WILLIAM SHAKESPEARESynopsisWilliam Shakespeare was baptized April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon,England. From roughly 1594 onward he was an important member of theLord Chamberlain’s Men Company of theatrical players. Written records givelittle indication of the way in which Shakespeare’s professional life moldedhis artistry. All that can be deduced is that over the course of 20 years,Shakespeare wrote plays that capture the complete range of human emotionand conflict.Mysterious OriginsKnown throughout the world, the works of William Shakespeare have beenperformed in countless hamlets, villages, cities and metropolises for morethan 400 years. And yet, the personal history of William Shakespeare issomewhat a mystery. There are two primary sources that provide historianswith a basic outline of his life. One source is his work--the plays, poems andsonnets--and the other is official documentation such as church and court
records. However, these only provide brief sketches of specific events in hislife and provide little on the person who experienced those events.Early LifeThough no birth records exist, church records indicate that a WilliamShakespeare was baptized at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon onApril 26, 1564. From this, it is believed he was born on or near April 23,1564, and this is the date scholars acknowledge as William Shakespearesbirthday.Located 103 miles west of London, during Shakespeares time Stratford-upon-Avon was a market town bisected with a country road and the RiverAvon. William was the third child of John Shakespeare, a leather merchant,and Mary Arden, a local landed heiress. William had two older sisters, Joanand Judith, and three younger brothers, Gilbert, Richard and Edmund.Before Williams birth, his father became a successful merchant and heldofficial positions as alderman and bailiff, an office resembling a mayor.However, records indicate Johns fortunes declined sometime in the late1570s.Scant records exist of Williams childhood, and virtually none regarding hiseducation. Scholars have surmised that he most likely attended the KingsNew School, in Stratford, which taught reading, writing and the classics.Being a public officials child, William would have undoubtedly qualified forfree tuition. But this uncertainty regarding his education has led some toraise questions about the authorship of his work and even about whether ornot William Shakespeare ever existed.
Married LifeWilliam Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway on November 28, 1582, inWorcester, in Canterbury Province. Hathaway was from Shottery, a smallvillage a mile west of Stratford. William was 18 and Anne was 26, and, as itturns out, pregnant. Their first child, a daughter they named Susanna, wasborn on May 26, 1583. Two years later, on February 2, 1585, twins Hamnetand Judith were born,Hamnet later died of unknown causes at age 11.After the birth of the twins, there are seven years of William Shakespeareslife where no records exist. Scholars call this period the "lost years," andthere is wide speculation on what he was doing during this period. Onetheory is that he might have gone into hiding for poaching game from thelocal landlord, Sir Thomas Lucy. Another possibility is that he might havebeen working as an assistant schoolmaster in Lancashire. It is generallybelieved he arrived in London in the mid- to late 1580s and may have foundwork as a horse attendant at some of Londons finer theaters, a scenarioupdated centuries later by the countless aspiring actors and playwrights inHollywood and Broadway.Theatrical Beginnings in LondonBy 1592, there is evidence William Shakespeare earned a living as an actorand a playwright in London and possibly had several plays produced. In theSeptember 20, 1592 edition of the Stationers Register (a guild publication),there is an article by London playwright Robert Greene that takes a few jabsat William Shakespeare:"...there [William Shakespeare] is an upstart Crow, beautified with ourfeathers, that with his Tigers heart wrapped in a Players hide, supposes heis as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an
absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in acountry."Scholars differ on the interpretation of this criticism, but most agree that itwas Greenes way of saying Shakespeare was reaching above his rank,trying to match better known and educated playwrights like ChristopherMarlowe, Thomas Nashe or Greene himself.By the early 1590s, documents show William Shakespeare was a managingpartner in the Lord Chamberlains Men, an acting company in London. Afterthe crowning of King James I, in 1603, the company changed its name tothe Kings Men. From all accounts, the Kings Men company was verypopular, and records show that Shakespeare had works published and soldas popular literature. The theater culture in 16th-century England was nothighly admired by people of high rank. However, many of the nobility weregood patrons of the performing arts and friends of the actors. Early in hiscareer, Shakespeare was able to attract the attention of Henry Wriothesley,the Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his first published poems"Venus and Adonis" (1593) and "The Rape of Lucrece" (1594).Establishing HimselfBy 1597, William Shakespeare had published 15 of the 37 plays attributed tohim. Civil records show that at this time he purchased the second largesthouse in Stratford, called New House, for his family. It was a four-day rideby horse from Stratford to London, so it is believed that Shakespeare spentmost of his time in the city writing and acting and came home once a yearduring the 40-day Lenten period, when the theaters were closed.By 1599, William Shakespeare and his business partners built their owntheater on the south bank of the Thames River, which they called the Globe.
In 1605, Shakespeare purchased leases of real estate near Stratford for 440pounds, which doubled in value and earned him 60 pounds a year. Thismade him an entrepreneur as well as an artist, and scholars believe theseinvestments gave him the time to write his plays uninterrupted.Writing StyleWilliam Shakespeares early plays were written in the conventional style ofthe day, with elaborate metaphors and rhetorical phrases that didnt alwaysalign naturally with the storys plot or characters. However, Shakespearewas very innovative, adapting the traditional style to his own purposes andcreating a freer flow of words. With only small degrees of variation,Shakespeare primarily used a metrical pattern consisting of lines ofunrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse, to compose his plays. At thesame time, there are passages in all the plays that deviate from this and useforms of poetry or simple prose.Early Works: Histories and ComediesWith the exception of "Romeo and Juliet," William Shakespeares first playswere mostly histories written in the early 1590s. "Richard II" and "HenryVI," parts 1, 2, and 3 and "Henry V" dramatize the destructive results ofweak or corrupt rulers and have been interpreted by drama historians asShakespeares way of justifying the origins of the Tudor dynasty.Shakespeare also wrote several comedies during his early period: the wittyromance "A Midsummer Nights Dream," the romantic "Merchant of Venice,"the wit and wordplay of "Much Ado About Nothing," the charming "As YouLike It," and Twelfth Night. Other plays, possibly written before 1600, were"Titus Andronicus," "The Comedy of Errors," "The Taming of the Shrew" and"The Two Gentlemen of Verona."
Later Works: Tragedies and TragicomediesIt was in William Shakespeares later period, after 1600, that he wrote thetragedies "Hamlet," "King Lear," "Othello" and "Macbeth." In these,Shakespeares characters present vivid impressions of human temperamentthat are timeless and universal. Possibly the best known of these plays is"Hamlet," with its exploration of betrayal, retribution, incest and moralfailure. These moral failures often drive the twists and turns ofShakespeares plots, destroying the hero and those he loves.In William Shakespeares final period, he wrote tragicomedies. Among theseare "Cymbeline," "The Winters Tale," and "The Tempest." Though graver intone than the comedies, they are not the dark tragedies of "King Lear" or"Macbeth" because they end with reconciliation and forgiveness.PoemsIn 1593 and 1594, when the theatres were closed because of plague,Shakespeare published two narrative poems on erotic themes, Venus andAdonis and The Rape of Lucrece. He dedicated them to Henry Wriothesley,Earl of Southampton. In Venus and Adonis, an innocent Adonis rejects thesexual advances of Venus; while in The Rape of Lucrece, the virtuous wifeLucrece is raped by the lustful Tarquin. Influenced by OvidsMetamorphoses,]the poems show the guilt and moral confusion that result from uncontrolledlust.Both proved popular and were often reprinted during Shakespeareslifetime. A third narrative poem, A Lovers Complaint, in which a youngwoman laments her seduction by a persuasive suitor, was printed in the firstedition of the Sonnets in 1609. Most scholars now accept that Shakespearewrote A Lovers Complaint. Critics consider that its fine qualities are marredby leaden effects. The Phoenix and the Turtle, printed in Robert Chesters1601 Loves Martyr, mourns the deaths of the legendary phoenix and his
lover, the faithful turtle dove. In 1599, two early drafts of sonnets 138 and144 appeared in The Passionate Pilgrim, published under Shakespearesname but without his permission.SonnetsPublished in 1609, the Sonnets were the last of Shakespeares non-dramaticworks to be printed. Scholars are not certain when each of the 154 sonnetswas composed, but evidence suggests that Shakespeare wrote sonnetsthroughout his career for a private readership. Even before the twounauthorised sonnets appeared in The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599, FrancisMeres had referred in 1598 to Shakespeares "sugred Sonnets among hisprivate friends".Few analysts believe that the published collection followsShakespeares intended sequence. He seems to have planned twocontrasting series: one about uncontrollable lust for a married woman ofdark complexion (the "dark lady"), and one about conflicted love for a fairyoung man (the "fair youth"). It remains unclear if these figures representreal individuals, or if the authorial "I" who addresses them representsShakespeare himself, though Wordsworth believed that with the sonnets"Shakespeare unlocked his heart".The 1609 edition was dedicated to a "Mr.W.H.", credited as "the only begetter" of the poems. It is not known whetherthis was written by Shakespeare himself or by the publisher, ThomasThorpe, whose initials appear at the foot of the dedication page; nor is itknown who Mr. W.H. was, despite numerous theories, or whetherShakespeare even authorised the publication. Critics praise the Sonnets as aprofound meditation on the nature of love, sexual passion, procreation,death, and time.
Influence on European and American literatureShakespeare is cited as an influence on a large number of writers in thefollowing centuries, including major novelists such as Herman Melville,Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner. Examples of thisinfluence include the large number of Shakespearean quotations throughoutDickens writings and the fact that at least 25 of Dickens titles are drawnfrom Shakespeare, while Melville frequently used Shakespearean devices,including formal stage directions and extended soliloquies, in Moby-Dick. Infact, Shakespeare so influenced Melville that the novels main antagonist,Captain Ahab, is a classic Shakespearean tragic figure, "a great man broughtdown by his faults." Shakespeare has also influenced a number of Englishpoets, especially Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wereobsessed with self-consciousness, a modern theme Shakespeare anticipatedin plays such as Hamlet. Shakespeares writings were so influential toEnglish poetry of the 1800s that critic George Steiner has called all Englishpoetic dramas from Coleridge to Tennyson "feeble variations onShakespearean themes.Influence on the English languageShakespeares writings greatly influenced the entire English language. Priorto and during Shakespeares time, the grammar and rules of English werenot standardized. But once Shakespeares plays became popular in the lateseventeenth and eighteenth century, they helped contribute to thestandardization of the English language, with many Shakespearean wordsand phrases becoming embedded in the English language, particularlythrough projects such as Samuel Johnsons A Dictionary of the EnglishLanguage which quoted Shakespeare more than any other writer. Heexpanded the scope of English literature by introducing new words and
phrases, experimenting with blank verse, and also introducing new poeticand grammatical structures. Plays Most playwrights of the period typically collaborated with others at some point, and critics agree that Shakespeare did the same, mostly early and late in his career. Some attributions, such as TitusAndronicus and the early history plays, remain controversial, while The TwoNoble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio have well-attested contemporarydocumentation. Textual evidence also supports the view that several of theplays were revised by other writers after their original composition.The first recorded works of Shakespeare are Richard III and the three partsof Henry VI, written in the early 1590s during a vogue for historical drama.Shakespeares plays are difficult to date, however, and studies of the textssuggest that Titus Andronicus, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of theShrew and The Two Gentlemen of Verona may also belong to Shakespeare’searliest period. His first histories, which draw heavily on the 1587 edition ofRaphael HolinshedsChronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, dramatisethe destructive results of weak or corrupt rule and have been interpreted asa justification for the origins of the Tudor dynasty. The early plays wereinfluenced by the works of other Elizabethan dramatists, especially ThomasKyd and Christopher Marlowe, by the traditions of medieval drama, and bythe plays of Seneca. The Comedy of Errors was also based on classicalmodels, but no source for The Taming of the Shrew has been found, thoughit is related to a separate play of the same name and may have derived froma folk story. Like The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which two friends appear
to approve of rape, the Shrews story of the taming of a womansindependent spirit by a man sometimes troubles modern critics anddirectors.Shakespeares early classical and Italianate comedies, containing tightdouble plots and precise comic sequences, give way in the mid-1590s to theromantic atmosphere of his greatest comedies.A Midsummer Nights Dreamis a witty mixture of romance, fairy magic, and comic lowlife scenes.Shakespeares next comedy, the equally romantic Merchant of Venice,contains a portrayal of the vengeful Jewish moneylender Shylock, whichreflects Elizabethan views but may appear derogatory to modern audiences.The wit and wordplay of Much Ado About Nothing, the charming rural settingof As You Like It, and the lively merrymaking of Twelfth Night completeShakespeares sequence of great comedies. After the lyrical Richard II,written almost entirely in verse, Shakespeare introduced prose comedy intothe histories of the late 1590s, Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Hischaracters become more complex and tender as he switches deftly betweencomic and serious scenes, prose and poetry, and achieves the narrativevariety of his mature work. This period begins and ends with two tragedies:Romeo and Juliet, the famous romantic tragedy of sexually chargedadolescence, love, and death; and Julius Caesar—based on Sir ThomasNorths 1579 translation of PlutarchsParallel Lives—which introduced a newkind of drama. According to Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro, in JuliusCaesar "the various strands of politics, character, inwardness, contemporaryevents, even Shakespeares own reflections on the act of writing, began toinfuse each other".In the early 17th century, Shakespeare wrote the so-called "problem plays"Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and Alls Well That Ends Well anda number of his best known tragedies. Many critics believe that
Shakespeares greatest tragedies represent the peak of his art. The titularhero of one of Shakespeares most famous tragedies, Hamlet, has probablybeen discussed more than any other Shakespearean character, especially forhis famous soliloquy which begins "To be or not to be; that is the question".Unlike the introverted Hamlet, whose fatal flaw is hesitation, the heroes ofthe tragedies that followed, Othello and King Lear, are undone by hastyerrors of judgement. The plots of Shakespeares tragedies often hinge onsuch fatal errors or flaws, which overturn order and destroy the hero andthose he loves. In Othello, the villain Iago stokes Othellos sexual jealousy tothe point where he murders the innocent wife who loves him. In King Lear,the old king commits the tragic error of giving up his powers, initiating theevents which lead to the torture and blinding of the Earl of Gloucester andthe murder of Lears youngest daughter Cordelia. According to the criticFrank Kermode, "the play offers neither its good characters nor its audienceany relief from its cruelty". In Macbeth, the shortest and most compressedof Shakespeares tragedies, uncontrollable ambition incites Macbeth and hiswife, Lady Macbeth, to murder the rightful king and usurp the throne, untiltheir own guilt destroys them in turn. In this play, Shakespeare adds asupernatural element to the tragic structure. His last major tragedies,Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, contain some of Shakespeares finestpoetry and were considered his most successful tragedies by the poet andcritic T. S. Eliot.In his final period, Shakespeare turned to romance or tragicomedy andcompleted three more major plays: Cymbeline, The Winters Tale and TheTempest, as well as the collaboration, Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Less bleakthan the tragedies, these four plays are graver in tone than the comedies ofthe 1590s, but they end with reconciliation and the forgiveness of potentiallytragic errors. Some commentators have seen this change in mood asevidence of a more serene view of life on Shakespeares part, but it may
merely reflect the theatrical fashion of the day. Shakespeare collaborated ontwo further surviving plays, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen,probably with John Fletcher.DeathTradition has it that William Shakespeare died on his birthday, April 23,1616, though many scholars believe this is a myth. Church records show hewas interned at Trinity Church on April 5, 1616.In his will, he left the bulk of his possessions to his eldest daughter,Susanna. Though entitled to a third of his estate, little seems to have goneto his wife, Anne, whom he bequeathed his "second-best bed." This hasdrawn speculation that she had fallen out of favor, or that the couple wasnot close. However, there is very little evidence the two had a difficultmarriage. Other scholars note that the term "second-best bed" often refersto the bed belonging to the households master and mistress--the maritalbed--and the "first-best bed" was reserved for guests.Controversy and Literary LegacyAbout 150 years after his death, questions arose about the authorship ofWilliam Shakespeares plays. Scholars and literary critics began to floatnames like Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere and Francis Bacon--men ofmore known backgrounds, literary accreditation, or inspiration--as the trueauthors of the plays. Much of this stemmed from the sketchy details ofShakespeares life and the dearth of contemporary primary sources. Officialrecords from the Holy Trinity Church and the Stratford government record
the existence of a William Shakespeare, but none of these attest to himbeing an actor or playwright.Skeptics also questioned how anyone of such modest education could writewith the intellectual perceptiveness and poetic power that is displayed inShakespeares works. Over the centuries, several groups have emerged thatquestion the authorship of Shakespeares plays.The most serious and intense skepticism began in the 19th century whenadoration for Shakespeare was at its highest. The detractors believed thatthe only hard evidence surrounding William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon described a man from modest beginnings who married youngand became successful in real estate. Members of the Shakespeare OxfordSociety (founded in 1957) put forth arguments that English aristocratEdward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the poemsand plays of "William Shakespeare," The Oxfordians cite de Veres extensiveknowledge of aristocratic society, his education, and the structuralsimilarities between his poetry and that found in the works attributed toShakespeare. They contend that William Shakespeare had neither theeducation nor the literary training to write such eloquent prose and createsuch rich characters.However, the vast majority of Shakespearean scholars contend that WilliamShakespeare wrote all his own plays. They point out that other playwrightsof the time also had sketchy histories and came from modest backgrounds.They contend that Stratfords New Grammar School curriculum of Latin andthe classics could have provided a good foundation for literary writers.Supporters of Shakespeares authorship arguethat the lack of evidenceabout Shakespeares life doesnt mean his life didnt exist. They point toevidence that displays his name on the title pages of published poems andplays. Examples exist of authors and critics of the time acknowledging
William Shakespeare as author of plays such as "The Two Gentlemen ofVerona,"The Comedy of Errors" and "King John." Royal records from 1601show that William Shakespeare was recognized as a member of the KingsMen theater company (formally known as the Chamberlains Men) and aGroom of the Chamber by the court of King James I, where the companyperformed seven of Shakespeares plays. There is also strong circumstantialevidence of personal relationships by contemporaries who interacted withShakespeare as an actor and a playwright.What seems to be true is that William Shakespeare was a respected man ofthe dramatic arts who wrote plays and acted in some in the late 16th andearly 17th centuries. But his reputation as a dramatic genius wasntrecognized until the 19th century. Beginning with the Romantic period of theearly 1800s and continuing through the Victorian period, acclaim andreverence for William Shakespeare and his work reached its height. In the20th century, new movements in scholarship and performance haverediscovered and adopted his works.Today, his plays are highly popular and constantly studied and reinterpretedin performances with diverse cultural and political contexts. The genius ofShakespeares characters and plots are that they present real human beingsin a wide range of emotions and conflicts that transcend their origins inElizabethan England.