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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

Shakespeare must somehow have learned about the theater, because the next time we hear of him, at age 28, he is being ridiculed in a pamphlet by Robert Greene, a playwright and writer of comic prose. Greene called Shakespeare an uneducated actor who had the gall to think he could write better plays than a university graduate. One indication of Shakespeare's early popularity is that Greene's remarks drew complaints, and his editor publicly apologized to Shakespeare in Greene's next pamphlet. Clearly, by 1592 the young man from Stratford was well thought of in London as an actor and a new playwright of dignity and promise.

Though England at the time was enjoying a period of domestic peace, the danger of renewed civil strife was never far away. From abroad came threats from hostile Roman Catholic countries like Spain and France. At home, both Elizabeth's court and Shakespeare's theater company were targets of abuse from the growing English fundamentalist movement we call Puritanism. In this period, England was enjoying a great expansion of international trade, and London's growing merchant class was largely made up of Puritans, who regarded the theater as sinful and were forever pressing either the Queen or the Lord Mayor to close it down. Then there were members of Elizabeth's own court who believed she was not aggressive enough in her defiance of Puritans at home or Catholics abroad. One such man was the Earl of Essex, one of Elizabeth's court favorites (and possibly her lover), who in 1600 attempted to storm the palace and overthrow her. This incident must have left a great impression on Shakespeare and his company, for they came very close to being executed with Essex and his conspirators, one of whom had paid them a large sum to revive Shakespeare's Richard II, in which a weak king is forced to abdicate, as part of a propaganda campaign to justify Essex's attempted coup d'etat.


The performance, like the coup, apparently attracted little support. Elizabeth knew the publicity value of mercy, however, and Shakespeare's company performed for her at the palace the night before the conspirators were hanged. It can hardly be a coincidence that within the next two years Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, in which a play is performed in an unsuccessful attempt to depose a reigning king. The Essex incident must have taught him by direct experience the risks inherent in trifling with the power of the established political order.

Elizabeth's gift for keeping the conflicting elements around her in balance continued until her death in 1603, and her successor, James I, a Scotsman, managed to oversee two further decades of peace. James enjoyed theatrical entertainment, and under his reign, Shakespeare and his colleagues rose to unprecedented prosperity. In 1604 they were officially declared the King's Men, which gave them the status of servants to the royal household.

Shakespeare's son Hamnet died in 1596, about four years before the first performance of Hamlet. Whether he inspired the character of Hamlet in any way, we probably will never know. Some scholars have suggested that the approaching death of Shakespeare's father (he died in 1601) was another emotional shock that contributed to the writing of Hamlet, the hero of which is driven by the thought of his father's sufferings after death. This is only speculation, of course. What we do know is that Shakespeare retired from the theater in 1611 and went to live in Stratford, where he had bought the second biggest house in town, called New Place. He died there in 1616; his wife Anne died in 1623. Both Shakespeare's daughters had married by the time of his death. Because Judith's two sons both died young and Susanna's daughter Elizabeth- though she married twice and even became a baroness- had no children, there are no descendants of Shakespeare among us today.

On Shakespeare's tombstone in Stratford is inscribed a famous rhyme, putting a curse on anyone who dares to disturb his grave:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

The inscription had led to speculation that manuscripts of unpublished works were buried with Shakespeare or that the grave may in fact be empty because the writing attributed to him was produced by other hands. (A few scholars have argued that contemporaries like Francis Bacon wrote plays attributed to Shakespeare, but this notion is generally discredited.) The rhyme is a final mystery, reminding us that Shakespeare is lost to us. Only by his work may we know him.

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