SHAKESPEARE, William

(1564-1616)
William Shakespeare was one of early modern England's most successful and celebrated playwrights, and since the eighteenth century he has often been re­garded as England's, perhaps the modern world's, greatest writer. There is con­siderably more legend, opinion, and supposition than there is documentary evidence to sustain anything that could reasonably support a complete biography of William Shakespeare. Since the early eighteenth century Shakespeare's life has been a magnet for eager speculation, tendentious interpretation, and wishful thinking, and each generation has reinvented aspects of Shakespeare on its own terms.
Records of Shakespeare's youth are not plentiful, but scholars have been able to reconstruct a fairly accurate picture of the poet's early years. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden in late April 1564 (the traditional date of 23 April owes a great deal to nationalistic legend, since that date is also St. George's Day, and St. George is the patron saint of England). The elder Shakespeare was a reasonably successful glover in a provincial town, a tradesman who also held various public offices and was involved in the life of the community—including more than one legal controversy. Like those of his class and era, he probably sent his son to Stratford's grammar school, where the young boy would have been schooled in Latin language and literature and, we can suppose, would have acquired talents and habits that sustained him throughout his professional career.
In November 1582 William married Anne Hathaway, who was twenty-six and three months pregnant. The couple's first daughter, Susanna, was born in May 1583, and in 1585 there followed two more children, twins Hamnet and Judith. In Elizabethan times, marriages after conception were not sanctioned, but the practice was quite widespread, and little should be made of the circum­stances of their marriage. This said, however, the fact that Shakespeare spent much of his adult life living apart from his wife and children has provoked considerable speculation about his familial and sexual identity.
The period between 1585 and 1592 is often called "the Lost Years" by schol­ars because there is little biographical evidence from this time. Shakespeare may have moved to London soon after the birth of the twins, but it seems certain that he was involved in the world of professional theater at least by the late 1580s because he is mentioned, unflatteringly, by the playwright Robert Greene* in a 1592 pamphlet that suggests that Shakespeare had already gained some prominence.
Plague in 1592-93 forced the theaters to close, and during this period Shake­speare wrote two narrative poems based upon classical themes, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, both dedicated to the young aristocrat Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who may also be the young man addressed in Shakespeare's Sonnets (1609). Both poems catered to late Eliza­bethan tastes for erotic themes and were popular successes. They indicate a pattern in Shakespeare's career: despite his consummate artistry, he was not above catering to prevailing trends and fashions.
When the theaters reopened in late 1593 until about 1600, Shakespeare en­joyed a remarkably prolific and creative period during which he wrote an av­erage of two plays per year, acted professionally, and began acquiring financial interests in London's growing world of professional theater. During these years, in which he was a member of the troupe the Lord Chamberlain's Men, he wrote principally comedies and English history plays, the latter being a theatrical genre he did much to develop.
Professional theater was a precarious business in the late Elizabethan era, and were it not for the protection of powerful aristocrats, Shakespeare and his con­temporaries might never have been allowed by city authorities and influential clergyman to produce the plays they did. But even less ideologically motivated forces could have an effect: in 1599 Shakespeare and nine other shareholders lost the lease on their playing space at the Theatre and built the now-famous Globe, which proved a huge success. By the turn of the century and only mid­way through his career, Shakespeare was already both prominent and well-to-do.
Two developments in the early 1600s may have had an influence on Shake­speare's artistic shift from comedies and history plays to tragedies, dark com­edies, and romances. First, King James I,* who came to the throne in 1603, offered his patronage to Shakespeare's troupe, which became known as the King's Men. Second, in 1608 Shakespeare's company acquired Blackfriars, an indoor theatrical space that, it is thought, attracted a more exclusive audience than the outdoor spaces in which his plays had been acted. Between 1600 and 1608 he wrote the great tragedies for which he is perhaps best known, as well as the so-called problem plays—works with comic structures that nonetheless have darker themes and characters than traditional comedies. From about 1609 he began to experiment in a new form that critics have come to call "romances." These four plays (Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, Pericles, and The Tempest) defy conventional definitions of tragedy or comedy, but all employ supernat­ural or coincidental elements, and all end happily. They are usually charac­terized as mature, reflective works that somehow fuse obviously unreal­istic actions and themes with very realistic insights into aspects of the human condition.
For many years, critics attempted to make Shakespeare's life fit an idealized career path that began with youthful experiments in comedy, tragedy, and history and ended with The Tempest, which was typically read sentimentally as the poet's "farewell to the theater." More objective scholarship, however, has shown that Shakespeare wrote or collaborated on three plays after The Tempest, thus revealing convenient allegories of his career and retirement to be the product of critical imagination more than biographical fact.
Details of Shakespeare's final years and death are only a little better docu­mented than those of his birth and youth. We do know, however, that in March 1616 he revised his will to provide better for his daughter Judith and to organize dispersal of his personal property, including a much-debated clause stipulating that his wife of almost thirty-five years be given his "second-best bed." He died on 23 April, leaving no mention of his literary or theatrical works—an omission quite appropriate to his age but almost incomprehensible to later ages.
With any cultural icon, the production of "biography" depends less on the labors of contemporaries than on those of subsequent generations. Shakespeare's biography is a case in point: although the publication of his collected plays in 1623 and a grave marker and painted bust in Stratford signal some degree of esteem for Shakespeare after his death, the real work of legend formation and critical biography alike belongs to later centuries. Hard facts of Shakespeare's life have been elusive and often contested, but there has probably been more energy, both scholarly and amateur, invested in the pursuit and analysis of these facts than for any writer in history. What can be said with certainty is that he was a performer, dramatist, poet, and theatrical entrepreneur, and that in a career of about three decades, he wrote or collaborated on almost forty plays and wrote narrative and lyric poetry that, on its own, would have earned him a place among the great English writers.
Bibliography
G. E. Bentley, Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook, 1961.
E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 1930.
S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, 1975.
Thomas G. Olsen

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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