(National Portrait Gallery)
William Shakespeare (baptized April 26, 1564, died (O.S.) April 23, 1616 is considered by many to have been the greatest writer the English language has ever known. As a playwright, he wrote not only some of the most powerful tragedies, but also many of the funniest comedies ever to appear on an English stage. He also wrote 154 sonnets and several major poems, some of which are considered to be the most brilliant pieces of English literature ever written, because of Shakespeare's ability to rise beyond the narrative and describe the innermost and the most profound aspects of the human nature. Some of the most famous examples of his ability can be found in quotations from Shakespearean plays. He is believed to have written most of his works between 1585-1610, although the exact dates and chronology of the plays attributed to him are not accurately known. (See Chronology of Shakespeare plays.)
Most historians agree that actor and playwright were the same William Shakespeare for whom we have considerable historical records. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in April 1564, the son of John Shakespeare, a glove maker, and Mary Arden. The baptism of Shakespeare is recorded on April 26 of that year and the 23rd has traditionally been considered his birthday. His father, prosperous at the time of William's birth, was prosecuted for participating in the black market in wool, and later lost his position as an alderman. There is some evidence that both sides of the family had Roman Catholic sympathies.
After his marriage to Anne Hathaway on November 28, 1582 at Stratford-upon-Avon (being witnessed by Fulk Sandalls and John Richardson), which seems to have been rushed by the bride's pregnancy, little is known of William Shakespeare until he appears on the London literary scene.
On May 26, 1583 Shakespeare's first child, Susanna, was baptised at Stratford. This was soon followed on February 2, 1585, with the baptisms of a son, Hamnet, and a daughter, Judith.
By 1592, he was sufficiently known to be denounced by Robert Greene as "an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey." (The italicized line is a parody of the phrase, "Oh, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" which Shakespeare used in Henry VI, part 3)
In 1596 Hamnet died; he was buried on August 11, 1596. Because of the similarities of their names, some suspect that his death was the impetus for Shakespeare's The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
In 1597 William sold "one messuage, two barns, two gardens, two orchards, with appurtenances, in Stradford-upon-Avon" to William Underhill for sixty pounds. The house on this property was that built by Sir Hugh Clopton.
By 1598 Shakespeare had moved to the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopgate and appeared top of a list of actors (Every man in his Humor) produced by Ben Jonson.
Shakespeare became an actor, writer and ultimately part-owner of an acting company known as The Lord Chamberlain's Men - the company was named, like others of the period, for their aristocratic sponsor. It was sufficiently popular that after the death of Elizabeth I and the coronation of James I (1603), the new monarch adopted the company and it became known as The King's Men. Various documents recording legal affairs, and business transactions show that Shakespeare grew increasingly affluent in his London years. He did well enough to buy a property in Blackfriars, London, as well as the largest house in Stratford. In 1609 he published his sonnets, love poems addressed some to a 'dark lady', and some to a young man (or 'fair lord'). He retired approximately 1611 and died in 1616, on April 23rd, perhaps the reason behind the tradition of his birthday being this same day. He remained married to Anne until his death. Of their three children, Hamnet, the only boy, died at the age of 11. There were two daughters, Susannah and Judith. Susannah married Dr John Hall, and was later the subject of a court case.
Interestingly, he died on the same day as his Spanish counterpart Miguel de Cervantes.
Main article: Shakespearean authorship
The vast majority of academics accept that the William Shakespere recorded as living in Stratford-upon-Avon, the actor Shakespeare and the playwright Shakespeare are one and the same person, but this subject has been hotly debated over the years; even the painting that accompanies this article (and appears above the name "William Shakespeare" in the National Portrait Gallery, London) may not be a representation of Shakespeare at all. Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, and Christopher Marlowe have been suggested as alternative authors or co-authors for some or all of Shakespeare's work.
The idea that Shakespeare himself wrote all of what are commonly accepted as his plays has also been called into question. There is ongoing serious academic work to ascertain the authorship of plays and poems of the time, both those attributed to Shakespeare and others.
Shakespeare's plays continue to be widely studied and performed and are a firm part of the Western canon of literature. (See Folios and Quartos) Other indicators of his contemporary influence are his inclusion in the top 10 of the "100 Greatest Britons" poll sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public, and the fictional account of the writing of Romeo and Juliet in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love.
We can divide his dramatic work in this way (although there are many scholarly categorizations of his plays):
- Shakespearean tragedies
- Shakespearean comedies
- The Comedy of Errors
- All's Well That Ends Well
- As You Like It
- A Midsummer Night's Dream
- Much Ado About Nothing
- Measure for Measure
- The Tempest
- Taming of the Shrew
- Twelfth Night or What You Will
- The Merchant of Venice
- The Merry Wives of Windsor
- Love's Labour's Lost
- The Two Gentlemen of Verona
- Pericles Prince of Tyre
- The Winter's Tale
- Shakespearean histories
Some scholars of Shakespeare break the category of "Comedies" into "Comedies and "Romances." The plays included in this category would be Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, Pericles Prince of Tyre, and The Tmpest. See Shakespeare's Late Romances.
- The Two Noble Kinsmen, published in quarto in 1654, was attributed to playwrights John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, and about half of it seems to be written by Shakespeare and half by Fletcher.
- Cardenio Shakespeare is reported to have collaborated on a second play with Fletcher, Cardenio, based on an episode from Don Quixote.
- Edward III Some scholars have recently chosen to attribute this play to Shakespeare, based on the style of its verse. Others refuse to accept it, citing, among other reasons, the mediocre quality of the characters.
- The Book of Sir Thomas More, a collaborative work by several playwrights, one of whom may have been Shakespeare. That Shakespeare had any part in this play is no longer generally accepted, however.
- Love's Labour's Won A late sixteenth-century document lists this among Shakespeare's recent works, but no play by this title survives. It may be the alternate title of one of the plays listed above, such as Love's Labours Lost or All's Well That Ends Well.
His other literary works include:
- Shakespearean Long Poetry
- Funeral Elegy by W.S.?
For a period it was thought on the basis of evidence researched by Don Foster that Shakespeare wrote a Funeral Elegy for William Peter. However most scholars now accept that this piece was not written by Shakespeare.
- Elizabethan theatre
- His contemporaries Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Queen Elizabeth I, Edward de Vere, Edmund Spenser
- His godson, William Davenant, and son-in-law John Hall.
- BBC Television Shakespeare.
- Shakespeare Study Guide at Wikibooks
- Wikiquote - Quotes by William Shakespeare
- Wikisource - Shakespeare's Will
- Wikisource - Complete Works of William Shakespeare
- online texts of William Shakespeare's plays at MIT
- Project Gutenberg e-texts of the works of William Shakespeare
- Shakespeare Literature, Chapter-indexed, searchable versions of Shakespeare's works.
- Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet
- Shakespeare and the Globe from Encyclopaedia Britannica