26 April 1564 - 23 April 1616
The Timeless Playwright of the Mind & Heart
World literature has produced a great number of poets and writers who have transcended national and time barriers, but there is no one who would stand a comparison with William Shakespeare. He was not only an author, poet and playwright but also a profound philosopher who had penetrated human psychology, and managed to create characters which have touched his readership and audiences so much that they vicariously participate in his stories.
Ben Jonson, a dramatist, contemporary of William Shakespeare, had prophetically said that Shakespeare "was not of an age, but of all time," and his prophecy was duly fulfilled. Jonson could see that Shakespeare's gifts enabled him to put in writing the human passions and weaknesses of character, along with man's magnanimity and superiority of emotions. For the last four centuries, his works are read in all educational institutions round the globe and his plays are continuously performed in almost all countries of the world.
Shakespeare's intellect was keen, perceptive and rapid, and those were the reasons why the characters in his plays are so expressing, convincing and stimulating. His cleverness with words create and describe such situations that convey images and manage to stir a wide range of emotions. Shakespeare remains a great source of inspiration even for young dramatists and directors, who want to experiment with innovative sides of theater in imitations or parodies of his plays.
The Life of William Shakespeare
Factual knowledge concerning Shakespeare's life comes mostly from official documents such as his date of baptism, but not his exact date of birth, his marriage license, death and burial certificates, his will and a few documents of legal or business character.
Shakespeare was baptized at Holy Trinity Church, in his birthplace, Stratford upon Avon, on April 26th 1564 and his birthday was calculated to have been three days earlier, because due to high infant mortality at that time, babies were usually baptized three days after their birth. His father John Shakespeare, was first a merchant and then a Mayor of Stratford upon Avon. His mother, Mary Arden, came from a noble family of landowners and she was the heiress of several acres of land.
Young William was educated at the local grammar school, a good quality school, that offered studies in the Latin language, and students also read works of several classical historians as well as literature and poetry. William did not continue his studies at University but he probably started working with his father, as the family had to face some severe financial problems. When William was 18, he had to marry 26-year-old Anne Hathaway who was pregnant with his child. All this must have been a source of gossip that blackened the family name, but six months later William's daughter, Susanna was born, followed by twins Hamnet and Judith, two years later, in 1585. However, it was unfortunate that Shakespeare's only son Hamnet died at the age of 11, probably due to the plague.
Shakespeare's name appeared for the first time, in the literary world of London, in 1592. There is no information of his activities before he moved to London, but it is possible that William left for London with a troupe of actors that had visited Stratford. He left his family behind and went to seek his fortune in the big city. At that time London had about 200,000 people, but it was the cultural centre of Britain and offered a lot of opportunities to young actors and playwrights.
From 1594 onward, he became a member of the "Lord Chamberlain's Company" of actors, which was later called "King's Men," when James I came on the throne. Shakespeare enjoyed a financial success due to the plays he wrote and for the following 20 years he devoted himself to his art, writing a large number of successful plays of the highest quality.
He earned enough money to buy property and make investments in London and Stratford, as they appear in his long detailed will, and he helped his family out of financial difficulties. He also bought his father a Coat-of-arms which gave the whole family prestige and the right to add the word "gentleman" after their names. During his years in London, Shakespeare never forgot his family, and he returned to Stratford from time to time to spend some time with his wife and children.
His fame in London grew, he was creating his name as a poet and playwright, and his plays were performed one after the other. Shakespeare himself, often performed in front of London's aristocracy and nobility and he had made friends with some very influential people of the time, as it is apparent from the dedication of his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece to his patron Henry Wriothesley. He had also performed in front of Queen Elizabeth and later, when Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, he also performed in front of King James I.
Stratford on Avon, England
In 1610, Shakespeare returned to Stratford upon Avon and apart from a few short visits to London, he remained in Stratford to the end of his life. His last years must have been a really happy period in his life with his wife, children and his granddaughter Elizabeth.
William Shakespeare died on April 23rd 1616 and he was buried in the chancel of the church of Sratford upon Avon. The following inscription on his gravestone must have been written by Shakespeare himself, and it was most probably his wish for the lines to be inscribed on 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 Works of William Shakespeare
Shakespeare lived at a time when people had started questioning the order of things. Many sectors of public and private life, like the Royal prerogative and religious faith, were challenged, and capitalism had started rising, influencing and sometimes disturbing the social and economic order.
Also, education was expanding, and there were influences from the rest of Europe, as well as from the newly discovered lands. Consequently, mixing old and new ideas was typical of the time and Shakespeare's plays reflect all these tendencies, along with skepticism and a growing distrust to Royal authority and inadequate administration.
Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, among which the most famous are: The Tempest , Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice and Othello.
While today Shakespeare is mostly known as a playwright, at his time dramatists did not enjoy a very high esteem. On the contrary, poets were very highly valued and accepted among the educated men and aristocracy. Shakespeare wrote only five poems but they helped his poetic genius to be recognized. His poems were most probably written during the years when the plague had forced London theaters to close. They are: A Lover's Complaint, Rape of Lucrece, Venus and Adonis and Phoenix and the Turtle and Passionate Pilgrim. He also wrote 154 sonnets, which are lyric poems of Italian origin which must have been written at various times between 1593-1600.
There were allegations that Shakespeare's plays were written by other writers such as Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson, but during his lifetime, and for a long period after his death, no one was known to have questioned his authorship. At Shakespeare's time, people loved mystery and gossip and a literary hoax would have been rather impossible to be kept secret without a single leak.
William Shakespeare is the author who has been most widely read in the Western World, and his philosophy has become so common that millions of people quote something from Shakespeare without even understanding it. In his words, everyone will find a situation or a character to identify with, and our theaters and screens will continue to offer us his plays, which we will enjoy as much as audiences at the Elizabethan times did.