Playwright. Considered one of the greatest playwrights in history, he is the most famous author in English literature. His body of work expresses universal truths about the human soul through vivid, complex characters and incomparable poetry. It continues to influence creative figures in all the arts and has been translated into more languages than any other printed work except the Bible. Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire; tradition holds he was born on April 23, since it is known he died on that day 52 years later. His father John Shakespeare rose to prominence in Stratford affairs, winning appointment as an Alderman (1565) and serving as Bailiff (the equivalent of Mayor) in 1568, but by the late 1570s his involvement in illegal wool trade had seriously damaged his finances and status. As a boy William had at best a grammar school education, though it would have included Latin and an introduction to classic Roman authors. At 18 he married a local woman, Anne Hathaway, who was eight years older and pregnant; she bore him a daughter, Susanna, in 1583, and twins Hamnet and Judith in 1585. (Hamnet, his only son, died at age 11). What followed is the most crucial gap in Shakespeare's story - the "lost years" (1586 to 1591) in which there are no records of his activities. It seems most likely he went to London in the late 1580s to begin his apprenticeship in the theatre, while his family remained in Stratford. Those were heady times in his country's history. Decades of relative political stability under Elizabeth I, and the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada, had forged powerful feelings of national identity that pervaded the entire culture. English drama was just beginning to blossom with the plays of Thomas Kyd and the "University Wits" (chiefly Christopher Marlowe); London had three playhouses in 1586, and by 1600 there would be nine. Early Modern English itself was rapidly developing into a rich and vitally expressive language, with no standard textbooks to stem the coinage of new words. The Elizabethan theatre, which relied above all on poetry for its effect on a broad public, proved the ideal medium for Shakespeare's genius. The first published reference to him is in the 1592 "repentence" pamphlet "Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit", allegedly written by Robert Greene on his deathbed and "edited" by Henry Chettle. It contains a bitter passage referring to one "Shake-scene" as "an upstart crow", a lowly actor who thinks he can write plays as fine as those by university-educated men like Greene himself. It also alludes to a line in Shakespeare's "Henry VI, Part 3". The victim took offence, as Chettle soon offered a printed apology stating he had since learned of Shakespeare's ability, civil demeanor and reputation for "uprightness in dealing". Another pamphlet from that year, Thomas Nashe's "Pierce Penniless", more approvingly claimed that "ten thousand spectators at least" had flocked to see "Henry VI, Part 1". Both tracts establish that Shakespeare was by then an actor and dramatist in London, successful enough to rouse the envy of his rivals. The precise chronology of his plays is impossible to determine but counted among his early works, along with the ambitious "Henry VI" trilogy (c. 1590-1591), are the gory revenge tragedy "Titus Andronicus" (c. 1590), the comedies "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" (c. 1590), "The Comedy of Errors" (c. 1592) and "The Taming of the Shrew" (c. 1593), and the historical "Richard III" (c. 1592). They show him assimilating influences (especially Marlowe) and abound in brilliant if rather superficial wordplay. As a primary source for the history plays he relied, as he would in the future, on the second edition of "Holinshed's Chronicles" (1587). Outbreaks of plague kept London's theatres closed from June 1592 to April 1594. Shakespeare apparently got by with help from a young patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his long verse narratives "Venus and Adonis" (1593) and "The Rape of Lucrece" (1594). The only works Shakespeare personally arranged for publication, they brought him fame as a superior poet; "Venus and Adonis" was especially popular, going through six editions in nine years. His 154 sonnets, the supreme examples of the form in English, were also composed in the 1590s, though he only circulated them among friends. Writer Francis Meres noted their existence in 1598 and two (Nos. 138 and 144) appeared in the miscellany "The Passionate Pilgrim" (1599); the whole series was published, probably without permission, in 1609. Recurring debates over the sonnets' possible autobiographical nature, including attempts to identify their main characters (the "Fair Youth", the "Rival Poet", and the "Dark Lady") with historical individuals, have proved inconclusive. Apart from these and the minor poems "The Phoenix and the Turtle" (1601) and the possibly spurious "A Lover's Complaint" (published 1609) Shakespeare directed his creative energies entirely to the stage. By late 1594 he was a player, shareholder, and principal playwright of the new Lord Chamberlain's Men, which would give more command performances at Elizabeth's court than any competing troupe; after 1603 they enjoyed the patronage of James I as the King's Men. This association lasted the rest of his life and made him respectably wealthy. While his career prospered in London he returned to Stratford for a few months each year, and if he had a particular ambition it was to restore the Shakespeare fortunes there. He sponsored his father's 1596 application for a coat of arms, which granted gentry status to the family, and in 1597 he bought New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford. In time he would become an important landowner in the area as well as maintaining several London properties. The plays of this period are more lyrical and mark the emergence of Shakespeare's great gifts for characterization: "Love's Labour's Lost" (c. 1594), "Richard II" (c. 1595), "Romeo and Juliet" (c. 1595), "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (c. 1595), "King John" (c. 1596), "The Merchant of Venice" (c. 1596), the two parts of "Henry IV" (1596–1597), "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (c. 1598), and "Much Ado About Nothing" (c. 1598). He also appeared in Ben Jonson's hit comedy "Every Man In His Humour" (1598), one of his two documented credits as an actor (the other was in Jonson's tragedy "Sejanus" in 1603). John Davies of Hereford observed in 1610 that Shakespeare the thespian favored "kingly" roles, though this hint raises more questions than it answers. Many of his great title characters - Richard III, Romeo, Henry V, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear - were played by (and presumably written for) his company's star, Richard Burbage. In 1599, Shakespeare and other lead members of the Chamberlain's Men formed a syndicate to build and operate the Globe Theatre, on the south bank of the River Thames; it was the handsomest theatre in England and served as a model for other 17th Century playhouses. Shakespeare probably inaugurated it with the grand patriotic spectacle of "Henry V" (1599). Another of his history plays nearly landed him in deep trouble. On February 7, 1601, followers of the rebellious Earl of Essex paid the Chamberlain's Men a large sum to revive "Richard II" for a single performance at the Globe. They hoped this drama of usurpation would stir Londoners into joining Essex's ill-conceived plot to overthrow the government. It was poorly attended, and the coup attempt on February 8 collapsed from lack of public support. The Privy Council cleared the players of any involvement and in fact they performed for Elizabeth at Whitehall on February 24, the night before Essex was beheaded. (Shakespeare's early patron the Earl of Southampton took part in the revolt and was sentenced to death, but later pardoned). This was Shakespeare's one major brush with the authorities over his work. A growing sense of pessimism marks "Julius Caesar" (1599), the first of his great mature tragedies, followed by "Hamlet" (c. 1601) - surely the most examined and interpreted play ever written - "Othello" (c. 1604), "King Lear" (generally regarded as his greatest masterpiece, c. 1605), "Macbeth" (c. 1606), and "Antony and Cleopatra" (c. 1606). More difficult to classify are the so-called "problem plays" "Troilus and Cressida" (c. 1602), "All's Well That Ends Well" (c. 1603) and "Measure for Measure" (c. 1604); their ambiguous tone spills over into the last tragedies, "Timon of Athens" (c. 1607) and "Coriolanus" (c. 1608). Melancholy pervades "Twelfth Night" (c. 1601), the most popular of his romantic comedies. In 1608 the King's Men took over London's small indoor Blackfriars Theatre as its winter home, retaining the Globe for summer performances. Shakespeare's late romances "Pericles" (c. 1608), "Cymbeline" (c. 1609), "The Winter's Tale" (c. 1611), and "The Tempest" (c. 1611) explored the popular new vein of tragicomedy, in a style suitable for the refined tastes of the upscale Blackfriars audiences. "The Tempest" is believed to be the last play he wrote alone and has been viewed as a conscious valedictory. From there he gradually withdrew from the stage except as an investor. His final plays, "Henry VIII" (c. 1613), "The Two Noble Kinsmen" (c. 1613), and the lost "Cardenio" (c. 1612), were collaborations with his successor as the King's Men's chief playwright, John Fletcher. On June 29, 1613, the Globe Theatre was destroyed by fire during a performance of "Henry VIII"; Shakespeare helped finance construction of a new Globe, which opened on the same site in June 1614. Following a short visit to London that November he settled permanently in Stratford. Unfortunately he had little time to enjoy his retirement as a country squire. In January 1616 he drew up his will, with its much-noted bequest of the "second-best bed" to his wife; he revised it on March 25, and a month later he was dead. The inscription on his crypt inside Stratford's Holy Trinity Church is not an epitaph but a warning against the common practice of recycling graves for new burials, phrased in a manner that would scare off a superstitious sexton. Sometime before 1623 a funerary monument was erected nearby; the rather crude bust is the earliest known likeness of the author. The recorded facts of Shakespeare's life - and we know more about him than any other Elizabethan playwright - do not add up to scintillating biography. In the scrappy and sometimes murderous London theatre world of his day he was a discreet, elusive personality; he worked hard, was shrewd with his money, avoided controversy as best he could (though it occasionally found him). Baffling as it is to us now, he made no attempt to preserve his stage works for posterity, as if he subscribed to the Elizabethan prejudice that plays were not "literature" worthy of print. However they were too popular with audiences to be ignored by the city's booksellers. Beginning with "Titus Andronicus" in 1594, half of Shakespeare's titles appeared in pirated quarto editions during his lifetime, with texts varying in accuracy from good to abysmal. In 1616 Ben Jonson endured much ridicule for including his plays in a book of his collected works, but his bold precedent encouraged two of Shakespeare's longtime colleagues, actors John Heminge and Henry Condell, to perform a similar service for their late friend. They compiled and edited "Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies" (1623), commonly known as the First Folio. It includes the famous Martin Droeshout portrait of the author and, more importantly, 18 previously unpublished plays (among them "Julius Caesar", "Twelfth Night", "Macbeth", "Antony and Cleopatra" and "The Tempest") that may otherwise have been lost. Its publication represents the peak of appreciation from Shakespeare's contemporaries, who had earlier compared him to Ovid (Meres in 1598), Socrates and Virgil (the epitaph of the Stratford memorial). Such sentiments were uncommon during the English Civil War and Restoration periods, when he was considered old fashioned, though he had a powerful champion in John Dryden; his warhorses (especially "Hamlet") were still performed, but he was seldom read. This began to change after the first attempted critical edition of the plays (1709) by Nicholas Rowe, who also wrote the first biography, "Some Account of the Life of Mr. William Shakespear" [sic] (1709). In 1740 he was honored with a memorial in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, and at the end of the century he was not only a classic fixture of the English stage but a national hero. Voltaire helped spread his fame to France, though he considered Shakespeare a "barbarian" for, among other things, disregarding the classical unities that French drama strenuously observed. He was better received in Germany, where 22 of the plays appeared in prose translations (1766) and the complete works were first translated between 1775 and 1782. Lessing and Goethe believed emulating "The Bard of Avon" would serve as a catalyst in freeing German drama from the prevailing French influence. A certain anti-Gallic spirit also lies behind Catherine the Great's Russian adaptations of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and "Timon of Athens" (both 1786). 19th Century European Romantics found his sprawling imagination, on the whole, congenial. In Victorian England, Shakespeare-worship assumed such excessive proportions that George Bernard Shaw dubbed it "Bardolatry". A reaction to this was the rise of the snobbish fringe theory that a man of Shakespeare's modest background and education could not possibly have written his masterpieces, which then split into smaller bickering groups as alternative candidates for authorship (usually noblemen) were proposed. Orthodox Shakespearean scholarship has never taken these notions seriously. The lack of book-learning that even Ben Jonson chided Shakespeare for was superseded by an artistry both practical and inexplicable. As a professional actor Shakespeare was more intimately involved with the stage than his literary colleagues. He knew his audiences and adapted the source material for his plays with a surefire sense of theatrical effect. His inventiveness in the English language is unparalleled; he is credited with coining or popularizing over 2000 words, phrases and expressions, about half of which are still in use today. And he was schooled in human nature to a degree few authors have ever attained. The breadth of his humanity enriches his characters, from monarchs to beggars, giving them thoughts and feelings we can recognize and identify with. Shakespeare's work continues to grace the world's stages while most English Renaissance writing is the dusty province of scholars. Jonson said it best when he wrote, "He was not of an age, but for all time".
Bio by: Bobb Edwards
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.
OF THE POET
1556–1623 (m. 1582)