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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
The life of William Shakespeare has been studied, questioned, and debated since his death in 1616. Because he is considered the greatest playwright in the English language-and one of the world's greatest writers-people have been eager to find out every possible detail of his life, his work, and his thought. Shakespeare himself offered little help to scholars and critics. Men of his time, no matter how famous, rarely wrote autobiographies, and Shakespeare was no exception.
Those who look to the plays to discover the man behind them are faced with an impossible question: which of Shakespeare's hundreds of characters represents the author: Hamlet? Romeo? Cleopatra? Macbeth? Shakespeare created so many different personalities-from the roughest peasant to the noblest king-that looking for clues to Shakespeare's personal feeling in his characters is frustrating.
Yet because he was a public figure, there is a great deal that's known about Shakespeare's career. Though his private life remains mysterious, his life as an artist is well documented, particularly compared to those of his contemporaries in the theatre.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon, England (about 100 miles from London) on April 23, 1564. The exact date is open to question, but the 23rd is when his birthday is celebrated. His father, John Shakespeare, was a prosperous landowner. He was also a glover (a glove-maker) and owned what we would call a general store. He was active in civic affairs, and served for a while as mayor of Stratford. Mary Arden, Shakespeare's mother, was from one of the oldest families in the area, and of a higher social class than her husband. In addition to William, John and Mary had two other sons and four daughters.
Legends abound regarding Shakespeare's early life. According to one, Shakespeare had almost no schooling, was an uneducated "country bumpkin." In fact, Shakespeare's education was as good as that of any young man of his class and age. In grammar school, he studied Latin and Greek, but little English, as that language was considered too young for serious study.
Shakespeare's formal education was cut short when his father suffered financial losses. But he never stopped studying, and, as his plays reveal, he was quite learned in geography, history, the natural sciences, and cosmology.
When Shakespeare was 18, he married Anne Hathaway, a woman seven or eight years his senior. The birth of their daughter Susanna a few months after the wedding suggests that the marriage might have been a "necessity." Though there aren't documents that prove theirs was a happy marriage, they remained together throughout Shakespeare's life. In 1585, Anne gave birth to twins, Judith and Hamnet.
Since we don't know what Shakespeare did professionally before moving to London, it's difficult to say just why he left Stratford. Perhaps a traveling troupe of actors took him on as an apprentice; at least two of these companies came to Shakespeare's town every year. Perhaps he begun writing and felt that London would hold more opportunities than Stratford. Or perhaps he simply needed more money to raise his family. Whatever Shakespeare's reasons, it was one of the most successful moves in literary history.
We don't know exactly when he left Stratford. But by the time he was 28 (1592), Shakespeare was an established actor. Scholars speculate that he began writing full-time in 1592, when theaters closed on account of the plague. He published a narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, in 1593, and when the theaters reopened in 1594, his play The Comedy of Errors, was ready for presentation.
Shakespeare's London was both a noisy, rough place and the leading cultural capital of the world. The age took its name (Elizabethan) from Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled from 1558-1603. Under her rule, England rose to new economic, military, and cultural heights. The English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 virtually assured England's political control of the sea. England's power and prosperity attracted merchants from all over the world. And writers, poets, and artists were encouraged and rewarded under the queen's intelligent rule.
Elizabethan London was bursting with color and vitality. Standing on the bank of the Thames (the river that flows through London) you could see boat-taxis carrying merchants and craftsmen from one shore to the other; elegant barges of the nobility; farmers selling produce on the riverbank; and on the poles of London Bridge-the severed heads of executed criminals as a warning to those contemplating a life of crime.
The cobblestoned streets were full of noise, smells, and constant activity. Londoners used chamber pots (this was well before plumbing) and often threw the contents out the window. Almost everyone drank ale (a heavy, bitter beer), since water wasn't sanitary and tea had yet to become the national beverage. Many were tipsy all day, tempers ran high, and street fights were frequent. Conversations were loud, as they had to compete with barking dogs, screaming vendors, horses' hooves clattering on the cobblestones, and rattling carriages.
It's not surprising that entertainment in this boisterous city tended to be fast-paced and involving. In one part of town you could see a bear-baiting match, in which a wild bear was tied up and ferocious dogs attacked it until it died. In another you could witness an execution; beheadings and hangings, considered public events, drew enormous crowds. If your tastes were a bit more refined you could go to the outskirts of town, to one of the many theaters-the Rose, the Swan, the Red Bull, the Globe. Because plays were considered "godless" by the Lord Mayor, theaters had to be located outside the city limits, but this did nothing to hamper their popularity.
Elizabethan theaters were owned and operated by "companies"- groups of producers, actors, and writers who stayed together from play to play, as in a modern repertory company, and shared in the profits. These companies were sponsored by a wealthy merchant or nobleman. Shakespeare stayed with one company throughout his career, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which became the King's Men in 1603 when Elizabeth died and James I took the throne. At one point in his life, Shakespeare enjoyed a triple income-as actor, playwright, and producer.
There is evidence Shakespeare was a good actor. He played small parts in some of his own plays (such as the Ghost in Hamlet) and roles in those of other writers. As the years passed, he began to devote more and more time to his writing, where he enjoyed even greater success.
By the time he'd written Othello (around 1604), Shakespeare was considered the greatest playwright of his day. Among his successful plays before Othello were A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Richard II, Henry V, and Hamlet. Stiff to come were King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, among others.
Many feel that Shakespeare's later plays show a darker, more pessimistic view of the world than his early plays. Under James I (his rule is referred to as the Jacobean period), England lost some of its power and prosperity. Too, conflicts between Catholics and Protestants led to civil strife. Shakespeare's earlier plays reflected Elizabeth's golden reign. By 1604, when Othello was first produced, the headiness of the Elizabethan period was recent history.
In 1612, Shakespeare left the theater and retired to Stratford. His investments enabled him to live comfortably with his family until he died on April 23, 1616.