Shakespeare, William (1564-1616), English poet and playwright, recognized in much of the world as the greatest of all dramatists.
A complete, authoritative account of Shakespeare’s life is lacking; much supposition surrounds relatively few facts. His day of birth is traditionally held to be April 23; it is known he was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. The third of eight children, he was the eldest son of John Shakespeare, a locally prominent merchant, and Mary Arden, daughter of a Roman Catholic member of f the landed gentry. He was probably educated at the local grammar school. As the eldest son, Shakespeare ordinarily would have been apprenticed to his father’s shop so that he could learn and eventually take over the business, but according to one apocryphal account he was apprenticed to a butcher because of reverses in his father’s financial situation. In recent years, it has more convincingly been argued that he was caught up in the secretive network of Catholic believers and pr riests who strove to cultivate their faith in the inhospitable conditions of Elizabethan England. At the turn of the 1580s, it is claimed, he served as tutor in the household of Alexander Houghton, a prominent Lancashire Catholic and friend of th
Shakespeare apparently arrived in London in about 1588, and by 1592 had attained success as an actor and a playwright. Shortly thereafter, he secured the patronage of Henry Wriothesley, 3r rd Earl of Southampton. The publication of Shakespeare’s two fashionably erotic narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and of his Sonnets (published 1609, but circulated previously in manuscript) established his reputation as a gifted and popular Renaissance poet. The 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 en
While the poem may be familiar, it is less well known that it is an exquisite celebration of a young man’s beauty. The fact that 126 of the 154 sonnets are apparently addressed by a male poet to another man has caused some critical discomfort over the years. However, Shakespeare’s modern reputation is based mainly on the 38 plays that he apparently wrote, modified, or collaborated on. Although generally popular in his day, these plays were frequently little esteemed by his educated contemporaries, who considered English plays of their own day to be only vulgar entertainment.
Shakespeare’s professional life in London was marked by a number of financially advantageous arrangements that permitted him to share in the profits of his acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, later called the King’s Men, and its two theatres, the Globe Theatre and the Blackfriars. His plays were given special presentation at the courts of Elizabeth I an
After about 1608, Shakespeare’s dramatic production lessened and it seems that he spent more time in Stratford. There he had established his family in an imposing house called New Place, and had become a leading local citizen. He died on April 23, 1616, and was buried in the Stratford church.
Although the precise date of many of Shakespeare’s plays is in doubt, his dramatic career is generally divided into four periods: the first period, involving experimentation, although still clearly influenced by or imitating Classical models; the second period, in which Shakespeare appears to achieve a truly individual style and approach; a third, darker period, in which he wrote not only his major tragedies but also the more difficult comedies, known as the “problem pl
These divisions are necessarily arbitrary ways of viewing Shakespeare’s creative development, since his plays are notoriously hard to date accurately, either in terms of when they were written or when they were first performed. Commentators differ and the dates in this article should be seen as plausible approximations. In all periods, the plots of his plays were frequently drawn from chronicles, histories, or earlier fiction, as were the plays of other contemporary dramatists.
Shakespeare’s reputation as perhaps the greatest of all dramatists was not achieved during his lifetime. Though his contemporary Ben Jonson declared him “not of an age, but for all time”, early 17th-century taste found the plays of Jonson himself, or Thomas Middleton, or Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, equally worthy of praise. Only in the Restoration period—some 50 or more years after Shakespeare’s death—did his reputation begin to eclipse that of his contemporaries. This is not to say that the late 17th- and early 18th-century theatre treated his plays with anything like reverence. When they were performed, it was most often in versions rewritten for the fashions of the age, purged—as their adaptors maintained—of their coarseness and absurdities. These alterations could be very significant: in one version of King Lear popular throughout the 18th century Lear and Cordelia are reprieved at the play’s conclusion, transforming a tragedy into a tragicomedy! Perhaps paradoxically, it was exactly this fondness for adapting Shakespeare that kept his plays in the repertoire while those of Jonson, Middleton, and others went down to obscurity. Also, during the first half of the 18th century Shakespeare began to be afforded the role of English national poet, a process that reached its culmination in the installation of a memorial statue in Westminster Abbey in 1741 and a huge Jubilee festival, staged in 1764 to celebrate the bicentenary of his birth.
The Romantic movement, particularly the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Johann Wolfgang Goethe, did much to shape both Shakespeare’s international reputation and the account of his achievement that has persisted ever since. Romantic authors claimed Shakespeare as a great precursor of their own literary values: his work was celebrated as an embodiment of universal human truths, an unequalled articulation of the human condition in all its nobility and variety. In later Victorian Britain this view was married to the moralistic “civilizing” mission of educationalists and empire builders, while American writers looked to Shakespeare as a foundation stone of their own distinct cultural identity. The years since World War I have if anything cemented these positions: the establishment of institutions such as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Britain, and the Folger Shakespeare Library in the United States, has ensured that his work has remained a central icon of Western culture. The claim that his plays have the power to transcend their historical moment and speak to all humanity now underlies an insistence on Shakespeare’s continuing relevance to our own situation: as the title of a seminal book by Jan Kott put it, Shakespeare is “our contemporary”.
Nevertheless, there have always been dissenters. Writers of the stature of Leo Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw were prepared to offer devastatingly negative judgements on the plays and their author, while others have advanced eccentric theories designed to prove that such great plays could not have been written by someone of Shakespeare’s obscure origins and limited education. In their own way, recent Shakespearean scholars have also contributed to a demythologizing of the bard that some think threatens the security of his reputation. Yet even as the focus of such activities Shakespeare remains central to the work of literary critics, to theatre throughout the world, to Western accounts of national and cultural identity, and to the British tourist industry. These are not positions he will be allowed to surrender easily.