Ondertexts
William Shakespeare
Search

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare William Shakespeare[1†]

William Shakespeare (bapt. 26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) was an English playwright, poet, and actor[1†]. He is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist[1†]. He is often called England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon” (or simply “the Bard”)[1†]. His birthday is most commonly celebrated on 23 April, which is also believed to be the date he died in 1616[2†]. Shakespeare was a prolific writer during the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages of British theatre (sometimes called the English Renaissance or the Early Modern Period)[2†].

Early Years and Education

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small town in the middle of the English countryside[3†][4†]. His father, John Shakespeare, was a glover and public servant with social ambitions, as suggested by his marriage to Mary Arden, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer[3†]. Despite being born to parents of good social standing, Shakespeare entered the world at a troubled time. In 1564 England was in the midst of an outbreak of plague. Owing to Spanish interruption of the cloth market as well as ongoing conflict between Protestants and Catholics, England also suffered economic hardship and religious upheaval[3†].

Despite these ongoing problems, John Shakespeare likely enrolled his son in the King’s New School in Stratford at the age of 7[3†]. In grammar school, Shakespeare would have been subjected to intensive training in Latin that lasted all day, six days a week[3†]. Grammar schools in Shakespeare’s time had an exclusive emphasis on drills, memorization, and imitation[3†]. Though the experience likely wasn’t a creative one, Shakespeare’s studies, and particularly his study of the Latin poet Ovid, influenced him deeply[3†]. Shakespeare’s schooling likely ended around age 15, when his father found himself in financial straits and required his eldest son’s help in the family glove-making business[3†].

Although we only have circumstantial evidence based on references that appear in plays he would write much later, it is very likely that Shakespeare had early encounters with theatrical performances and other festive events[3†]. In the years 1568–69 John Shakespeare served as Stratford’s bailiff (i.e., its mayor), which meant he was responsible for approving public performances by roving troupes of players[3†]. It is possible that he may have taken his son to see some of these performances, many of which were likely morality plays, a popular form of Christian drama that presented lessons about good conduct and virtuous character[3†].

Career Development and Achievements

Shakespeare’s career began with the publication of his poem “Venus and Adonis” and was propelled forward when he started working with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men[5†][6†]. He wrote an average of two complete plays every year, even while working as an actor himself[7†]. Many of his earliest works were history plays, such as the Henry VI trilogy, possibly written in collaboration with Thomas Nashe in 1591 and 1592[5†][7†].

Shakespeare’s reputation was established in London by 1592[5†]. It was during this time that Shakespeare wrote his earliest plays, including Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Titus Andronicus[5†]. His first printed works were two long poems, ‘Venus and Adonis’ (1593) and ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ (1594), both dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, who had become his patron[5†].

After the plague epidemic subsided, Shakespeare and other actors who had previously belonged to different companies combined to form the Lord Chamberlain’s Men[5†]. This new theatre company was under the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain, and Richard Burbage starred as its leading actor[5†]. As a member of the troupe, Shakespeare also became a sharer in the company’s overall income[5†]. For almost twenty years, William Shakespeare was its regular dramatist, producing on average two plays a year[5†].

Shakespeare stayed with the Chamberlain’s Men, which would later evolve into the King’s Men under the patronage of King James I, for the rest of his career[5†]. He also became a member of the syndicates which owned the Globe and the Blackfriars Theatre[5†]. During his lifetime, Shakespeare provoked the envy and admiration of fellow writers, as we know from their surviving comments in print[5†]. The First Folio, an unprecedented collection of a playwright’s work, is the best illustration of the pre-eminence awarded to him[5†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Shakespeare’s works have had a profound impact on literature and theatre. Here are some of his main works, along with the year of their first publication:

  1. Romeo and Juliet (c. 1594–96): This tragic love story between two young people from feuding families has become one of the most famous plays in the world[8†].
  2. Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598–99): This comedy revolves around misunderstandings, love and deception[8†].
  3. Julius Caesar (c. 1599–1600): This historical play portrays the conspiracy against the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, his assassination, and its aftermath[8†].
  4. Hamlet (c. 1599–1601): This tragedy tells the story of Prince Hamlet’s revenge against his uncle, Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet’s father to seize his throne and marry his wife[8†][9†].
  5. King Lear (1605–06): This tragedy revolves around the gradual descent into madness of King Lear, after he disposes of his kingdom by giving bequests to two of his three daughters based on their flattery of him[8†][9†].
  6. Macbeth (c. 1606–07): This tragedy dramatizes the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake[8†][9†].

These works were first published during Shakespeare’s lifetime and continue to be performed and studied worldwide. They have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright[8†][9†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Shakespeare’s work has been subject to various analyses and evaluations throughout history. During his own lifetime and shortly afterward, Shakespeare enjoyed fame and considerable critical attention[10†]. The English writer Francis Meres, in 1598, declared him to be England’s greatest writer in comedy and tragedy[10†]. Writer and poet John Weever lauded “honey-tongued Shakespeare”[10†]. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary and a literary critic in his own right, granted that Shakespeare had no rival in the writing of comedy, even in the ancient Classical world, and that he equaled the ancients in tragedy as well[10†].

However, Jonson also faulted Shakespeare for having a mediocre command of the Classical languages and for ignoring Classical rules[10†]. Jonson objected when Shakespeare dramatized history extending over many years and moved his dramatic scene around from country to country, rather than focusing on 24 hours or so in a single location[10†]. Shakespeare wrote too glibly, in Jonson’s view, mixing kings and clowns, lofty verse with vulgarity, mortals with fairies[10†].

For Romantic critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the early 19th century, Shakespeare deserved to be appreciated most of all for his creative genius and his spontaneity[10†]. For Goethe in Germany as well, Shakespeare was a bard, a mystical seer[10†]. Most of all, Shakespeare was considered supreme as a creator of character[10†].

Personal Life

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to John and Mary Arden Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon[4†][2†]. He was the oldest surviving child of his parents, who had lost two daughters as infants[4†]. William had three younger brothers, Gilbert, Richard, and Edmund, and two younger sisters: Anne, who died at seven, and Joan[4†].

His father, John Shakespeare, was a leatherworker who specialized in the soft white leather used for gloves and similar items[4†]. A prosperous businessman, he married Mary Arden, of the prominent Arden family[4†]. John rose through local offices in Stratford, becoming an alderman and eventually, when William was five, the town bailiff—much like a mayor[4†]. Not long after that, however, John Shakespeare stepped back from public life[4†].

At the age of eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was twenty-six and already expecting their first-born child, Susanna[4†][2†]. The couple later had twins, Hamnet and Judith[4†][2†]. Tragically, Hamnet died when he was just 11 years old[2†].

Conclusion and Legacy

William Shakespeare’s influence on the English language, literature, and theatre is immeasurable[11†][12†][13†]. He introduced new words into our lexicon, transformed existing ones, and created idioms that became commonplace within everyday conversation[11†][13†]. His works have been translated into 80 languages, including Star Trek’s Klingon[11†]. He helped shape the English we use today, introducing up to 300 words and dozens of well-known phrases[11†].

Shakespeare’s plays are known around the world for their universal themes and insight into the human condition[11†]. His works have deeply influenced the literary world for several centuries[11†][12†]. Shakespeare inspired writers around the world like Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Herman Melville, and many more through his work[11†][12†]. His plays during the 17th and 18th century are said to have helped regulate the English language[11†][12†].

Today, Shakespeare is regarded as England’s national playwright[11x†]. The prestige of his plays and casting of star actors reflects this[11†]. But Shakespeare may have been forgotten if his work hadn’t been compiled and published posthumously in the First Folio in 1623[12†]. This collection of his works is the primary source of several of Shakespeare’s plays[11†][12†].

In conclusion, William Shakespeare did incredible things[11†][14†]. He was able to write 37 plays, averaging 1.5 plays per year, all while dealing with social, family, and business life[14†]. Some scholars believe that he wrote 20 more that were lost, making the total 57 plays and 154 sonnets[14†]!

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - William Shakespeare [website] - link
  2. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust - William Shakespeare Biography [website] - link
  3. SparkNotes - William Shakespeare’s Life & Times - Early Life [website] - link
  4. Folger Shakespeare Library - Shakespeare's life [website] - link
  5. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust - Shakespeare's Career [website] - link
  6. CareerInsider - How Did Shakespeare Start His Career [website] - link
  7. SparkNotes - William Shakespeare’s Life & Times: Early work [website] - link
  8. Britannica - William Shakespeare’s Important Works [website] - link
  9. Britannica - William Shakespeare summary [website] - link
  10. Britannica - Understanding Shakespeare - Literary criticism [website] - link
  11. BBC UK - William Shakespeare: The life and legacy of England’s bard [website] - link
  12. Elizabethan England Life - William Shakespeare’s Achievements, Contribution and Legacy [website] - link
  13. AtOnce - The Shakespearean Influence: English Language Evolution [website] - link
  14. William Shakespeare - Conclusion [website] - link
  15. Britannica - William Shakespeare [website] - link
  16. National Geographic Kids - 15 top Shakespeare facts! [website] - link
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 4.0; additional terms may apply.
Ondertexts® is a registered trademark of Ondertexts Foundation, a non-profit organization.