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William Shakespeare
HOW TO CITE THIS ARTICLE: Crabbe, Homer J. "William Shakespeare: A Biography." Hamlet Prince of Denmark. 17 September, 2012. <http://www.hamlet-shakespeare.com/playwright/index.html>

William ShakespeareAlthough the actual date of William Shakespeare's birth is not known, historians have traditionally settled on April 23, 1564 -- an appealing date since Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616. At any rate, it is known that his baptism took place at the Holy Trinity parish church in Stratford on April 26, 1564. According to the Book of Common Prayer, it was required that a child be baptized on the nearest Sunday or holy day following the birth, so April 23 seems as good a date as any. [1] He was the oldest surviving son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden (after whom he named the Forest of Arden in As You Like It). His father was an alderman, serving as bailiff, or mayor, of Stratford -- which was then a market town of some 1500 people about 100 miles northwest of London along the banks of the River Avon -- and was also a successful glover. His mother was the daughter of an affluent landowner. As the son of a local official, Shakespeare would have been entitled to free schooling, and most scholars surmise that he attended the King's New School in Stratford about a quarter-mile from his home, although no attendance records for the period survive. [2]

Little more is known of Shakespeare's life until November 27, 1582, when, at the age of 18, he married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway, the daughter of Richard Hathaway, husbandman of a little village to the west of Stratford called Shottery, who had died a few months earlier. Anne was, apparently, already with child, for about six months after the marriage, she gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, who was baptized on May 26, 1583. Twins soon followed, a son (Hamnet) and daughter (Judith) who were baptized on February 2, 1585. [3]

The following period is often referred to by Shakespeare's biographers as his "lost years" because of the scant information available regarding his activities during this period, but in 1592 he resurfaces in London, sufficiently well known to be attacked by the playwright Robert Greene who writes in his Groats-Worth of Wit:

...there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger's heart wrapped in a Player's hide, supposes he is 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 a country. [4]

Most scholars interpret this reference, along with other evidence such as Hamlet's advice to the players, to mean that Shakespeare began as an actor and later branched out into playwriting. The reputation of early Elizabethan Actors was not good to say the least, they were viewed as little better than rogues and vagabonds, and it was this perception perhaps, coupled with the fact that he was infringing on their territory, that made Shakespeare appear an "upstart crow" to the university educated dramatists like Greene and Christopher Marlowe. Though Greene's attack is the earliest record of Shakespeare's theatrical career, some biographers have suggested that he may have became involved with the theatre as early as the mid 1580s, perhaps serving originally in some capacity with the troupes of traveling players that regularly passed through Stratford. Once he arrived in London, at any rate, Shakespeare seems to have made a living as a sort of itinerant actor/dramatist, moving from troupe to troupe. Early in his career, he has been tentatively linked to the Earl of Pembroke's Men, the Queen's Men, and the Lord Strange's Men. [5] In 1594, however, he became a founding member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men which boasted amongst its ranks one of the greatest tragedians of the day, Richard Burbage, as well as the renowned comedian Will Kemp. From this time forward, Shakespeare would write exclusively for his own troupe of actors which would quickly become the most successful company of its day -- so successful in fact that the troupe would eventually become known as the King's Men, when James I (formerly James VI of Scotland) succeeded Elizabeth as monarch and became their patron. Shakespeare contributed to the success of the company not only as a dramatist, but as an actor as well, playing key roles in his own plays, including the following:

  • Adam in As You Like It
  • Aaron in Titus Andronicus
  • Antonio in Twelfth Night
  • Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida
  • Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet
  • Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Mortimer or Exeter in Henry VI
  • Boyet in Love's Labour's Lost
  • Leonato or the Friar in Much Ado About Nothing
  • Gaunt and Gardener in Richard II
  • King Henry in Henry IV
  • Master Ford in Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Duncan in Macbeth
  • Egeon in The Comedy of Errors
  • The Ghost (and sometimes the first player) in Hamlet

We also know from the cast lists in the Ben Jonson First Folio that Shakespeare acted in Jonson's Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Sejanus (1603). [6] [7]

Unlike most other troupes which leased the theatres in which they performed, the Lord Chamberlain's Men built a theatre of their own. Seven shareholders, including Shakespeare himself, put up the money for the construction of the Globe Theatre in 1599 and shared in the profits. The Globe served as home for Shakespeare's plays until it was destroyed by fire on June 29, 1613, when a theatrical cannon, set off during the first recorded performance of Henry VIII, misfired, igniting the Globe's thatched roof. [8]

During the course of his illustrious career, Shakespeare composed on average two plays a year, producing some of the most beloved tragedies and comedies in the history of the theatre, including Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595), A Midsummer Night's Dream (c. 1596), Twelfth Night (c. 1602), Othello (c. 1603), King Lear (c. 1605), Macbeth (c. 1606), The Tempest (c. 1610), and of course his most famous play, Hamlet (c. 1601).

Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare's production began to slow, and no plays are attributed to him after 1613. His last three plays -- Cardenio (1613), Henry VII (1613), and The Two Noble Kinsmen (c. 1613) -- were collaborations with John Fletcher who succeeded him as the playwright-in-residence for the King’s Men. At some point during these final years, after reigning for more than a decade as the preeminent playwright of his day, Shakespeare is believed to have retired to the relative tranquility of Stratford, a theory supported not only by the purchase on May 4th, 1597, of New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford, or of his continued acquisition of property in his hometown over the coming years (notably 107 acres and a cottage and garden opposite the lower grounds of New Place in 1602), but also from the deeds of conveyance of May, 1602, July, 1605, and March, 1612-13, in which he is called "William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon, gentleman." [9] Although the exact timetable of his semi-retirement is almost as uncertain as his arrival in London as an aspiring young man, most biographers estimate that he made New Place his primary residence sometime around 1611. In that same year, interestingly enough, the Town Council of Stratford passed a resolution that stage plays were unlawful. [10]

On April 23, 1616 William Shakespeare diedat the age of 52. According to tradition, the cause of death was a fever brought on by an excessive drinking bout with fellow dramatists Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, however this is almost universally dismissed as an apocryphal account. [11] Shakespeare was survived by his wife and two daughters. (His only son, Hamnet, died at the age of 11 of unknown causes.) In his will, drafted and revised only months before his death (leading some to speculate that he was in ill-health), Shakespeare left the bulk of his estate to his elder daughter Susanna, specifying that she pass it down intact to "the first son of her body". [12] Susanna had one child, Elizabeth, who married twice but died without children in 1670, ending Shakespeare's direct line. Her sister, Judith, had three sons, including her eldest, Shakespeare Quiney, with whom she was pregnant at the time of her father's death and who died himself only a few months after his birth. Judiths two remaining sons, Richard and Thomas, barely reached adulthood and died without marrying. [13] [14] To his wife, Anne, Shakespeare left only his "second best bed," a bequest that has led to much speculation, being most probably a reference to the matrimonial bed and therefore rich in significance. Although it was not necessary to mention Anne in the will as she was entitled by law to one third of Shakespeare's estate, the American scholar G. E. Bentley famously noted that Shakespeare's phrasing "has given rise to many romantic or lurid tales." [15]

Two days after his death, William Shakespeare was buried inside the chancel of Holy Trinity Church, near the northern wall. Over his grave were cut in stone a curse against moving his bones, which was carefully avoided during restoration of the church in 2008: [16]

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones. [17]

Although popular in his day, Shakespeare's reputation soared in the years and centuries following his death. The critic George Steiner described all English verse dramas from Coleridge to Tennyson as "feeble variations on Shakespearean themes" [18] and John Dryden wrote in his Essay on Dramatic Poesy that "He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul." His plays have not only survived, but have achieved an almost hallowed stature, making him the world's most produced playwright by a significant margin [19] and proving his contemporary, Ben Jonson, correct when he wrote in the First Folio of Shakespeare's works, "He was not of an age, but for all time!"

  1. 16th and 17th Century English Writers. Archana Srinivasan. Sura Books, 2007.
  2. Everything Shakespeare Book. Cork Milner. Avon: Adams Media, 2008.
  3. Life of Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream. New York: The University Society, 1901.
  4. In his attack, Greene parodies the line "Oh, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" from Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part III.
  5. Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist. Lukas Erne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  6. Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, Tragedies, and Poems. Ed. J. Payne Collier. London: Whittaker and Co., 1858.
  7. Shakespeare: A Life. Park Honan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  8. Dictionary of Shakespeare. Louise McConnell. London: Peter Collin Publishing, 2000.
  9. William Shakespeare: A Literary Biography. Karl Elze. London: George Bell & Sons, 1901.
  10. The Shakespeare Country Illustrated. John Leyland. London: George Newnes, 1900.
  11. Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. Sir Granville George Greenwood. London: Cecil Palmer, 1921.
  12. Shakespeare's Family. Kate Emery Pogue. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2008.
  13. Shakespeare's Lives. S. Schoenbaum. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  14. Shakespeareana Genealogica. George Russell French. London: Macmillan and Co., 1869.
  15. Profiling Shakespeare. Marjorie Garber. London: Routledge, 2008.
  16. "Workers Brave Shakespeare's Curse in Restoring the Bard's Grave." Associated Press. May 28, 2008.
  17. William Shakespeare: Poet, Dramatist, and Man. Hamilton Wright Mabie. New York: Macmillan, 1904.
  18. The Death of Tragedy. George Steiner. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.
  19. Looking at Shakespeare: A Visual History of Twentieth-Century Performance. Dennis Kennedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
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