William Shakespeare - Biography
William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) has a reputation reveled, perhaps, by no one. At times, simply referred to as the Bard (or by the more regal Bard of Avon.) Although William Shakespeare is viewed as the quintessential English writer, Shakespeare’s poems and plays have altered the course of European and World literature. The shadow that William Shakespeare has cast over the world has influenced artists, poets, philosophers and thinkers.
Despite his influence, Shakespeare’s personal life, artistic importance, and his role in the creations that bear his name have been put under intense scrutiny. The intensity of this debate has fueled innumerable careers. However despite the controversy, Shakespeare (or whoever actually composed his works) remains a figure of unique global importance.
In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom describes the importance of William Shakespeare on the role of the English language and on the writers who followed him. Bloom says that unlike other writers and artists, William Shakespeare was able to eclipse all writers who preceded him and to dominate all writers who have followed him. In his elegy "To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare and What He Hath Left Us," Ben Jonson declares that the writing of Shakespeare was of such quality that "neither Man nor Muse" could offer it sufficient praise. Jonson’s full-throated glorification of Shakespeare’s writing has become a standard and acceptable evaluation of the Bard’s immortal talent.
We now remember him as a singular figure, but in his life time his reputation and talent was tested against Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe. In fact, Shakespeare’s reputation was not widespread until the nineteenth when the Romantics touted his brilliance and the Victorians embraced him as an example of British exceptionalism.
The exact date of William Shakespeare’s birth is not known. The date is often listed as the twenty-third of April 1564. This is however a misperception based on Shakespeare’s date of death and the urge of biographers to impose symmetry on the few verifiable facts of Shakespeare’s life. Stratford-upon-Avon is William Shakespeare’s natal city. He was probably educated in Stratford where he would have followed the standard Elizabethan educational criteria that would have included instruction in the classics with a focus on Latin.
When William Shakespeare was eighteen years old, he married Anne Hathaway. Hathaway was eight years the senior of Shakespeare. Shakespeare infamously left Hathaway his "second best bed." Many have read this as a cruel or financial stingy gesture. Others argue that since the best bed was preserved for guests, that bequeathing the "second best bed"—understood to be the marriage bed—was a final gesture love and tenderness. Hathaway was pregnant before the wedding, and the couple had four children. After Shakespeare’s children were born, the historical record becomes sketchy from 1585 through 1592.
William Shakespeare’s early entry into the theater was shrouded in silence. In 1592, Robert Greene lampooned Shakespeare in a tract titled Groats-Worth of Wit. Shakespeare was originally affiliated with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a well-known London troupe that became the King’s Men when the government of James I awarded them a new patent. Shakespeare wrote and acted throughout this period, publishing some of his plays in 1594. His life was divided between his work in London and his family in Stratford.
Before the 1560s, English drama was dominated by mystery plays performed by craft guilds. These plays were reliant on religious themes and allegories. Performers of non-mystery plays lived on the fringes of society most often in traveling shows. As often as they performed, they were also arrested for indigency. By the time William Shakespeare began to work in the theater, the patronage of powerful men protected Shakespeare and some of his colleagues. The influence of the Lord Chamberlain and James I in preserving the dignity of Shakespeare’s troop was invaluable in creating a physical theater and preventing targeting by the authorities. (Despite this protection, actors, with a few notable exceptions would maintain their low social status until the dawn of the twentieth century.)
This protection also allowed for the development of more technical stagecraft since more theaters were now permanent buildings—artificial thunder could be made, primitive squibs could be fashioned from pig bladders. Such techniques may have allowed the theaters to compete with other forms of entertainment (like bear baiting.) William Shakespeare lived in a time of literary and technical innovation in the theater.
In an article from Putnam’s Monthly from 1856, Delia Bacon put voice to a rumor that had circulated for over a century that William Shakespeare did not pen the plays attributed to him. "Bacon’s Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded" places byzantine stylistics over rhetorical soundness but does claim that other Elizabethans including Sir Walter Raleigh and Francis Bacon actually wrote the plays. Although Delia Bacon’s text met with skepticism, it granted permission for more thorough critics to question if William Shakespeare was behind the works attributed to him. The heart of this controversy is the belief by those anti-Shakespearian critics that since William Shakespeare lacked a university education and a pedigreed literary training Shakespeare would have been unable to draft the textual monuments of genius.
Along with the plays of William Shakespeare, the sonnets of Shakespeare are keystones of English literature. Even the very form of the English sonnet bears his name—the Shakesperian sonnet is recognized to be any sonnet possessing three rhyming quatrains and a couplet in iambic pentameter. Over one-hundred and fifty of these poems have been collected, and for as much energy that has been spent on the individual poems, an still significant amount has been spent on the poems dedication: "TO THE ONLIE BEGETTER OF/THESE INSUING SONNETS/Mr. W.H. ALL HAPPINESSE/ AND THAT ETERNITIE/ PROMISED/ BY/ OUR EVER-LIVING POET/ WISHETH/ THE WELL-WISHING/ ADVENTURER IN/ SETTING/ FORTH./ T.T."
Many critics surmise that by cracking the code of the dedication that they can discover William Shakespeare’s muse and the source of his genius. The Mr. W. H. has been speculated to be William Herbert-Earl of Pembroke, William Hall- a printer who helped produce the volume, William (Shakespeare) Himself, and many others. The most intriguing and culturally relevant theory is also one that lacks the most evidence. This theory of the dedication was best voiced by Oscar Wilde in his novella-cum-essay, The Portrait of Willie Hughes. Wilde’s conjectures is that the sonnets were dedicated to a young actor who was cast as a woman, Willie Hughes, who was romantically involved with William Shakespeare. Casting a young man in women’s roles would have been expected during Shakespeare’s life. Wilde’s theory (as explained in his novella) has no outside evidence, but it represents one of the many cases where a group (in this case homosexuals) has tried to claim William Shakespeare.
In addition to the Sonnets, William Shakespeare’s plays and poems include Venus and Adonis, The First Part of the Contention betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, Lucrece, The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedie of Titus Andronicus, A Pleasant Conceited Historie, Called The Taming of a Shrew, The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the Death of Good King Herie the Sixt, The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, The Tragedie of King Richard the Second, An Excellent Conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmark, A Most Pleasaunt and Excellent Conceited Comedie of Sur John Falstaffe and the Merrie Wives of Windsor, The Phoenix and Turtle, The Chronicle History of Henry the Fift, Much Adoe about Nothing, The History of Henrie the Fourth, The Second Part of Henrie the Fourth, Continuing to His Death, and Coronation of Henrie the Fift, The Most Excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice, A midsummer Nights Dreame, The Passionate Pilgrime, and A Pleasant Conceited Comedie Called Loves Labors Lost. These works have been collected in many collections and frequently full titles are shorthanded for modern readers.