Saturday, May 26, 2012

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

His life
William Shakespeare was born in April 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in England. Stratford is about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of London. In Shakespeare’s time, travel between the two took about four days.

Like other boys in England at the time, Shakespeare learned reading and writing in the local elementary school. He also got to enjoy lots of Latin grammar by studying lots of ancient Roman literature.

In late November 1582, at the age of 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway of Stratford. She was 26 years old and pregnant at the time. They had three children: Susanna (May 1583) and twins Hamnet and Judith (February 1585).

In 1585, he moved to London. There he became an actor and, most famously, a writer of plays. Later he also became one of the owners and managers of a group of actors called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later renamed the King’s Men). With this group of actors, Shakespeare performed annually for Queen Elizabeth during the Christmas holidays.

Shakespeare wrote almost all of his plays and poetry between 1590 and 1610. His plays are commonly classified as histories, comedies, tragedies, or romances. He wrote them roughly in that order.

He wrote his most important comedies between 1595 and 1600. These include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night.

During these years Shakespeare also wrote two tragedies. One of them was Romeo and Juliet. It was the first major play in which a romance ended in tragedy. The other was Julius Caesar. Shakespeare based his story on Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans published in 1579.

In 1599, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men paid for the construction of the Globe Theatre. The Globe was open to the air. Some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were first performed there during summer months. After 1608, his plays were also performed inside during the winter at Blackfriars Theatre.

He wrote his great tragedies, including Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra between 1600 and 1607.

On June 29, 1613, a cannon being used during a play set fire to the Globe. The whole theater burned to the ground. Shakespeare retired and moved back to Stratford. He died on April 23, 1616, at the age of 52, and was buried there under the floor of Holy Trinity Church.

His work
Although many of Shakespeare’s plays were published when he was alive, the best version of almost all of them was not published until 1623 (seven years after his death). In that year two members of the King’s Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell, published the First Folio. They did it to honor their former friend and co-worker. Without them, and the collection of Shakespeare’s plays edited by them, we would know nothing about him.

Shakespeare was liked as a writer of plays during his lifetime. People did not think of him as a great writer, however, until long after his death. Samuel Johnson published an important book about Shakespeare and his work in 1765. This helped people understand just how great that work was. Romantics from poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) to historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) praised his work even more.

Today Shakespeare’s plays remain the most poetic and insightful written in English.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.