Who Was Shakespeare?
Little is actually known for sure about the man we call William Shakespeare, although his is a name familiar to nearly every English speaking person. His birthday is a guess, and just what he looked like is a mystery. Even his identity itself is sometimes disputed. But most people today consider Shakespeare the greatest of all dramatists. His plays demonstrate a profound understanding of the nature of humanity. His skill with language and his ability to construct a story through dramatic and poetic means is unequaled.
The generally accepted facts are as follows: Shakespeare was born in 1564, the third child and first son of John Shakespeare and his wife Mary Arden, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. John Shakespeare was a landowner, a merchant, a glovemaker, and a man on a political track. In 1567 he became "high bailiff," the highest elected office in Stratford, equivalent to a mayor today.
William was baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 23, 1564. The exact date is known from town records. He most likely attended the local grammar school, the King's New School, where his teachers held Oxford degrees and taught a rigorous program of study.
In 1582, at the age of eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a farmer from the nearby village of Shottery. In 1583, they had a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. (Hamnet died at age eleven).
Around 1588 Shakespeare and his family moved to London and within a few years he had achieved some success as an actor, a poet and a playwright. The Sonnets especially established his reputation as a gifted and popular poet, but it is the 38 plays he wrote or collaborated on that have firmly established his reputation as the greatest dramatist who ever lived.
Shakespeare became a charter member of a theatrical company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, in 1594. He first worked in theatres owned by James Burbage northeast of London, the Theatre and the Curtain. In 1598 Burbage moved to Bankside, along the Thames River, and built the Globe Theatre. As a partner in the Globe, (and later the Blackfriars Theatre, acquired in 1608), Shakespeare profited from its success. His plays were performed at the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, who became sponsor of his theatrical troupe in 1603. Its name was changed to the King's Men.
After 1608 Shakespeare's creative output lessened and he returned to Stratford. He settled his family in one of the town's finest homes and became a prominent local citizen. He died in 1616 at the age of 52 and was buried in the chancel of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford. His tomb's elegy, allegedly written by him, reads:
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
There are theories that Shakespeare's plays were actually written by someone else, perhaps someone more highly educated. Names suggested include the statesman and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare's patron), Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford and even Queen Elizabeth.
Shakespeare's body of work is generally divided up into four major periods. His early plays (1589-95) were somewhat experimental. They include chronicle history plays, a popular genre of the period which featured medieval tragedies played out in bloody detail, and a range of comedies.
Shakespeare's second period (to 1600) included important plays dealing with English history, his "joyous" comedies and two major tragedies. His technique became individualized and distinct as he began to combine elements of the tragic and the comic to reveal the vast sweep of humanity.
Great tragedies, considered his most profound work, were written during the third period (to 1608) of Shakespeare's career. These included Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. He also wrote pensive and biting comedies during this time.
During his fourth period (to 1613) Shakespeare wrote his primary romantic tragicomedies including The Tempest, considered by many to be Shakespeare's most beautiful and lyrical play.
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