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Shakespeare is widely regarded as the world’s greatest playwright, and there’s no real reason to dispute that. People are still seeing his plays 400 years after he wrote them, not because it’s “trendy” or “hip,” but because they’re so good. His insight into the human spirit has never been equaled. This paper is a brief biography of Shakespeare and a discussion of the times in which he lived.
His life: It’s somewhat difficult to find factual information about Shakespeare, because the “first attempts at biographical research were not begun until over half a century after Shakespeare’s death” (Best, 2005). In addition, there were few biographies written of important persons at this time, especially dramatists, since plays were not considered “serious literature” (Best, 2005). In addition, the Puritans closed the theaters in 1642, and many manuscripts and other records were lost (Best, 2005). It also doesn’t help that there are numerous spellings of his name. Nevertheless, scholars have pieced together a fairly complete picture of his life, and where facts are not known, they have drawn reasonable inferences (Best, 2005). However, the fact remains that much of what we know is based on indirect information.
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon some time in April, 1564, the son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden (Hanna - Life). Although there is no record of the exact date of his birth, there is a baptismal record at the church, so most scholars put his birthday as the 23rd of April, 1564 (Hanna - Life). John Shakespeare was a “prominent and prosperous alderman” in Stratford, and was “granted a coat of arms by the College of Heralds” (Hanna - Life). Little is known of Shakespeare’s boyhood but it is believed that he probably attended the “Stratford Grammar School” (Hanna - Life). There is no record of him having gone on to either Oxford or Cambridge, both of which were well established by his time (Hanna - Life).
Shakespeare’s name turns up next in 1582 when he marries Anne Hathaway, some eight years his senior (Hanna - Life). Their daughter Susanna was born in 1583 and twins, Judith and Hamnet, were born in 1585 (Hanna - Life). Once again Shakespeare disappears from the records and doesn’t turn up again for seven years, by which time he is “recognized as an actor, poet and playwright” (Hanna - Life). His recognition comes in the form of an insult from a rival, Robert Greene, who calls Shakespeare “an upstart crow” in his (Greene’s) play, A Groatsworth of Wit (Hanna - Life).
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When James I ascended the throne in 1603, the company changed its name to the “King’s Men” or “King’s Company” (Hanna - Life). The company’s instructions, conveyed to them in Letters Patent, told Shakespeare and eight other company members specifically to “use and exercise the art and faculty of playing Comedies, Tragedies, Histories, Interludes, Morals, Pastorals, stage plays ... as well for recreation of our loving subjects as for our solace and pleasure" (Hanna - Life). Things went well for the newly-christened King’s Men for another ten years, until 1613 (Hanna - Life). Then, on June 19, a cannon fired from the theater’s roof during a “gala performance of Henry VIII” set the Globe’s thatched roof on fire and the theater burned to the ground (Hanna - Life). The audience was so absorbed in the play that at first they ignored the fire, but when the walls and curtains went up, they surely must have run (Hanna - Life). By some miracle “there were no casualties, and the next spring the company had the theatre ‘new builded in a far fairer manner than before’" (Hanna - Life). Shakespeare “invested in the rebuilding” effort, but by that time he had retired to Stratford, to the “Great House of New Place” that he’d bought in 1597 (Hanna - Life). There were considerable land holdings associated with the house, and Shakespeare remained there, where he continued to write, until his death in 1616 (Hanna - Life). Ironically, he died on his alleged birthday, April 23 (Hanna). He was 52. Although he died at what we would consider a young age, he left behind a body of work that has made him immortal, and continues to light up theaters around the world.
His Times: The world 400 years ago is often seen as romantic and noble, but it was brutal, unsanitary and often terrifying. We’re familiar with a lot of the history of the time through films and TV shows; a movie about Elizabeth I was released recently. Shakespeare lived at a time of political upheaval and court intrigue, as well as a time of exploration. For example, a man named John Hawkins sailed to the New World a second time in 1561 (Hanna - Times). Trips like this were dangerous and daring, but also yielded treasure and more importantly, lands for the Crown. From 1577-1580 “Francis Proke sailed around the world” (Hanna - Times). In 1586 when he was 22, Mary Queen of Scots was tried for treason and executed the following year (Hanna - Times). And in 1588 one of the greatest events in English history took place: the English under the command of Queen Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish invasion fleet known as the Armada (Hanna - Times).
Unfortunately, this was also the time of the great plagues; plague swept through London in 1592-93, necessitating the closure of the theaters; plague struck again in 1603 (Hanna). This was also the year that Elizabeth I died and James IV, King of Scotland became James I of England (Hanna - Times). It was at this point that the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” became the “King’s Men”; James I liked the theater and was a writer himself, publishing works on such subjects and witchcraft and “the divine right of kings” (Best-James I, 2005). In 1605, the “Gunpowder Plot” was hatched and Guy Fawkes lead a group of Catholics in an attempt to assassinate James and blow up Parliament (Hanna – Times). The English still celebrate “Guy Fawkes Day.”
As we saw, the Globe burned down in 1613 by which time Shakespeare had returned to Stratford. He lived only another three years.
Shakespeare’s world was brutal, dirty, plague-ridden and dangerous, but it was also a time of great adventure and exploration. Perhaps only such an age could have given the world a playwright of Shakespeare’s enduring power and stature.
Best, M. (2005). Facts and legends. Retrieved July 17, 2008 from http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/life/lifefacts.html
Best, M. (2005). James VI of Scotland, James I of England. Retrieved July 17, 2008 from http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/history/james.html
Hanna, G. (n.d.). The life of Mr. William Shakespeare. Retrieved July 17, 2008 from http://www.gprc.ab.ca/employees/homepages/ghanna/life.html
Hanna, G. (n.d.). The times of Mr. William Shakespeare. Retrieved July 17, 2008 from http://www.gprc.ab.ca/employees/homepages/ghanna/Times.html