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Shakespeare, William Biography

 
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

English poet, dramatist, and actor, considered by many to be the greatest dramatist of all time. Some of Shakespeare's plays, such as Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, are among the most famous literary works of the world. However, his early works did not match the artistic quality of Marlowe's dramas. Ben Jonson (1572-1637), another contemporary playwright, wrote that Shakespeare's "wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too". Shakespeare possessed a large vocabulary for his day, having used 29,066 different words in his plays. Today the average English-speaking person uses something like 2,000 words in everyday speech.

"It may be that the essential thing with Shakespeare is his ease and authority and thay you just have to accept him as he is if you are going to be able to admire him properly, in the way you accept nature, a piece of scenery for example, just as it is." (Ludwig Wittgenstein in Culture and Value, 1980)

There is not much records of Shakespeare´s personal life. Rumors arise from time to time that he did not write his plays, but the real author was Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth or Edward De Vere (1550-1604), whom T.J. Looney identified in 1920 as the author of Shakespeare's plays. A large body of 'Oxfordians' have since built on this claim and the reluctance to believe that a man of humble origins could be such a great author. According to some numerologists, Shakespeare wrote The King James Version of the Bible at the age of 46. Their "evidence": Shake is the 46th word of the 46th Psalm, Spear is the 46th word from the end in the 46th Psalm.

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small country town. Stratford was famous for its malting. The black plague killed in 1564 one out of seven of the town's 1,500 inhabitants. Shakespeare was the eldest son of Mary Arden, the daughter of a local landowner, and her husband, John Shakespeare (c. 1530-1601), a glover and wood dealer. John Aubrey (1626-1697) tells in Brief Lives that Shakespeare's father was a butcher and the young William exercised his father's trade, "but when he kill'd a Calfe he would do it in a high style, and make a speech." In 1568 John Shakespeare was made a mayor of Stratford and a justice of peace. His wool business failed in the 1570s, and in 1580 he was fined £40, with other 140 men, for failing to find surety to keep the peace. There is not record that his fine was paid. Later the church commissioners reported of him and eight other men that they had failed to attend church "for fear of process for debt". The family's position was restored in the 1590s by earnings of William Shakespeare, and in 1596 he was awarded a coat of arms.

Very little is known about Shakespeare early life, and his later works have inspired a number of interpretations. T.S. Eliot wrote that "I would suggest that none of the plays of Shakespeare has a "meaning," although it would be equally false to say that a play of Shakespeare is meaningless." (from Selected Essays, new edition, 1960). Shakespeare is assumed to have been educated at Stratford Grammar School, and he may have spent the years 1580-82 as a teacher for the Roman Catholic Houghton family in Lancashire. When Shakespeare was 15, a woman from a nearby village drowned in the Avon. Her death was ruled accidental but it may have been a suicide. Later in Hamlet Shakespeare left open the question whether Ophelia died accidentally or by her own hand. At the age of 18, Shakespeare married a local girl, Anne Hathaway (died 1623), who was eight years older. Their first child, Susannah, was born within six months, and twins Hamnet and Judith were born in 1585. Hamnet, Shakespeare's only son, died in 1896, at the age of 11. It has often been suggested, that the lines in King John, beginning with "Grief fills the room of my absent child", reflects Shakespeare's grief.

Hamlet was first printed in 1603. It is Shakespeare's largest drama, based on a lost play known as the Ur-Hamlet. Prince Hamlet, an enigmatic intellectual, mourns both his father's death and his mother's remarriage. His father's ghost appears to him and tells that Claudius, married to Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, poisoned him. Hamlet, fascinated by cruelly witty games, swears revenge. "The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!" He arranges an old play whose story has a parallel to that of Claudius. Hamlet's behavior is considered mad. He kills the eavesdropping Polonius, the court chamberlain, by thrusting his sword through a curtain. Polonius's son Laertes returns to Denmark to avenge his father's death. Polonius's daughter Ofelia loves Hamlet, but the prince's sadistically brutal behavior drives her to madness. "Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" he tells Ophelia who dies by drowning. Before the slaughter that ends the story, Hamlet says to his friend Horatio: "I shall win at the odds. But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart." A duel takes place and ends with the death of Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet, whose final words are "the rest is silence."

According to a legend, he left Stratford for London to avoid a charge of poaching. After 1582 Shakespeare probably joined as an actor one or several companies of players. By 1584 he emerged as a rising playwright in London, and became soon a central figure in London´s leading theater company, the Lord Chamberlain´s Company, renamed later as the King´s Men. He wrote many great plays for the group. In 1599 a new theater, called The Globe, was built.

Shakespeare was known in his day as a very rapid writer: "His mind and hand went together," his publishers Heminges and Condell reported, "and what he thought, he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers." Despite all the praise, some writer's were not enthusiastic about his plays. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) called A Midsummer Night's Dream "the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life." Voltaire wrote: "Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada," "Shakespeare is the Corneille of London, but everywhere else he is a great fool..." Shakespeare wrote also two heroic narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594). His sonnets were written earliest by 1598 and published in 1609. The sonnets refer cryptically to several persons, among them a handsome young man, a woman called the 'Dark Lady', and a rival poet. Shakespeare's name was also on the title page of The Passionate Pilgrim (1599), issued by the publisher William Jaggard. The identity of the brunette, who appreared in Shakespeare's later poems, has been a mystery. According to one theory, she was the Countess of Pembroke. George Bernard Shaw believed she was one of Elizabeth I's ladies-in-waiting, Mary Fritton. Some have thought she was the mother of Shakespeare's supposed illegitimate son, Henry Davenant. Or she might have been Marie Mountjoy, Shakespeare's London landlady, or the black prostitute Luce Morgan, or Emilia Bassano, the daughter of a court musician and mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Hunsdon. And there is a theory that the Dark Lady was not a "she" at all, but Shakespeare's patron Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.

"My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!"

(from Romeo and Juliet)

Romeo and Juliet was based on real lovers who lived in Verona, Italy, and died for each other in the year 1303. At that time the Capulets and Montagues were among the inhabitants of the town. Shakespeare found the tale in Arthur Brooke's poem 'The Tragical Historye of Romeus and Juliet' (1562). The play has inspired other works, such as Berlioz's dramatic symphony (1839), Tchaikovsky's fantasy-overture (1869-80), and Prokofiev's full-length ballet (1938). The Tempest, often considered Shakespeare's farewell to his theatrical art, has inspired Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, and Jean Sibelius, who wrote music for it in 1926.

About 1610 Shakespeare returned to his birthplace, where he had a house, called New Place. He lived as a country gentleman, drank beer, and co-wrote with John Fletcher The Two Noble Kinsmen, first published in 1634. A number of Shakespeare's plays were published during his lifetime, but none of the original dramatic manuscripts have survived. The original Globe burned down in 1613, but was rebuilt next year. Shakespeare's later plays were also performed at the Blackfriars Theatre, which was run by a seven-man syndicate. Shakespeare was one of its members. Shakespeare's company used the Globe in the summer and the indoor Blackfrian in the winter. Under the patronage of King James I, the company also performed at court, more often than during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The dramatist John Dennis (1657-1734) claimed, that The Merry Wives of Windsor was written at her command. Macbeth, with its witches and portrayal of the legendary ancestor of the Stuart kings, Banquo, had a special appeal to James. He had also written a book about demology.

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616. His widow was legally entitled to a third of the estate. Shakespeare also bequeathed his "second-best bed" to his wife - at that time the best bed was the grand prize of a forfeited estate. Anne Hathaway died seven years after her husband. Accroding to a story, she and her daughter wished to be buried in Shakespeare's grave.

In 1623 appeared a folio edition of Shakespeare's collected works - known as the First Folio. On Shakespeare's gravestone are four lines of verse. It is not certain that the Bard of Avon wrote the famous epitaph: "Good friend, for Jesus´ sake forbeare / To digg the dust enclosed here! / Blest be ye man that spares thes stones / And curst be he that moues my bones." However, in the text there is an onomatopoetic to his name, with "sake" in the first line, and "spares" in the third.

For further reading: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom (1999); William Shakespeare: His Life and Work by Anthony Holden (1999); William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life by S. Scoenbaum (1975); Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess (1970); How Shakespeare Spent the Day by Ivor Brown (1964); Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. by Geoffrey Bullough (1957-1966); William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems by E.K. Chambers (1930); The Elizabethan Stage by E.K. Chambers (1924); Shakespeare's England by Walter Raleigh (1916); Outlines of the Life of William Shakespeare by J.O. Halliwell-Phillips (1887).

Biography written by Petri Liukkonen. Used with permission from Authors' Calendar.

Works by Shakespeare, William

A Midsummer Night's Dream
All's Well That Ends Well
Antony and Cleopatra
As You Like It
Hamlet
King Henry IV Part 1
King Henry IV Part 2
King Henry V
King Henry VI Part 1
King Henry VI Part 2
King Henry VI Part 3
King Joh
King Lear
King Richard II
King Richard III
Measure for Measure
Much Ado About Nothing
Othello
Pericles
Romeo and Juliet
The Comedy of Errors
The Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest