A Short Biography
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The Man of the Millennium
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008
Wlliam Shakespeare ranks as the most popular author in the English language. To his millions of admirers, he is also the greatest. Since his death in 1616, no other writer has surpassed his ability to capture the human soul in words, and no other writer has been more read, more written about, and more debated. Shortly after Shakespeare died, his esteemed contemporary Ben Jonson wrote of him, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” In 2000 British citizens voted him the Man of the Millenium—the most important earthling since 1000 A.D.
Down through the ages, important essayists, poets, dramatists, and critics have acclaimed Shakespeare as a virtuoso of unparalleled creative and technical skill. Bernard D. Grebanier observed: "One might succeed in discussing individual facets of Shakespeare's unique genius, but it is utterly impossible to summarize his achievement. There is something miraculous about Shakespeare's peculiar gifts; and every sensitive reader will eventually discover the miracle for himself" (English Literature and its Backgrounds, New York: Holt, 1950, Page 242).
H.M. Burton observed that Shakespeare "is as important a figure in the history of mankind as Nelson or Lincoln, Newton or Einstein. His works have become a part of us and if they had never been written our lives and our language would have been so much the poorer" (Shakespeare and His Plays, New York: Roy Publishers, 1959, Page 1).
Harold Bloom said Shakespeare "is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go. Libraries and playhouses (and cinemas) cannot contain him; he has become a spirit or 'spell of light,' almost too vast to apprehend" (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, New York: Riverhead, 1998, Page 3).
According to drama critic John Gassner, "Shakespeare is the greatest humanitarian who ever wrote for the theatre. . . . Shakespeare's ability to create infinitely human characters stems from a pervasive love of man which no degree of pessimism in his climactic period can obliterate. He is not such an inveterate philanthropist as to spare the lash of satire, and he could strip the mask from corrupt humanity as ruthlessly as Jonathan Swift did later" (Gassner, John. Masters of the Drama. New York: Random House, 1954, Page 220).
In assessing Shakespeare’s influence on the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, Rolf Fjelde wrote that "something of Shakespeare" is present in all of Ibsen's works (Fjelde, Rolf, ed. Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965, Page 50).
American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson called Shakespeare "inconceivably wise." And English critic and lexicographer Samuel Johnson said Shakespeare was a master at depicting the humanity everyone shares. Johnson wrote:
Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature: the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species. (Quoted in Ribner, Irving. William Shakespeare: An Introduction to His Life, Times and Theatre. Waltham, Mass.: Blaisdell, 1969 (Page 200).Early Life
© 2003 By Michael J. Cummings 2003 By Michael J. Cummings.
Shakespeare was born in April 1564 on Henley Street in Stratford, England, a bustling market town on the Upper Avon River in the county of Warwickshire, about ninety miles northwest of London. Historians cannot document the exact day of his birth, but educated speculation sets it at April 23, the feast day of Saint George, England’s patron saint. Elizabeth I was in the sixth year of her reign as Queen of England. On April 26, Shakespeare was baptized in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church with a surname that omitted the first “e”: Shakspeare. He was the third of eight children (four girls and four boys) of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden Shakespeare, who married in 1557. John Shakespeare, a native of nearby Snitterfield, crafted gloves, lent money, and traded in wool, barley, timber, and leather goods in a shop next to his Henley Street home. He also served as Stratford’s official ale-taster. As a conscientious and respected citizen, he held sundry political offices, including those of constable, treasurer, and alderman. In 1567, he became the high bailiff, or mayor, of Stratford, known in modern times as Stratford-Upon-Avon. Mary Arden Shakespeare was the daughter of a prosperous farmer of good social standing in the nearby town of Wilmcote. She was a good catch for John, for she possessed the greatest feminine charm of all: money.
William Shakespeare may have enrolled at a preschool, comparable to the modern kindergarten, to study catechism and the basics of reading and writing. Between ages seven and thirteen, he probably attended a local grammar school, the King's New School, to study classical history, religion, ethics, logic, rhetoric, public speaking, Roman poetry and drama, the natural sciences, and other subjects taught in Latin by well-trained teachers from Oxford University. It is likely he also studied the New Testament of the Bible in Greek.
Because of the broadness and excellence of their education at the Stratford school, its graduates developed a strong grasp of the liberal arts, perhaps stronger even than that of modern high-school graduates. So it was that the adolescent Shakespeare—if he did indeed attend the Stratford school—arrived at early manhood well grounded in academic learning. What is more, he possessed a goodly headful of bucolic savvy, for his plays testify to his knowledge of hunting, hawking, and the appetite of worms in rural cemeteries. Most important, though, he had a knowledge of people and the everyday life that surrounded him, gleaned no doubt from observing the farmers, butchers, fruit and vegetable vendors, carpenters, shoemakers, candlemakers, tailors, jugglers, barbers, physicians, sorcerers, clergymen, gravediggers, tax collectors, and actors who regularly converged on Stratford to labor for coin of the realm, divine favor, or applause. While Shakespeare was testing his writing talent, it is quite possible that roving actors who performed every year at a Stratford guild hall enkindled in him an enthusiasm for acting and the stage. The actors in the "play within in a play" in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark may have been based on actors who visited Stratford.
In 1582, when he was 17 (according to Britannica 2001 on CD-ROM) or 18 (according to most other sources), William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, 26, the daughter of a thriving farmer in the village of Shottery, about a mile from Stratford. The wedding took place in a church at Temple Grafton, near Stratford. Hathaway was pregnant at the time of the marriage. In May 1583, they had a daughter, Susanna, and in 1585, twins—a boy named Hamnet and a girl named Judith. Hamnet died 11 years later.
Shakespeare did between the middle 1580s and
1592 is unknown because no records of his
activities during that period have emerged. It
is possible he spent this entire period in
London after leaving Stratford to escape a
charge of deer poaching in a park belonging to
Sir Thomas Lucy, of Charlecote, near Stratford.
However, that possibility springs from sheer
speculation, because it has never been proven
that Shakespeare did, in fact, commit the crime.
During these ''lost years," as they have come to
be called, Shakespeare might have tended horses
for theatergoers or worked as a sailor, a
teacher in Titchfield (Hamphsire), or a
coachman. Or he might have been a soldier, a law
clerk, a theater page, or a moneylender. He
could have held several of those jobs. He may
have held none of them.
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though, there can be no doubt that he was in
London, at age 28, acting and writing. Proof of
his presence in London at this time appeared in
a 1592 pamphlet written by dramatist Robert
Greene on his deathbed. He called Shakespeare
"an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers."
When the pamphlet was published after Greene
died, its preface—written by an acquaintance of
Greene—apologized to Shakespeare and
acknowledged his growing importance. One person
who may have helped Shakespeare gain entry to
literary and social London was Henry
Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton, to
whom Shakespeare dedicated his poems Venus
and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
Before any play could be staged by Shakespeare or any other writer, it had to be approved by the government's censor, the master of revels. Plays considered morally or politically offensive could be banned and the playwright imprisoned.
Shakespeare presented his plays at inns, courtyards, royal palaces, private residences and playhouses such as Blackfriars (a converted monastery) and the Globe Theatre, built in 1599. Playhouses in Shakespeare's time were wooden structures with tiers of seating galleries in the shape of a horseshoe that could accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 people who paid two or more pennies. It is believed that wealthy Globe patrons could pay extra to sit on the stage. The main floor, which was surrounded by the galleries, had no roof and no seats. But for a penny, a playgoer could stand in this area, called a "pit." Up to 1,000 standees called groundlings or stinklings watched performances in this area under a hot sun or threatening clouds.
The Globe stage was four to six feet above ground level. There was no curtain that opened or closed at the beginning or end of plays. At the back of the stage was a wall with two or three doors leading to the dressing rooms of the actors. These rooms collectively were known as the "tiring house." To tire means to dress—that is, to attire oneself. Sometimes, the wall of the tiring house stood as the wall of a fortress under siege.
Males played all the characters, even Juliet, Cleopatra and Ophelia. Actors playing gods, ghosts, demons, and other supernatural characters could pop up from the underworld through a trap door on the stage or descend to earth from heaven on a winch line from the ceiling. Off stage, the ripple of sheet metal could create thunder. Stagehands set off fireworks to create omens, meteors, comets, or the wrath of the Almighty. Instruments such as oboes and cornets sometimes provided music. If an actor suffered a fencing wound, he simply slapped his hand against a pouch beneath his shirt to release "blood" signaling his demise.
The gallery had a thatched roof. (Thatch consists of stalks of plants such as reeds.) During a performance of Henry VIII in 1613, the Globe burned down after booming canon fire announcing the entrance of King Henry at Cardinal Wolsey's palace ignited the roof.
© 2003 By Michael J. Cummings 2003 By Michael J. Cummings
Shakespeare wrote his plays and poems with a quill dipped in ink. A quill was the hollow, rigid shaft of a bird’s feather. The word pen is derived from the Latin name for feather—penna. Shakespeare and other writers of his day used a variety of quills. If a writer’s pocket lacked jingle, he invested in a goose quill. If he could afford better, he invested in a swan quill. Writers or artists who needed quills to draw fine lines purchased crow quills. Quills from ducks, eagles, turkeys, hawks, and owls also served as “word processors,” producing plays, poems and sometimes revolution.
The protein composition of quill tips had to be hardened with heat or acids to impart the kind of rigidity necessary to stand up under constant writing. The tip also had to be split to allow the hollow shaft to drink ink. Most writers further customized their writing instruments by stripping away the annoying feathers. Once “seasoned,” a quill could scrawl thick lines or fine lines, depending on the amount of downward pressure. The quill tip required frequent sharpening with an instrument that came to be know as a “pen knife.” Some quills worked as well as, or better than, the finest pens on the market today.
It is probable that Shakespeare tried to do most of his writing during the day, perhaps near a window, because writing at night required lit candles or an oil lamp. Candles were expensive. A writer could easily spend a day's earnings or more on candlelight illuminating the first draft of a poem or a soliloquy in a play. The alternative, oil lamps, gave off smoke and unpleasant odors. And they, too, required a pretty penny to buy. However, if Shakespeare did attempt to confine his writing to mornings and afternoons, he probably failed. After all, as a playwright and an actor, he had to be present for the daytime rehearsals and performances of his works. Like people today, he had a "nine-to-five job" that probably forced him to moonlight. Also, passages in his plays suggest that he could have been something of an insomniac addicted to burning "the midnight oil" or the "candle at both ends."
Not one of Shakespeare's original manuscripts survives, although the manuscript of part of a play he apparently helped revise—Sir Thomas More—is preserved, providing scholars the only sample of his handwriting.
Shakespeare had an enormous vocabulary—far
greater than that of the average writer of
today. However, in a book entitled The
Professor and the Madman, author Simon
Winchester points out an intriguing fact:
William Shakespeare and other writers of his
time had no dictionary to consult. The reason?
No one had ever taken the time to compile an
a-to-z dictionary of English words. Thus, when
Shakespeare happened across a word he did not
understand or he needed a word for a particular
context, he could not “look it up” because there
was no dictionary in which to look it up.
The “English Dictionary,” in the sense that we commonly use the phrase today—as an alphabetically arranged list of English words, together with an explanation of their meanings—is a relatively new invention. Four hundred years ago there was no such convenience available on any bookshelf. There was none available, for instance, when William Shakespeare was writing his plays. Whenever he came to use an unusual word, or to set a word in what seemed an unusual context—he had almost no way of checking the propriety of what he was about to do. He was not able to reach into his bookshelves and select any one volume to help. He would not be able to find any book that might tell him if the word he had chosen was properly spelled, whether he had selected it correctly, or had used it in the right way in the proper place.—Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman. New York: HarperCollins, 1998 (Page 80)..Rising Fortunes
reputation, Shakespeare began to prosper along
with his country, and he built a formidable bank
account. His good fortune was not only the
result of his writing; it was also the result of
his wise investing, and he closely guarded his
purse. Once, he even sued a Stratford resident
who failed to repay a debt of 35 shillings.
Shakespeare also valued his good standing in the
community. To prop it up, he obtained a coat of
arms that elevated his status to that of
''gentleman.'' In 1597, he bought New Place, the
second-biggest house in Stratford, for himself
and his family. In 1599, he became a major
shareholder in the Globe Theatre, constructed by
Richard and Cuthbert Burbage on the south bank
of the Thames River out of timbers from a
previous theatre scheduled for demolition.
Shakespeare apparently believed firmly in a Supreme Being, as his plays suggest. In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Hamlet tells Horatio in Act V, Scene II, that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we well.” In Henry V, King Henry—deliberately portrayed by Shakespeare as strong and wise—exhorts his countrymen in Act II, Scene II, to “deliver our puissance in the hand of God, putting it straight in expedition.” To be sure, Shakespeare grappled with the great questions of eschatology, for his characters discuss death and the afterlife. But there can be no doubt that he joined other great men of the Renaissance—Copernicus, Galileo, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Erasmus, and Sir Thomas More—in believing in God. The opening of his last will and testament, written in his 51st year just three months before his death, then revised one month before his death, states (in English modernized for the sake of readability):
In the name of God . . . I William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon . . . in perfect health and memory, God be praised, do make and ordain this my last will and testament in manner and form following—that is to say, first, I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing, through the merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting. Click here to read the complete will.Whether Shakespeare died a Catholic or a Protestant has never been resolved. Although Shakespeare publicly acknowledged the Church of England, evidence suggests that he practiced Catholicism in secret to avoid persecution. For a detailed discussion on this subject, see a separate page on this site entitled "Was Shakespeare Catholic?"
Shakespeare retired from the theatre in 1610 and returned to Stratford. Six years later, in 1616, he died on the same date on which he was believed to have been born, April 23. The cause of his death is the subject of conjecture. Ironically, he pronounced himself in good health on March 25, 1616, just a month before he died. Was he a victim of an accident or a murder? Did he have a terminal illness he was hiding from the public? No one can say. According to John Ward, a Stratford vicar in the mid 1600's, Shakespeare came down with a fever after a drinking bout with Ben Jonson and John Drayton, who had come to Stratford from London to visit him. Another story suggests that Thomas Quiney, the husband of Shakespeare's daughter Judith, poisoned Shakespeare. (Shakespeare may have altered his will in 1616 to insert a condition stating that Quiney would not be entitled to Judith's inheritance.) Shakespeare was entombed in the chancel of the same church where he was baptized. His wife died in 1623 at age 67. On his tombstone in Holy Trinity Church are engraved these words which appear to have been written by Shakespeare himself:
Jesus' sake forbear
After Shakespeare's death, his friends and relatives placed a monument on the wall above his tomb. The Latin words inscribed on it (Judicio Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem, Terra tegit, Populus mæret, Olympus habet) praised him for having the wisdom of Nestor, the intellect of Socrates, and the writing genius of the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro (Vergil). In 1623, Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare:
thou hast one to show