William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) – Playwright, Poet, Actor
While biographical details are scarce, here’s what we do know about the playwright who would change the English language forever. William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. He came from a middle-class family. His father John was an Alderman and Mary, his mother, was the daughter of Robert Arden, a prominent Warwickshire gentleman farmer. John and Mary had eight children, including William.
His formative education was at King’s New School in his hometown. The school had originally been called Stratford Grammar School. At King’s, he learned Latin, rhetoric, and logic, disciplines that were to become the backbone of the intellect that dominates his plays.
In 1582 he married Anne Hathaway. Their firstborn was a daughter, Susanna, born in 1583. Two years later, Anne gave birth to fraternal twins, Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died of unknown causes at the age of 11, though there is speculation that he died of the bubonic plague. The marriage was unhappy for both parties, but they stayed married until Shakespeare’s death in 1616 at the age of 52.
To say he was prolific is a laughable understatement. In a career that lasted a relatively short 25 years, he wrote 39 plays in all, a small number with collaborators. Plus, he wrote 154 sonnets and a handful of narrative and allegorical poems, the most famous of which is “The Rape of Lucrece”.
The plays he wrote were not just any plays. They include masterpieces that have stood the test of time—as durable as marble. It is impossible to imagine how anyone could surpass his literary achievements. In one astounding 14-month period of creativity, he wrote “King Lear”, “Macbeth” and “Anthony and Cleopatra”. Considering the power and scope of those three plays, this is an incomprehensible achievement from a contemporary perspective.
After his death, some friends compiled all his plays in one volume. In 1623 they published them in the definitive First Folio. His friend Ben Jonson composed the poem that prefaced the First Folio in which he famously described Shakespeare as being “not of an age but for all time”.
He did have his contemporary critics, particularly early on in his writing career. The most vociferous was playwright Robert Green, who called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”. Green was a university graduate and it had offended him that a grammar school boy could pen such impressive works at such a young age. His friend—and fiercest critic—Ben Jonson, said opaquely of Shakespeare that he “lacked art”.
There is a dispute about the short time Shakespeare went missing before arriving in London to begin his theater career. Where did Shakespeare first go after leaving Stratford and arriving in London? Frank Kermode put forth one theory in “Shakespeare’s Language” (2000). According to Kermode, Shakespeare went to be a schoolteacher in Lancashire. Wherever he went, it was not long before he made the journey to the capital city to fulfil his destiny as a playwright.
During the early plays, he worked on perfecting his art, taking in the influence of his contemporaries, most notably Christopher Marlowe. The character Barabas in Marlowe’s play “The Jew of Malta” left a profound impact on Shakespeare. Amoral characters like Barabas were at that time unknown on the Elizabethan stage and Barabas enthralled Shakespeare. He doubtless saw vast opportunities open up in his mind. The character of Iago in “Othello” would not have been possible without Barabas.
Marlowe also wrote in blank verse and Shakespeare saw the utility of that, too. However, Shakespeare didn’t want to be a mere simulacrum of Marlowe. He perfected his style and increasingly shed Marlowe’s influence with each new play. In his middle period, he grew out of the shadow of other playwrights. In “Hamlet”, he manifested his singular creative and intellectual potency. He had found his voice and in his mature works, from “Hamlet” on, he surpasses Marlowe. Iago trumps Barabas and Prospero exceeds another of Marlowe’s creations, Dr. Faustus.
The authorship question continues to simmer to this day. How many of the plays attributed to Shakespeare were written by him alone? Bloom calls Shakespeare lovers “Bardolators” in “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” (1999). Bloom confesses to being a “Bardolator” himself but even he does not assert that Shakespeare wrote all 39 plays often attributed to the Bard.
Shakespeare did collaborate with his successor (in time, not genius), John Fletcher, at the end of his career. Generally, they apportioned their contributions. This collaboration took place for three plays: “Cardenio”, “Henry VIII” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen”.
He also collaborated with Thomas Middleton on “Timon of Athens” and “All’s Well That Ends Well” at the start of his career. Middleton did very light revisions of “Macbeth” and “Measure for Measure” later on. At the beginning of his career, he also collaborated with Thomas Nashe on “Henry VI: Part 1”.
The collaboration was not just one-sided, however. Shakespeare contributed to work now attributed to others, such as Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy”. That play, like the character of Barabas, was to light the way for Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s monumental tragedies would turn that light into a dark bonfire.
Sigmund Freud claimed that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays. This is the “Oxfordian” alternative authorship theory, which is on par with the “Flat Earth Theory”. Mostly rejected, but it has a tenacity that means the theory still has many diehard believers.
Freud may have been suffering from retrospective professional jealousy in supporting this theory and used it to propagate controversy and thereby belittle the playwright. That is perhaps a little too conspiratorial. Nevertheless, Shakespeare had such a profound insight into the human condition that Freud would find it difficult to deny the influence and maybe even the debt he owed to his forbear.
Hyperbole aside, what is so special about Shakespeare? One obvious point is the longevity of his influence. His work is nowadays read and performed across the world, four centuries later. The headquarters for anything Shakespearean is the modern Globe Theatre in London’s Southbank.
The Globe’s predecessor, The Theatre (London’s first), began life in Shoreditch in 1576. A dispute with the landlord of The Theatre, Giles Allen, had an ingenious resolution. He claimed he owned the building after the 21-year lease had expired. The actors disputed this and moved to the nearby Curtain Theatre. Together with their friends, one of whom was the carpenter Peter Street, they dismantled The Theatre while the landlord was celebrating Christmas with his family at his estate in the country. The dismantlers stored the now flatpack theatre in Street’s warehouse on the river. In the spring of 1599, they ferried the beams over to the Southbank. There it was re-assembled and became the Globe Theatre. It was an apt name for a theatre where the whole world became available for all to see, experience, and imagine.
Shakespeare worked as both a player and playwright in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The Queen had attended the first performance of a “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” and safe to say she was a fan. James I succeeded Elizabeth I and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men became The King’s Men. The new monarch became their patron. The King’s Men had exclusive rights to perform Shakespeare’s plays.
Shakespeare’s works are quoted more often than any other written text in English, apart from the Bible. His collected works act as a secular Bible for many readers and playgoers, although he rarely quotes from the Bible himself.
His works added 3,000 words to the English language, including common words in regular usage today, such as “dawn”, “lonely” and “baseless”. And he coined phrases in use more than four hundred years later such as: “a wild goose chase”, from “Romeo and Juliet”; “a heart of gold”, from “Henry V”; and “vanish into thin air”, from “Othello”. While not a phrase in common usage, the epithet “Love all, trust a few, do no wrong to none”, from “All’s Well That Ends Well”, persists today and could conceivably be the playwright’s credo.
While relatively little biographical detail is known about the man, the best biographer of Shakespeare is Shakespeare himself, and the best examples of how the playwright thought and what he was like are to be found in the characters most critics agree are his finest creations, such as Hamlet and Falstaff. Some would argue the truest Shakespearean voice of all is Rosalind in “As You Like It”. She possesses a fierce, clear-eyed intelligence that perhaps only a few close friends got to witness in Shakespeare himself.
Shakespeare took no absolute moral, political or religious stance, unlike his contemporary Ben Johnson (“The Alchemist”) and other peers. He would have been acutely aware of the fate of his playwriting peers at the hands of Elizabeth I’s secret service, headed by Sir Francis Walsingham. Christopher Marlowe died at the hands of a “Walsingham” gang in a pub brawl, killed by a dagger in his eye. His purported crime? Atheism. Thomas Kyd was tortured for sedition, and he died soon after. His friend Ben Jonson was imprisoned, too.
So, Shakespeare had to tread a fine line. He was not open in his criticism of the establishment. Nor was he silent. There is textual evidence of a disguised contempt for the Court of James I. Gossip called James I “The Greatest Fool in Christendom”, a backhanded compliment if ever there was one, and his Court took his lead.
Shakespeare may be considered his own best biographer but sometimes reading his texts reveals what he is not. The character of Falstaff is an example of an original “human” invented by Shakespeare. A fearsome wit capable of great vulnerability, Falstaff unburdens himself to his friend Hal, the future king. This is not what Shakespeare would have done, as he was too guarded a character and had a fear of people using him. As a consequence, he never unburdened himself to anyone in real life, as opposed to on the page. Hal betrays Falstaff, his childhood mentor and friend who taught him the wisdom and cunning necessary to take on the mantle of a king. In the playwright’s mind, that unbearably painful betrayal results from Falstaff revealing too much of his true heart. Falstaff’s vulnerability becomes his undoing.
Perhaps it is a little surprising to know that the playwright was financially shrewd. Like his creation Shylock, Shakespeare was a money-lender and he was sharp in his business dealings. This is not the usual image most people have of a creative theater professional, certainly not one with Shakespeare’s potency. The poet Coleridge remarked on Shakespeare’s “omnipresent creativeness”.
It is a relief to find out he had a few all-too-human traits, such as this financial acumen. Some of his characters allude to this in their speeches. The famous Porter’s speech in “Macbeth” brings a touch of humor that lightens the profound nihilism of the play, though it was an intervention that Coleridge, a fan, hated. Guarding the front door, the Porter hears someone knock. “Here’s a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty”. The playwright may be referencing himself here, as investing in grain was one of Shakespeare’s favorite venture capital risks.
The main stylistic influence throughout his career was Geoffrey Chaucer. Critics comparing the two say Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” could be a female Falstaff. True or not, Shakespeare’s approach was often Chaucerian. Another influential source was the Roman poet Ovid. Shakespeare would have read Ovid at grammar school in Stratford and the classical poet provided the source material for many plays including “Anthony and Cleopatra” and “Julius Caesar”.
Despite his apparent colorlessness, Shakespeare in his Sonnets reveals richly emotional and sexual influences. He was strongly drawn, whether in fantasy or real life, to “The Fair Youth” and “The Dark Lady”. “The Rival Poet” from the Sonnets troubled him, too. The possibility of rejection loomed large in his poems and that he was sexually attracted to both men and women is hardly hidden.
He suffered profound grief, most notably from the death of his son, Hamnet. Throughout these times nothing provided as much engagement and succor as pen and parchment.
The bard of Avon has proved to be a rich source of inspiration for creatives through the centuries, an inspiration that continues to flow. There are at least 50 different film treatments of Hamlet, the most recent being the critically acclaimed Joel Coen film called “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, released in 2022 and starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the eponymous couple.
Shakespearean directors sometimes suggest a temporary ban on producing Shakespeare’s plays to refresh and re-set the Bard brand. That has not happened and it does not look likely to happen anytime soon.
- Harold Bloom, “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” (1999)
- Frank Kermode, “Shakespeare’s Language” (2000)
Images on this page
- King-Lear-George-Frederick-Bensell: George Frederick Bensell, The Knohl Collection | public domain
- Otelo-e-Desdemona-Antonio-Munoz-Degrain: Antonio Muñoz Degrain (1840–1924) | public domain
- hamlet-horatio-auf-dem-friedhof: Eugène Delacroix, 1839 | public domain
- Oberon-Titania-Puck-Fairies-dancing-William-Blake-1786: William Blake (1757–1827) | public domain
- Rosalind-Robert-Walker-Macbeth: Robert Walker Macbeth (1848–1910) | public domain
- MacbethAndBanquo-Witches: Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856) | public domain
- william-shakespeare: Buaidh in Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 International