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William Shakesphere (1564-1616)

Playwright and poet. Born in 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England (historians believe Shakespeare was born on April 23, the same day he died in 1616). The son of John Shakespeare, a glover, and Mary Arden, of farming stock. Much uncertainty surrounds Shakespeare’s early life. He was the eldest of three sons, and there were four daughters. He was educated at the local grammar school, and married Anne Hathaway, from a local farming family, in 1582. She bore him a daughter, Susanna, in 1583, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585.

Shakespeare moved to London, possibly in 1591, and became an actor. From 1592 to 1594, when the theatres were closed for the plague, he wrote his poems “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece.” His sonnets, known by 1598, though not published until 1609, fall into two groups: 1 to 126 are addressed to a fair young man, and 127 to 154 to a “dark lady’ who holds both the young man and the poet in thrall. Who these people are has provided an exercise in detection for numerous critics. The first evidence of his association with the stage is in 1594, when he was acting with the Lord Chamberlain’s company of players, later “the King’s Men’. When the company built the Globe Theatre south of the Thames in 1597, he became a partner, living modestly at a house in Silver Street until c.1606, then moving near the Globe. He returned to Stratford c.1610, living as a country gentleman at his house, New Place. His will was made in March 1616, a few months before he died, and he was buried at Stratford.

The modern era of Shakespeare scholarship has been marked by an enormous amount of investigation into the authorship, text, and chronology of the plays, including detailed studies of the age in which he lived, and of the Elizabethan stage. Authorship is still a controversial subject for certain plays, such as Titus Andronicus, Two Noble Kinsmen, and Henry VI, part I. This has involved detailed studies of the various editions of the plays, in particular the different quarto editions, and the first collected works, The First Folio of 1623. It is conventional to group the plays into early, middle, and late periods, and to distinguish comedies, tragedies, and histories, recognizing other groups that do not fall neatly into these categories.

1603 King’s Man

In 1603 Queen Elizabeth died and James VI of Scotland became James I of England. The Jacobean age was initiated. Its practical impact was that the Chamberlain’s Men, the most popular acting company under the old queen, became the King’s Men, receiving royal patronage. And no company performed more at court over these years. From November 1, 1604 to October 31, 1605, the King’s Men performed 11 performances before the King. (Seven of the performances were plays by Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Othello, Measure for Measure, and The Merchant of Venice–twice). In spite of the emphasis on comedy, the new reign was known for its cynicism. We also see a shift to darkness in Shakespeare’s works of this period.

Works. Will Kemp, the renowned clown, left the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, being replaced as chief comedian by Robert Armin, for whom Shakespeare wrote more thoughtful, philosophical parts, like that of Feste in Twelfth Night and the fool in King Lear. Twelfth Night, or What You Will (probably written in 1600) was also Shakespeare’s last “happy” comedy, and even Twelfth Night leaves a lingering shadow of unhappiness with the disgruntled and much put upon Malvolio uttering curses against all the characters and refusing to be reconciled to them in the end.

Sometime between 1599 and 1601 Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, and from Hamlet on, until about 1608 when he began writing the great Romances Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, Shakespeare’s vision turned to tragedy. The comedies he produced over the next couple of years are distinctly un-funny, and have been called “problem plays”: All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure (both probably written in the period 1603-1604). Troilus and Cressida (probably written in 1602) is such a problem play that it has perennially confused audiences and critics, and may well never have been performed in Shakespeare’s life time. After Measure for Measure Shakespeare’s vision seems to turn unrelentingly to the tragic, with his great string of tragedies Othello (probably 1604), King Lear (probably 1605) Macbeth (probably 1605), Antony and Cleopatra (probably 1607), Coriolanus and Timon of Athens (probably 1606-8). (These last two plays, along with Troilus and Cressida, surely Shakespeare’s least liked and performed plays).

What caused the shift in vision, from the sparkling comedies of the 90’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado, As You Like It, The Merry Wives, and the overheated wit of the Henry IV plays, to the somber period that followed? Comedy (and this could be extended to most of Shakespeare’s history plays as well) is social–leading to a happy resolution (usually a marriage or marriages) and social unification. Tragedy is individual, concentrating on the suffering of a single, remarkable hero–leading to individual torment, waste and death. What were the shifts in his life or in society that caused Shakespeare to abandon the social for the individual–unity for disaster?

Many have been suggested, perhaps all are true:

In 1601 (probably the year Hamlet was composed) Shakespeare’s father died.

In 1601 the Essex rebellion flared and failed, leaving Essex and Shakespeare’s patron Southampton condemned to death in the tower. Essex–a larger than life, charismatic spirit of the late Elizabethan age–was executed, Southampton reprieved. In any event, it may have marked an end to Shakespeare’s involvement with the Southampton circle.

An end of an age malaise afflicted London during the opening of the seventeenth century, accentuated by the death of the Queen in 1603.

Shakespeare’s comedies of the late 90’s depended very much on a strong woman’s part and engage the battle of the sexes–Beatrice in Much Ado, Rosalind in As You Like It, Viola in Twelfth Night. After Twelfth Night, there are no more great women’s roles until Cleopatra, seven or eight years later. Since boys played the women’s parts on the Elizabethan stage, perhaps Shakespeare’s very talented boy had grown up, or left, or died, and out of necessity he had to change genres to suit the makeup of his company.

Tragedies became more popular, along with the growing pessimism of the age, and drew large audiences.

A personal psychological crisis, perhaps associated with the stress of writing Hamlet, led to a period of depression and brooding which could not but be reflected in his works.

Having the security of being the principal dramatist for the most prestigious acting company in London, Shakespeare could afford to turn to deeper psychological themes that interested him and did not need to write entertainments that catered as much to popular tastes as in his early years. Since tragedy was considered the “higher” art form, Shakespeare was following his life long proclivities and interests in writing the great tragedies.

Life. Shakespeare continued in these years investing in Stratford real estate. In May 1602 he paid ?320 for 127 acres in Old Stratford–as suburb of Stratford proper. Later that year he bought a cottage opposite his great house New Place. In 1605 he invested ?440 in a lease of tithes–an agricultural commodities investment–around Stratford. Those who see Shakespeare as the lofty artist separated from the hustle-bustle of the world would do well to track his growing portfolio of investments. After all, a literary genius can also be an astute business man.

1608 Romance and Reconciliation

Beginning in 1608, the King’s Men were allowed to take possession and put on performances at their indoor theater the Blackfriars, the lease to which had been obtained in 1599 by Richard Burbage in his efforts to find a place to continue playing when their original lease on the Theatre had expired. 1608 also marks a change in tone in Shakespeare’s work from the dark mood of the tragedies to one of light, magic, music, reconciliation and romance. Beginning with Pericles, Prince of Tyre (probably written 1607-08–the text of which is certainly mangled, accounting for its not being played frequently), and moving through Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and finally in The Tempest Shakespeare conducted a grand experiment in form and poetry that took advantage of these elements, shaping them into an enduring art that has at its heart acceptance and the beneficence of providence.

Many feel that the view expressed in the romances is the mature Shakespeare’s view, having lived long enough to see his way through tragedy to resurrection. Others say he, as a master showman, was just following the fashion and presenting the most popular sort of play for the years 1608-1611. At court, the masque–extravaganzas of song and spectacle featuring courtiers in the performance–were popular. Ben Jonson as playwright and Inigo Jones as masque designer were the artists of the moment. Elements of the masque were therefore brought into the public stage. The fact that the players were now playing at two venues–performances at the Globe continued regularly until 1613 when it was burned down during a performance of Shakespeare’s (and Fletcher’s) Henry VIII–itself a play large on spectacle–made it possible to take advantage of elements of the drama, such as artificial lighting, music and stage effects, that had been impossible on the outdoor stage. The indoor theater also allowed higher admissions and plays aimed at a more sophisticated audience. More was charged for admission to the Blackfriars than to the Globe, and plays at the Globe were less frequent from 1603-1610 due to the once again ravages of the plague. All of these factors may have gone in to turning Shakespeare to the romance plots of his final plays, had he not by temperament been so inclined.

Shakespeare, returning to the world of Midsummer Night’s Dream, chose enchantment and magic as the world he wished to dramatize in The Tempest (probably written in 1611). Many feel that this play is Shakespeare’s valedictory, and that Prospero’s speech revealing all encompasses Shakespeare’s own attitudes:

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 tow’rs, 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.


and that Prospero’s great speech, where he abjures his magic, expressed Shakespeare’s own farewell to the stage:

…I’ll break my staff

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And deeper than did ever plummet sound

I’ll drown my book.


Whether this was Shakespeare’s intention in writing the play is an open question. The Tempest was not the last play on which he worked, but the nature of his work had clearly changed, and The Tempest is certainly his last great play.

1611 The Final Years

Plays. Shakespeare’s final three plays were written in collaboration with the King’s Men’s new dramatist , John Fletcher. Henry VIII (1613), Two Noble Kinsmen (probably also written in 1613 or 1614) and the now lost Cardenio were the plays. The former two are no one’s favorites, combining elements of spectacle, romance, and tragicomedy. Little is known of the last, except that in 1653 the printer Humphrey Moseley entered in the Stationers’ Register several plays including “The History of Cardenio, by Mr. Fletcher and Shakespeare.”, and that in 1613 Heminges received payment on two occasions for performances at court of a play at one time called “Cardenno” and another “Cardenna.” There are later supposed versions of the play, but little is known of the original.

Many have expressed the opinion that Shakespeare left the stage around 1611, after The Tempest, and returned to Stratford, from where he wrote his parts of the final collaborations. This may be true, but it is worth noting that in 1612 Shakespeare purchased the Blackfriars gate house in London. On the other hand, perhaps it was only purchased as another investment.

During the summer of 1614 we find Shakespeare swept up in an enclosure dispute in Stratford, but his role is unclear, as are his views on enclosure in general. In these final years Shakespeare seems to have been content to surround himself with his family and, as Rowe would have it,

The latter Part of his Life was spent, as all Men of good Sense will wish theirs may be, in Ease, Retirement, and the Conversation of his Friends. He had the good Fortune to gather an Estate equal to his Occasion, and, in that, to his Wish; and is said to have spent some Years before his Death at his native Stratford. His pleasurable Wit, and good Nature, engag’d him in the Acquaintance, and entitled him to the Friendship of the Gentlemen of the Neighbourhood.

His eldest daughter Susanna, “Witty above her sexe” according to her memorialist, had married Dr. John Hall in 1607. Hall had settled in Stratford around 1600, where he founded a prosperous medical practice and became one of the town’s leading citizens. His leanings were puritan. He became widely famous for his skill as a doctor, and after his death, James Cooke published 200 of Hall’s case histories in 1657 as Select Observations on English Bodies. Dr. Hall and Susanna inherited and moved into New Place after Shakespeare’s death. The Halls had one child, Elizabeth.

Shakespeare’s youngest daughter, Judith, who married in February of 1616, was not so lucky. She, at age 31, married Thomas Quiney, age 27, a vintner in Stratford. Though Quiney came from a good family, known to Shakespeare, the wedding began sadly. Before marrying Judith Shakespeare, Quiney got another girl pregnant. A month after the wedding, the girl died in childbirth with her child. These terrible events were probably the cause of Shakespeare summoning his lawyer and modifying his will that month. The Quineys had three children. The first, named Shakespeare, died in infancy. The other two sons, Richard and Thomas, died in 1639, at ages 21 and 19 respectively. They left no heirs.

1616 Death

Undoubtedly Shakespeare’s son-in-law, Dr. Hall, attended him, but the nature of his final illness is unknown. A legend has grown up, based on an entry in John Ward, a Stratford vicar’s, diary. Ward wrote that “Shakspear Drayton and Ben Jhonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted.” The problem is that the report came from a diary half a century after Shakespeare’s death, and cannot be confirmed otherwise. Undoubtedly Ward was privy to local gossip and knew Judith Shakespeare in her later years, but we cannot know if this story amounts to anything more than gossip.

Shakespeare’s Will. Whatever the cause of Shakespeare’s death, we find him calling for his attorney to revise his will on March 25 (new years day, old style) of 1616. The marriage of his daughter Judith to the unsavory Thomas Quiney made need of amendments. The will is, as G. E. Bentley says, “a characteristic will of a man of property in the reign of James I.” (Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook, 1961). Its provisions are numerous and complicated, but in sum:

He left ?100 to his daughter Judith for a marriage portion and another ?50 if she renounce any claim in the Chapel Lane cottage near New Place previously purchased by Shakespeare. He left another ?150 to Judith if she lived another three years, but forbade her husband any claim to it unless he settled on her lands worth the ?150. If Judith failed to live another three years, the ?150 was to have gone to Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth Hall.

He left ?30 to his sister Joan Hart, and permited her to stay on for a nominal rent in the Western of the two houses on Henley Street, which Shakespeare himself inherited from his father in 1601. He left each of Joan’s three sons ?5.

He left all his plate, except a silver bowl left to Judith, to his granddaughter Elizabeth.

He left ?10 to the poor of Stratford, a large amount considering similar bequeaths of the time.

He left his sword and various small bequests to local friends, including money to buy memorial rings. His lifelong friend Hamnet Sadler is mentioned in this connection.

He singles out “my ffellowes John Hemynges Richard Burbage & Henry Cundell,” leaving them 26s8d to “buy them Ringes.” Heminges and Condell were, seven years later, to become the editors of the First Folio.

He does not mention his wife Anne (though it is commonly pointed out that it would have been her right through English common law to one-third of his estate as well as residence for life at New Place), except to leave her his “second best bed.”

“All the Rest of my goodes Chattels Leases plate Jewels & household stuffe whatsoever after my dettes and Legasies paied & my funerall expences dischared” he left to his son-in-law John Hall and his daughter Susanna.

It is often wondered that no books or play scripts are mentioned in the will, but of course Shakespeare would have owned no play scripts, since they were the property of the King’s Men. Any books would not have been itemized in the will but would have been part of his “goodes.”

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 and was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church April 25. On the slab over his grave appear the words:





His wishes have been honored, at least by men, though the grave is near the Avon and work of the river underground may have had no respect for the curse. A painted funerary bust was also erected in the church early in the seventeenth century that has lasted to today.

The First Folio. Seven years after his death, Shakespeare’s fellows Heminges and Condell brought forth the First Folio: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. It published 36 plays, 18 of which were published therein for the first time. The volume was probably inspired by the 1616 folio edition of Ben Jonson’s Workes. It takes time to compile and edit such a large volume, and Heminges and Condell were otherwise busy men.

In the prefatory material to the First Folio was printed the Martin Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare, one of only two likenesses we have of the dramatist that can make claim to any sort of authenticity.

To the Reader.

This Figure, that thou here seest put,

It was for gentle Shakespeare cut,

Wherein the Graver had a strife

with Nature, to out-doo the life :

O, could he but have drawne his wit

As well in brasse, as he hath hit

His face ; the Print would then surpasse

All, that was ever writ in brasse.

But, since he cannot, Reader, looke

Not on his Picture, but his Booke.

Ben Jonson’s

Commendation of the

Droeshout engraving

First published 1623.

Martin Droeshout, the engraver, was 15 when Shakespeare died and never knew him. He must have worked from a sketch, for Ben Jonson, in his fine dedicatory poem, says that the engraving caught the likeness of the man exactly. The other likeness with a claim to authenticity is from the funerary bust in Holy Trinity Church, produced by Gheerhart Janssen who was a stonemason who had a shop in Southwark near the Globe. The Shakespeare Monument, as it is known, shows a man similar in appearance to the Droeshout engraving, yet older and heavier. The following link will take you to a view and discussion of the funerary bust. Use the BACK button on your browser to return to this page after veiwing.

The First Folio prefatory material contains Ben Jonson’s encomium to Shakespeare, a fine poem in itself:

To the memory of my beloved,

The Author

MR. W I L L I A M S H A K E S P E A R E :


what he hath left us.

To draw no envy (Shakespeare) on thy name,

Am I thus ample to thy Booke, and Fame;

While I confesse thy writings to be such,

As neither Man, nor Muse, can praise too much.

‘Tis true, and all men’s suffrage. But these wayes

Were not the paths I meant unto thy praise;

For seeliest Ignorance on these may light,

Which, when it sounds at best, but eccho’s right;

Or blinde Affection, which doth ne’re advance

The truth, but gropes, and urgeth all by chance;

Or crafty Malice, might pretend this praise,

And thine to ruine, where it seem’d to raise.

These are, as some infamous Baud, or Whore,

Should praise a Matron. What could hurt her more?

But thou art proofe against them, and indeed

Above th’ ill fortune of them, or the need.

I, therefore will begin. Soule of the Age !

The applause ! delight ! the wonder of our Stage !

My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by

Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lye

A little further, to make thee a roome :

Thou art a Moniment, without a tombe,

And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live,

And we have wits to read, and praise to give.

That I not mixe thee so, my braine excuses ;

I meane with great, but disproportion’d Muses :

For, if I thought my judgement were of yeeres,

I should commit thee surely with thy peeres,

And tell, how farre thou dist our Lily out-shine,

Or sporting Kid or Marlowes mighty line.

And though thou hadst small Latine, and lesse Greeke,

From thence to honour thee, I would not seeke

For names; but call forth thund’ring ?schilus,

Euripides, and Sophocles to us,

Paccuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,

To life againe, to heare thy Buskin tread,

And shake a stage : Or, when thy sockes were on,

Leave thee alone, for the comparison

Of all, that insolent Greece, or haughtie Rome

Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.

Triumph, my Britaine, thou hast one to showe,

To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.

He was not of an age, but for all time !

And all the Muses still were in their prime,

When like Apollo he came forth to warme

Our eares, or like a Mercury to charme !

Nature her selfe was proud of his designes,

And joy’d to weare the dressing of his lines !

Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,

As, since, she will vouchsafe no other Wit.

The merry Greeke, tart Aristophanes,

Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please;

But antiquated, and deserted lye

As they were not of Natures family.

Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art,

My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part;

For though the Poets matter, Nature be,

His Art doth give the fashion. And, that he,

Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,

(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat

Upon the Muses anvile : turne the same,

(And himselfe with it) that he thinkes to frame;

Or for the lawrell, he may gaine a scorne,

For a good Poet’s made, as well as borne.

And such wert thou. Looke how the fathers face

Lives in his issue, even so, the race

Of Shakespeares minde, and manners brightly shines

In his well toned, and true-filed lines :

In each of which, he seemes to shake a Lance,

As brandish’t at the eyes of Ignorance.

Sweet swan of Avon! what a fight it were

To see thee in our waters yet appeare,

And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,

That so did take Eliza, and our James !

But stay, I see thee in the Hemisphere

Advanc’d, and made a Constellation there !

Shine forth, thou Starre of Poets, and with rage,

Or influence, chide, or cheere the drooping Stage;

Which, since thy flight fro’ hence, hath mourn’d like night,

And despaires day, but for thy Volumes light.

Historical Perspective. Aside from the commissioned opinions in the First Folio, we get a more personal look at Shakespeare from Ben Jonson’s notebooks, called Timber, or Discoveries by Ben Jonson (1640):

De Shakespeare nostrat. I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, (whatsoever he penn’d) hee never blotted out line. My answer hath beene, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who choose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted. And to justifie mine owne candor, (for I lov’d the man, and doe honour his memory (on this side Idolatry) as much as any.) Hee was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature: had an excellent Phantsie; brave notions, and gentle expressions: wherein hee flow’d with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stop’d: Sufflaminandus erat; as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his owne power; would the rule of it had beene so too. Many times hee fell into those things, could not escape laughter: As when hee said in the person of C?sar, one speaking to him; C?sar thou dost me wrong. Hee replyed: C?sar did never wrong, but with just cause: and such like; which were ridiculous. But hee redeemed his vices, with his vertues. There was ever more in him to be praysed, then to be pardoned.

Coming from the never self-effacing Jonson, this is high praise indeed. This passage seems to sum up the consensus on the man Shakespeare. No one, it seems (except the jealous Robert Greene in 1592) had anything bad to say about him. He is always described as honest, easy, pleasant, gentle, sweet, and the like.

As the seventeenth century wore on and Shakespeare the man became further removed from living memory John Dryden – 1668) summarized the literary view:

To begin then with Shakespeare; he was the man who of all Modern, and perhaps Ancient Poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the Images of Nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily : when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learn’d; he needed not the spectacles of Books to read Nature; he look’d inwards, and found her there.

From such stuff Shakespeare’s reputation rightfully has grown. Today he is certainly the world’s most read and studied author and most performed dramatist. The works are such that the fascination continues.


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