in the arena at the bottom of the playhouse, paying the princely sum of a penny for the privilege.

The Death of a Son and a Soul

It has been theorised, however, that after the reign of Elizabeth I and the beginning of the Jacobean era came Shakespeare's darkest period, despite being at the height of his fame and power. Most of his greatest tragedies belonging to this period (Macbeth, King Lear, Othello and Anthony and Cleopatra) as do a number of his more unsettling comedies (Measure for Measure). This sudden change of tone may have been the result of the just as sudden death of his only son Hamnet in 1596, which might have poisoned his view of life. Ironically, this despair-filled time in Shakespeare's life also produced plays that are considered to be among his greatest achievements.

Retirement

13 years and around 24 plays later, Shakespeare began to consider retirement, spending more and more time back in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1614 he wrote his final play - The Two Noble Kinsmen. There were to be no more plays and Shakespeare was to go back to living amongst the same families he'd grown up knowing.

On the 23 April, 1616, exactly 52 years from his birth, William Shakespeare died and his final preserved message was this:

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

The Plays

DatePlayGenreQuote
1590-1591The Two Gentlemen of VeronaComedyThey do not love that do not show their love.
1590-1591The Taming of the ShrewComedy'Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so.
1591The First Part of the Contention (Henry VI, Part Two)HistoryThe first thing we do, let's kill the lawyers.
1592Richard Duke of York (Henry VI, Part Three)History... wise men never sit and wail their loss,
but cheerily seek how to redress their harms.
1592Henry VI, Part OneHistorySearch out thy wit for secret policies,
And we will make thee famous through the world.
1592Titus AndronicusPoetryYou sad Andronici, have done with woes
Give sentences on this execrable wretch
That hath been breeder of these dire events.
1592-1593Richard IIIHistoryTrue hope in swift and flies with swallow's wings;
Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.
1592-1593Venus and AdonisPoetryLove comforteth like sunshine after rain.
1593-1594 The Rape of LucrecePoetryFrom the besieged Ardea all in post,
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust-breath├Ęd Tarquin leaves Roman host
And to Collatium bears the lightless fire
Which in pale embres hid, lurk to aspire
And girdle with embracing flames the waist
Of Collatine's fair love, Lucrece the chaste.
1594The Comedy of ErrorsComedyEre I learn love, I'll practise to obey.
1594-1595Love's Labour's LostComedyAjest's prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
Of him that makes it.
1595Richard IIHistoryAll places that the eye of heaven visits
Are to a wise man ports and happy havens.
Teach thy necessity to reason thus:
There is no virtue like necessity.
1595Romeo and JulietTragedyParting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.
1595A Midsummer Night's DreamComedyHere she comes, curst and sad
Cupid is a knavish lad,
Thus to make poor females mad.
1596 King JohnHistoryAnd oftentimes excusing of a fault doth
make the fault the worse by the excuse.
1596-1597The Merchant of VeniceComedyWith mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.
1596-1597Henry IV (Part One)HistoryIf all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they
wish'd-for come.
1597-1598The Merry Wives of WindsorComedyAs good luck would have it.
1597-1598 Henry IV (Part Two)HistoryIs it not strange that desire should so
many years outlive performance?'
1598Much Ado About NothingComedySigh no more, ladies, sigh no more!
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore;
To one thing constant never.
1598-1599Henry VHistoryMen of few words are the best men.
1599Julius CaesarHistoryThe evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.
1599-1600As You Like ItComedyAll the world's a stage.
1600-1601HamletTragedyNeither a borrower nor a lender be:
For loan oft loses both itself and friend'
1600-1601Twelfth NightComedyIf music be the food of love, play on.
1602Troilus and CressidaComedyThings won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing.
1593-1603The SonnetsPoetryShall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
1603-1604A Lover's ComplaintPoetryThese often bathed she in her fluxive eyes,
And often kissed, and often 'gan ro tear;
Cried 'O false blood, thou register of lies,
What unapproved witness dost thou bear!'.
1603Measure for MeasureComedyVirtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.
1603-1604 OthelloTragedyThe robbed that smiles steals something
from the thief.
1604-1605All's Well That Ends WellComedyPraising what is lost
makes the remembrance dear.
1605Timon of AthensTragedyIt is a pretty mocking of the life.
Here is a touch; is't good?
1605-1606 King LearTragedyNothing can come of nothing.
1606 MacbethTragedyMacbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill.
1606Antony and CleopatraTragedyThere's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd.
1607 Pericles, Prince or Tyre6RomanceFew love to her the sins they love to act.
1608 CoriolanusTragedyWould you have me
False to my nature? Rather say I play
The man I am.
1609 The Winter's TaleRomanceWhat's gone and what's past help
Should be past grief.
1610CymbelineRomanceFear no more the heat o' th' sun,
Nor the Furious winter's rage.
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta'en thy wages.
1611The TempestRomanceHow many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in't!
1613Henry VIII (All is True)HistoryMen's evil manners live in brass: their virtues
We write in water.
1613-1614The Two Noble KinsmenComedyThe Sun grows high, lets walk in: keep these flowers;
Weele see how neere Art can come neere their colours.
I am wondrous merry hearted, I could laugh now.

There are also three Lost Shakespeare plays, Edward III, Cardenio and Love's Labours Won, all of which were published in the first folio, but no copies remain. Love's Labours Won may be another name for The Taming of the Shrew, or it may be a reference to Much Ado About Nothing - which may have been in existence by 1598 - or possibly a play in its own right.

Accomplishments and Acknowledgments

In 1623 the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays, called the First Folio, was published. Printed in London by Isaac Jaggard and Ed Blount, its title is Mr William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. 36 plays are printed in it, including 18 which had never before been published. We owe Heminges and Condell, who collected and edited Shakespeare's works, an enormous debt of gratitude, as without them we may never have known of many of Shakespeare's masterpieces, such as Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, or The Tempest.

William Shakespeare was recently voted man of the Millennium, and is also regarded as the world's greatest playwright and poet. In his lifetime he wrote at least 37 plays, 154 sonnets and a number of other poems, all exceptional in their own right. Shakespeare not only wrote moving and insightful tragedies but had the ability to bring the same depth and emotion to his comedies and romances. However, what truly elevates this remarkable playwright to his revered place in history is that his plays continue to have relevance and resonance to this day and almost undoubtedly into the future. Shakespeare may have written his plays for audiences in the 1500s but they still speak profoundly to us in this new millennium, proving Shakespeare to have been a timeless, gifted writer.

Further Reading

1St George, the Patron Saint of England.2By speculating that Shakespeare was born on 23 April it creates symmetry with the playwright's death.3The line 'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet' in Romeo and Juliet may well have been a joke, because from the Globe theatre one could easily smell the lack of sanitation of the Rose theatre.4It is thought that the reason characters such as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream says 'I die, I die, I die', repeating himself three times, is so that he could say it to each part of the theatre, because, while it wasn't quite encircled, there was an audience around a lot of the stage.5Groundling - a spectator in the cheap standing-room section of an Elizabethan theatre.6This and three other plays, as shown in the table, are known as either 'Romance' or more commonly just 'The Later Plays'.

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