William Shakespeare’s birthdate is generally accepted to have been April 23, 1564 in Stratford-Upon Avon, England.
The precise date of his birth is unknown, but, as was the custom of the time, he was baptized at Stratford’s Church of the Holy Trinity on April 26 th, 1564. The delay between birth and baptism was due to the significantly high infant mortality rate of the time. A child who survived the first few days was more likely a ‘keeper’. There are few records of Shakespeare’s early days in Stratford. He was not famous until later in life, and as all records were kept on paper, they were easily damaged or lost.
Shakespeare’s father was John, and his mother was Mary (nee Arden). John Shakespeare was a glove-maker by trade (an important detail worth remembering for later) and dabbled in local politics, holding positions such as Alderman and High Baliff, or mayor.
Mary came from a landowning family, and in marrying her, John Shakespeare was marrying into a higher class than his own.
Shakespeare’s education came at the local Grammar School, and here he would have been intensively instructed in Latin grammar and Classics. He also would have learned mathematics, history, geography, and natural sciences, and by the time he finished his formal education would have learned roughly what a modern student learns by the end of grade eight. In 1582, when Shakespeare was 18, he married Anne Hathaway, who was 26. This is Anne Hathaway. This is not Shakespeare’s Anne Hathaway.
Some speculate that theirs was a hastily-arranged wedding, as Anne gave birth 6 months after the wedding. A woman of 26 was also rather old for marriage at that time, as the average life span was only 42 for women (less in cities such as London because of poor sanitation). A 26- year old woman could have already lost 10 years of potential child- bearing years. For this reason, her ‘availability’ to 18-year old William Shakespeare raises some eyebrows. That the marriage may have been forced on William Shakespeare helps to explain some of his actions later on. Shakespeare and his wife had three children: Susanna, born in 1583; and the twins Hamnet and Judith, born two years later. In 1596, Hamnet contracted the black plague and died shortly after. He was buried in Stratford.
Sometime around 1585, Shakespeare left his wife in Stratford, and there are no records of him until the early 1590s in London, where playwright Robert Greene made the first historical mention of Shakespeare in the theatre, claiming, “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.”
But why did he leave Stratford? Some have speculated that he was running from a charge of poaching. Others suggest he was unhappy in his marriage, and sought escape, but his strict Catholic upbringing provided certain barriers to leaving the marriage in a more ‘modern’ way.
It is certainly possible that he spent the ‘lost years’ between 1585 and 1590 travelling the English countryside, learning the craft of the theatre. At the time, the play houses in London were frequently shut by the Master of the Revels, often because of outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague, something which happened easily in the unsanitary and cramped conditions found in a theatre (when you are packed in like sardines, and there is no plumbing, it’s just as easy to go on the floor as it is to push and shove your way out of the crowd). Here is an example of one of the buboes that would form in the joints of someone affected by the plague. Not fun.
With the theatre closed, the theatre company would pack up and travel the countryside, putting on performances at various towns and villages. There are records of such companies coming through Stratford while Shakespeare grew up, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that he saw an opportunity when one came through in 1585, and opted to join it (some records suggest that he held horses for patrons) rather than face trial for poaching, or endure the trials of marriage.
By the time he is mentioned by Greene, Shakespeare had already established himself as an actor, but it is as a writer that he is known today. In a career stretching from approximately 1590 to 1613, Shakespeare wrote 37 or 38 plays that we know of 154 Sonnets, and two epic poems, “The Rape of Lucrece” and “Venus and Adonis”
His plays generally fit the traditional dramatic genres. He wrote histories such as Richard II, Julius Caesar, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Henry V, and King John. comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, The Comedy of Errors, and As You Like It. He is probably most famous, however, for his tragedies, which include such plays as Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and Othello. Toward the end of his career, he wrote plays which ran against the expectations of genres. These are often known as the ‘problem plays’ (as they are problematic to define, genre-wise) or ‘romances’, but made today would likely be called ‘tragicomedies’. These include plays such as Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale.
The theatres of Shakespeare’s era were generally open-air theatres. They had a stage which was not behind a main curtain, and would have a trap door in the middle. At the back of the stage was often a balcony (sometimes called the ‘inner above’). Because there was no main curtain, it was difficult to change the stage from scene to scene, so changes in setting were usually told to the audience by the actors themselves in their dialogue (e.g. A character walks onstage carrying a torch and comments on how cold it is. The torch suggests that it is night time, and the temperature suggests winter). The lack of a curtain also made it difficult to have characters die onstage during the play – where would the bodies go after the scene was finished? Because of this, characters usually die offstage in Shakespeare’s plays except for during the last scene.
It was also illegal for women to act during Shakespeare’s era. This meant that all parts in all of Shakespeare’s plays were played by males. Young boys (teenagers) whose voices hadn’t deepened or who had youthful features would play the parts of the female characters, and as they got older would ‘graduate’ to the male roles.
The actors had to be very talented not only in elocution, but also in dancing, fencing, tumbling and singing.
The theatre was considered a low or improper form of entertainment – not the sort of thing that a ‘proper’ person would attend. For that reason, it was illegal for the play houses to be in London itself, so they were built across from the Thames river which was, at the time, the city limit. Patrons wishing to see a play could look across the river at the various play houses and see which were flying flags. The flag indicated that a play would be performed that day, and the colour of the flag would indicate whether it was a history, comedy or tragedy. Because the plays were performed on weekends – including Sundays, they were competition with the Church, which wanted and expected for people to attend services and pay their tithe. An outbreak of the plague amongst people who had attended a performance would be great propaganda for the church to suggest that God was punishing people for attending the theatre instead of church. Because the church was both wealthier and more influential than actors, playwrights, and even theatre owners, it was able to persuade the Master of the Revels to shut the theatre down with great frequency.
What the theatre needed was to have a fan of significant power and influence, and Shakespeare’s acting company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, certainly found one. Queen Elizabeth I was a fan of the theatre, and as she would have had “Divine Right”, her presence in the theatre would mean that it couldn’t possibly be low. As he became more famous, Shakespeare got some money, and in 1599 opened his own theatre, called the Globe.
When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, her cousin, King James VI of Scotland assumed the throne of England, becoming King James I. Soon after, Shakespeare’s acting company would be known as the King’s Men.
William continued to enjoy his success in the theatre, and retired back to his wife in Stratford a relatively wealthy man in 1613. On April 23, 1616, Shakespeare died. He is buried where he was Christened, at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Shakespeare’s plays are universal. That is, they transcend time and place. The story of Romeo and Juliet, for example, works just as well in modern California or done Kabuki-style.
Shakespeare also made a significant contribution to our language. He invented hundreds of words and phrases which are used all the time today without much recognition of their original source. Here are some of the most popular Shakespeare phrases in common use today: A laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor) A sorry sight (Macbeth) As dead as a doornail (Henry VI) Eaten out of house and home (Henry V, Part 2) Fair play (The Tempest) I will wear my heart upon my sleeve (Othello) In a pickle (The Tempest) In stitches (Twelfth Night) In the twinkling of an eye (The Merchant Of Venice) Mum's the word (Henry VI, Part 2) Neither here nor there (Othello) Send him packing (Henry IV) Set your teeth on edge (Henry IV) There's method in my madness (Hamlet) Too much of a good thing (As You Like It) Vanish into thin air (Othello)
Furthermore, there can be no doubt that Shakespeare was a master of the artistry of the English language. He wrote with such fluidity of thought, word, rhythm, and sound that the work is presented in a complex manner, but is not unintelligible, even for the inexperienced reader. Often a single line would have several different meanings, each providing us with insight into a character or plot. For example, five lines from a scene from Richard III present much more than at first observed:
Rivers. Have patience, madam; there’s no doubt his Majesty Will soon recover his accustomed health. Grey. In that you brook it ill, it makes him worse. Therefore for God’s sake entertain good comfort And cheer his Grace with quick and merry eyes. Queen Elizabeth. If [the King] were dead, what would betide on me? Grey. No other harm but loss of such a lord. Queen Elizabeth. The loss of such a lord includes all harms. 2 (1.3.1-8)
In a nutshell, Shakespeare’s works permeate our culture so exhaustively that we are doing ourselves a disservice by not attempting to understand them in the context of our current culture. From words and phrases, idioms and clichés, to films, music and art, Shakespeare is present.
Controversies The idea of whether or not William Shakespeare, the son of a glove-maker from Stratford, was capable of writing the finest plays in history has been around for centuries. There are a number of reasons for this, including: Shakespeare did not have the formal education that many believe he would have had to have had in order to write at the level he did. There are no existing copies of anything that Shakespeare wrote, except for a few signatures which have been described as “the labourious scrawl of an illiterate.” Shakespeare’s upbringing would have been too meagre for him to have done the travelling needed for the precise knowledge of European geography expressed in his plays. A rather deep understanding of the working of the royal inner court is expressed in his plays, and this knowledge would not have been available to someone of Shakespeare’s social class and ranking. There are no confirmed portraits of Shakespeare which were made in his lifetime – strange for someone whose fame would have been as great as his by the end of his career.
So… who wrote the plays? A number of names have been suggested, but are almost all easily dismissed. The most compelling possibility is that Edward de Vere, 17 th Earl of Oxford was the true author. He was a noted poet, was well-educated, travelled extensively, and was a member of royal circles. The ‘proof’ of his authorship, however, is all circumstantial, and in the absence of any clear evidence, it’s not really worth supposing that anyone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford was the man who wrote the plays bearing his name.
In Conclusion Shakespeare is considered by many to have been the finest writer to have ever lived. Esteemed scholar and literary critic has claimed that Shakespeare invented humanity as we live it today. Bloom also claimed that “Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves... he may teach us how to accept change in ourselves as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change.” … but let’s end with a statement from the Bard himself: All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players.