William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright who is considered one of the greatest writers to ever use the English language. He is also the most famous playwright in the world, with his plays being translated in over 50 languages and performed across the globe for audiences of all ages. Known colloquially as “The Bard” or “The Bard of Avon,” Shakespeare was also an actor and the creator of the Globe Theatre, a historical theatre, and company that is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.
His works span tragedy, comedy, and historical works, both in poetry and prose. And although the man is the most-recognized playwright in the world, very little of his life is actually known. No known autobiographical letters or diaries have survived to modern day, and with no surviving descendants, Shakespeare is a figure both of magnificent genius and mystery.
This has led to many interpretations of his life and works, creating a legend out of the commoner from Stratford-upon-Avon who rose to prominence and in the process wrote many of the seminal works that provide the foundation for the current English language.
Life Before the Stage
The exact date of Shakespeare’s birth is unknown, but it is accepted that he was born in April of 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England, and baptized in the same month. He was the son of John Shakespeare, an alderman, and Mary Arden, the daughter of the family’s landlord and a well-respected farmer. He was one of eight children and lived to be the eldest surviving son of the family.
Shakespeare was educated at the King’s New School, a free chartered grammar school that was located in Stratford. There he studied the basic Latin text and grammar, much of which was standardized across the country by Royal decree. He was also known to partake in the theatre while at the school as was the custom at the time. As a commoner, Shakespeare’s education was thought to finish at the grammar school level as there is no record of him attending university, which was a luxury reserved for upper-class families.
In 1582, an 18-year-old Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who, on the occasion of her wedding, was 26 years old and already with child. Hathaway gave birth to the couple’s first child six months later, a daughter named Susanna, with twins, named Hamnet and Judith, following two years later in 1585. Hamnet died at the age of 11 from unknown reasons.
After the birth of his twins in 1585, Shakespeare disappeared from public record until 1592, when his works began appearing on the London stage. These seven years are known as “Shakespeare’s Lost Years,” and have been the source of various stories that remain unverified, including a salacious story involving Shakespeare escaping Stratford prosecution for deer poaching. This story, among others, are solely entertainment and are not considered as part of the canon that makes up the playwright’s personal life.
Career and Creation of the Globe
William Shakespeare first made his appearance on the London stage, where his plays would be written and performed, around 1592, although the exact date is unknown. He was, however, well known enough to be attacked by critics in newspapers, and thus was considered to be already an established playwright.
After the year 1594, Shakespeare’s plays were solely performed by a company owned by a group of actors known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which became London’s leading company. After Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603, the company was given a royal patent that renamed it the King’s Men, named so after King James I.
Shakespeare, along with a group of players that acted in his play, created his own theatre on the River Thames in 1599 and named it the Globe Theatre. After that, a record of property purchases and investments made by Shakespeare showed the playwright had become a very wealthy man, so much so that he bought properties in London and Stratford for himself and his family, as he spent most of his time in London.
It was in 1594 that the first known quartos of Shakespeare’s plays were published, solidifying his reputation by 1598 when his name became the selling point in new productions. This led to his success as both an actor on stage and a playwright, and his name was published on the title page of his plays.
Shakespeare continued to work with his company of men at the Globe Theatre until around 1610, the year that he retired from working on the stage. He, however, continued to support the Globe Theatre, including buying apartments for playwrights and actors to live in, all of which were near to the theatre.
Retirement and Death
Shakespeare retired from public life in 1610, right after the bubonic plague began to subside its attack on London. This act was unusual for the time, but he was by no means less active. In fact, the playwright continued to make frequent trips to London to collaborate with other playwrights, such as John Fletcher, and to spend time with his son-in-law John Hall, who married his elder daughter Susanna in 1607.
The playwright was an active dramatist and writer up until 1613 when the last of his great works was finished. From then on, Shakespeare spent most of his time in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he had purchased the second-largest home in town for his family.
William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, and was buried at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford two days later, with a curse written on his tombstone to ward off those who would disturb his bones. He was 52 years old at the time of his death and was survived by his wife, Anna, and their two daughters. There are no direct descendants from Shakespeare’s line, as both daughters had children who did not make it to adulthood.
The Shakespeare Canon
Shakespeare was noted both for poetry and plays, with both mediums serving different needs; the plays were related to the theatrical fashion that was on trend while his poetry served to provide storytelling in erotic or romantic ways, culminating in a canon of work that is as diverse in language as the issues of human nature that the works portray.
William Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays that scholars know of, with most of them labeled is comedies, histories, or tragedies. The earliest play that is directly attributed to Shakespeare is the trilogy of “King Henry VI,” with Richard III also being written around the same time, between 1589 and 1591. The last play was a collaboration, assumed to be with John Fletcher, known as “The Two Noble Kinsmen.”
Shakespeare often wrote play in a genre that was in vogue at the time, with his plays beginning with the histories, including the above-mentioned works as well as “Pericles,” “King John,” the dual volumes of both “Henry IV” and Henry V, which were written at later dates.
From histories written in the late 1580s to the early 1590s, Shakespeare moved into comedies, which were described as such for their comic sequences and pairs of plots that intertwined with each other. Among the most well known are A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. Interestingly, two tragedies bookend Shakespeare’s comedic era – Romeo and Juliet were written at the beginning of the 1590s, and Julius Caesar was written at the end of the era.
For the last portion of his writing career, Shakespeare focused his work on tragedies and “problem” plays. In this era, which is acknowledged as the playwright’s best era, he wrote the works called Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Coriolanus, and Macbeth, among others. These are the works that are most in production today, both on stage and in film.
When looking at a chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, it is clear that Shakespeare changed the subjects of his plays as he grew in prominence and then returned to a more serene life. Moving from historical subjects to a more playful side and then, finally, into plays where plots would result in a sense of forgiveness and serenity, Shakespeare’s evolution as both a man and a writer is evident. In fact, the playwright’s devotion to the English language and his rebellion against it has led to fascinating studies done by leading literature scholars.
Poems and Sonnets
There are two volumes of poetry and over 150 sonnets that are attributed to Shakespeare. It is thought that although Shakespeare was a poet throughout his lifetime, he turned to poetry most notably during 1593 and 1594 when a plague forced theatres in London to shut down.
The volumes of narrative poems that Shakespeare released during those years were called Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Both volumes focused on the problems surrounding uncontrollable lust and the guilt associated with it afterwards and were very well received during his lifetime, partially for their erotic tone. In this vein, Shakespeare also wrote A Lover’s Complaint, which was included in the first edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which were released in 1609.
Shakespeare’s sonnets were a collection of over 150 works that were published late in his life and without any indication of when each of the pieces was composed. It is widely thought that the sonnets were a part of a private diary that was never meant to be read publicly but nevertheless were published.
The sonnets have a contrasting set of subjects – one set chronicles the poet’s lust for a married woman with a dark complexion, known as The Dark Lady, while the other describes a conflicted or confused love for a young man, known as the “fair youth.” While it is not known or confirmed, many in literature circles believe that the sonnets accurately portray the heart of the poet, leading the public to speculate on Shakespeare’s views on religion, sex, marriage, and life.
Critics have praised the sonnets as being profoundly intimate and meditating on the values of love, lust, procreation, and death. Now a day, Shakespeare is ranked as all-time most popular English poets on history, along with Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Walt Whitman.
The Shakespeare Influence
Shakespeare’s influence on art, literature, language and the vast array of the creative arts has long been known and documented. He is the most-read playwright in the Western Hemisphere, and the English language is littered with quotes and phrases the originated from his works. He is also the inventor of the iambic pentameter, a form of poetry that is still widely used today.
He is also one of the most influential figures in English literature, having had a profound impact on everyone from Herman Melville and Charles Dickens to Agatha Christie and Anthony Burgess. But his influence did not stop at just the arts – the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud used Hamlet as the foundation for many of his theories on human nature, and his influence can be felt in painting and opera as well, particularly from the operas of Giuseppe Verdi and the whole community of Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite painters.
But Shakespeare was, and still is, the most prominent influential figure in language. Phrases such as “breaking the ice” or “heart of gold” are colloquial now, but are also known to have originated in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. There are over seven dozen examples that can be taken from common life and be directly attributed to Shakespeare, meaning that much of how people speak to each other now has a history that dates back to the 17th century.
Aside from phrases, it is also common knowledge that the dramatist introduced upwards of 1,700 original words to the English language, which, during the 16th and 17th centuries, was not standardized. In fact, words such as lonely, frugal, dwindle, and more originate from Shakespeare, who transformed English into the populist language that it is today.
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