Published 23 Dec 2016
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Widely regarded as the greatest writer of all time, William Shakespeare occupies a position unique in world literature. Other poets such as Homer and Dante, and novelists, such as Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens, have transcended national barriers; but no writer’s living reputation can seriously compare with that of Shakespeare, also known as The Bard of Avon”. His plays, written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries fro a small repertory theater, are now performed and read more often and in more countries than ever before (L H Craig. Of Philosophers and Kings: Political Philosophy in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “King Lear”).
The prophecy of his great contemporary, the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson that Shakespeare is not only the greatest of his age but of all time has been marvelously fulfilled. It may be audacious even to attempt a definition of his greatness, but it is not so difficult to describe the variety of gifts that enable him to create imaginative visions of pathos and mirth that, whether read in the book or witness in the theatre, fill the mind and linger there, He is a writer of great intellectual rapidity, perceptiveness, and poetic power. Other writers have had these qualities. But with Shakespeare the keenness of mind was applied not with obscure remote subjects but to human beings and their complete range of emotions and conflicts.
Other writers have applied their keenness of mind in this way. But Shakespeare is astonishingly clever with words and images, so that his mental energy, when applied to intelligible human situations, finds full and memorable expression, convincing and imaginatively stimulating. As if this were not enough, the art form into which his creative energies went was not remote and bookish but involved the vivid stage impersonation of human beings, commanding sympathy and inviting vicarious participation. Thus many of Shakespeare’s great merits can survive translation into other languages and into cultures remote from that of Elizabethan England (“Shakespeare, William”).
Shakespeare the Man
The date of Shakespeare’s birth is not known. The earliest biographical record is an entry of his baptism in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, on April 26, 1564. His father, John Shakespeare, first appears in the town records in 1552, when he was fined for not removing a dunghill from before his door in Henley Street. He became prominent in town affairs. He was elected a chamberlain of the Stratford corporation in 1561, alderman in 1565, and high bailiff (mayor) in 1568. He signed documents with a mark, but this is no longer supposed to prove that he was illiterate. From 1577 to his death in 1601, there are many signs in the records of financial troubles.
He is excused from a levy for the poor, he sells his wife’s inheritance, and he does not attend meetings of the corporation, so that another is appointed alderman in his place. Finally, in 1592 he is included in a list of nine who do not obey the law by going to church once a month, a note in the record signifying that this is for fear of process for debt. In 1596, however, he is described by the herald who made a rough draft of a coat of arms for him as a man of wealth and character.
The poet’s mother was Mary, daughter of Robert Arden of Wilmcote, a wealthy landowner and relative of the aristocratic Ardens of Park Hall. Eight children were born to her, of whom William was the third child and oldest son. She died in Stratford in 1608 (S. Schoenbaum. Shakespeare’s Lives).
No records exist of Shakespeare in his early years, but something is known about the Stratford Grammar School, which he presumably attended. The curriculum of such a school would have been adequate to provide the poet with the basis for such classical learning as he had, although less than what some modern commentators would suggest.
The two principal legends about his life in the country are that he was apprenticed to a butcher, for whom he was described as working in high style —- make an elaborate speech when upon killing a calf. Authenticity of such a story though, cannot now be traced back farther than the late 17th century about 100 years after the events are supposed to have happened.
The first record of William Shakespeare after his christening is a license for marriage, Nov. 27, 1581, in the Episcopal register of the diocese of Worcester. The bride’s name is given as Anne Whateley of Temple Crafton. The next day a bond of £ 40 was entered to secure the marriage, without trouble, of Shakespeare and Anne Hathway or Hathaway, of Stratford. The sum was posted by two yeoman friends of the bride’s father, Richard Hathway of Shottery, parish of Old Stratford, whose will had been proved in the preceding July. Anne Whateley and Anne Hathway is probably the same person, and since the latter is traceable, the Whateley entry is probably a clerk’s mistake.
The special license to which these records refer provided for a marriage after only one asking of the banns. The usual three banns would have carried the wedding into a prohibited period on the church calendar and delayed it for about two months. This delay would have been undesirable because Anne was already pregnant. The baptismal register at Stratford records the christening on May 26, 1583, of Susanna, daughter of William Shakespeare. On Feb. 2, 1585, the same register records the christening of twins, Hamnet (a variant of Hamlet) and Judith, apparently named for a Stratford baker, Hamnet Sadler, a beneficiary and witness of the poet’s will, and his wife Judith. She lived until 1623, and the inscription on her grave records the fact that she was then 67 years old, which would make her about eight years older than her husband.
The “Missing” Years
Nothing is known of Shakespeare’s life between the christening of the twins and the first record of his appearance in the theatre in London as actor and playwright. Seven or eight years, from about 1584 to 1592, are blank so far as the records go. The actor William Beeston, whose father was a member of Shakespeare’s company, many years later told John Aubrey, the antiquarian, that Shakespeare had been a schoolmaster in the country. Because of the academic flavor of such early plays as The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labour’s Lost, this tradition has found favor with modern biographers. There is no record of Anne Shakespeare in London during her husband’s stay there, nor is there anything in Stratford until 1597, when Shakespeare, an established man of the theatre, bought New Place.
Shakespeare had little contact with officialdom, apart from walking — dressed in the royal livery as a member of the King’s Men — at the coronation of King James I in 1604. He continued to look after his financial interest. He bought properties in London and in Stratford. In 1605 he purchased a share (about one-fifth) of the Stratford tithes — a fact that explains why he was eventually buried in the chancel of its parish church. For some time he lodged with a French Huguenot family called Mountjoy, who lived near St. Olave’s Church, Cripplegate, London. The records of a lawsuit in May 1612, due to a Mountjoy family quarrel, show Shakespeare as giving evidence in a genial way, though unable to remember certain important facts that would have decided the case) and as interesting himself generally in the family’s affairs.
No letters written by Shakespeare have survived. But a private letter to him got caught up with some official transactions of the town of Stratford by a Richard Quiney, who requested Shakespeare a £30 loan — a large sum in Elizabethan money. Nothing is further known of the transaction, except that 18 years later, Quiney’s son Thomas became Judith’s husband.
He died on April 23, 1616. No name was inscribed on his gravestone in the chancel of the parish church of Stratford-on Avon. Instead these lines, possibly his own, appeared:
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.
Shakespeare wrote poems such as Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece which had erotic themes. A third narrative poem, A Lover’s Complaint is now credited to Shakespeare although this did receive some doubt as to its authorship. Critics complaint that the dark and gloomy effect had put a stain to what could have been the poem’s superior qualities (M. Jackson. “A Lover’s Complaint Revisited”). Another poem, The Phoenix and the Turtle was printed in 1601.
- Craig, L H. Of Philosophers and Kings: Political Philosophy in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “King Lear”. 2003
- “Shakespeare, William”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol. 16. 1975
- Schoenbaum, S. Shakespeare’s Lives. 1970
- “Shakespeare”. The Encyclopedia Americana. Vol. 24. 1978
- Jackson, M. “A Lover’s Complaint Revisited”. In Shakespeare Studies. Susan Zimmermann (ed.). Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 267-297. ISBN 0832641202