Literary GeniusHis literary legacy is perhaps the richest in the world: 37 plays, 154 sonnets, 2 long narrative poems, and miscellaneous verses. Yet there are but two likenesses of him with any claims to authenticity; no letters or diaries to reveal his personal feelings; and in his own handwriting only a variety of scrawled signatures
and 147 lines of a scene he contributed to a collaborative play written about the year 1595 but
suppressed by the censors.
Although William Shakespeare's accomplishments as a dramatist were acknowledged by his contemporaries, he himself thought that his poems would bring whatever enduring fame he merited. The complete canon of his plays was published only seven years after his death in 1616, and some scholars still do not accept all these as coming entirely from his pen. Would-be biographers have available to them only sketchy details with which to reconstruct a life.
Who was Shakespeare?In the parish register of Stratford-upon-Avon, a town of some 20,000 inhabitants 21 miles southeast of Birmingham, England, is an entry in Latin for the christening on April 26, 1564, of "Gulielmus, filius Johannes Shaksper": William, the son of John Shakespeare. William was the third child (and first son) of eight born to Mary Arden and her husband, John Shakespeare, a glove maker and sometime local officeholder. He was probably born two or three days before his christening. There are no records of William's education, but it is reasonable to suppose that he attended Stratford's grammar school - grammar meaning Latin grammar. His upbringing would have included church attendance and intensive Bible study.
In late November or early December of 1582, the 18-year-old Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a prosperous farmer's daughter eight years his senior. Six months later a daughter, Susanna, was born to them; and in February 1585, twins, a son named Hamnet and another daughter named Judith. From that date until he appears in London as a popular actor and burgeoning playwright in 1592, nothing is known about William Shakespeare. These are his seven lost years.
The Upstart CrowDuring the years Shakespeare was growing to maturity, Stratford's town fathers occasionally financed amateur theatrical performances at Pentecost. One of them may have offered Shakespeare his first chance to act. Or perhaps he traveled to nearby Coventry to attend one of the last cycles of medieval mystery plays given by members of the craft guilds. Shakespeare would certainly have had an opportunity to see one of the itinerant bands of players who regularly visited his town. No fewer than five troupes appeared in Stratford between December 1586 and December 1587; one of them was short one player, an actor recently killed in a barroom brawl. Did the company leave Stratford with a stagestruck young recruit?
The first reference to Shakespeare as being in London is an unflattering one. In his posthumously published pamphlet of 1592, A Groatsworth of Wit, the prolific young dramatist Robert Greene inveighed against a theatrical Jack-of-all trades who had the audacity to pass himself off as a playwright. Trust not this "upstart crow," Greene warned his fellow authors, ". . . that with his tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out blank verse as the best of you. "The newcomer, Greene complained, "is in his own conceit the only Shakescene in a country." Literary detectives point out not only the punning reference to Shakespeare in this passage but also the parody of a line from one of the dramatist's earliest plays, Henry VI, Part III, in which the captive duke of York refers to the vengeful Queen Margaret as a "tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide."
The Lord Chamberlain's MenLargely because of Greene's disparaging remark, historians list the three parts of Henry VI as Shakespeare's first plays. Most likely they were written before 1592, when he was a fledgling actor in one of London's theatrical companies such as the Queen's Men. But on January 28, 1593, Shakespeare's activities as an actor and playwright were temporarily halted, as were those of all his professional colleagues. Because of an outbreak of plague in London, the queen's privy council banned "all plays, baiting of bears, bulls, bowling and any other like occasions to assemble any numbers of people together (preaching and divine service at churches excepted)." The theaters were not to reopen until the autumn of 1594.
By the time the plague had abated, Shakespeare had acquired a patron, the handsome young earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Issued in 1593, Venus andAdonis was his first published work. And when the theaters reopened, Shakespeare was a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the company with which he would be associated until his retirement from the stage some 18 years later. The account book of Queen Elizabeth's treasurer lists William Shakespeare as one of the three "servants to the Lord Chamberlain" paid for performances before the queen at her Greenwich palace on December 26 and 28, 1594.
As the comedies, tragedies, and historical dramas followed one after another, Shakespeare gained fame as well as wealth, for he was soon a shareholder in the company as well as its principal dramatist. Most likely he staged his own works, and he is known to have continued acting -in his own plays and in those of others, among them the works of his young protege Ben Jonson. His best performance was said to be as the ghost of Hamlet's father, and Shakespeare's younger brother recalled him appearing as the aged servant Adam in As You Like It.
Although Shakespeare seemed relatively indifferent to publication of his works for the theater, several of his plays were published by the end of the century - with or without his consent, often without his name as author. In some cases it was necessary for the playwright to issue corrected versions of plays that had appeared in incomplete or corrupted form.
In February 1599 Shakespeare joined other members of the Lord Chamberlain's Men in leasing a site on the south bank of the river Thames and erecting there a grand new theater, the Globe. That autumn the Globe opened with a performance of Julius Caesar.
Home to StratfordThere is no record of Anne Hathaway bringing her three children to London to live with her husband. Instead, the famous actor and playwright seems to have maintained his family in Stratford, first in a little house on Henley Street but, after 1597, in a handsome, three-story house with five gables set behind a courtyard on Chapel Street across from the church he had attended as a boy. Their son, Hamnet, died at the age of 11, but Shakespeare lived to see both of his daughters marry, and the eldest, Susanna, give birth to his only grandchild, a girl named Elizabeth Hall.
Sometime after 1612, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and, on March 25, 1616, signed his last will and testament - with its peculiar bequest of his "second best bed" to his wife of 33 years, Anne Hathaway. He died a month later, on April 23, on or about his 52nd birthday.
In Search of ShakespeareSo rich and so enduring are the works of William Shakespeare that, in time, doubts arose as to whether they could have come from the pen of a single person - especially one as relatively uneducated as the minor actor from Stratford. With their intricate plots and unforgettable characters, the celebrated plays plumb the breadth and depth of human emotions and reveal the author's knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, law, and even court etiquette. Where did this country man pursuing a profession on the fringes of society learn how aristocrats behave and lawyers talk? Was it possible that the actor allowed his name to be used by a well-educated man in high office who wished to keep his authorship of the plays a secret?
In 1781 an English churchman named J. Wilmot, after searching the records at Stratford, reached the startling conclusion that a man of Shakespeare's background lacked the education and experience to write the immortal plays. Unwilling to publish his thesis, Wilmot burned his notes although he confided his suspicions to a friend. The friend's record of their conversations did not come to light until 1932. Meanwhile, in the mid- 19th century, both British and American scholars had begun advancing similar theories. In 1856 one of them, William Henry Smith, proposed Sir Francis Bacon as author of the plays. The philosopher, essayist, and statesman held high office under Queen Elizabeth's successor, James I, and was later raised to the nobility by his royal patron. Scholars on both sides of the Atlantic pounced on Smith's hypothesis to produce an avalanche of documentation for the claim.
The Baconians, as they came to be known, pointed out that Sir Francis had all the qualities the actor lacked: a classical education, a position at court, a sound knowledge of the law. Unfortunately for their theory, Bacon apparently did not care for the theater and is not known to have written any blank verse.
In 1955 an American scholar named Calvin Hoffman named the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe as the author of the Shakespeare plays. Marlowe was facing imprisonment, perhaps even death, for his heretical views in 1593. According to Hoff-man's theory, he staged his own murder in a pub south of London - a foreign seaman being the real victim. Fleeing t the Continent, Marlowe continued writing the type of plays that had already gained him acclaim in London and sent them back to England for production under Shakespeare's name.
Aristocratic CandidatesNot Bacon, not Marlowe, not the younger playwright Ben Jonson wrote Shakespeare's plays say other literary sleuths. The real author was a nobleman who either considered it beneath his dinity to write for the theater or feared royal displeasure for expressing controversial political opinions in public. Among the aristocratic candidates proposed - all, more or less, Shakespeare's contemporaries - are William Stanley, the sixth earl of Derby; Roger Manners, the fifth earl of Rutland; and Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford.
Although Lord Derby displayed a great interest in the theater and even wrote a few plays, it has to be noted that he outlived Shakespeare by 26 years, and in those years no additional Shakespeare plays appeared. The problem with a claim for Lord Rutland is that he was only 16 in 1592, the year by which at least three of Shakespeare's plays had been written and produced. As for Lord Oxford, he died in 1604, whereas such Shakespearean masterpieces as King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest continued to appear in a steady stream up to 1612 - the year Shakespeare is thought to have retired to Stratford.
Despite such intriguing speculation about a secret author who cloaked his identity behind a rustic actor's name, most scholars now accept William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon as the true author of the great works so long attributed to him. His genius was acknowledged in his own time, and there were no contemporary challenges to his authorship. It is futile to try to explain how he acquired the experience and talent to produce such a body of work. It is far better to be thankful that the young man left his humble background behind as he set out on the road for London 400 years ago. The world is far richer for his having done so.