Shakespeare the man


Although the amount of factual knowledge available about Shakespeare is
surprisingly large for one of his station in life, many find it a little
disappointing, for it is mostly gleaned from documents of an official
character. Dates of baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials; wills,
conveyances, legal processes, and payments by the court—these are the
dusty details. There are, however, a fair number of contemporary
allusions to him as a writer, and these add a reasonable amount of flesh
and blood to the biographical skeleton.

Early life in Stratford.

The parish register of Holy Trinity Church, HYPERLINK
«/shakespeare/micro/568/83.html» Stratford-upon-Avon , Warwickshire,
shows that he was baptized there on April 26, 1564; his birthday is
traditionally celebrated on April 23. His father, John Shakespeare, was
a burgess of the borough, who in 1565 was chosen an alderman and in 1568
bailiff (the position corresponding to mayor, before the grant of a
further charter to Stratford in 1664). He was engaged in various kinds
of trade and appears to have suffered some fluctuations in prosperity.
His wife, Mary Arden, of Wilmcote, Warwickshire, came from an ancient
family and was the heiress to some land. (Given the somewhat rigid
social distinctions of the 16th century, this marriage must have been a
step up the social scale for John Shakespeare.)

Stratford enjoyed a grammar school of good quality, and the education
there was free, the schoolmaster’s salary being paid by the borough. No
lists of the pupils who were at the school in the 16th century have
survived, but it would be absurd to suppose the bailiff of the town did
not send his son there. The boy’s education would consist mostly of
Latin studies—learning to read, write, and speak the language fairly
well and studying some of the classical historians, moralists, and
poets. Shakespeare did not go on to the university, and indeed it is
unlikely that the tedious round of logic, rhetoric, and other studies
then followed there would have interested him.

Instead, at the age of 18 he married. Where and exactly when are not
known, but the episcopal registry at Worcester preserves a bond dated
November 28, 1582, and executed by two yeomen of Stratford, named
Sandells and Richardson, as a security to the bishop for the issue of a
license for the marriage of William Shakespeare and «Anne Hathaway of
Stratford,» upon the consent of her friends and upon once asking of the
banns. (Anne died in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare. There is good
evidence to associate her with a family of Hathaways who inhabited a
beautiful farmhouse, now much visited, two miles from Stratford.) The
next date of interest is found in the records of the Stratford church,
where a daughter, named Susanna, born to William Shakespeare, was
baptized on May 26, 1583. On February 2, 1585, twins were baptized,
Hamnet and Judith. (The boy Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died 11
years later.)

How Shakespeare spent the next eight years or so, until his name begins
to appear in London theatre records, is not known. There are
stories—given currency long after his death—of stealing deer and
getting into trouble with a local magnate, HYPERLINK
«/shakespeare/micro/359/61.html» Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, near
Stratford; of earning his living as a schoolmaster in the country; of
going to London and gaining entry to the world of theatre by minding the
horses of theatregoers; it has also been conjectured that Shakespeare
spent some time as a member of a great household and that he was a
soldier, perhaps in the Low Countries. In lieu of external evidence,
such extrapolations about Shakespeare’s life have often been made from
the internal «evidence» of his writings. But this method is
unsatisfactory: one cannot conclude, for example, from his allusions to
the law that Shakespeare was a lawyer; for he was clearly a writer, who
without difficulty could get whatever knowledge he needed for the
composition of his plays.

Career in the theatre.

The first reference to Shakespeare in the literary world of London comes
in 1592, when a fellow dramatist, Robert Greene, declared in a pamphlet
written on his deathbed:

There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his
Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide supposes he is as well able to
bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute
Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a

It is difficult to be certain what these words mean; but it is clear
that they are insulting and that Shakespeare is the object of the
sarcasms. When the book in which they appear (Greenes groats-worth of
witte, bought with a million of repentance, 1592) was published after
Greene’s death, a mutual acquaintance wrote a preface offering an
apology to Shakespeare and testifying to his worth. This preface also
indicates that Shakespeare was by then making important friends. For,
although the puritanical city of London was generally hostile to the
theatre, many of the nobility were good patrons of the drama and friends
of actors. Shakespeare seems to have attracted the attention of the
young HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/558/69.html» Henry Wriothesley, the
3rd earl of Southampton ; and to this nobleman were dedicated his first
published poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

One striking piece of evidence that Shakespeare began to prosper early
and tried to retrieve the family fortunes and establish its gentility is
the fact that a coat of arms was granted to John Shakespeare in 1596.
Rough drafts of this grant have been preserved in the College of Arms,
London, though the final document, which must have been handed to the
Shakespeares, has not survived. It can scarcely be doubted that it was
William who took the initiative and paid the fees. The coat of arms
appears on Shakespeare’s monument (constructed before 1623) in the
Stratford church. Equally interesting as evidence of Shakespeare’s
worldly success was his purchase in 1597 of New Place, a large house in
Stratford, which as a boy he must have passed every day in walking to

It is not clear how his career in the theatre began; but from about 1594
onward he was an important member of the company of players known as the
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/115/10.html» Lord Chamberlain’s Men
(called the King’s Men after the accession of James I in 1603). They had
the best actor, HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/92/92.html» Richard
Burbage ; they had the best theatre, the HYPERLINK
«/shakespeare/micro/236/88.html» Globe ; they had the best dramatist,
Shakespeare. It is no wonder that the company prospered. Shakespeare
became a full-time professional man of his own theatre, sharing in a
cooperative enterprise and intimately concerned with the financial
success of the plays he wrote.

Unfortunately, written records give little indication of the way in
which Shakespeare’s professional life molded his marvellous artistry.
All that can be deduced is that for 20 years Shakespeare devoted himself
assiduously to his art, writing more than a million words of poetic
drama of the highest quality.

Private life.

Shakespeare had little contact with officialdom, apart from
walking—dressed in the royal livery as a member of the King’s Men—at
the coronation of King James I in 1604. He continued to look after his
financial interests. He bought properties in London and in Stratford. In
1605 he purchased a share (about one-fifth) of the Stratford tithes—a
fact that explains why he was eventually buried in the chancel of its
parish church. For some time he lodged with a French Huguenot family
called Mountjoy, who lived near St. Olave’s Church, Cripplegate, London.
The records of a lawsuit in May 1612, due to a Mountjoy family quarrel,
show Shakespeare as giving evidence in a genial way (though unable to
remember certain important facts that would have decided the case) and
as interesting himself generally in the family’s affairs.

No letters written by Shakespeare have survived, but a private letter to
him happened to get caught up with some official transactions of the
town of Stratford and so has been preserved in the borough archives. It
was written by one Richard Quiney and addressed by him from the Bell Inn
in Carter Lane, London, whither he had gone from Stratford upon
business. On one side of the paper is inscribed: «To my loving good
friend and countryman, Mr. Wm. Shakespeare, deliver these.» Apparently
Quiney thought his fellow Stratfordian a person to whom he could apply
for the loan of PRIVATE «TYPE=PICT;ALT={poundsterling}» INCLUDEPICTURE
\d \z «/shakespeare/gifs/poundst.gif» 30—a large sum in Elizabethan
money. Nothing further is known about the transaction, but, because so
few opportunities of seeing into Shakespeare’s private life present
themselves, this begging letter becomes a touching document. It is of
some interest, moreover, that 18 years later Quiney’s son Thomas became
the husband of Judith, Shakespeare’s second daughter.

Shakespeare’s will (made on March 25, 1616) is a long and detailed
document. It entailed his quite ample property on the male heirs of his
elder daughter, Susanna. (Both his daughters were then married, one to
the aforementioned Thomas Quiney and the other to John Hall, a respected
physician of Stratford.) As an afterthought, he bequeathed his
«second-best bed» to his wife; but no one can be certain what this
notorious legacy means. The testator’s signatures to the will are
apparently in a shaky hand. Perhaps Shakespeare was already ill. He died
on April 23, 1616. No name was inscribed on his gravestone in the
chancel of the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon. Instead these
lines, possibly his own, appeared:

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blest be the man that spares these stones,

And curst be he that moves my bones.


Shakespeare’s family or friends, however, were not content with a simple
gravestone, and, within a few years, a monument was erected on the
chancel wall. It seems to have existed by 1623. Its epitaph, written in
Latin and inscribed immediately below the bust, attributes to
Shakespeare the worldly wisdom of Nestor, the genius of Socrates, and
the poetic art of Virgil. This apparently was how his contemporaries in
Stratford-upon-Avon wished their fellow citizen to be remembered.


Despite much scholarly argument, it is often impossible to date a given
play precisely. But there is a general consensus, especially for plays
written 1585-1601, 1605-07, and 1609 onward. The following list of first
performances is based on external and internal evidence, on general
stylistic and thematic considerations, and on the observation that an
output of no more than two plays a year seems to have been established
in those periods when dating is rather clearer than others.

1589-92 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/729/59.html» Henry VI, Part 1 ;
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/729/60.html» Henry VI, Part 2 ; HYPERLINK
«/shakespeare/micro/729/62.html» Henry VI, Part 3

1592-93 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/729/61.html» Richard III ,
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/729/82.html» The Comedy of Errors

1593-94 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/28.html» Titus Andronicus ,
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/24.html» The Taming of the Shrew

1594-95 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/730/75.html» The Two Gentlemen of
Verona , HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/52.html» Love’s Labour’s
Lost , HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/0.html» Romeo and Juliet

1595-96 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/730/44.html» Richard II ,
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/81.html» A Midsummer Night’s Dream

1596-97 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/730/41.html» King John ,
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/95.html» The Merchant of Venice

1597-98 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/729/73.html» Henry IV, Part 1 ;
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/729/92.html» Henry IV, Part 2

1598-99 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/730/30.html» Much Ado About

c. 1599 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/92.html» Henry V

1599-1600 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/729/78.html» Julius Caesar ,
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/729/85.html» As You Like It

1600-01 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/729/76.html» Hamlet , HYPERLINK
«/shakespeare/micro/730/73.html» The Merry Wives of Windsor

1601-02 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/32.html» Twelfth Night ,
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/730/67.html» Troilus and Cressida

1602-03 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/729/84.html» All’s Well That Ends

1604-05 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/730/43.html» Measure For Measure
, HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/730/20.html» Othello

1605-06 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/729/98.html» King Lear ,
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/61.html» Macbeth

1606-07 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/36.html» Antony and Cleopatra

1607-08 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/71.html» Coriolanus ,
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/76.html» Timon of Athens

1608-09 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/730/97.html» Pericles

1609-10 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/46.html» Cymbeline

1610-11 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/93.html» The Winter’s Tale

c. 1611 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/86.html» The Tempest

1612-13 HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/729/93.html» Henry VIII ,
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/33.html» The Two Noble Kinsmen

Shakespeare’s two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of
Lucrece, can be dated with certainty to the years when the Plague
stopped dramatic performances in London, in 1592 and 1593-94,
respectively, just before their publication. But the sonnets offer many
and various problems; they cannot have been written all at one time, and
most scholars set them within the period 1593-1600. «The Phoenix and the
Turtle» can be dated 1600-01.

Romeo and Juliet,

play by William Shakespeare, performed about 1594-95 and first published
in a «bad» quarto in 1597. The characters of HYPERLINK
«/shakespeare/micro/730/99.html» Romeo and HYPERLINK
«/shakespeare/micro/731/35.html» Juliet have been depicted in
literature, music, dance, and theatre. The appeal of the young hero and
heroine—whose families, HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/731/9.html» the
Montagues and Capulets , respectively, are implacable enemies—is such
that they have become, in the popular imagination, the representative
type of star-crossed lovers.

Shakespeare’s principal source for the plot was The Tragicall Historye
of Romeus and Juliet (1562), a long narrative poem by the English poet
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/729/83.html» Arthur Broke (d. 1563).
Broke had based his poem on a French translation of a tale by the
Italian HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/49/87.html» Matteo Bandello

Shakespeare set the scene in Verona, Italy, during July. Juliet and
Romeo meet and fall instantly in love at a masked ball of the Capulets
and profess their love when Romeo later visits her at her private
balcony in her family’s home. Because the two noble families are
enemies, the couple is married secretly by HYPERLINK
«/shakespeare/micro/730/87.html» Friar Laurence . When HYPERLINK
«/shakespeare/micro/731/4.html» Tybalt , a Capulet, kills Romeo’s friend
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/730/94.html» Mercutio in a quarrel,
Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished to Mantua. Juliet’s father insists on
her marrying Count HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/730/96.html» Paris ,
and Juliet goes to consult the friar. He gives her a potion that will
make her appear to be dead and proposes that she take it and that Romeo
rescue her; she complies. Unaware of the friar’s scheme, Romeo returns
to Verona on hearing of Juliet’s apparent death. He encounters Paris,
kills him, and finds Juliet in the burial vault. There he gives her a
last kiss and kills himself with poison. Juliet awakens, sees the dead
Romeo, and kills herself. The families learn what has happened and end
their feud.

The most complex of Shakespeare’s early plays, Romeo and Juliet is far
more than «a play of young love» or «the world’s typical love-tragedy.»
Weaving together a large number of related impressions and judgments, it
is as much about hate as love. It tells of a family and its home as well
as a feud and a tragic marriage. The public life of Verona and the
private lives of the Veronese make up the setting for the love of Juliet
and Romeo and provide the background against which their love can be
assessed. It is not the deaths of the lovers that conclude the play but
the public revelation of what has happened, with the admonitions of the
Prince and the reconciliation of the two families.

Shakespeare enriched an already old story by surrounding the guileless
mutual passion of Romeo and Juliet with the mature bawdry of the other
characters—the Capulet servants Sampson and Gregory open the play with
their fantasies of exploits with the Montague women; the tongues of the
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/micro/730/95.html» Nurse and Mercutio are
seldom free from sexual matters—but the innocence of the lovers is

Romeo and Juliet made a strong impression on contemporary audiences. It
was also one of Shakespeare’s first plays to be pirated; a very bad text
appeared in 1597. Detestable though it is, this version does derive from
a performance of the play, and a good deal of what was seen on stage was
recorded. Two years later another version of the play appeared, issued
by a different, more respectable publisher, and this is essentially the
play known today, for the printer was working from a manuscript fairly
close to Shakespeare’s own. Yet in neither edition did Shakespeare’s
name appear on the title page, and it was only with the publication of
Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1598 that publishers had come to feel that the
name of Shakespeare as a dramatist, as well as the public esteem of the
company of actors to which he belonged, could make an impression on
potential purchasers of playbooks. (For two operatic audio clips, see
HYPERLINK «/shakespeare/ind_av.html» \l «oromeo0002u1» Audiovisual
Features .)



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