“To be or not to be; that is the question.” “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” William Shakespeare, the writer of these famous quotes, is the most legendary playwright, author, and poet. Over the last four centuries, William Shakespeare and his plays have developed into a huge and prosperous industry. Shakespeare’s differences from all other writers include the original power of thinking, his extraordinary control over the largest vocabulary ever employed by an author, his enduring wisdom, and his creation of more than a thousand characters, all of whom speak with individual voices and appear to have minds of their own. To understand who Shakespeare was, it is vital to follow the traces he left behind back into the life he lived and into the written word. Shakespeare transformed his life into his writing and created beautifully, powerful plays and sonnets that will be forever be analyzed and critiqued for centuries to come.
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William Shakespeare was born in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, son of John and Mary, on or around April 23, 1564. In Shakespeare’s time, the records of people who lived back then were not very well documented. This is why the exact date of Shakespeare’s birth is unknown. But it is written in the parish register of Holy Trinity Church, in Stratford-upon-Avon, that “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere” – William son of John Shakespeare – was baptized on April 26, 1564. William was the third of eight children. The first two children, Joan and Margaret, both died when they were very young. Then came William himself, Gilbert, another Joan, Anne, Richard, and then youngest Edmund. (Garber 19)
As an alderman – or senior councilor – of Stratford, John Shakespeare had the privilege of claiming a free place for his son at the local grammar school. When William was about seven years old, he started his studies at the King’s New School. Though the Stratford school records from the time do not survive, Will almost certainly attended this school, fulfilling his parents’ desire that he learn Latin. He would have gone six days a week – except for holy days like Easter and Christmas – every week of the year. The school day ran from six in the morning to six in the evening, beginning and ending with prayers. There was a two-hour lunch break. He would have learned to read from a kind of board called a horn-book. On it were the letters of the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer. (Garber 19) Shakespeare mentions this in one of his plays called Love’s Labour’s Lost, “Monsieur, are you not lettered? / Yes, yes, he teaches boys the horn-book.” (5.1. 44-45) The instruction at the school was very strict with relentless drills, daily analysis of texts, rote memorization, endless repetition, all backed up by the threat of violence. The boys were punished if they spoke English to one another instead of Latin. No wonder that in As You Like It Shakespeare writes of “. . . the whining schoolboy, with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like a snail / Unwillingly to school.” (2.7. 145-147) Still, even though King’s New School was full of hard work and punishment, the school obviously aroused and fed Will’s inexhaustible craving for language.
When he was eleven years old, Queen Elizabeth I visited the Kenilworth Castle. Kenilworth was located somewhat near Stratford and was the castle of the queen’s favorite courtier, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. When Dudley invited Queen Elizabeth to Kenilworth for a lengthy stay, he was determined to welcome her in a way that she would never forget. The earl decided that throughout her visit, there would be an unending series of all kinds of entertainment. There was pageants, dancing, music and poetry readings, cannon shooting by day, and fireworks by night. Everyone enjoyed the hunting, the feasting, and the colorful and surprising spectacles. This was probably the first time William glimpsed the queen; for there was a first time that he glimpsed her – if not a Kenilworth, then somewhere else – and his imagination was certainly fired by what he saw. (Bloom 149) And the events at Kenilworth, whether young Will saw them for himself or listened to eyewitness accounts of them, seem to have left traces in his work. Most strikingly, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare articulated a deep cultural fantasy that Leicester’s entertainments extravagantly tried to embody. The fantasy was a world of magical beauty, shot through with hidden forces and producing a free-floating, intense erotic energy. The entertainments at Kenilworth Castle were extravagant and Dudley made the queen’s visit a triumphant success.
James Burbage was the director of entertainments for the Kenilworth festivities and became famous as a result. When he returned to London in 1575, he thought of a brilliant idea. He would construct a building devoted exclusively to putting on plays and entertainments. Burbage invented theaters. In 1576, a year after the Kenilworth festivities, Burbage opened the building and called it The Theatre. The Theatre was destined, in a few years’ time, to play an important part in William Shakespeare’s life. At the time of its opening, however, young William was only twelve years old and still making his daily walk “unwillingly to school.” (Bloom 152)
By the time Shakespeare was thirteen, his father was hit with financial disaster. The circumstances are unknown but records indicate that John Shakespeare was getting further and further into debt. His father’s financial troubles almost certainly resulted in William having to leave school at the age of about fourteen or fifteen. Exactly what he did after he left school is a mystery. (Bloom 153) Shakespeare could have become a butcher’s boy. In his plays, he seems to know so much about the trade of butchering meat. He may have started training or done time as a lawyer, doctor, sailor, falconer, or gardener because the plays seem to show so much knowledge of these professions too. Of course, he may just have worked in his father’s business, making and selling leather goods. No one knows for sure.
However, what is certain is that when he was eighteen – the year was 1582 – he fell in love with a twenty-six year old woman named Anne Hathaway. Through the centuries eighteen year old boys have not been famously eager in such situations to rush to the altar. William was an exception. The urgency to get married was pushed by the fact that she was already pregnant with their first child, Susanna. The themes of pregnancy before marriage and/or marriages without official sanction of clergy, recur in a number of his plays, principally in Measure for Measure. They also had twins, a boy and a girl, Hamnet and Judith. (Garber 20) Romeo and Juliet’s depiction of the frantic haste of the rash lovers blend together humor, irony, poignancy, and disapproval, but Shakespeare conveys above all a deep inward understanding of what it feels like to be young, desperate to wed, and tormented by delay. Shakespeare could identify with the impatience of his most famous lovers: “When and where and how / We met, we wooed, and made exchange of vow / I’ll tell thee as we pass,” and when Romeo tells Friar Laurence on the morning after the Capulet, he says, “but this I pray, / That thou consent to marry us today” (2.2 61-64).
What is most interesting in Romeo and Juliet, written in 1595, is that it seems that the gender dynamics play a very significant part in the play. Mercutio and the Nurse seem to operate at extremes of the gender spectrum, where Mercutio is the most ferociously male figure in the play and the Nurse offers a vivid portrayal of femininity. It does seem, though, that there was a homoerotic connection between Romeo and himself. In a speech by Mercutio, it functions as part of an ongoing attempt to challenge Romeo’s heterosexual passions:
. . . This is that very Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elf locks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled much misfortune bodes.
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them to first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage
This is she – (1.4 87-94)
Shakespeare himself had some homosexual interest in the Earl of Southampton, whom he wrote sonnets for during the time when the theaters closed due to the plague. (Bloom 259)
The gender roles of Romeo and Juliet seem reversed, as well. Romeo seems like the more feminine character. Romeo is an emasculated character, one who falls short of his society’s codes of masculinity. He is a highly feminized character who in numerous instances is perceived as effeminate by those around him and reprimanded as such by such disparate characters as Mercutio, Friar Lawrence, and the Nurse. While Romeo is shown as being more feminine, Juliet is shown as a very strong and intelligent woman. She is a very self-reflexive person with strength of character. If there was a comparison between Romeo and Juliet, Juliet would seem like the more heroic character. It is easier to find the flaws in Romeo than in Juliet. Therefore, the gender dynamics of Romeo and Juliet show the different complexities of relationships and characters due to the gender roles and the complexity of Shakespeare’s feelings towards men and women and marriage.
For the next few years after his marriage to Anne Hathaway, there is no historical record detailing where he was or what he was doing. But by the year of 1588, it seems clear that he had gone to London to find some kind of employment with a company of actors. Even though Tudor London might seem small by today’s standards, it was seen in its time to be a huge, bustling, important place. (Bloom 220) In Shakespeare’s plays, we meet the people of London. Within sight of the whole city stood the Tower, a place of dreadful executions and plots, and in Hamlet we find a prince walking the battlements of a castle full of murder and rumors of murder:
My father’s spirit in arms! All is not well.
I doubt some foul play. Would the night were come.
Till then, sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes. (1.2 254-57)
In The Merchant of Venice Antonio, a rich merchant, wheels and deals with a money lender, “Thou know’st that all fortunes are a sea, / Neither have I money nor commodity / To raise a present sum.” (1.1 177-79) Like London itself, Shakespeare’s plays teem with life.
When Shakespeare arrived in London, he began his writing career with the comedies The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew. He also began a series of dramas based on English history with a play about the reign of King Henry VI. However, in 1593, just as Shakespeare was beginning to make a name for himself in London, the plague struck the city. In an attempt to prevent the plague from spreading, the city authorities ordered all London theaters to be closed. In 1594, the theaters opened again. This was the start of Shakespeare’s nonstop production of plays, which lasted until he retired and returned to Stratford in 1611. (Bloom 231)
Sadly, his only son, Hamnet died in 1596, at the age of eleven. (Hunt 85) In the four years following Hamnet’s death, the playwright’s plays seemed to reflect an experience of deep personal loss. In King John, Shakespeare depicted a mother so frantic at the loss of her son that she is driven to thoughts of suicide. When she is accused of perversely insisting on her grief, she replies with an eloquent simplicity that breaks free from the tangled plot:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuff out his vacant garments with his form. (3.4 93-97)
Whether in the wake of Hamnet’s death Shakespeare was sucidal or serene, he threw himself into his work. The later 1590s was an amazingly busy and productive period in his life.
When Hamlet came to the theater in 1601, Shakespeare was poised to make an epochal breakthrough. He had perfected the means to represent inwardness. When he sat down to write this tragedy, whose doomed hero bore the name of his dead son, his thoughts may have been intensified by the news that his elderly father was seriously ill back in his home town of Stratford. (Hunt 86) The thought of his father’s death is deeply woven into the play. And the death of his son and the impending death of his father constitute a psychic disturbance that may help to explain the explosive power and inwardness of Hamlet. With Shakespeare himself enacting the purgatorial spirit who demands that the living listen carefully to his words, “lend thy serious hearing / To what I shall unfold” (1.5 5-6), Shakespeare must have conjured up within himself the voice of his dead son, the voice of his dying father, and perhaps his own voice as it would sound when he would be in the grave. With the death of his son and impending death of his father, Hamlet was born. The suicidal thoughts of “To be, or not to be”, provoked by the death of a loved one, lie at the heart of Shakespeare’s maybe most famous tragedy.
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When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, Shakespeare was at the height of his writing career. He had gained both wealth and reputation. He was enjoying a busy life, acting and producing plays. Luckily for Shakespeare, the newly crowned King James I of England was keen to encourage top-quality entertainment for his country. It seems that masques – a form of drama favored by King James I – did not really appeal to Shakespeare. This art form was extremely popular among the ladies and noblemen of the court. In fact, their new popularity in the court may have led Shakespeare to give up his writing. From late 1609 to 1611, Shakespeare wrote his final group of plays, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. (Bloom 603) These later works shows a gentler, quieter mood, which creates a more intimate relationship with the audience. The playwright had passed through a difficult period of his life and had now achieved serenity and the calm wisdom and insight of experience. It so happens that The Tempest is one of his last plays and in it there is a speech by Prospero that sounds to many people like Shakespeare himself signing off from creating all the stage magic of the previous twenty years and more:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (4.1 148-58)
By the time Shakespeare decided to retire, theaters had been a well-established part of London for over thirty years. Many talented writers had emerged and all still remember for their plays today: Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, Thomas Dekker, John Marston, and many more. But none of these matched Shakespeare in the quality of variety of his plays.
Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues in London must have been frequently in his thoughts as he settled down in Stratford. But from 1611 on, he became more and more involved in his own affairs. His father had died in 1601 and his mother died in 1608, right before William returned to Stratford. Then sadly, his two younger brothers, Edmund and Gilbert, died within months of each other in 1612 and 1613. However, there were happier times in Shakespeare’s final years. His oldest daughter Susanna married a prosperous local doctor, Dr. John Hall. In 1616, the surviving twin, Judith, married a long standing friend of the family, Thomas Quinley. He settled his affairs and completed his will closely before his birthday on April 23. No one would have guessed that this birthday would also be the day on which William Shakespeare would die. But no one knows the exact details of his death, except that it was sudden. His tomb is marked by curious four-line verse addressed to those who have come to see his memorial:
Good friend, for Jesus sake forbeare
To dig the dust enclosed heare.
Bleste be the man that spares these stones
And curst be he that moves my bones.
Why there is such a threat, no one knows. (Garber 21)
The life of William Shakespeare is forever interwoven within each of his plays and poems. What is often described as the timelessness of Shakespeare, the transcendent qualities for which his plays have been praised around the world and across the centuries, is perhaps better understood as an uncanny timeliness, a capacity to speak directly to circumstances the playwright could not have anticipated or foreseen. As Shakespeare’s great rival and admirer, the poet and playwright Ben Jonson once said, “He was not of an age, but for all time.”
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