William Shakespeare Biography
William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
English dramatist and poet, born at Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, on St George’s Day, 23 April. Very few of the traditional stories of his early life can stand up to serious examination. His father, John Shakespeare (c.1529–1601) was a glover and wool-dealer who became an alderman, bailiff and money-lender in Stratford and, after a period of financial difficulty and obscurity, received a grant of arms in 1596. His mother, Mary Arden (c.1537–1608), came from a landed family whose genealogy could be traced to Anglo-Saxon times.
Educated at the King’s New School (which had covert Jesuit connections), he would have been well grounded in Latin and rhetoric. Some scholars suggest that he was a servant or teacher in Catholic households in Lancashire 1581–82 (a variant of John *Aubrey’s story that he was ‘a schoolmaster in the country’) and he seems to have known five men who were executed as recusants.
The next positive evidence of Shakespeare’s existence is the licence to marry Anne *Hathaway (1582). The christenings of their children are recorded, that of his elder daughter Susanna in May 1583, that of the twins Judith and Hamnet in February 1585. The boy Hamnet died aged 11 but Judith married and survived her father; his granddaughter Elizabeth (d.1670), the daughter of Susanna, who had married John Hall, a Stratford physician, was his last known descendant.
A familiar, but less likely, legend relates that he left Stratford (c.1585) to avoid prosecution for poaching on the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote. He probably arrived in London between 1585 and 1587, drawn by the appeal of city life and growing realisation of his own talents, probably as an actor-writer with ‘Lord Strange’s Men’, an acting troupe, in theatres originally managed by James Burbage. A disparaging reference to Shakespeare in 1592 by the dramatist Robert Greene confirms that he was well established in London. Circumstances favoured him: nine openair theatres were built in London in Shakespeare’s lifetime, beginning in 1576, some accommodating audiences of up to 3000, remarkable for a city of 200,000 people.
There was an ever increasing demand for plays and spectacles (including bearbaiting), a situation unprecedented until the explosive impact of cinema and television more than 300 years later. London’s theatres were closed in 1592–94 because of the plague. When they re-opened, Shakespeare was with ‘The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’, which acted at court, as actor, writer and probably director. In 1603 the company was renamed ‘The King’s Men’, under James I’s patronage. Shakespeare’s writing mirrors the circumstances of his times: drama in the theatre filled a psychological gap after the suppression of the Mass and abandonment of mystery plays, the upsurge of patriotic feelings after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and publishing poetry when the theatres were closed.
There was an extraordinary burst of creativity in drama towards the end of the Elizabethan and in the early Jacobean periods, unparalleled until the literary explosion in Russia in the 19th century. Shakespeare’s contemporary dramatists and poets included Spenser, Sidney, Greene, Middleton, Marlowe, Nash, Jonson, Kyd, Webster, Beaumont, Fletcher, Tourneur, Dekker, Ford, Thomas Heywood, George Wilkins, Donne and the Metaphysical poets. Francis Meres, in Palladis Tania. Wit’s Treasury (1598), rated Shakespeare highly both in comedy and tragedy. Shakespeare’s first published works were the narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593), very successful and much reprinted, and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), both based on Ovid and dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the young Earl of Southampton. Most of the sonnets may date from this period. Eleven plays (13 including disputed attributions) are based on mistaken /double identity.
Answers to the questions ‘Who are you?’ or ‘Are you who you say you are?’ could be matters of life or death in Elizabethan England, after convulsive changes from Catholicism, to Anglicanism, back to Catholicism and returning to modified strains of Anglicanism. Three of Shakespeare’s plays (As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Tempest) do not specify a location, 14 are set (in whole or in part) in England, 12 in Italy (Northern Italy 6, Ancient Rome 4, Sicily 3,), 5 (in whole or part) in France, 2 in Turkey (Ephesus and Ancient Troy), 2 in Athens and Ancient Britain, 1 each in Bohemia, Croatia (Illyria), Egypt, Denmark, Scotland, Lebanon (Tyre), and Vienna. Some have several locations, for example Henry V in England and France, Antony and Cleopatra in Rome, Alexandria, Messina and Athens, Othello in Venice and Cyprus.
He drew on material from Homer, Terence, Plautus, Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, Plutarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, *Caxton, Bandello, Holinshed, Montaigne and the Geneva Bible (especially Job and St Matthew.) In Shakespeare’s time, all the female characters, some of the greatest in all drama – Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Gertrude, Rosalind, Desdemona, Cleopatra, Portia, Beatrice – were played by men or boys.
There are only two functional marriages in the 38 plays, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Claudius and Gertrude, suggesting that Shakespeare took a bleak view of the institution. Bill Bryson’s conclusion that there is ‘no evidence that Shakespeare had a warm relationship with any other human being’ is probably correct. The earliest plays included the political-historical tetralogy Henry VI Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 and Richard III (1589–92).
The Henry VI plays, popular in their time, are now sometimes cut and bracketed together and performed as a single work. However, Richard III is a dramatic masterpiece, despite the unremitting Tudor partisanship of Shakespeare’s portrayal of *Richard. The Comedy of Errors (a free adaptation of Plautus) and Titus Andronicus (from Seneca) are also early and despite skill in plot construction and versification, there are crudities which disappeared as the playwright matured.
When the later tetralogy Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 and Henry V (1594– 99) is compared with the first, it is clear how far Shakespeare’s power and psychological insight have strengthened, notably in *Henry IV’s torment about the murder of *Richard II. Sir John Falstaff, fat, scheming and disreputable, Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, is a central character in Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and his death is reported in Henry V.
In comedy, Shakespeare was gaining an increased sureness of touch in combining farcical incident with subtle understanding of human nature, demonstrated in The Taming of the Shrew, which, with The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love’s Labour’s Lost, was almost certainly written before 1594. Some of his most popular plays were written in the period 1594–99: Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, followed by The Merchant of Venice and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and another history play, King John, now rarely performed.
Increasingly rich, in 1597 he bought New Place, a substantial house in Stratford. In 1599 Shakespeare’s company acquired the Globe Theatre, which burned down in 1613. On the eve of *Essex’s rebellion in February 1601, his supporters commissioned a special performance of Richard II, where a weakening sovereign is overthrown. Shakespeare’s company was never accused of complicity in the plot: the play was well known and it was clearly a commercial transaction.
Shakespeare’s finest comedies were Much Ado About Nothing (1598), As You Like It (1599) and Twelfth Night (1600–02). As a playwright he now reached his zenith, beginning with Julius Caesar (1599), the first of three Roman plays based on Plutarch, with powerful characterisation of Brutus – by far the longest part, Mark Antony and Caesar, and a chilling cameo of Octavian (the future Caesar *Augustus.) The second and third of the Roman plays were Antony and Cleopatra (1606–07) and Coriolanus (1608). Antony and Cleopatra, written in 42 scenes, is a complex epic, involving love, betrayal and conflicting loyalties, and critical opinion has long been divided on its ranking. Shakespeare borrowed from Plutarch and Virgil (whose account of Dido and Aeneas was in part a tactful account of Cleopatra and Antony, their contemporary prototypes).
Frank Kermode marvelled at the play’s ‘glamour … and magnificence’ and the contrasts between ‘melting Alexandria and … rigid, stony Rome.’ Coriolanus, a dark, rarely performed, late play, considered superior to Hamlet by T. S. Eliot, is the most overtly political work in the canon, with a disconcerting contemporary relevance: the central character’s chilling sense of his own honour drives his ambition and self-justification. Hamlet (1600–01) is the longest, greatest, most performed, most filmed, most quoted of all the plays and the one most resembling a novel, with its seven interior monologues (soliloquies), exploring the problem of self-knowledge and emotional paralysis.
Then came Othello (1604), with its themes of sexuality, race and treachery, King Lear (1605–06), the darkest of all, with its paroxysms of grief, a metaphor for reversion from civilization to barbarism, and Macbeth, psychologically one of the most complex (1605–06). Troilus and Cressida (1602), Measure for Measure (1603) and All’s Well that Ends Well (1604–05) are sometimes described as Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, where the boundary between comedy and tragedy is becoming blurred and mood changes are sudden and sometimes inexplicable. Cymbeline (1610), set in Ancient Britain, is an extraordinary mixture of genres, full of anachronisms but with fine poetry.
The Winter’s Tale (1610–11) is a complex and uneven work about separation in families: a return to life after 16 years. Kermode points to ranting and pathology in the first part, then calm and acceptance in the last acts His last completed play, The Tempest (1610–11), shows his creative powers at their highest and the character of Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, a magus-like figure on a remote island, seems to be strongly autobiographical and may have been played by Shakespeare himself. The Tempest, the most musical of the 38 plays, represents a farewell to his creative life in the theatre. Montaigne’s influence, with its intense speculation about the inner life and its contradictions, is apparent in Hamlet and King Lear and he is quoted (without attribution) in The Tempest.
Montaigne’s Essays were translated by John *Florio who, like Shakespeare, enjoyed the patronage of the Earl of Southampton. The plays are not dated and attempts to arrange them in chronological order have provoked endless controversy. At least 18 were published in Shakespeare’s lifetime in quarto form, and they are of particular interest because of their relevance to specific productions, so that the name of an actor may appear in the text instead of the character played.
A collected edition of 36 plays, known as the First Folio, appeared posthumously in 1623, and the names of the editors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, friends and fellow-actors, vouched for its general authenticity, although the texts were drawn from actors’ reconstructions and spellings and rhymes are inconsistent.
The First Folio includes the pageant play Henry VIII (1613, mostly written by John Fletcher) but excludes the collaborations Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1607, with George Wilkins?), and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613, Fletcher). Cardenio, based on a story in *Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and a collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher, performed in 1613, is now lost. About 750 copies were printed, selling for £1. Eighteen plays, including Macbeth, only survive because they appear in the First Folio. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC holds 82 of the surviving copies. Shakespeare’s plays are generally far longer than those written by his contemporaries.
The Sonnets were published in book form, possibly without authorisation, in 1609: Sonnets Nos. 1–126 are homoerotic, addressed to a ‘fair youth’, Nos. 127– 154 to an unidentified ‘dark lady’. The dedication, by the publisher Thomas Thorpe (or T.T.) to ‘Mr W. H.’, as the ‘onlie begetter’ of the sonnets, has caused much unresolved speculation. Very little is known about Shakespeare’s life: what he read (other than the obvious sources), if he travelled, the inspirations for his powerful and original ideas, his political or religious beliefs, his sexual orientation.
The richness, diversity and depth of his work led to the rise of ‘bardolatry’ in the 18th century but the meagre evidence of his personal life raised some questions, although it was not until 1856 that alternative authors were proposed. Francis *Bacon came first, then Edward de Vere, Earl of *Oxford. The 19th-century fiction that creative writing had to be autobiographical was picked up by *Freud, who should have known better. Seventy-nine alternate candidates have now been proposed. Three are royal, 16 are peers or peeresses, one a cardinal, one a saint, and 32 are published authors.
None is remotely plausible. (J. S. *Bach also had an enigmatic interior life but his authorship is virtually unchallenged.) Slips in writing about Europe or classical antiquity provide support for Shakespeare’s authorship: no writer from a university would expose himself to such errors. Ulysses quotes Aristotle. There are clocks in Julius Caesar.
There are striking examples of anatopism, having something out of place. The Winter’s Tale refers to the coasts (and also a desert) of Bohemia. Characters in Two Gentlemen of Verona sail from Milan to Verona (although he might have been referring to travel by canal), and from Milan to the Adriatic in The Tempest. The only banks in Venice were mercantile and lovers would not be sitting on them.
Shakespeare was a man of genius who trawled and reworked the secondary sources rather than having direct exposure to life outside England. His Venetians, Romans, Athenians, Sicilians, Ancient Britons are essentially Londoners. Shakespeare’s last five years were divided between London and New Place, Stratford, where his wife had remained. He died there on his birthday, 23 April 1616 (the same date as Cervantes, but 10 days later under the unreformed Julian calendar), and is buried in Holy Trinity Church.
A GPR (ground penetrating radar) scan of Shakespeare’s grave (2010) suggests that the skull is missing, possibly stolen in the 1790s. New Place was substantially rebuilt in 1702, finally demolished in 1759. Archaeology continues on the site and the gardens have been imaginatively restored. Shakespeare’s plays remained popular in his lifetime and some 20 years after.
The theatres closed from 1642–60 during the Civil War and the Commonwealth, and as fashions changed his work suffered some eclipse. (After the Restoration, *Pepys recorded seeing 15 performances of plays by and 26 adaptations of Shakespeare and 76 performances of plays by Beaumont and Fletcher). However, *Dryden, and later *Johnson, proclaimed his pre-eminence, which has never been challenged since. Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, were the first plays by Shakespeare performed in Australia (1800). More than 270 operas are based on Shakespeare’s plays, the finest being by *Purcell, *Berlioz, *Bellini, *Thomas, *Verdi, *Gounod, *Vaughan Williams, *Tippett, *Britten, *Bernstein and *Adès. There have been more than 400 television productions or films of Shakespeare’s plays, beginning with short excerpts from the silent era, e.g. King John (1899). In Shakespeare’s hands blank verse became an instrument of great delicacy whether for dialogue, narrative, description or argument; adaptable equally to any plot or situation, tragic or comic.
His vocabulary was exceptionally large for his time: David Crystal cautiously estimates that Shakespeare used between 17,000 and 20,000 words, allowing for divergent spellings, definitions and ambiguities. Bill Bryson credits Shakespeare with the coinage, or first recorded use, of 2,035 words (including ‘accommodation’, ‘addiction’, ‘assassination’, ‘barefaced’, ‘bloodstained’, ‘courtship’, ‘fashionable’, ‘frugal’, ‘generous’, ‘gossip’, ‘hobnob’, ‘lack-lustre’, ‘leapfrog’, ‘majestic’, ‘moonbeam’, ‘mountaineer’, ‘negotiate’, ‘obscene’, ‘premeditated’, ‘quarrelsome’, ‘rant’, ‘restoration’, ‘scuffle’, ‘torture’ and ‘vast’), 170 of them in Hamlet. His works have been translated more than any other author and many characters are household names. No writer has given more continuous delight or shown greater insight into the heart and mind, although we know so little of his own.