William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was baptised April 26, 1564, died April 23, 1616 (in the Julian calendar; this was May 3, 1616 in the Gregorian calendar) and 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 comedies. He also wrote 154 sonnetss 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 human nature. 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.

William Shakespeare (National Portrait Gallery)

William Shakespeare
(National Portrait Gallery)

Shakespeare's influence on the English-speaking world is reflected in the ready recognition afforded many quotations from Shakespearean plays, the titles of works based on Shakespearean phrases, and the many adaptations of his plays. Other indicators of contemporary influence are his inclusion in the top 10 of the "100 Greatest Britons" poll sponsored by the BBC, the frequent productions based on his work, such as the BBC Television Shakespeare, and the success of the fictional account of his life in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love.

1 Biography

2 Identity and authorship

3 Plays and their categories

4 Dramatic collaborations

5 Plays possibly by Shakespeare

6 Lost plays by Shakespeare

7 Other works

8 Shakespeare and the textual problem

9 Specialist acting companies and theatres

10 See also

11 External links

Table of contents


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.

Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior, on November 28, 1582 at Stratford-upon-Avon in a ceremony witnessed by Fulk Sandalls and John Richardson; the marriage seems to have been rushed by the bride's pregnancy. After his marriage, 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 italicised 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's signature

Shakespeare's signature

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, and owned the second 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.

His tombstone reads, "Blest be the man who cast these stones, and cursed be he that moves my bones."

Identity and authorship

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. In part, this is due to the scarcity and ambiguity of much of the historical records of this period; 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. Collaboration was routine in the Elizabethan theatre. There is ongoing serious academic work to ascertain the authorship of plays and poems of the time, both those attributed to Shakespeare and others.

Plays and their categories

Shakespeare's plays were published as a series of folios and quartos, and continue to be widely studied and performed. They are a firm part of the Western canon of literature.

His dramatic work can be categorised as follows:

Some scholars of Shakespeare break the category of "Comedies" into "Comedies" and "Romances." The plays included in the latter category would be Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, Pericles Prince of Tyre, and The Tempest.

Dramatic collaborations

Plays possibly by Shakespeare

Note: For a comprehensive account of plays possibly by Shakespeare, see the separate entry on the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

  • 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. If Shakespeare was involved, it was probably as a collaborator.
  • Sir Thomas More, a collaborative work by several playwrights, one of whom may have been Shakespeare. That Shakespeare had any part in this play remains uncertain.

Lost plays by Shakespeare

  • 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.
  • Cardenio, a late play by Shakespeare and Fletcher; it is referred to in several documents, but no text has survived. It was based on a tale in Cervantes' Don Quixote. In 1727, Lewis Theobald produced a play he called Double Falshood, which he claimed to have adapted from three manuscripts of a lost play by Shakespeare that he did not name. Double Falshood is based on the Cardenio story, and modern scholarship generally agrees that Double Falshood represents all we have of the lost play.

Other works

His other literary works include:

Shakespeare and the textual problem

Unlike his contemporary Ben Jonson, Shakespeare was never directly involved in publishing his works; the problem of identifying what Shakespeare actually wrote would become a major concern with most modern editions. Textual corruptions stemming from printers' errors, misreadings by compositors or simply wrongly scanned lines from the source material are littered throughout the Quartoss and First Folio. Additionally, in an age before standardised spelling, Shakespeare often wrote a word several times in a different spelling, and this may have contributed to some of the transcribers' confusion. It is the task of modern editors to reconstruct Shakespeare's original words and to expurgate errors as far as possible.

In some cases the textual solution is fairly straightforward. In Macbeth for example, the extant text published in the First Folio is believed to be an adapted and shortened version (probably by Thomas Middleton) of the original, but it remains our only authorised text. In others the text may be manifestly corrupt or unreliable (Pericles or Timon of Athens) but no competing version exists. The modern editor could only regularise and correct erroneous readings that have survived into the printed versions.

The textual problem can, however, become rather complicated. Modern scholarship now believes Shakespeare to have modified his plays through the years, sometimes leading to two existing versions of one play. To provide a modern text editors are faced with the choice between the original first version and the later, revised, usually more theatrical version. In the past editors have resolved this problem by conflating the texts to provide what they believe to be a superior Ur-text, but critics now argue that to provide a conflated text is to run contrary to Shakespeare's intents. In King Lear for example, two independent versions, each with their own textual integrity, exist in the Quarto and the Folio versions. Shakespeare's changes here are not merely local but structural. Hence, in the Oxford Shakespeare, published in 1988, two different versions of the play are provided, each with respectable authority. The problem exists with at least four other of Shakespeare's plays (Henry IV, part 1, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, and Othello ).

Specialist acting companies and theatres

See also

External links