Shakespeare, William

 baptized April 26, 1564, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, Eng. 
 died April 23, 1616, Stratford-upon-Avon 

 Shakespeare also spelled Shakspere, byname Bard of Avon, or Swan of Avon English poet,
 dramatist, and actor, often called the English national poet and considered by many to be
 the greatest dramatist of all time.


 Shakespeare occupies a position unique in world literature. Other poets, such as Homer
 and Dante, and novelists, such as Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens, have transcended
 national barriers; but no writer's living reputation can compare with that of Shakespeare,
 whose plays, written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries for a small repertory
 theatre, are now performed and read more often and in more countries than ever before.
 The prophecy of his great contemporary, the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson, that
 Shakespeare "was not of an age, but for all time," has been fulfilled. 

 It may be audacious even to attempt a definition of his greatness, but it is not so difficult
 to describe the gifts that enabled him to create imaginative visions of pathos and mirth
 that, whether read or witnessed in the theatre, fill the mind and linger there. He is a writer
 of great intellectual rapidity, perceptiveness, and poetic power. Other writers have had
 these qualities, but with Shakespeare the keenness of mind was applied not to abstruse
 or remote subjects but to human beings and their complete range of emotions and
 conflicts. Other writers have applied their keenness of mind in this way, but Shakespeare
 is astonishingly clever with words and images, so that his mental energy, when applied to
 intelligible human situations, finds full and memorable expression, convincing and
 imaginatively stimulating. As if this were not enough, the art form into which his creative
 energies went was not remote and bookish but involved the vivid stage impersonation of
 human beings, commanding sympathy and inviting vicarious participation. Thus
 Shakespeare's merits can survive translation into other languages and into cultures
 remote from that of Elizabethan England.

Shakespeare the man 


 Although the amount of factual knowledge available about Shakespeare is surprisingly
 large for one of his station in life, many find it a little disappointing, for it is mostly gleaned
 from documents of an official character. Dates of baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials;
 wills, conveyances, legal processes, and payments by the court--these are the dusty
 details. There is, however, a fair number of contemporary allusions to him as a writer, and
 these add a reasonable amount of flesh and blood to the biographical skeleton.

Early life in Stratford 

 The parish register of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon shows that Shakespeare
 was baptized there on April 26, 1564, but his birthday is traditionally celebrated on April
 23. His father, John Shakespeare, was a burgess of the borough, who in 1565 was chosen
 an alderman and in 1568 bailiff (the position corresponding to mayor, before the grant of a
 further charter to Stratford in 1664). He was engaged in various kinds of trade and
 appears to have suffered some fluctuations in prosperity. His wife, Mary Arden, of
 Wilmcote, Warwickshire, came from an ancient family and was the heiress to some land.
 (Given the somewhat rigid social distinctions of the 16th century, this marriage must have
 been a step up the social scale for John Shakespeare.)

 Stratford enjoyed a grammar school of good quality, and the education there was free, the
 schoolmaster's salary being paid by the borough. No lists of the pupils who were at the
 school in the 16th century have survived, but it would be absurd to suppose the bailiff of
 the town did not send his son there. The boy's education would consist mostly of Latin
 studieslearning to read, write, and speak the language fairly well and studying some of
 the classical historians, moralists, and poets. Shakespeare did not go on to the university,
 and indeed it is unlikely that the tedious round of logic, rhetoric, and other studies then
 followed there would have interested him.

 Instead, at the age of 18 he married. Where and exactly when are not known, but the
 episcopal registry at Worcester preserves a bond dated November 28, 1582, and executed
 by two yeomen of Stratford, named Sandells and Richardson, as a security to the bishop
 for the issue of a license for the marriage of William Shakespeare and "Anne Hathaway of
 Stratford," upon the consent of her friends and upon once asking of the banns. (Anne died
 in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare. There is good evidence to associate her with a
 family of Hathaways who inhabited a beautiful farmhouse, now much visited, two miles
 from Stratford.) The next date of interest is found in the records of the Stratford church,
 where a daughter, named Susanna, born to William Shakespeare, was baptized on May
 26, 1583. On February 2, 1585, twins were baptized, Hamnet and Judith. (The boy
 Hamnet, Shakespeare's only son, died 11 years later.)

 How Shakespeare spent the next eight years or so, until his name begins to appear in
 London theatre records, is not known. There are stories--given currency long after his
 death--of stealing deer and getting into trouble with a local magnate, Sir Thomas Lucy of
 Charlecote, near Stratford; of earning his living as a schoolmaster in the country; of going
 to London and gaining entry to the world of theatre by minding the horses of
 theatregoers; it has also been conjectured that Shakespeare spent some time as a
 member of a great household and that he was a soldier, perhaps in the Low Countries. In
 lieu of external evidence, such extrapolations about Shakespeare's life have often been
 made from the internal "evidence" of his writings. But this method is unsatisfactory: one
 cannot conclude, for example, from his allusions to the law that Shakespeare was a
 lawyer; for he was clearly a writer, who without difficulty could get whatever knowledge
 he needed for the composition of his plays.

Career in the theatre 

 The first reference to Shakespeare in the literary world of London comes in 1592, when a
 fellow dramatist, Robert Greene, declared in a pamphlet written on his deathbed:

 It is difficult to be certain what these words mean; but it is clear that they are insulting
 and that Shakespeare is the object of the sarcasms. When the book in which they appear
 (Greenes, groats-worth of witte, bought with a million of Repentance, 1592) was published
 after Greene's death, a mutual acquaintance wrote a preface offering an apology to
 Shakespeare and testifying to his worth. This preface also indicates that Shakespeare was
 by then making important friends. For, although the puritanical city of London was
 generally hostile to the theatre, many of the nobility were good patrons of the drama and
 friends of actors. Shakespeare seems to have attracted the attention of the young Henry
 Wriothesley, the 3rd earl of Southampton; and to this nobleman were dedicated his first
 published poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

 One striking piece of evidence that Shakespeare began to prosper early and tried to
 retrieve the family fortunes and establish its gentility is the fact that a coat of arms was
 granted to John Shakespeare in 1596. Rough drafts of this grant have been preserved in
 the College of Arms, London, though the final document, which must have been handed to
 the Shakespeares, has not survived. It can scarcely be doubted that it was William who
 took the initiative and paid the fees. The coat of arms appears on Shakespeare's
 monument (constructed before 1623) in the Stratford church. Equally interesting as
 evidence of Shakespeare's worldly success was his purchase in 1597 of New Place, a large
 house in Stratford, which as a boy he must have passed every day in walking to school.

 It is not clear how his career in the theatre began; but from about 1594 onward he was
 an important member of the Lord Chamberlain's Company of players (called the King's Men
 after the accession of James I in 1603). They had the best actor, Richard Burbage; they
 had the best theatre, the Globe; they had the best dramatist, Shakespeare. It is no
 wonder that the company prospered. Shakespeare became a full-time professional man of
 his own theatre, sharing in a cooperative enterprise and intimately concerned with the
 financial success of the plays he wrote.

 Unfortunately, written records give little indication of the way in which Shakespeare's
 professional life molded his marvellous artistry. All that can be deduced is that for 20 years
 Shakespeare devoted himself assiduously to his art, writing more than a million words of
 poetic drama of the highest quality.

Private life 

 Shakespeare had little contact with officialdom, apart from walking--dressed in the royal
 livery as a member of the King's Men--at the coronation of King James I in 1604. He
 continued to look after his financial interests. He bought properties in London and in
 Stratford. In 1605 he purchased a share (about one-fifth) of the Stratford tithes--a fact
 that explains why he was eventually buried in the chancel of its parish church. For some
 time he lodged with a French Huguenot family called Mountjoy, who lived near St. Olave's
 Church, Cripplegate, London. The records of a lawsuit in May 1612, due to a Mountjoy
 family quarrel, show Shakespeare as giving evidence in a genial way (though unable to
 remember certain important facts that would have decided the case) and as interesting
 himself generally in the family's affairs.

 No letters written by Shakespeare have survived, but a private letter to him happened to
 get caught up with some official transactions of the town of Stratford and so has been
 preserved in the borough archives. It was written by one Richard Quiney and addressed
 by him from the Bell Inn in Carter Lane, London, whither he had gone from Stratford upon
 business. On one side of the paper is inscribed: "To my loving good friend and countryman,
 Mr. Wm. Shakespeare, deliver these." Apparently Quiney thought his fellow Stratfordian a
 person to whom he could apply for the loan of 30--a large sum in Elizabethan money.
 Nothing further is known about the transaction, but, because so few opportunities of
 seeing into Shakespeare's private life present themselves, this begging letter becomes a
 touching document. It is of some interest, moreover, that 18 years later Quiney's son
 Thomas became the husband of Judith, Shakespeare's second daughter.

 Shakespeare's will, which was made on March 25, 1616, is a long and detailed document.
 It entailed his quite ample property on the male heirs of his elder daughter, Susanna.
 (Both his daughters were then married, one to the aforementioned Thomas Quiney and
 the other to John Hall, a respected physician of Stratford.) As an afterthought, he
 bequeathed his "second-best bed" to his wife; but no one can be certain what this
 notorious legacy means. The testator's signatures to the will are apparently in a shaky
 hand. Perhaps Shakespeare was already ill. He died on April 23. No name was inscribed on
 his gravestone in the chancel of the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon. 

Early posthumous documentation 

 Shakespeare's family or friends, however, were not content with a simple gravestone,
 and, within a few years, a monument was erected on the chancel wall. It seems to have
 existed by 1623. Its epitaph, written in Latin and inscribed immediately below the bust,
 attributes to Shakespeare the worldly wisdom of Nestor, the genius of Socrates, and the
 poetic art of Virgil. This apparently was how his contemporaries in Stratford-on-Avon
 wished their fellow citizen to be remembered.

The tributes of his colleagues 

 The memory of Shakespeare survived long in theatrical circles, for his plays remained a
 major part of the repertory of the King's Men until the closing of the theatres in 1642. The
 greatest of Shakespeare's great contemporaries in the theatre, Ben Jonson, had a good
 deal to say about him. To William Drummond of Hawthornden in 1619 he said that
 Shakespeare "wanted art." But, when he came to write his splendid poem prefixed to the
 Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays in 1623, he rose to the occasion with stirring words of

 Besides almost retracting his earlier gibe about Shakespeare's lack of art, he gives
 testimony that Shakespeare's personality was to be felt, by those who knew him, in his
 poetry--that the style was the man. Jonson also reminded his readers of the strong
 impression the plays had made upon Queen Elizabeth I and King James I at court

 Shakespeare seems to have been on affectionate terms with his theatre colleagues. His
 fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell (who, with Burbage, were remembered in
 his will) dedicated the First Folio of 1623 to the Earl of Pembroke and the Earl of
 Montgomery, explaining that they had collected the plays " . . . without ambition either of
 self-profit or fame; only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was
 our Shakespeare, . . . "

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