William Shakespeare
Copyright Michael D. Robbins 2005

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A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.

And summer's lease hath all too short a date.

As soon go kindle fire with snow, as seek to quench the fire of love with words.

Beauty is all very well at first sight; but whoever looks at it when it has been in the house three days?

Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery.

Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.

But will they come when you do call for them?


(born April 1564, baptised April 26, 1564, died April 23, 1616 Julian calendar, May 3, 1616 Gregorian calendar) is widely considered to have been the greatest writer the English language has ever known. As a playwright, he wrote not only some of the most powerful tragedies, but also many comedies. He also wrote 154 sonnetss and several major poems, some of which are considered to be the most brilliant pieces of English literature ever written, because of Shakespeare's ability to rise beyond the narrative and describe the innermost and the most profound aspects of human nature. He is believed to have written most of his works between 1585 and 1613, although the exact dates and chronology of the plays attributed to him are not accurately known. There was no standardized spelling in Elizabethan England, and Shakespeare's name is often rendered in contemporary documents as Shakespear, Shaksper or even Shaxberd.

Most historians agree that actor and playwright were the same William Shakespeare for whom we have considerable historical records. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in April 1564, the son of John Shakespeare, a glove maker, and Mary Arden. The baptism of Shakespeare is recorded on April 26 of that year and the 23rd has traditionally been considered his birthday. His father, prosperous at the time of William's birth, was prosecuted for participating in the black market in wool, and later lost his position as an alderman. There is some evidence that both sides of the family had Roman Catholic sympathies.

Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior, on November 28, 1582 at Stratford-upon-Avon in a ceremony witnessed by Fulk Sandalls and John Richardson; the marriage seems to have been rushed by the bride's pregnancy. After his marriage, little is known of William Shakespeare until he appears on the London literary scene.

On May 26, 1583 Shakespeare's first child, Susanna, was baptised at Stratford. This was soon followed on February 2, 1585, with the baptisms of a son, Hamnet, and a daughter, Judith.

By 1592, he was sufficiently known to be denounced by Robert Greene as "an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey." (The italicised line is a parody of the phrase, "Oh, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" which Shakespeare used in Henry VI, part 3.)

In 1596 Hamnet died; he was buried on August 11, 1596. Because of the similarities of their names, some suspect that his death was the impetus for Shakespeare's The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

In 1597 William sold "one messuage, two barns, two gardens, two orchards, with appurtenances, in Stradford-upon-Avon" to William Underhill for sixty pounds. The house on this property was that built by Sir Hugh Clopton.

By 1598 Shakespeare had moved to the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopgate and appeared top of a list of actors (Every man in his Humor) produced by Ben Jonson.

Shakespeare became an actor, writer and ultimately part-owner of an acting company known as The Lord Chamberlain's Men — the company was named, like others of the period, for their aristocratic sponsor. It was sufficiently popular that after the death of Elizabeth I and the coronation of James I (1603), the new monarch adopted the company and it became known as The King's Men.

Various documents recording legal affairs, and business transactions show that Shakespeare grew increasingly affluent in his London years. He did well enough to buy a property in Blackfriars, London, and owned the second largest house in Stratford.

In 1609 he published his sonnets, love poems addressed some to a 'dark lady', and some to a young man (or 'fair lord').

He retired approximately 1611 and died in 1616, on April 23rd, perhaps the reason behind the tradition of his birthday being this same day. He remained married to Anne until his death. His two daughters, Susannah and Judith, survived him. Susannah married Dr John Hall, and was later the subject of a court case.

His tombstone reads, "Blest be the man who cast these stones, and cursed be he that moves my bones."

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was born to John Shakespeare and mother Mary Arden some time in late April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. There is no record of his birth, but his baptism was recorded by the church, thus his birthday is assumed to be the 23 of April. His father was a prominent and prosperous alderman in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, and was later granted a coat of arms by the College of Heralds. All that is known of Shakespeare's youth is that he presumably attended the Stratford Grammar School, and did not proceed to Oxford or Cambridge. The next record we have of him is his marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582. The next year she bore a daughter for him, Susanna, followed by the twins Judith and Hamnet two years later.

Seven years later Shakespeare was recognized as an actor, poet, and playwright, when a rival playwright, Robert Greene, referred to him as "an upstart crow" in "A Groatsworth of Wit." A few years later he joined up with one of the most successful acting troupes in London: "The Lord Chamberlain's Men." When, in 1599, the troupe lost the lease of the theatre where they performed (appropriately called "The Theatre"), they were wealthy enough to build their own theatre across the Thames, south of London, which they called "The Globe." The new theatre opened in July of 1599, built from the timbers of "The Theatre", with the motto "Totus mundus agit histrionem" (A whole world of players). When James I came to the throne (1603) the troupe was designated by the new king as the "King's Men" (or "King's Company"). The Letters Patent of the company specifically charged Shakespeare and eight others "freely to use and exercise the art and faculty of playing Comedies, Tragedies, Histories, Interludes, Morals, Pastorals, stage plays ... as well for recreation of our loving subjects as for our solace and pleasure."

Shakespeare entertained the King and the people for another ten years until June 19, 1613, when a canon fired from the roof of the theatre for a gala performance of Henry VIII set fire to the thatch roof and burned the theatre to the ground. The audience ignored the smoke from the roof at first, being to absorbed in the play, until the flames caught the walls and the fabric of the curtains. Amazingly there were no casualties, and the next spring the company had the theatre "new builded in a far fairer manner than before." Although Shakespeare invested in the rebuilding, he retired from the stage to the Great House of New Place in Statford that he had purchased in 1597, and some considerable land holdings ,where he continued to write until his death in 1616 on the day of his 52nd birthday.

For all his fame and celebration, William Shakespeare remains a mysterious figure with regards to personal history. There are just two primary sources for information on the Bard: his works, and various legal and church documents that have survived from Elizabethan times. Naturally, there are many gaps in this body of information, which tells us little about Shakespeare the man.

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, allegedly on April 23, 1564. Church records from Holy Trinity Church indicate that he was baptized there on April 26, 1564. Young William was born of John Shakespeare, a glover and leather merchant, and Mary Arden, a landed heiress. William, according to the church register, was the third of eight children the Shakespeare household—three of whom died in childhood. John Shakespeare had a remarkable run of success as a merchant, and later as an alderman and high bailiff of Stratford, during William's early childhood. His fortunes declined, however, in the 1570s.

There is great conjecture about Shakespeare's childhood years, especially regarding his education. It is surmised by scholars that Shakespeare attended the free grammar school in Stratford, which at the time had a reputation to rival Eton. While there are no records extant to prove this claim, Shakespeare's knowledge of Latin and Classical Greek would tend to support this theory. In addition, Shakespeare's first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, wrote that John Shakespeare had placed William "for some time in a free school." John Shakespeare, as a Stratford official, would have been granted a waiver of tuition for his son. As the records do not exist, we do not know how long William attended the school, but certainly the literary quality of his works suggest a solid education. What is certain is that William Shakespeare never proceeded to university schooling, which has stirred some of the debate concerning the authorship of his works.

The next documented event in Shakespeare's life is his marriage to Anne Hathaway on November 28, 1582. William was 18 at the time, and Anne was 26—and pregnant. Their first daughter, Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583. The couple later had twins, Hamnet and Judith, born February 2, 1585 and christened at Holy Trinity. Hamnet died in childhood at the age of 11, on August 11, 1596.

For seven years, William Shakespeare effectively disappears from all records, turning up in London circa 1592. This has sparked as much controversy about Shakepeare's life as any period. Rowe notes that young Shakespeare was quite fond of poaching, and may have had to flee Stratford after an incident with Sir Thomas Lucy, whose lands he allegedly hunted. There is also rumor of Shakespeare working as an assistant schoolmaster in Lancashire for a time, though this is circumstantial at best. It is estimated that Shakespeare arrived in London around 1588 and began to establish himself as an actor and playwright. Evidently, Shakespeare garnered envy early on for his talent, as related by the critical attack of Robert Greene, a London playwright, in 1592: "...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 fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country."

Greene's bombast notwithstanding, Shakespeare must have shown considerable promise. By 1594, he was not only acting and writing for the Lord Chamberlain's Men (called the King's Men after the ascension of James I in 1603), but was a managing partner in the operation as well. With Will Kempe, a master comedian, and Richard Burbage, a leading tragic actor of the day, the Lord Chamberlain's Men became a favorite London troupe, patronized by royalty and made popular by the theatre-going public. When the plague forced theatre closings in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare and his company made plans for the Globe Theatre in the Bankside district, which was across the river from London proper.

Shakespeare's success is apparent when studied against other playwrights of this age. His company was the most successful in London in his day. He had plays published and sold in octavo editions, or "penny-copies" to the more literate of his audiences. It is noted that never before had a playwright enjoyed sufficient acclaim to see his works published and sold as popular literature in the midst of his career. While Shakespeare could not be accounted wealthy, by London standards, his success allowed him to purchase New House and retire in comfort to Stratford in 1611.

William Shakespeare wrote his will in 1611, bequeathing his properties to his daughter Susanna (married in 1607 to Dr. John Hall). To his surviving daughter Judith, he left £300, and to his wife Anne left "my second best bed." William Shakespeare allegedly died on his birthday, April 23, 1616. This is probably more of a romantic myth than reality, but Shakespeare was interred at Holy Trinity in Stratford on April 25. In 1623, two working companions of Shakespeare from the Lord Chamberlain's Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell, printed the First Folio edition of the Collected Works, of which half the plays contained therein were previously unpublished. The First Folio also contained Shakespeare's sonnets.

William Shakespeare's legacy is a body of work that will never again be equaled in Western civilization. His words have endured for 400 years, and still reach across the centuries as powerfully as ever. Even in death, he leaves a final piece of verse as his epitaph:

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.


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