“Thou art a Monument, without a tombe
And art alive still, while thy Booke doth Vive,
And we have wits to read, and praise to give.” -Ben Johnson
William Shakespeare, the English poet, dramatist and actor, considered by many to be the greatest dramatist of all time. Some of Shakespeare’s plays, such as Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, are among the most famous literary works of the world. Shakespeare’s “wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too”. Shakespeare possessed a large vocabulary for his day, having used 29066 different words in’ his plays. Today, the average English-speaking person uses something like 2000 words in everyday speech.
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small country town. Stratford was famous for its malting. The black plague killed in 1564, one out of seven of the town’s 1500 inhabitants. Shakespeare was the eldest son of Mary Arden, the daughter of a local landowner and her husband, John Shakespeare (1530-1601), a Glover and wood dealer. John Aubrey (1626-1697) tells in brief lives that Shakespeare’s father was a butcher and the young William exercised his father’s trade, “but when he killed a Calf he would do it in a high style and make a speech.” In 1568, John Shakespeare was made a mayor of Stratford and a justice of peace. His wool business failed in the 1570’s, and in 1580 he was fined £ 40, with other 140 men, for failing to find surety to keep the peace. There is no record that his fine was paid. Later the church commissioners reported of him and eight other men that they had failed to attend church “for fear of process for debt”. The family’s position was restored in the 1590’s by earnings of William Shakespeare and in 1596; he was awarded a coat of arms.
Very little is known about Shakespeare early life and his later works have inspired a number of interpretations. TS Eliot wrote that “I would suggest that none of the plays of Shakespeare has a ‘meaning’, although it would be equally false to say that a play of Shakespeare is meaningless. Shakespeare is assumed to have been educated at Stratford Grammar School and he may have spent the years 1580-82 as a teacher for the Roman Catholic Houghton family in Lancashire. When Shakespeare was 15, a woman from a nearby village drowned in the Avon. Her death was ruled accidental but it may have been
suicide. Later in Hamlet Shakespeare left open the question whether Ophelia died accidentally or by her own hand. At the age of 18, Shakespeare married a local girl, Anne Hathaway (died 1623), who was eight years older. Their first
child, Susannah, was born within six months, and twins Hamnet and Judith were born in 1585. Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died in 1596, at the age of 11. It has often been suggested, that the lines in King John, beginning with “Grief fills the room of my absent child, reflects Shakespeare’s grief.
Shakespeare was known in his day as a very rapid writer as “His mind and hand went together,” his publishers Heminges and Condell reported, “and what he thought, he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.”
Shakespeare produced most of his known work between 1590 and 1613. His early plays were mainly comedies and histories, genres he raised to the peak of sophistication and artistry by the end of the sixteenth century. Next he wrote mainly tragedies until about 1608, including Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, considered some of the finest examples in the English language. In his last phase, he wrote tragicomedies, also known as “romances, and collaborated with other playwrights. Many of his plays were published in editions of varying quality and accuracy during his lifetime, and in 1623, two of his former theatrical colleagues published the First Folio, a collected edition of his dramatic works that included all but two of the plays now recognized as Shakespeare’s.
Shakespeare was a respected poet and playwright in his own day, but his reputation did not rise to its present heights until the nineteenth century. The Romantics, in particular, acclaimed Shakespeare’s genius, and the Victorians hero-worshipped Shakespeare with a reverence that George Bernard Shaw called ‘bardolatry. In the twentieth century, his work was repeatedly adopted and rediscovered by new movements in scholarship and performance. His plays remain highly popular today and are consistently performed and reinterpreted in diverse cultural and political contexts throughout the world.