Although William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) is widely recognised as the greatest poet and playwright in the English language, little is actually known about him.
Church records confirm that he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small country town, a four days’ walk from London in Elizabethan England. It is assumed that he attended the local King’s New Grammar School where boys were provided with basic reading and writing skills. Shakespeare’s works are on the curriculum at universities throughout the world, but there is no record that the great writer attended one himself. We know, though, that he, as an eighteen-year-old, married a woman who was 8 years his senior and that they lost their son, Hamnet, when he was 11.
Career in London
It is not confirmed exactly when Shakespeare left for London and his acting career, but it is documented that he performed as an actor before Queen Elizabeth I and he is listed as a shareholder in a theatre company by the name of Lord Chamberlain’s Company in 1594. At least two years before that he must have started his immense writing production because a rival playwright described Shakespeare as an “upstart crow”! In 1599, Shakespeare’s name appears again as one of the owners of the theatre that will always be associated with his name, the Globe Theatre, which today is reconstructed and located on the banks of the River Thames in London. James I succeeded Elizabeth I on the throne, and in 1603 Shakespeare’s name appears among the crew in the theatre company, The King’s Men. This entitled the actors and playwrights to perform before the king and his court and it provided extra money. It is generally assumed that his famous play Macbeth was written as a tribute to James I and his patronage. Furthermore, the playwright Ben Johnson acclaimed his contemporary rival’s work as “not of an age, but for all time.”
Almost forty plays, among them tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, and comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, along with 154 sonnets, are credited to Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s Last Will
Shakespeare’s tombstone in Stratford-upon-Avon reveals one of his last wishes:
“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare (forbear)To dig the dust enclosed here! Blest (blessed) be ye (you) man that spares thes (these) stones And curst (cursed) be he that moues (moves) my bones”.
In his Last Will he expressed another wish. The only thing he wanted his wife to inherit was his second best bed.
Since little is known about Shakespeare, how do we know what he looked liked? According to one of the most distinguished Shakespeare scholars this painting may be a portrait of the great writer from ab. 1610. The painting which has been in a collection belonging to an old Irish family, the Cobbes, appeared just a few years ago.
Shakespeare in Love
Even if the romantic comedy film Shakespeare in Love (1998) is not historically accurate, it might give you an idea of the young William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) at the threshold of his playwright career and Elizabethan London. To a great extent the film is fictional, but it contains many references to Shakespeare’s works, and a lot of the characters that we meet were his actual contemporaries. The film is set in London in 1593 and we meet the young writer when he is suffering from a writer’s block pondering how to approach the play we recognise as Romeo and Juliet. Christopher Marlowe, a fellow playwright whom Shakespeare was on friendly terms with, ignites his inspiration, when suggesting that the play with the preliminary title, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, should portray Romeo and Ethel from two contesting families in Verona. In contemporary England, women were barred from Elizabethan theatre stages, and men had to play female characters.
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