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THE KEY DATES

1564
Shakespeare born in Stratford-upon-Avon

1594
Joins Lord Chamberlain's Men. Titus Andronicus, first quarto, published

1599
Globe playhouse built

1603
Death of Elizabeth I. Accession of James I

1613
Shakespeare's writing career over

1616
Shakespeare dies in Stratford-upon-Avon

1623
Publication of the First Folio

1642
Civil War closes the theatres

1660
Theatres reopen with restoration of Charles II

1769
Garrick's Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon

 
 
   
 

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The Life of William Shakespeare

In a flamboyant age and a notoriously self-promoting profession – he was an active member of a theatre company for at least twenty years – Shakespeare was noticeably reticent. As a result, despite scholars’ painstaking research, much speculation remains possible about a life which is traditionally said to have begun on St George’s Day, 23 April 1564.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, where his father was a prosperous glover who would in 1565 be promoted to the rank of alderman. It is reasonable to assume that such a relatively affluent man would send his son to the grammar school in Stratford, and Shakespeare’s many mythological and classical references bear out this conjecture. While it is unlikely that he went on to university, it is known that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582. The couple had two daughters, Susanna and Judith, and one son, Hamnet, who died in 1596.

Virtually nothing is known of Shakespeare’s life from 1585 to 1592, although he was sufficiently established as a playwright by 1592 to be satirised in print by Robert Greene as the challengingly versatile ‘upstart Crow’. The theatre in London was entering its most brilliant and productive phase, and by 1594, when he found sufficient money and professional commitment to purchase a share in the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare had probably written his three early comedies, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew, a corpse-laden Senecan tragedy, Titus Andronicus, and a large share of the three Henry VI plays, to which Richard III provided a wonderfully original conclusion. He had also reached a fashionable audience with his two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), probably written in response to the plague that had shut down the theatres for a time. Later poetry included the incomparable Sonnets (published in 1609 but probably written much earlier) and The Phoenix and the Turtle (1601).

Living in the region of Bishopsgate, not far from the Theatre, Shakespeare continued to write plays at the rate of approximately two per year. The period 1594-8 may have seen the first productions of King John, the middle comedies Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice, the hugely popular Romeo and Juliet and the cycle of history plays comprising Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V. That the playwright also had aspirations as a gentleman, and ample means to support them, is apparent in the successful application – on his father’s behalf – for a coat of arms in 1596. The following year, Shakespeare bought one of Stratford’s finest houses, New Place, and two years later contributed to the establishment of the Globe on the south bank of the Thames.

Shakespeare wrote his greatest plays during the new theatre’s first decade. They include the mature comedies, Much Ado About Nothing (probably dating from 1598), As You Like It and Twelfth Night; the ‘problem plays’, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida; a comic pot-boiler, The Merry Wives of Windsor, perhaps written in response to Queen Elizabeth’s demands for more about Falstaff; and the succession of great tragedies, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens. This was also the period that saw the Lord Chamberlain’s Men honoured by the new monarch, James I, with the title the King’s Men, and confirmed in their ascendancy at Court.

But theatrical fashions were changing, and the arrival on the scene of new talents like Beaumont and Fletcher had Shakespeare looking to his well-established laurels. He joined the rest of the King’s Men in investing in an indoor playhouse at Blackfriars, perhaps recognising the greater scenic scope offered by indoor playing. His last plays, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, are tragi-comic romances, which acknowledge even as they transcend the growing interest in spectacle, magic and improbable resolutions. Collaborations with John Fletcher on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsman suggest a dulling of interest or creativity, and Shakespeare progressively loosened his ties to London. Having presumably spent his final years at New Place, William Shakespeare died on his birthday, 23 April 1616, and was buried in the place of his baptism, Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. The earliest collected edition of his plays, the First Folio, was published in 1623, and its prefatory verse-tributes include Ben Jonson’s famous declaration, ‘He was not of an age, but for all time’.

Further information – and some fascinating speculations – about Shakespeare’s life can be found in the excellent biography by Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World (Pimlico, 2005).

 

 
     
       
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