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Updated: Dec 8, 2020

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564; in Startford-upon-Avon, was an English playwright, poet and actor. He was the son of John Shakespeare, an alderman, and Mary Arden, the daughter of the family’s landlord. He was one of eight children and lived to be the eldest surviving son of the family. Shakespeare’s exact birth date remains unknown. He was baptized in Holy Trinity Church in Startford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564, his mother’s third child, but the first to survive infancy. This has led scholars to conjecture that he was born on April 23rd, given the era’s convention of baptizing newborns on their third day.

It is widely assumed that Shakespeare attended the local grammar school where he would have studied Latin, Greek, and classical literature. His early education must have made a huge impact on him because many of his plots draw on the classics. At age 18, on November 28, 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway (eight years older than William) from Shottery, who was already pregnant with their first daughter. The wedding would have been arranged quickly to avoid the shame of having a child born out of wedlock. Shakespeare fathered three children, Susanna, born in May 1583 but conceived out of wedlock, and Judith and Hamnet, twins who were born in February 1585. (Nothing is known certain about his life after marriage, except for the birth of his children, until he turns up in London in 1592, having left Anne and the children behind in Startford).

He wrote at least 37 plays considered as the most important and enduring ever written. In 1580s Shakespeare made the four day ride to London, and by 1592 had established himself as writer. The first recorded works of Shakespeare are Richard III and the three parts of Henry VI, written in the early 1590s during a vogue for historical drama. Shakespeare’s plays are difficult to date precisely, however studies of the text suggest that Titus Andronicus, The Comedy of Error, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona also belongs to Shakespeare’s earliest period. His first histories draw heavily on the 1587 edition of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, dramatise the destructive results of weak or corrupt rule and have been interpreted as a justification for the origins of the Tudor dynasty. The Early plays were influenced by the works of other Elizabethan dramatists, especially Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe, by the tradition of medieval drama, and by plays of Seneca. The Comedy of Errors was also based on classical models, but no source for The Taming of Shrew has been found, though it is related to a separate play of the same name and may have derived from a folk story.

Shakespeare's early classical and Italianate comedies, containing tight double plots and precise comic sequences, give way in the mid-1590s to the romantic atmosphere of his most acclaimed comedies. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a witty mixture of romance, fairy magic and comic low-life scenes. Shakespeare's next comedy, the equally romantic Merchant of Venice, contains a portrayal of the vengeful Jewish moneylender Shylock, which reflects Elizabethan views but may appear insulting to modern audiences. The wit and wordplay of Much Ado About Nothing, the charming rural setting of As You Like It, and the lively merrymaking of Twelfth Night complete Shakespeare's sequence of great comedies. After the lyrical Richard II, written almost entirely in verse, Shakespeare introduced prose comedy into the histories of the late 1590s, Henry IV part 1 and 2, and Henry V. His characters become more complex and tender as he switches deftly between comic and serious scenes, prose and poetry, and achieves the narrative variety of his mature work. This period begins and ends with two tragedies: Romeo Juliet, the famous romantic tragedy of sexually charged adolescence, love, and death; and Julius Caesar—based on Sir Thomas North's 1579 translation of Plutarch's Parallel Lives—which introduced a new kind of drama. According to Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro, in Julius Caesar, "the various strands of politics, character, inwardness, contemporary events, even Shakespeare's own reflections on the act of writing, began to infuse each other".

By 1592 Shakespeare already enjoyed sufficient prominence as an author of dramatic scripts to have been the subject of Robert Greene’s attack on the “upstart crow” in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit. In January 1593 the theatres were closed because of an outbreak of plague in London. They did not re-open again until the spring of 1594. In 1593-94, with the theatres closed, Shakespeare wrote lengthy poems: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, who was nineteen in 1593. It is probably around this time that Shakespeare began writing his sequence of a hundred and fifty-four Sonnets, which depict the complex relationship of the writer’s love for a young man and for a woman (popularly known as the Black Lady).

In 1594 the theatres re-opened and an event occurred that changed the course of literary history: Shakespeare joined Richard Burbage’s acting company and became its chief playwright for the next two decades. Here, Shakespeare was able to work on his craft, writing for a regular group of performers. Shakespeare also worked as an actor in the theatre company, although the lead roles were always reserved for Burbage himself. The company became very successful and often performed in front of the Queen of England, Elizabeth I. In the meantime Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son who stayed in Startford with his mother, died in August 1596, aged 11.

Shakespeare’s earliest plays were performed at The Theatre. The Theatre was one of the first public theatres in England since Roman times just outside London, in modern day Shoreditch. It was in this theatre that Shakespeare began his acting and writing career with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a theatre company. The Chamberlain’s Men were a popular company, being often invited to perform at court. In 1597, the lease of the land on which The Theatre was built had expired, and the landlord would not renew it. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men moved to The Curtain theatre in 1597 (until The Globe theatre opened in 1599). During the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s time at The Curtain a number of Shakespeare’s plays were performed, including Henry V and Romeo and Juliet. In fact it was in Henry V that Shakespeare immortalised The Curtain with a line in the prologue: “may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?” Later The Theatre was rebuilt as The Globe. Shakespeare had excellent business sense. He bought the largest house in Startford-upon-Avon by 1597, owned shares in the Globe Theatre, and profited from some real estate deal. Before long, Shakespeare officially became a gentleman, partly due to his own wealth and partly due to inheriting a coat of arms from his father. As a share-holder in The Globe, Shakespeare had an incentive to ensure its popularity. He went on producing successful plays for many years. The Globe is the theatre most commonly associated with the performance of Shakespeare’s plays. It was erected in 1599 on the south bank of the Thames by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and it became their main performance space (It was destroyed by a fire on June 29, 1613. A reconstruction of the Globe is a popular tourist attraction in London today).

In 1601, Shakespeare’s father died. The same year, his patron, the Earl of Southampton, was arrested in connection with a rebellion against Elizabeth led by her former favourite, the Earl of Essex. Both men were sentenced to death; Essex was executed, though Southampton was official pardoned. In 1603, Queen Elizabeth died, and the new king, James VI of Scotland, who became James I ascended the throne and granted his royal patronage to Shakespeare’s company (Lord Chamberlin’s Men), which became as The King’s Men. Shakespeare Company changed their name to the King’s Men and, as Grooms of the Chamber for James I, they performed regularly at court and attended ceremonial functions.

In the early 17th century, Shakespeare wrote the so-called “Problem plays” Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and All’s Well That Ends Well and a number of his best known tragedies. Many critics believe that Shakespeare's greatest tragedies represent the peak of his art. The titular hero of one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, Hamlet, has probably been discussed more than any other Shakespearean character, especially for his famous soliloquy which begins “To be, or not to be: that’s the question”. Unlike the introverted Hamlet, whose fatal flaw is hesitation, the heroes of the tragedies that followed, Othello and King Lear, are undone by hasty errors of judgement. The plots of Shakespeare's tragedies often hinge on such fatal errors or flaws, which overturn order and destroy the hero and those he loves. In Othello, the villain Iago stokes Othello's sexual jealousy to the point where he murders the innocent wife who loves him. In King Lear, the old king commits the tragic error of giving up his powers, initiating the events which lead to the torture and blinding of the Earl of Gloucester and the murder of Lear's youngest daughter Cordelia. In Macbeth, the shortest and most compressed of Shakespeare's tragedies, uncontrollable ambition incites Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, to murder the rightful king and usurp the throne until their own guilt destroys them in turn. In this play, Shakespeare adds a supernatural element to the tragic structure. His last major tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, contain some of Shakespeare's finest poetry and were considered his most successful tragedies by the poet and critic T.S.Eliot.

In his final period he had written his late romances - Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. These plays are graver in tone than the comedies of the 1590s but less so than the tragedies, as they end with reconciliation and forgiveness for potentially tragic actions. This change of mood may simply reflect the theatrical fashion of the day, but it could also be evidence Shakespeare had developed a more temperate view of life as he aged.

Tradition holds that Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday, April 23, 1616. He is buried in Holy Trinity Church, where the following words are carved into the slab over his grave in the chancel:

“Good frend for Jesus’ sake forbeare

To dig the dust encloased heare.

Bleste be the man that spares thes stones

And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

After Shakespeare's death, a funerary monument was erected to honor him at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was buried. It depicts a half-effigy of The Bard in the act of writing. Numerous statues and monuments have been erected around the world to honor the playwright. More than 400 years after his death, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets still hold a special place in theatres, libraries and all around the world. In addition to his legacy of his plays and sonnets, many of words and phrases Shakespeare created infuse dictionaries today and are embedded in modern English. Shakespeare is“Not of an age, But for all the time”- Ben Johnson.

His Plays:

His Sonnets:

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