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William Shakespeare

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

William Shakespeare (April 1564; baptised April 26, 1564; – April 23, 1616 (O.S.), May 3, 1616 (N.S.)) has a reputation as the greatest of all writers in the English language, or indeed in any language. His ability to capture and convey the most profound aspects of human nature is regarded by many as unequalled, and the English Renaissance has often been called "the age of Shakespeare". He was among the few playwrights who have excelled in both tragedy and comedy and several of his plays contain songs that are among the finest lyric poems in English. He also wrote 154 sonnets, two narrative poems, and a handful of shorter poems. Shakespeare wrote his works between 1588 and 1616, although the exact dates and chronology of the plays attributed to him are often uncertain. His prolific output is especially impressive in light of the fact that he lived only 52 years. Shakespeare's influence on the English-speaking world shows in the widespread use of quotations from Shakespearean plays, the titles of works based on Shakespearean phrases, and the many adaptations of his plays. Other signs of his continuing influence include his appearance in the top ten of the "100 Greatest Britons" poll sponsored by the BBC, the frequent productions based on his work, such as the BBC Television Shakespeare, and the success of the fictional account of his life in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love.



Most historians agree that William Shakespeare—actor, playwright and poet—was a single person, of whose life and work there is considerable historical evidence.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in April 1564, the son of John Shakespeare, a glove-maker, and of Mary Arden. His 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. It provides a convenient symmetry: he died on that day in 1616, and, perhaps appropriately for a playwright considered to be England's greatest, it is also the Feast Day of Saint George, patron saint of England.

Shakespeare's father, prosperous at the time of William's birth, was prosecuted for participating in the black market in wool, and later lost his position as an alderman. Some evidence exists that both sides of the family had Roman Catholic sympathies.

As the son of a prominent town official, William Shakespeare probably attended the Stratford grammar school, which provided an intensive education in Latin grammar and literature. There is no evidence that his formal education extended beyond this.

Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior, on November 28, 1582 at Temple Grafton , near Stratford. Two neighbors of Anne, Fulk Sandalls and John Richardson , posted bond that there were no impediments to the marriage. There appears to have been some haste in arranging the ceremony: Anne was three months pregnant. After his marriage, William Shakespeare left few traces in the historical record until he appeared on the London literary scene.

On May 26, 1583 Shakespeare's first child, Susanna, was baptised at Stratford. A son, Hamnet, and a daughter, Judith, were baptized soon after on February 2, 1585.

By 1592 Shakespeare had enough of a reputation for Robert Greene to denounce him as "an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes factotum , is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey." (The italicised line parodies the phrase, "Oh, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" which Shakespeare used in Henry VI, part 3.)

In 1596 Hamnet died; he was buried on August 11, 1596. Because of the similarities of their names, some suspect that his death inspired Shakespeare's The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

By 1598 Shakespeare had moved to the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, and appeared top of a list of actors in Every man in his Humour written by Ben Jonson.

One version of Shakespeare's signature
One version of Shakespeare's signature

Shakespeare became an actor, writer and finally part-owner of an acting company known as The Lord Chamberlain's Men — the company took its name, like others of the period, from its aristocratic sponsor, the Lord Chamberlain. The group became popular enough that after the death of Elizabeth I and the coronation of James I (1603), the new monarch adopted the company and it became known as The King's Men.

In 1604, Shakespeare acted as a matchmaker for his landlord's daughter. Legal documents from 1612, when the case was brought to trial, show that in 1604, Shakespeare was a tenant of Christopher Mountjoy, a Huguenot tire-maker [a maker of ornamental headdresses] in the northwest quarter of London. Mountjoy's apprentice Stephen Belott wanted to marry Mountjoy's daughter. Shakespeare was enlisted as a go-between, to help negotiate the details of the dowry. On Shakespeare's assurances, the couple married. Eight years later, Belott sued his father-in-law for delivering only part of the dowry. Shakespeare was called to testify, but remembered little of the circumstances.

Various documents recording legal affairs and commercial transactions show that Shakespeare grew rich enough during his stay in London years to buy a property in Blackfriars, London and own the second-largest house in Stratford, New Place.

In 1609 his sonnets were published, love poems variously addressed: most to a youth (or 'fair lord'); the remainder to a 'dark lady'. Some regard the former set as being homoerotic, but that characterization remains in debate.

Shakespeare retired in about 1611. His retirement was not entirely without controversy. He was drawn into a legal quarrel regarding the enclosure of common lands. (Enclosure enabled land to be converted to pasture for sheep, but removed it as a resource for the poor.) Shakespeare had a financial interest in the land, and to the chagrin of some, he took a neutral position, making sure only that his own income from the land was protected.

In the last few weeks of Shakespeare's life, the man who was to marry his younger daughter Judith -- a tavern-keeper named Thomas Quiney -- was charged in the local church court with "fornication." A woman named Margaret Wheeler had given birth to a child and claimed it was Quiney's; she and the child both died soon after. Quiney was disgraced, and Shakespeare revised his will to ensure that Judith's interest in his estate was protected from possible malfeasance on Quiney's part.

Shakespeare died in 1616, on April 23. He remained married to Anne until his death and was survived by his two daughters Susannah and Judith. Susannah married Dr John Hall, and later became the subject of a court case.

William Shakespeare is buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. His grave carries his well-known epitaph:

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.

Popular legend claims that unpublished works by Shakespeare may lie inside his tomb, but no-one has ever verified these claims, perhaps for fear of the curse included in the quoted epitaph.


Main articles: Shakespeare's reputation, Timeline of Shakespeare criticism

Shakespeare's reputation has grown higher and higher since his own time, as illustrated in a timeline of Shakespeare criticism from the 17th to 20th century.

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. It is more difficult to assess his contemporary reputation as a playwright: plays were considered ephemeral and even somewhat disreputable entertainments rather than serious literature. The fact that his plays were collected in an expensively produced folio in 1623 (the only precedent being Ben Jonson's Workes of 1616) and the fact that that folio went into another edition within nine years, indicate that he was held in unusually high regard for a playwright.
 wrote about "the incomparable Shakespeare" in .
John Dryden wrote about "the incomparable Shakespeare" in 1668.

After the Interregnum stage ban of 16421660, 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. Old plays were often adapted for the Restoration stage, and where Shakespeare is concerned, this undertaking has seemed shockingly respectless to posterity. A notorious example is Nahum Tate's happy-ending King Lear of 1681, which held the stage until 1838. In the early 18th century, Shakespeare took over the lead on the English stage from Beaumont and Fletcher, never to relinquish it again.

In literary criticism, by contrast, Shakespeare held a unique position from the start. The unbending French neo-classical "rules" and the three unities of time, place, and action were never strictly followed in England, and practically all critics gave the more "correct" Ben Jonson second place to "the incomparable Shakespeare" (John Dryden, 1668), the follower of nature, the untaught genius, the great realist of human character. The long-lived myth that the Romantics were the first generation to truly appreciate Shakespeare and to prefer him to Ben Jonson is contradicted by accolades from Restoration and 18th-century writers such as John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson. The 18th century is also largely responsible for setting the text of Shakespeare's plays. Nicholas Rowe created the first truly scholarly text for the plays in 1709, and Edmund Malone's Variorum Edition (published posthumously in 1821) is still the basis of modern editions of the plays.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Romantic critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge raised admiration for Shakespeare to adulation or bardolatry, in line with the Romantic reverence for the poet as prophet and genius.

Identity and authorship

Main article: Shakespearean authorship

As noted above, there is considerable historical evidence of the existence of a William Shakespeare who lived in both Stratford-upon-Avon and London. The vast majority of academics identify this Shakespeare as the Shakespeare, contrary to the theories of some who believe that there were two different Shakespeares, one an actor, the other a playwright; or that some other writer used the name "Shakespeare" as a pseudonym; or that the alternative spellings of Shakespeare's surname were actually legitimate spellings of two different names.

In part, this debate stems from the scarcity and ambiguity of many of the historical records of this period; even the painting that accompanies this article (and that appears above the name "William Shakespeare" in the National Portrait Gallery, London) may not depict Shakespeare at all. Various fringe scholars have suggested writers such as Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe and even Queen Elizabeth I as alternative authors or co-authors for some or all of "Shakespeare's" work. The proponents of such claims necessarily rely on conspiracy theories to explain the lack of direct historical evidence for them.

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. See academic Shakespearean authorship debates.

Word Coinage

Shakespeare was the first to use many of the words (ode, addiction, alligator) and phrases ("my mind's eye," "one fell swoop") that have become household words in our time.

See: Partial List of Shakespeare's Coinages National Geographic Article About Shakespeare's Coinages


Canonical works

The plays and their categories

Shakespeare's plays first appeared in print as a series of folios and quartos, and scholars, actors and directors continue to study and perform them extensively. They form an established part of the Western canon of literature.

Some scholars of Shakespeare break the category of "Comedies" into "Comedies" and "Romances". Plays in the latter category would include Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, Pericles Prince of Tyre, and The Tempest.

Dramatic collaborations

Like most playwrights of his period, Shakespeare did not always write alone and a number of his plays were collaborative, although the exact number is open to debate. Some of the following attributions, such as for The Two Noble Kinsmen, have well-attested contemporary documentation; others, such as for Titus Andronicus, remain more controversial, and are dependant on linguistic analysis by modern scholars.

Lost plays by Shakespeare

  • Love's Labour's Won A late sixteenth-century writer, Francis Meres, and a scrap of paper (apparently from a bookseller), both list this title among Shakespeare's recent works, but no play of this title has survived. It may have become lost, or it may represent an alternate title of one of the plays listed above, such as Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, or All's Well That Ends Well.
  • Cardenio, a late play by Shakespeare and Fletcher, referred to in several documents, has not survived. It re-worked a tale in Cervantes' Don Quixote. In 1727, Lewis Theobald produced a play he called Double Falshood, which he claimed to have adapted from three manuscripts of a lost play by Shakespeare that he did not name. Double Falshood does re-work the Cardenio story, and modern scholarship generally agrees that Double Falshood represents all we have of the lost play.

Other works

Shakespeare's other literary works include:


Plays possibly by Shakespeare

Note: For a comprehensive account of plays possibly by Shakespeare, see the separate entry on the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

  • Edward III Some scholars have recently chosen to attribute this play to Shakespeare, based on the style of its verse. Others refuse to accept it, citing, among other reasons, the mediocre quality of the characters. If Shakespeare had involvement, he probably worked as a collaborator.
  • Sir Thomas More, a collaborative work by several playwrights, possibly including Shakespeare. That Shakespeare had any part in this play remains uncertain.

Other works possibly by Shakespeare

  • A Funeral Elegy by W.S. (?). For a period many believed, on the basis of stylistic evidence researched by Donald Foster, that Shakespeare wrote a Funeral Elegy for William Peter . However most scholars, including Foster, now conclude that this evidence was flawed and that Shakespeare did not write the Elegy, which is more likely from the pen of John Ford.
  • The King James Version of the Bible Some people claim that Shakespeare assisted in the translation of the King James Version of the Bible|King James Bible, rewording or rewriting certain sections to make them more poetic; they argue that the poetic sensibility of certain sections of the King James Bible is very similiar to the style of Shakespeare, and cite Psalm 46, where the word "shake" appears 46 words from the beginning, and "spear" 46 words from the end. This is a controversial notion and is not accepted by mainstream scholarship.

Shakespeare and the textual problem

Unlike his contemporary Ben Jonson, Shakespeare did not have direct involvement in publishing his plays. The problem of identifying what Shakespeare actually wrote became a major concern for most modern editions. Textual corruptions stemming from printers' errors, misreadings by compositors or simply wrongly scanned lines from the source material litter the Quartos and the First Folio. Additionally, in an age before standardised spelling, Shakespeare often wrote a word several times in a different spelling, and this may have contributed to some of the transcribers' confusion. Modern editors have the task of reconstructing Shakespeare's original words and expurgating errors as far as possible.

In some cases the textual solution presents few difficulties. In the case of Macbeth for example, scholars believe that someone (probably Thomas Middleton) adapted and shortened the original to produce the extant text published in the First Folio, but that remains our only authorised text. In others the text may have become manifestly corrupt or unreliable (Pericles or Timon of Athens) but no competing version exists. The modern editor can only regularise and correct erroneous readings that have survived into the printed versions.

The textual problem can, however, become rather complicated. Modern scholarship now believes Shakespeare to have modified his plays through the years, sometimes leading to two existing versions of one play. To provide a modern text in such cases, editors must face the choice between the original first version and the later, revised, usually more theatrical version. In the past editors have resolved this problem by conflating the texts to provide what they believe to be a superior Ur-text, but critics now argue that to provide a conflated text would run contrary to Shakespeare's intentions. In King Lear for example, two independent versions, each with their own textual integrity, exist in the Quarto and the Folio versions. Shakespeare's changes here extend from the merely local to the structural. Hence the Oxford Shakespeare, published in 1986, provides two different versions of the play, each with respectable authority. The problem exists with at least four other Shakespearean plays (Henry IV, part 1, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, and Othello ).

Specialist acting companies and theatres

Shakespeare in the movies

Main article: Shakespeare movies

See also

External links


Elizabethan English did not use standardised spelling; although Shakespeare's last name most frequently appears as Shakespeare, it also frequently appears as Shakespere, and sometimes as Shakespear, Shaksper and even Shaxberd [1].

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