William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare (National Portrait Gallery), in the famous Chandos portrait, artist and authenticity unconfirmed.

William Shakespeare (baptised April 26, 1564April 23, 1616) was an English poet and playwright. Shakespeare is considered by many to be the greatest writer in the English language, as well as one of the greatest in Western literature, and the world's preeminent dramatist. Indeed, some critics have raised their praise of him to the level of bardolatry.

Shakespeare is believed to have produced most of his work between 1586 and 1616, although the exact dates and chronology of the plays attributed to him are often uncertain. Shakespeare is counted among the very few playwrights who have excelled in both tragedy and comedy, and his plays combine popular appeal with complex characterisation, poetic grandeur and philosophical depth.

Shakespeare's works have been translated into every major living language, and his plays are continually performed all around the world. In addition, quotations from his plays have passed into everyday usage in many languages. Over the years, many people have speculated about Shakespeare's life, raising questions about his sexuality, whether he was secretly Catholic, and debating whether someone else authored some or all of his plays and poetry.



Main article: Shakespeare's life

Early life

Shakespeare (also spelled Shakspere, Shaksper, and Shake-speare, due to the fact that Elizabethan spelling was very erratic[1]) was born in and lived on Henley Street, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, in April 1564, the son of John Shakespeare, a successful tradesman and alderman, and of Mary Arden, a daughter of the gentry. Shakespeare's baptismal record dates to April 26 of that year. Because baptisms were performed within a few days of birth, tradition has settled on April 23 as his birthday. This date provides a convenient symmetry because Shakespeare died on the same day in 1616.

As the son of a prominent town official, Shakespeare was entitled to attend King Edward VI Grammar School in central Stratford, which may have provided an intensive education in Latin grammar and literature. Also, mainstream scholars assume that Shakespeare was a student at the Stratford Free School, since he would have been entitled to attend it, and textbooks used at the Stratford Free School are alluded to in the plays. At the age of 18, he married Anne Hathaway, who was 26, on November 28, 1582 at Temple Grafton, near Stratford. Two neighbours of Anne posted bond that there were no impediments to the marriage. There appears to have been some haste in arranging the ceremony, presumably due to the fact that Anne was three months pregnant.

File:Shakspeare signature.jpg
Shakespeare's signature, from his will

After his marriage, William Shakespeare left few traces in the historical record until he appeared on the London theatrical scene. Indeed, the late 1580s are known as Shakespeare's "Lost Years" because no evidence has survived to show exactly where he was or why he left Stratford for London. On May 26, 1583, Shakespeare's first child, Susannah, was baptised at Stratford. A son, Hamnet, and a daughter, Judith, were baptised on February 2, 1585.

Later years

Shakespeare's last two plays were written in 1613, after which he appears to have retired to Stratford. He died on April 23 1616, at the age of 52. He remained married to Anne until his death and was survived by his two daughters, Susannah and Judith. Susannah married Dr John Hall, but there are no direct descendants of the poet and playwright alive today.

Shakespeare is buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was granted the honour of burial in the chancel not on account of his fame as a playwright but for purchasing a share of the tithe of the church for £440 (a considerable sum of money at the time). A bust of him placed by his family on the wall nearest his grave shows him posed in the act of writing. Each year on his claimed birthday, a new quill pen is placed in the writing hand of the bust.

He is believed to have written the epitaph on his tombstone:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
But cursed be he that moves my bones.



Main article: Shakespeare's plays
File:Statue Of Shakespeare.jpg
Detail from statue of Shakespeare in Leicester Square, London

A number of Shakespeare's plays have the reputation of being among the greatest in the English language and in Western literature. His plays cover tragedy, history, and comedy and have been translated into every major living language, in addition to being continually performed all around the world.

As was normal in the period, Shakespeare based many of his plays on the work of other playwrights and recycled older stories and historical material. For example, Hamlet (c. 1601) is probably a reworking of an older, lost play (the so-called Ur-Hamlet), and King Lear is an adaptation of an older play, King Leir. For plays on historical subjects, Shakespeare relied heavily on two principal texts. Most of the Roman and Greek plays are based on Plutarch's Parallel Lives (from the 1579 English translation by Sir Thomas North[2]), and the English history plays are indebted to Raphael Holinshed's 1587 Chronicles.

Shakespeare's plays tend to be placed into three main stylistic groups: his early comedies and histories (such as A Midsummer Night's Dream and Henry IV, Part 1), his middle period (which includes his most famous tragedies, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear), and his other romance, The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet, and his later romances (such as The Winter's Tale and The Tempest). The earlier plays tend to be more light-hearted, while the middle-period plays tend to be darker, addressing such issues as betrayal, murder, lust, power, and egotism. By contrast, his late romances feature a redemptive plotline with a happy ending and the use of magic and other fantastical elements. However, the borders between these groups are extremely blurry.

Some of Shakespeare's plays first appeared in print as a series of quartos, but most remained unpublished until 1623 when the posthumous First Folio was published. The traditional division of his plays into tragedies, comedies, and histories follows the logic of the First Folio. However, modern criticism has labelled some of these plays "problem plays" as they elude easy categorisation, or perhaps purposefully break generic conventions, and has introduced the term "romances" for the later comedies.

There are many controversies about the exact chronology of Shakespeare's plays. In addition, the fact that Shakespeare did not produce an authoritative print version of his plays during his life accounts for part of the textual problem often noted with his plays, which means that for several of the plays there are different textual versions. As a result, the problem of identifying what Shakespeare actually wrote became a major concern for most modern editions. Textual corruptions also stem from printers' errors, compositors' misreadings or wrongly scanned lines from the source material. Additionally, in an age before standardised spelling, Shakespeare often wrote a word several times in a different spelling, contributing further to the transcribers' confusions. Modern scholars also believe Shakespeare revised his plays throughout the years, sometimes leading to two existing versions of one play.


Main article: Shakespeare's sonnets

Shakespeare's sonnets are a collection of 154 poems that deal with such themes as love, beauty, politics, and mortality. All but two first appeared in the 1609 publication entitled Shakespeare's Sonnets; numbers 138 ("When my love swears that she is made of truth") and 144 ("Two loves have I, of comfort and despair") had previously been published in a 1599 miscellany entitled The Passionate Pilgrim.

The conditions under which the sonnets were published is unclear. The 1609 text is dedicated to one "Mr. W. H.", who is described as "the only begetter" of the poems by the publisher Thomas Thorpe. It is not known who this man was although there are many theories. In addition, it is not known whether the publication of the sonnets was authorised by Shakespeare. The poems were probably written over a period of several years.

Other poems

In addition to his sonnets, Shakespeare also wrote several longer narrative poems, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and A Lover's Complaint. These poems appear to have been written either in an attempt to win the patronage of a rich benefactor (as was common at the time) or as the result of such patronage. For example, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis were both dedicated to Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.

In addition, Shakespeare wrote the short poem The Phoenix and the Turtle. The anthology The Passionate Pilgrim was attributed to him upon its first publication in 1599, but in fact only five of its poems are by Shakespeare and the attribution was withdrawn in the second edition.


Shakespeare's impact on modern theatre cannot be overestimated. Not only did Shakespeare create some of the most admired plays in Western literature, he also transformed English theatre by expanding expectations about what could be accomplished through characterisation, plot, action, language and genre.[3] His poetic artistry helped raise the status of popular theatre, permitting it to be admired by intellectuals as well as by those seeking pure entertainment.

Theatre was changing when Shakespeare first arrived in London in the late 1580s or early 1590s. Previously, the commonest forms of popular English theatre were the Tudor morality plays. These plays, which blend piety with farce and slapstick, were allegories in which the characters are personified moral attributes who validate the virtues of Godly life by prompting the protagonist to choose such a life over evil. The characters and plot situations are symbolic rather than realistic. As a child, Shakespeare would likely have been exposed to this type of play (along with mystery plays and miracle plays).[4] Meanwhile, at the universities, academic plays were being staged based on Roman closet dramas. These plays, often performed in Latin, used a more exact and academically respectable poetic style than the morality plays, but they were also more static, valuing lengthy speeches over physical action.

By the late 1500s the popularity of morality and academic plays waned as the English Renaissance took hold, and playwrights like Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe began to revolutionize theatre. Their plays blended the old morality drama with academic theatre to produce a new secular form. The new drama had the poetic grandeur and philosophical depth of the academic play and the bawdy populism of the moralities. However, it was more ambiguous and complex in its meanings, and less concerned with simple moral allegories. Inspired by this new style, Shakespeare took these changes to a new level, creating plays that not only resonated on an emotional level with audiences but also explored and debated the basic elements of what it meant to be human.


Main article: Shakespeare's reputation

Shakespeare's reputation has grown considerably since his own time. During his lifetime and shortly after his death, Shakespeare was well-regarded but not considered the supreme poet of his age. He was included in some contemporary lists of leading poets, but he lacked the stature of Edmund Spenser or Philip Sidney. After the Interregnum stage ban of 164260, the new Restoration theatre companies had the previous generation of playwrights as the mainstay of their repertory, most of all the phenomenally popular Beaumont and Fletcher team, but also Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. As with other older playwrights, Shakespeare's plays were mercilessly adapted by later dramatists for the Restoration stage with little of the reverence that would later develop.

Beginning in the late 17th century, Shakespeare began to be considered the supreme English-language playwright (and, to a lesser extent, poet). Initially this reputation focused on Shakespeare as a dramatic poet, to be studied on the printed page rather than in the theatre. By the early 19th century, though, Shakespeare began hitting peaks of fame and popularity. During this time, theatrical productions of Shakespeare provided spectacle and melodrama for the masses and were extremely popular. Romantics critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge then raised admiration for Shakespeare to adulation or bardolatry (from bard + idolatry), in line with the Romantic reverence for the poet as prophet and genius. In the middle to late 19th century, Shakespeare also became an emblem of English pride and a "rallying-sign", as Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1841, for the whole British empire.

This reverence has of course provoked a negative reaction. In the 21st century most inhabitants of the English-speaking world encounter Shakespeare at school at a young age, and there is a common association of his work with boredom and incomprehension. At the same time, Shakespeare's plays remain more frequently staged than the works of any other playwright and are frequently adapted into film.

See also: Timeline of Shakespeare criticism

Speculations about Shakespeare


Main article: Shakespearean authorship

Over the years such figures as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud have expressed disbelief that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon actually produced the works attributed to him. These claims necessarily rely on conspiracy theories to explain the lack of direct historical evidence for them, although their advocates also point to evidentiary gaps in the orthodox history. Most professional scholars consider the argument baseless, and attribute the debate to the scarcity and ambiguity of many of the historical records of Shakespeare's life.

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, an English nobleman and intimate of Queen Elizabeth, became the most prominent alternative candidate for authorship of the Shakespeare canon, after having been identified in the 1920s. Oxford partisans note the similarities between the Earl's life, and events and sentiments depicted in the plays and sonnets. The principal hurdle for Oxfordian theory is the evidence that many of the Shakespeare plays were written after their candidate's death, but well within the lifespan of William Shakespeare. Christopher Marlowe is considered by some to be the most highly qualified to have written the works of Shakespeare. It has been speculated that Marlowe's recorded death in 1593 was faked for various reasons and that Marlowe went into hiding, subsequently writing under the name of William Shakespeare.

A related question in mainstream academia addresses whether Shakespeare himself wrote every word of his commonly accepted plays, given that collaboration between dramatists routinely occurred in the Elizabethan theatre. Serious academic work continues to attempt to ascertain the authorship of plays and poems of the time, both those attributed to Shakespeare and others.


Several decades before Shakespeare's birth, the English Crown severed the country's church from the Roman Catholic Church. In the following years, extreme pressure was placed on England's Catholics to convert to the protestant Church of England, with recusancy laws used to help enforce this conversion.

Some evidence suggests that Shakespeare may have been secretly Catholic. There is no question that Shakespeare had many family members, patrons and friends who were Catholic and that he grew up in a hotbed of recusancy, with nearly conclusive evidence that both Shakespeare’s father John Shakespeare and his daughter Susannah were recusant Catholics. His mother, Mary Arden, was a member of a conspicuous and determinedly Catholic family in Warwickshire. Archdeacon Richard Davies (d. 1708), an Anglican cleric, allegedly wrote of Shakespeare: "He dyed a Papyst".[5] Four of the six schoolmasters at the grammar school during Shakespeare's youth were Catholic sympathizers and may have been hired by his father. Simon Hunt, likely one of Shakespeare’s teachers, later became a Jesuit.

A number of scholarly works maintain that Shakespeare was Catholic, such as Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare by Clare Asquith.[6] Asquith maintains that Shakespeare lived in a society where there was substantial and widespread, yet quiet, resistance to the newly imposed faith and that Shakespeare was part of this resistance--his own works being the best evidence of his faith. Lady Magdalen Montague, a well known Catholic and a bulwark of English Catholicism was a prominent patron of the Bard, and even is found within his plays Romeo and Juliet, A Winter's Tale and Comedy of Errors.

Asquith says the Bard would use terms such as "high" to refer to Catholic characters and "low" to refer to the Protestant--referring to their altars--and "light" or "fair" to refer to Catholic and "dark" to refer to Protestant, a reference to certain clerical garb. Asquith detected in Shakespeare's work the use of a simple code used by the Jesuit underground in England which took the form of a mercantile terminology wherein priests were merchants and souls were jewels, the people pursuing them were creditors, and the Tyburn scaffold where the members of the underground died was called the place of much trading. The Jesuit underground used this code so their correspondences looked like innocuous commercial letters. Asquith says Shakespeare also used this code.

Needless to say, Shakespeare’s Catholicism is by no means universally accepted, though some consider it a growing consensus. The Catholic Encyclopedia questioned not only that he might be other than Catholic, but whether "Shakespeare was not infected with the atheism, which ... was rampant in the more cultured society of the Elizabethan age."[7] Stephen Greenblatt, of Harvard, suspects Catholic sympathies of some kind or another in Shakespeare and his family but considers the writer to be a less than pious person with essentially worldly motives. An increasing number of scholars do look to matters biographical and evidence from Shakespeare’s work such as the placement of young Hamlet as a student at Wittenberg while Hamlet’s ghost is in purgatory, the sympathetic view of religious life ("thrice blessed"), scholastic theology in "The Phoenix and Turtle", sympathetic allusions to martyred English Jesuit Edmund Campion in "Twelfth Night"[8] and many other matters as suggestive of a Catholic worldview.


Main article: Sexuality of William Shakespeare

The content of Shakespeare's works has raised the question of whether he may have been bisexual. It should be noted that the question of whether an Elizabethan was "gay" in a modern sense is anachronistic, as the concepts of homosexuality and bisexuality did not emerge until the 19th century; while sodomy was a crime in the period, there was no word for an exclusively homosexual identity (see History of homosexuality). Elizabethans also frequently wrote about friendship in more intense language than is common today.

Although twenty-six of the sonnets are love poems addressed to a married woman (the "Dark Lady"), one hundred and twenty-six are addressed to a young man (known as the "Fair Lord"). The amorous tone of the latter group, which focus on the young man's beauty, has been interpreted as evidence for Shakespeare's bisexuality, although others interpret them as referring to intense friendship, not sexual love. Another explanation is that the poems are not autobiographical, but mere fiction, so that the "speaker" of the Sonnets should not be simplistically identified with Shakespeare himself. Despite these alternative interpretations, many readers have suspected otherwise. For example, in 1954, C.S. Lewis wrote that the sonnets are "too lover-like for ordinary male friendship" (although he added that they are not the poetry of "full-blown pederasty") and that he "found no real parallel to such language between friends in the sixteenth-century literature" [9].

Many readers have found similar evidence in the plays. The most commonly cited example is a number of comedies such as Twelfth Night and As You Like It, which contain comic situations in which a woman poses as a man, a device that exploits the fact that in Shakespeare's day women's roles were played by boys. While the situations thus presented are heterosexual in terms of the story, the stage image of men wooing and kissing may well have been titillating to those of a homosexual orientation, and while other dramatists occasionally used the same device, Shakespeare seems to have had an exceptional preference for it, using it in five of his plays.

See also



Main article: Shakespearean comedies


Main article: Shakespearean histories


Main article: Shakespearean tragedy

Lost plays




  1. ^  The Spelling and Pronunciation of Shakespeare's Name by David Kathman. Accessed 10/22/05.
  2. ^  Plutarch's Parallel Lives. Accessed 10/23/05.
  3. ^  Shakespeare's Reading by Robert S. Miola, Oxford University Press, 2000.
  4. ^  Ibid.
  5. ^  The Religion of Shakespeare Catholic Encyclopedia on CD-ROM. (Accessed Dec. 23, 2005.)]
  6. ^ The Shakespeares and ‘the Old Faith’ (1946) by John Henry de Groot; Die Verborgene Existenz Des William Shakespeare: Dichter Und Rebell Im Katholischen Untergrund (2001) by Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel; Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (2005) by Clare Asquith.
  7. ^  The Religion of Shakespeare Catholic Encyclopedia on CD-ROM. (Accessed Dec. 23, 2005.)
  8. "^  "Allusions to Edmund Campion in Twelfth Night" by C. Richard Desper, Elizabethan Review, Spring/Summer 1995.
  9. ^  Was Shakespeare gay? Sonnet 20 and the politics of pedagogy.

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