AN OVERVIEW OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE by Crispin Clarke
Did you know that when Shakespeare signed his last will and testament, "William Shakespeare", it was the only time he spelled it that way of the six surviving signatures we have from him? Alternative spellings of Shakespeare's name used in his lifetime include Shakspeare, Shakspere, Shackspeare, Shakespear, Shakeshafte, Shakescene, even Shaxberd and number over eighty in total. There are five portraits of him (although some say three) broadly agreed to have a high probability of authenticity and two of those were made soon after he died. There are widespread theories (which didn't start until two hundred years later) that the real author of the magnificent works attributed to him was actually another person or a group of people. Supposedly, one way to start an argument between Shakespeare scholars is to claim that there are any definitive facts at all known about him! Another perspective is that we're fortunate to know and have as much as we do considering the circumstances and how much time has past. Examining the evidence in total does clearly point to the contemporaneous late 16th Century Englishman, Sir William Shakespeare, a respected resident of both Stratford and London, as being the author as named of the book of plays entitled Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories & Tragedies published in 1623 (now known as "The First Folio"). There's not a single documented connection to authorship of the works attributed to Shakespeare to anybody except Shakespeare. The heartfelt dedication from Shakespeare's old friends and colleagues in the preface to the First Folio about his talent and the affection they felt for him is well worth reading.
William Shakespeare, the son of a country tradesman and despite never earning a university degree, worked his way to become a key player on the London stage as writer, director and actor associated with many of the leading theatrical companies that existed then: Lord Chamberlain's Men which became the King's Men, the Earl of Leicester's Men, Lord Strange's Men, Admiral's Men, and Lord Pembroke's Men. His plays were staged in public at the first purpose-built permanent theaters in London: The Theatre and The Curtain Theatre. Plays performed in private settings were plentiful and Shakespeare is on record several times to have received payments for entertaining at the royal court and noble estates. In the Master of the Revels' accounts for 1604-1605, Shakespeare is named seven times as the author of plays performed by the King's Men before James I. The King's Men performed close to thirty plays before James I at the beginning of his reign from 1603-1606 and a prominent modern Shakespeare scholar, James Shapiro in his book The Year Of Lear, posits that it's likely over twenty of them were by Shakespeare. The Rose Playhouse, another of the earliest theaters, was a rival to Shakespeare and his Lord Chamberlain's Men. It was owned by Philip Henslow, who's memorably portrayed in the 1998 movie, Shakespeare In Love. Henslow left a detailed diary which has been very useful to shed light onto the intricacies of theatre operations during this period including the only known box-receipts for Shakespeare's plays. The diary refers to Henry VI Part 1, Titus Andronicus, and The Taming of the Shrew.
"The Theatre", coining the word when they opened in 1576, was the first purpose built performing arts theater in London and run by the pioneering actor and empresario James Burbage, founding director of the Queen's Men (which preceded the Lord Chamberlain's Men). Shakespeare was closely associated with James Burbage and his actor son Richard Burbage, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, The Theatre and then later in his career, the King's Men and the Globe Theatre. John Heminge and Henry Condel who published 36 of Shakespeare's 39 surviving plays in The First Folio in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death in 1616, were also members of the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the King's Men.
Shakespeare obtained some of his early play scripts from the Queen's Men which he subsequently reworked and rewrote. The Queen's Men are recorded to have come through Stratford in 1587 and one of their actors died there the day before the performance; it's speculated that Shakespeare was asked to step in and take his place which might explain how he gained entrance to the London acting scene. James' son Richard Burbage was reputedly Shakespeare's best friend and male lead actor for over twenty-five years and they may even have grown up together in Stratford. They were so close that all of Richard's children were named after "Will" and his family. After a dispute with The Theatre's landlord, Giles Alleyn (whose son Ned Alleyn was Richard's main competitor as the most famous actor in England), Richard and his brother, Cuthbert Burbage on December 28th 1599, impressively organized The Theatre's overnight dismantling and transportation of the timbers to the other side of the frozen River Thames to the area known as Bankside. The salvaged materials were reused and a new theater was erected in early 1600 by master carpenter Peter Street -- the three-story open-air circular Globe Theatre -- of which Shakespeare was recorded to be between a 1/10th and 1/14th owner for a £1,000 investment. In 1601 in London, Peter Street also built the Fortune Playhouse, a luxurious theater run by Ned Alleyn and Philip Henslowe, and years later remarkably appears to have built another theater of the same style in Gdnask, Poland. The first indoor private theater in London, The Blackfriars Theatre (where Shakespeare's plays were often performed) opened in 1596 and was able to charge higher admission rates than the open-air theaters and put on more special effects. The Globe Theatre when it opened in 1600 became the home of Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which three years later became the King's Men after their patron Queen Elizabeth died and was succeeded by her cousin King James of Scotland, a lover of the arts, who not only continued but also expanded royal patronage of the theater. The Globe was rebuilt after a fire in 1613, closed by Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Government in 1642, torn down in 1645 during the English Civil War, then centuries later in 1997 was rebuilt 750 ft from the original site through the persistent initiative of the American actor Sam Wanamaker, and is now known as Shakespeare's Globe.
Playwriting in Shakespeare's day in Elizabethan England (1558-1603) was at its infancy and barely accepted by the authorities as only a decade before without official sponsorship of a nobleman or royal, actors risked imprisonment and physical punishment. It was an iterative and collaborative process gathering feedback from the players, gauging reaction from the audience, reworking plots from other stories, and even co-writing sections with other authors. Acting companies used inns, colleges and private houses for their performances until the first purpose-built theaters came about. Writers were often actors themselves too and characters were written with certain actors in mind. For example, the roles of some of Shakespeare's favorite comedic characters: Falstaff, Bottom, and Dogberry were first performed by Will Kemp, a long time associate of Shakespeare and much-loved comedian who brought in audiences on his own right. Richard Burbage is the prime example of Shakespeare writing for an actor whom he knew could carry the part and actually played almost all Shakespeare's male lead roles for the first time: Richard III, Romeo, Henry V, Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Anthony, and many more. Tudor theaters ran at a rapid pace and were performing four to five different plays per week (when they weren't shut down due to outbreaks of the plague) to cover their high construction and operating costs. Audiences could be boisterous and were typically between 1,500 to 3,000 people tightly packed in. Shakespeare sourced aspects from other publications in all his plays except for A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, which are considered pure originals. A major discovery announced in 2018 by independent scholars, Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, reveals original source material behind eleven of Shakespeare's plays in an unpublished manuscript written in late 1500's called A Brief Discourse of Rebellion & Rebels by George North. George's brother Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans is a well-known source for Julius Caesar and Anthony & Cleopatra. Geoffrey of Monmouth's translation around 1132 of the Historia Regum Britanniae (which incidentally includes one of the earliest chronicles of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) is what Shakespeare drew upon for his play King Lear, a mythological Celtic ruler of ancient Britain.
Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were competitive; in fact the first recorded reference to Shakespeare in the London theatrical scene was an attack on him by another playwright, Robert Greene in 1592 as "an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his 'Tiger's heart wrapt in a player's hide' supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." Shakespearean lore has it that his greatest mentor and rival was Christopher "Kit" Marlowe, born in the same year as Shakespeare and rose to success before him but was killed in a pub fight in 1593 at twenty-nine years old under suspicious circumstances, quite possibly because he was a spy. Marlowe's brilliant plays Tamburlaine the Great, The Massacre at Paris and Doctor Faustus were surely motivational to Shakespeare. In TNT's 2017 thrilling "punk rock Shakespeare" TV mini-series, Will, about Shakespeare's arrival in London, Christopher Marlowe's notoriety features prominently alongside Shakespeare's probably wholly fictitious involvement with the Catholic underground resistance to the Protestant government. This insurgency went on to attempt one of the most daring conspiracies in Western history known as the "Gunpowder Plot" which is still remembered today in England as "Guy Fawkes Day" or "Bonfire Night" after the thwarted attempt to blow up the British Houses of Parliament on November 5th 1605. HBO in 2017 produced a TV mini-series about this called Gunpowder starring Kit Harington (of Jon Snow from Game Of Thrones). Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606 with its theme likely chosen to please King James I as a cautionary tale to rebellion against one's sovereign. James I was also deeply interested in unifying England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, a cause for which Shakespeare appears to have provided support. The scholar James Shapiro points out that the word "England" had appeared 224 times in Shakespeare's Elizabethan plays but in the decade after James became king, it appears only twenty-one more times and the word "Britain" which only appeared twice in the Elizabethan plays appears twenty-nine times in the Jacobean plays.
The heyday of Shakespeare's career, 1590-1610, was concurrent with the beginning of the invention of English theater as we know it today as secular and commercial entertainment. Funny enough, many of the earliest actors back then lived on Holywell Street and now we have Hollywood. People in the late 1500's in England led by the artists sought something different after over a century of war. Terrible religious strife between Catholics and Protestants, international war against France and Spain, and brutal civil war over control of the Crown between two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the House of Lancaster (associated with the red rose) against the House of York (associated with the white rose) which Shakespeare chronicled in his earliest plays Henry VI, Parts 1-3 and Richard III and then later filled out the saga with Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1-2, and Henry V (see all these plays superbly adapted for television in BBC's The Hollow Crown). Shakespeare gave female characters life and perspective seldom seen previously. Women though were still prohibited from performing in public during Shakespeare's lifetime so teenage boys in makeup played the female characters. Margaret Hughes is often credited with being the first professional actress on the English stage and her first performance was Desdemona in a production of Shakespeare's Othello in 1660.
After achieving considerable financial success and celebrity for his poems (beautiful sonnets and long narrative poems) as well as his plays, Shakespeare retired back to the rustic Warwickshire countryside, invested in real estate and agricultural commodities and bought the largest house in Stratford to live out his days. It wasn't until about forty to fifty years after Shakespeare's rather premature death at age fifty-two that his fame really started to skyrocket as the theaters in London reopened (after being shut down by the Puritan government from 1642-1660) and so did the curiosity to know more about this extraordinary figure who actually lived a very private life, leaving behind few personal traces besides his last will and testament. He married at age eighteen to Anne Hathaway age twenty-six while she was pregnant with their first daughter. He kept a low profile during the dangerous political times in which he lived and stuck close to the company of his fellow actors, many of whom he knew for most of his life.
His father, John Shakespeare, was a glove maker, wool and grain merchant, member of the town council, as well as sheriff and mayor of Stratford. His mother, Mary Arden, came from a very old family whose name is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. When Shakespeare returned to Stratford from his career in London, he spent time as a father and grandfather with the families of his two daughters, Susanna and Judith, while managing various hometown ventures particularly in real estate. He appears to have been business savvy and entrepreneurial throughout his life and died a wealthy man. Tragically, his son Hamnet died at eleven years old and was buried August 11th 1596 in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford (the same place Shakespeare himself was christened as a new baby and buried too). Later in 1596, the Shakespeare's family coat-of-arms was finally granted by the Garter King of Arms after Shakespeare paid off the steep fees (using money he earned in the theater) from the application his father started 20 years before. Shakespeare inherited it when his father died in 1601 and the right to style himself as a gentleman and display the coat-of-arms on his personal effects but never had the son to continue the inheritance. The impact his father's and son's deaths had on Shakespeare may be seen in his writings at the time; there are references throughout Hamlet completed circa 1601 and his play King John, written in circa 1596, contains the heart-wrenching passage: "Grief fills up the room of my absent child, lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words". Shakespeare also had a godson, William Davenant from Oxford, whose parents owned an inn where Shakespeare likely stayed. Davenant became the Poet Laureate of England in 1638 and proudly claimed to be Shakespeare's illegitimate child and was one of the most ardent early champions making sure Shakespeare's genius would not be forgotten. Shakespeare had a younger brother, Richard, who died in 1613, is supposed to have been an actor too but no definitive details survive about him.
There are many unanswered questions about Shakespeare which have and continue to intrigue scholarship and incite speculation. How did he learn to write so well? What were his religious beliefs? What were his political views? Was he bisexual? What was his relationship like with his wife? How promiscuous was he? Who were the young man and the dark lady to whom he addressed many of his sonnets? How did he get from Stratford into the London theatrical scene? What was he doing during 1578-82 and 1585-92 which are known as his "Lost Years"? These questions may simply be unknowable by now -- unless the legendary undiscovered lost letters or diary of Shakespeare turn up someday. In the 1700's and 1800's, many forgeries were put forth, the most infamous of these being by Samuel Ireland circa 1795 since his documents, which included forged lost plays, were accepted by many respected literary figures and among the general public before being proven false. The books in the bibliography below provide a wealth of details on all these topics if you are interested to dig deeper. There's even Shakespeare in historical fiction to be enjoyed that conjures up his world, like the enthralling novel Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell, written from the perspective of Shakespeare's brother Richard set around the first performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare also lends himself to science fiction, with gripping post-apocalyptic novels such as Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel or alternate histories like Ruled Britania by Harry Turtledove.
Shakespeare died on the same day as his birthday, April 23rd, and every year on this day he's especially celebrated around the world. He left a last touch of poetry on his tombstone, rather ironic considering all the subsequent scrutiny he has received: "Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, to dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, and cursed be he that moves my bones." The cause of his death is unknown. A serious outbreak of typhus fever occurred in his vicinity the year he died. He was buried on May 5, 1616 in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, the same place he was baptized on April 26, 1564. The vicar of Holy Trinity Church notes in his diary from circa 1662 (but his may have been based on hearsay about the local celebrity decades years later) that "Shakespear, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted." Shakespeare's will does appear to have been a hurriedly drawn-up document which would be consistent with the rapid onset of a terminal illness of some sort. The 1688 inherited papers from a Gloucestershire clergyman included the inflammatory statement that Shakespeare "dyed a papist" as well as the first known notes referring to Shakespeare being caught poaching deer as a young man from Sir Thomas Lucy's estate. This mention of loyalty to the Pope and a reported discovery (now lost) of a pledge of faith signed by Shakespeare's father hidden in the rafters of a house where they lived (as well as other contextual information) has stirred curiosity whether his parents and relatives were secret practicing Catholics when it was very dangerous to do so, while Shakespeare himself appeared to remain neutral.
Adding to the debate over his physical appearance, a thrilling discovery published in 2015 by Mark Griffths convincingly seems to show a flattering depiction of Shakespeare, with his customary mustache, made at the height of his celebrity in 1598 on the cover of an extraordinary 1,484 page botany book by horticulturist John Gerad which had been overlooked for over 400 years.
William Shakespeare is now credited with being the author of thirty-nine canonical plays (ten of which were partial collaborations), two known lost plays (Love's Labour Won and Cardenio), at least five possible plays, 154 sonnets, and five narrative poems (most well known being Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece). The first edition of Shakespeare's sonnets was published in 1609. About half of his plays were published in his lifetime (some like Richard III enjoyed many printings) in pamphlet form called "quartos". Through truly heroic posthumous efforts by Shakespeare's friends, the actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, the playwright Ben Jonson, and possibly with the financial support of his wife Anne Hathaway, the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays was published in London seven years after his death in 1623. Each of the thirty-six plays included was classified as History, Tragedy or Comedy. This was one of the first times ever that plays by themselves were printed in a large book. The world's largest collection of Shakespeare materials, and highly worth a visit, is the Folger Shakespeare Library and Theater in Washington, D.C. and contains eighty-two copies of the First Folio of only 235 known surviving. The Shakespeare Quarterly, the cutting-edge peer-reviewed academic journal established in 1950 by the Shakespeare Association of America, is produced under the auspices of the Folger and starting in 2019 to be printed by Oxford University Press. They also host a terrific podcast on the app stores called Shakespeare Unlimited.
Today, Shakespeare's works remain loved the world over and his plays are constantly being reimagined and re-performed, including in many different languages. People everywhere say that they relate to his characters and the themes he wrote about are still relevant. This is known as Shakespeare's universality. He's appreciated as an artist with a deep understanding of humanity and an uncanny ability for self-expression. Although it must be noted in the midst of very well-deserved admiration, reverence that strays toward blind "deification" of Shakespeare should be cautioned against and may in part have caused the authorship backlash. Demonstrating his remarkable popularity in 1964 on the 400th anniversary of his birth, more than 105 nations sent their flags to be unfurled in celebration in Stratford. On the 300th anniversary in 1864, enthusiasm spilled over into petty competition between organizers of the events in London vs. Stratford about which place could lay the strongest claim on him and which celebration should be the biggest, resulting in national embarrassment when Germany's (another country devoted to Shakespeare) well-coordinated celebrations surpassed England that centennial year. A couple of centuries go by and for the spectacular London 2012 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony, the renown actor Sir Kenneth Branagh recited from Shakespeare at one of the climaxes when over 1 billion people were watching. In 2014-15, to mark the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, London's Globe Theatre undertook an extraordinary acting tour covering 190,000 miles and brought live performances of Hamlet to 197 countries. And in 2016, to mark the four hundredth anniversary of his death, worldwide celebrations abounded and the Royal Shakespeare Company in partnership with Intel put on a ground-breaking technological performance of The Tempest, fitting as this was Shakespeare's final play and many scholars read Prospero's speech in the epilogue as Shakespeare himself saying goodbye to his audience. Next major anniversary is 2064 for the five hundredth year since Shakespeare's birth and what an occasion that should be!
Beautiful Shakespeare theaters, talented acting troupes, and wonderful festivals have sprung up in many places over time. In England, there's the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, Shakespeare's Globe in London, and the Shakespeare Rose Theatre in York. In Stratford, Canada, resides North America’s largest classical repertory theater company, the Stratford Festival, and then in Vancouver, Bard on the Beach. In Poland, which has a possible contemporaneous Shakespeare connection, the Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre. In Melbourne, Australia, the Pop Up Globe and in New Zealand, the Shakespeare Globe Centre. The United States has a tremendous number, with some of the most established being the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, California Shakespeare Theater, Utah Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare & Company, American Shakespeare Center, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, Idaho Shakespeare Festival, The Old Globe San Diego, The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, the Folger Theatre and Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. The Shakespeare Theatre Association was established in 1991 to provide an international forum and advocacy for theaters primarily involved with Shakespearean productions. Millions of Shakespeare fans today (and untold future generations) are grateful to these torchbearers of William Shakespeare's amazing legacy which continues to move the world toward wisdom, empathy, joy, and peace.
- Ackroyd, Peter. Shakespeare: The Biography. London: Chatto & Windus, 2005.
- Arnold, Catherine. Globe: Life in Shakespeare's London. London: Simon & Schuster, 2015.
- Bearman, Robert. Shakespeare's Money: How much did he make and what does this mean? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Seven Major Tragedies. Yale University: Recorded Books, 2005.
- Bryson, Bill. Shakespeare: The World as Stage. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.
- Carson, Susannah (editor). Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors. New York: Vintage Books, 2013.
- Cornwell, Bernard. Fools and Mortals. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2017.
- Conner, Marc. How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Washington and Lee University: The Great Courses, 2013.
- Dickson, Andrew. Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe. New York: Vintage Books, 2016.
- Dromgoole, Dominic. Hamlet: Globe to Globe. New York: Grove Press, 2017.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004.
- Henslowe, Philip. The Diary of Philip Henslowe from 1591 to 1609. London: Elibron Classics, first published 1845.
- Karim-Cooper, Farah and Stern, Tiffany (editors). Shakespeare's Theatres and the Effects of Performance. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2013.
- Kinney, Clare. Shakespeare's Tragedies. University of Virginia: The Great Courses, 2007.
- Nicholl, Charles. The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street. London: Viking, 2007.
- Mitchell, Martin, C. The Shakespeare Circle. Whitefish: Kessinger Pub Co, 2003.
- McCarthy, Dennis and Schlueter, June. A Brief Discourse of Rebellion & Rebels by George North. Martlesham, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2018.
- Packer, Tina. Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
- Rosenbaum, Ron. The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascos, Palace Coups. New York: Random House, 2006.
- Saccio, Peter. William Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. Dartmouth College: The Great Courses, 1999.
- Shapiro, James. A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.
- Shapiro, James. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.
- Shapiro, James. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
- Smith, Emma. Shakespeare's First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
- Wood, Michael. Shakespeare. New York: Basic Books, 2003.