The Life Of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was a supreme English poet and
playwright, and is universally recognized as the greatest
of all the dramatists. A complete, authoritative account of
Shakespeare's life is lacking; much supposition surround
relatively few facts. His day of birth is traditionally
held on April 23, and he was baptized on April 24, 1564.
He was the third of eight children, and was the eldest son
of John Shakespeare. He was probably educated in a local
grammar school. As the eldest son, Shakespeare would have
taken over his father's business, but according to one
account, he became a butcher because of reverses in his
father's financial situation. According to another account,
he became a school master. That Shakespeare was allowed
considerable leisure time in his youth is suggested by the
fact that his plays show more knowledge of hunting and
hawking than do those of other dramatists. In 1582, he
married Anne Hathaway. He is supposed to have left
Stratford after he was caught poaching in a deer park.
Shakespeare apparently arrived in London about 1588 and by
1592 had attained success as a playwright. The publication
of Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and of his Sonnets
established his reputation as a poet in the Renaissance
manner. Shakespeare's modern reputation is based mainly on
the 38 plays he wrote, modified, or collaborated on.
Shakespeare's professional life in London was marked by a
number of financially advantageous arrangements that
permitted him to share in the profits of his acting
company, the Chamberlain's Men, and its two theaters, the
Globe and the Blackfriars. His plays were given special
presentation at the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King
James I. After about 1608, Shakespeare's dramatic
production lessened and he spent more time in Stratford.
There he established a family in and imposing house, the
New Place, and became a leading local citizen. He died on
April 23, 1616, and was buried in the Stratford church.
Although the precise date of many of Shakespeare's plays is
in doubt, his dramatic career is divided into four periods:
(1) the period up to 1594, (2) the years from 1594 to 1600,
(3) the years from 1600 to 1608, (4) the period after 1608.
In all periods, the plots of his plays were frequently
drawn from chronicles, histories, or earlier fiction.
Shakespeare's first period was one of experimentation. His
early plays are characterized to a degree of superficial
construction and verse. Some of the plays from the first
period my be no more than retouchings of earlier works by
others. Four plays dramatizing the English civil strife of
the 15th century are possibly Shakespeare's earliest
dramatic works. These plays, Henry VI, Parts I, II, III,
and Richard III, deal with the evil results of weak
leadership. Shakespeare's comedies of the first period
represent a wide range. The Comedy of Errors depends on its
appeal on the mistakes in identity between two sets of
twins involved in romance and war. The Taming of the Shrew,
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Love's Labour's Lost are
all comedies and satires.
Next, Shakespeare's second period includes his most
important plays about English history. The second period
historical plays include Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I and
II, and Henry V. These plays deal with English kings who
lose their power to their successors. Outstanding among the
comedies of the second period is A Midsummer Night's Dream.
It is fantasy filled and is achieved by the interweaving of
several plots involving two pairs noble lovers, a group of
bumbling townspeople, and members of the fantasy realm.
Another comedy is The Merchant of Venice which is
characterized by friendship and romantic love. The witty
comedy Much Ado About Nothing is marred by an insensitive
treatment of its main character. Shakespeare's most mature
comedies, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, are
characterized by a hilarious and kindly charm that depends
upon the attraction of lovely heroines. The Merry Wives of
Windsor is a comedy about middle-class life which contains
a comic victim of the middle-class. One of the two
tragedies of this period is Romeo and Juliet. It is famous
for its poetic treatment of youthful love, and dramatizes
the fate of two lovers victimized by feuds of their elders.
The other, Julius Caesar, is a serious tragedy of political
Shakespeare's third period includes his greatest tragedy
and his dark or bitter comedies. The tragedies of this
period are the most profound of his works. Hamlet goes far
beyond other tragedies of revenge in picturing the mingled
sordidness and glory of the human condition. Othello the
growth of unjustified jealously in the protagonist. King
Lear deals with the consequences of the irresponsibility
and misjudgment of an early ruler of Britain and his
councillor. The tragic outcome is the result of their
giving power to their evil offspring rather that their good
offspring. Antony and Cleopatra with a different type of
love, namely, the middle-aged passion of the Roman general
Mark Antony for the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. In Macbeth,
Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of a basically good man,
who led on by others, succumbs to ambition. In getting and
retaining the Scottish throne, Macbeth dulls his humanity
to the point where he becomes capable of committing any
enormity. Three other plays of this period suggest a
bitterness lacking in these tragedies because the
protagonists do not seem to possess greatness or tragic
stature. In Troilus and Cressida The gulf between the ideal
and the real, both individually and politically, is evoked.
In Coriolanus, the Roman hero is portrayed as unable to
bring himself either to woo the Roman masses or to crush
them by force. Timon of Athens is a similarly bitter play
about a character reduced to nothing by ingratification.
The two comedies of this period are also dark in mood. Of
these, All's Well That Ends Well is less significant that
Measure for Measure which suggests a picture f morality in
Finally, the fourth period of Shakespeare's work comprises
his principles tragedies. Toward the end of his career,
Shakespeare created several plays suggestive of a mood of
final resignation in the human lot. These plays differ
greatly than his other comedies, but ending happily with a
reunion or final reconciliation. The romantic tragicomedy
Pericles, Prince of Tyre concerns the character's painful
loss of his wife and the persecution of his daughter. After
many adventures, Pericles is reunited with his loved ones.
In Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale, domestic complication
are resolved by restoring loved ones. The most successful
product of his creativity is his last complete play, The
Tempest, in which the resolution suggests the beneficial
effects of the union of wisdom and power. Two final plays
include a historical drama, Henry VIII, and The Two Noble
Kinsmen, a story of two noble friends for one woman.
Hence, from a poor family, Shakespeare emerged as a great
playwright. The odds were against him, but he rose to the
occasion and wrote over 38 plays which made him famous
throughout the world. He is still considered to be the best
playwright that ever lived.