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William Shakespeare

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Shakespeare’s MacbethShakespeare’s Macbeth
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William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English playwright and poet, recognized in much of the world as the greatest of all dramatists. Hundreds of editions of his plays have been published, including translations in all major languages. Scholars have written thousands of books and articles about his plots, characters, themes, and language. He is the most widely quoted author in history, and his plays have probably been performed more times than those of any other dramatist.

There is no simple explanation for Shakespeare’s unrivaled popularity, but he remains our greatest entertainer and perhaps our most profound thinker. He had a remarkable knowledge of human behavior, which he was able to communicate through his portrayal of a wide variety of characters. He was able to enter fully into the point of view of each of his characters and to create vivid dramatic situations in which to explore human motivations and behavior. His mastery of poetic language and of the techniques of drama enabled him to combine these multiple viewpoints, human motives, and actions to produce a uniquely compelling theatrical experience.



For someone who lived almost 400 years ago, a surprising amount is known about Shakespeare’s life. Indeed we know more about his life than about almost any other writer of his age. Nonetheless, for the life of the greatest writer in the English language, there are still significant gaps, and therefore much supposition surrounds the facts we have. He composed his plays during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 to 1603, and during the early part of the reign of her closest relative, James VI of Scotland, who took England’s throne as James I after Elizabeth’s death in 1603. During this period England saw an outpouring of poetry and drama, led by Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Christopher Marlowe, that remains unsurpassed in English literary history (see English Literature).


Early Years

Although the exact date of Shakespeare’s birth is unknown, his baptism on April 26, 1564, was recorded in the parish register of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, a prosperous town in the English Midlands. Based on this record and on the fact that children in Shakespeare’s time were usually baptized two or three days after birth, April 23 has traditionally been accepted as his date of birth.

The third of eight children, William Shakespeare was the eldest son of John Shakespeare, a locally prominent glovemaker and wool merchant, and Mary Arden, the daughter of a well-to-do landowner in the nearby village of Wilmcote. The young Shakespeare probably attended the Stratford grammar school, the King’s New School, which educated the sons of Stratford citizens. The school’s rigorous curriculum was based largely on the study of Latin and the major classical writers. Shakespeare’s writings show that he was well acquainted with the Latin poet Ovid as well as other Latin works, including comedies by Terence and Plautus, two much-admired Roman playwrights.

As his family’s eldest son, Shakespeare ordinarily would have been apprenticed to his father’s shop after he completed grammar school, so that he could learn and eventually take over the business. We do not have any evidence that he did so, however. According to one late 17th-century account, he was apprenticed instead to a butcher because of declines in his father’s financial situation, but this claim is no more convincing that a number of other claims. A potentially reliable source, William Beeston, the son of an actor and theater manager who would certainly have known Shakespeare, claimed that Shakespeare had been “a schoolmaster in the country.” Recently, some scholars have been intrigued by a letter from 1581 from a prominent landowner, Alexander Hoghton, recommending a William Shakeshafte to Sir Thomas Hesketh. Some believe that Shakeshafte is Shakespeare, working perhaps as a schoolmaster for the Hoghtons, a Catholic family in Lancashire. However, no absolutely reliable historical records remain to provide information about Shakespeare’s life between his baptism and his marriage.

On November 27, 1582, a license was issued to permit Shakespeare’s marriage, at the age of 18, to Anne Hathaway, aged 26 and the daughter of a Warwickshire farmer. (Although the document lists the bride as “Annam Whateley,” the scribe most likely made an error in the entry.) The next day a bond was signed to protect the bishop who issued the license from any legal responsibility for approving the marriage, as William was still a minor and Anne was pregnant. The couple’s daughter, Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583, and twins—Hamnet and Judith who were named for their godparents, neighbors Hamnet and Judith Sadler—followed on February 2, 1585.

Sometime after the birth of the twins, Shakespeare apparently left Stratford, but no records have turned up to reveal his activity between their birth and his presence in London in 1592, when he was already at work in the theater. For this reason Shakespeare’s biographers sometimes refer to the years between 1585 and 1592 as “the lost years.” Speculations about this period abound. An unsubstantiated report claims Shakespeare left Stratford after he was caught poaching in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy, a local justice of the peace. Another theory has him leaving for London with a theater troupe that had performed in Stratford in 1587.


Arrival in London

Shakespeare seems to have arrived in London about 1588, and by 1592 he had attained sufficient success as an actor and a playwright to attract the venom of an anxious rival. In his Groat’s Worth of Wit, English dramatist Robert Greene sneers at “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 [jack of all trades], is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.” The pun on Shakespeare’s name and the parody in the quotation of a line from Henry VI leave no doubt of Greene’s target. Shortly after this remark, Shakespeare’s first publications appeared.

Shakespeare’s poetry rather than his plays reached print first: Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594. These two fashionably erotic narrative poems were probably written to earn money as the theaters were closed from the summer of 1592 to the spring of 1594 because of plague, and Shakespeare’s normal source of income was thus denied him. Even so, the two poems, along with the Sonnets, established Shakespeare’s reputation as a gifted and popular poet. Shakespeare dedicated the two poems to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton. Scholars disagree on whether the dedications are evidence of a close relationship between Shakespeare and Southampton. Literary dedications were designed to gain financial support from wealthy men interested in fostering the arts, and it is probable that Southampton rewarded Shakespeare for his two poems. Both poems became best-sellers—The Rape of Lucrece appearing in eight editions by 1632, Venus and Adonis in a remarkable 16 editions by 1636—and both were widely quoted and often imitated.

The Sonnets were not published until 1609, but as early as 1598, a contemporary, Francis Meres, praised Shakespeare as a “mellifluous and honey-tongued” poet equal to the Roman Ovid, praising in particular his “sugared sonnets” that were circulating “among his private friends.” The 154 sonnets describe the devotion of a character, often identified as the poet himself, to a young man whose beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless dark lady with whom the poet is infatuated. The sonnets are prized for their exploration of love in all its aspects. Sonnet 18, which begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” ranks among the most famous love poems of all time. See also Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

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