Authors: William Shakespeare

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English playwright and poet

April 23, 1564

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England

April 23, 1616

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England

Biography

William Shakespeare, greatest of English poets and dramatists, was born at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and died there in 1616. Biographical information about him is scant, and much must be inferred from brief references to him by his contemporaries and from various church and civil records and documents regarding performance of his plays. His parents were John and Mary Arden; his father was a respectable middle-class businessman. Young William Shakespeare probably attended grammar school in Stratford (a small city in western England), where he apparently received a fundamental education in Christian ethics, rhetoric, and classical literature. Although he did not attend a university, his plays indicate his familiarity with ancient and modern history, many English and European writers, and philosophers such as Michel de Montaigne. Little else is known of his activities prior to 1590, save that in 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, eight years older than he, and had three children with her: a daughter named Susanna and twins named Hamnet and Judith. At some point during the 1580s he moved to London.

William Shakespeare

(Library of Congress)

Most of Shakespeare’s working life was spent in London, and allusions in the writings of others, friendly and otherwise, show that by 1592 he was a dramatist of recognized achievement. Francis Meres, in Palladis Tamia (1598), virtually establishes that his supremacy in comedy, tragedy, and narrative poetry was generally acknowledged, and this view is endorsed by later testimony, notably that of Ben Jonson. From 1594 on, Shakespeare was associated exclusively with the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, which became the King’s Company in 1603 on James I’s accession. This was the most stable and prosperous of the Elizabethan dramatic companies. It built the Globe Theatre in 1599 and acquired the Blackfriars private theater in 1608.

So far as can be ascertained, Shakespeare’s career as a dramatist covers the period from about 1590 to about 1612, after which he apparently moved back to Stratford. His early years show him working in all categories. Chronicle histories are a conspicuous feature of the years from 1590 to 1599, and these reflect England’s self-awareness at a time when the threat from Spain was still acutely felt. The same period saw the maturing of his comic genius, through such minor masterpieces as Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to the four great middle comedies, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night.

After 1600 Shakespeare’s drama takes a darker and deeper direction with the so-called “problem plays”: Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure. As a group, they have led to the greatest critical disagreement. His great tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, are also from this period. In these titanic masterpieces the human response to the workings of a relentless and malign destiny is explored and exploited to the fullest, and the terrible logic of the action is communicated in language of ever-increasing urgency and intensity. Antony and Cleopatra, which is valued for its superlative poetry and the transcendent aspirations of its heroine, looks forward to the regenerative pattern of the late romances. Timon of Athens is excessive in its pessimism and was left unfinished, but Coriolanus is a triumphant, original accomplishment. Though outwardly uninviting in both matter and manner, its emotional impact proves terrific, and its psychology is penetrating.

The plays of Shakespeare’s final period are dramatic romances that present improbable persons and incidents and draw freely upon the musical and spectacular elements popular in the Court masques of the period. Here the themes of atonement and reconciliation, earlier treated in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, are coordinated in a general pattern of regeneration symbolized by the heroines. Pericles, Prince of Tyre and Cymbeline are uncertain in their handling of complicated plot material, but The Winter’s Tale is magnificent and intense, and The Tempest confers perfection on these endeavors.

Henry VIII, last of the canonical plays, is thought to have been written in collaboration with John Fletcher. The Two Noble Kinsmen purports to be the product of the same partnership, but the alleged Shakespearean scenes have been denounced by many competent critics. Attempts to claim other dramatic works of the period for Shakespeare have, in the main, proved abortive, though it has now been established beyond reasonable doubt that The Book of Sir Thomas More (British Museum MS. Harley 7368) contains three pages of his work in autograph.

John Dryden justly claimed that Shakespeare “was the man who of all Modern, and perhaps Ancient Poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul.” He is the supreme interpreter of human relationships, the supreme percipient of human frailties and potentialities. It is often alleged that he is no philosopher, that his mind is neither mystical nor prophetic, that the beatific vision of Dante Alighieri is beyond his scope. Even so, his thought, governed by the Christian neo-Platonism of his day, is earnest and profound. The comedies move ultimately to an acute awareness of the mutability of human affairs, and this sense of time’s implacability is crystallized in the Sonnets and communicated with poignancy in Twelfth Night.

In the historical plays the curse which falls upon the commonwealth through the deposition and murder of an anointed king is pursued through successive manifestations of violence and anarchy, of which Falstaff is made finally the most potent symbol, until expiation is complete in Henry Tudor. Here the manipulation of history is determined by a clearly ordered conception of political morality no less than by an artistic conscience. The same outlook is more flexibly presented in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and Ulysses’ great exposition of degree in Troilus and Cressida summarizes the acquired political wisdom of a decade.

Cognate with the doctrine of degree, and informing the histories and tragedies at all stages, is the concept of absolute justice. Portia, in The Merchant of Venice, pleads that mercy is above justice, and this is exemplified, in strenuous and practical terms, in Measure for Measure. The conflict between justice and mercy is a conspicuous feature of the great tragedies, notably King Lear, and is ultimately resolved, in its tragic context, in Coriolanus, when the hero spares Rome and gains his greatest victory—that over himself.

Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale plunge (albeit artificially) into chaos comparable to the chaos of the tragedies, but the resolution now is in terms of reconciliation and regeneration instead of sacrifice and waste. The Platonic vision of the Many and the One, which informs these plays and carries them nearly into mysticism, though dramatically new, is something which Shakespeare had earlier achieved in certain of the Sonnets and in the concentrated intricacy of The Phoenix and the Turtle, published in Robert Chester’s Love’s Martyr in 1601.

Criticism has often erred in emphasizing particular aspects of Shakespeare’s art. In his work, action, thought, character, and language are not separable elements, and the reader’s response must be to a complex unity in which dramatic conceptions are simultaneously natural and poetic and language is unique and infinitely creative. The greatest Shakespeare critics—Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and A. C. Bradley—can always be read with profit and delight. The enormous mass of twentieth century criticism contains much that is of value, but if one has ears to hear and a heart to understand, one shall always find that Shakespeare is his own best interpreter.

Author Works Drama: Henry VI, Part I, wr. 1589–1590, pr. 1592 Edward III, pr. ca. 1589–1595 Henry VI, Part II, pr. ca. 1590–1591 Henry VI, Part III, pr. ca. 1590–1591 Richard III, pr. ca. 1592–1593 (revised 1623) The Comedy of Errors, pr. ca. 1592–1594 The Taming of the Shrew, pr. ca. 1593–1594 Titus Andronicus, pr., pb. 1594 The Two Gentlemen of Verona, pr. ca. 1594–1595 Love’s Labour’s Lost, pr. ca. 1594–1595, revised 1597 for court performance Romeo and Juliet, pr. ca. 1595–1596 Richard II, pr. ca. 1595–1596 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pr. ca. 1595–1596 King John, pr. ca. 1596–1597 The Merchant of Venice, pr. ca. 1596–1597 Henry IV, Part I, pr. ca. 1597–1598 The Merry Wives of Windsor, pr. 1597, revised ca. 1600–1601 Henry IV, Part II, pr. 1598 Much Ado About Nothing, pr. ca. 1598–1599 Henry V, pr. ca. 1598–1599 Julius Caesar, pr. ca. 1599–1600 As You Like It, pr. ca. 1599–1600 Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, pr. ca. 1600–1601 Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will, pr. ca. 1600–1602 Troilus and Cressida, pr. ca. 1601–1602 All’s Well That Ends Well, pr. ca. 1602–1603 Othello, the Moor of Venice, pr. 1604, revised 1623 Measure for Measure, pr. 1604 King Lear, pr. ca. 1605–1606 Macbeth, pr. 1606 Antony and Cleopatra, pr. ca. 1606–1607 Coriolanus, pr. ca. 1607–1608 Timon of Athens, pr. ca. 1607–1608 Pericles, Prince of Tyre, pr. ca. 1607–1608 Cymbeline, pr. ca. 1609–1610 The Winter’s Tale, pr. ca. 1610–1611 The Tempest, pr. 1611 The Two Noble Kinsmen, pr. ca. 1612–1613 (with John Fletcher) Henry VIII, pr. 1613 (with Fletcher) Poetry: Venus and Adonis, 1593 The Rape of Lucrece, 1594 The Passionate Pilgrim, 1599 (miscellany with poems by Shakespeare and others) The Phoenix and the Turtle, 1601 A Lover’s Complaint, 1609 Sonnets, 1609 Bibliography Ackroyd, Peter. Shakespeare: The Biography. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2005. Bate, Jonathan. The Genius of Shakespeare. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Explores the extraordinary staying-power of Shakespeare’s work. Bate opens by taking up questions of authorship, asking, for example, Who was Shakespeare, based on the little documentary evidence we have? Which works really are attributable to him? How extensive was the influence of Christopher Marlowe? Bate goes on to trace Shakespeare’s canonization and near-deification, examining not only the uniqueness of his status among English-speaking readers but also his effect on literate cultures across the globe. Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. Brown, John Russell. Shakespeare: The Tragedies. New York: Palgrave, 2001. A study of the tragedies in chronological order. Cheney, Patrick. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry. Cambridge University Press, 2007. A collection of essays offering literary, historical, and cultural information on Shakespeare’s poetry. Bibliographies and suggestions for further reading make this an invaluable source for those interest in Shakespeare. Danson, Lawrence. Shakespeare’s Dramatic Genres. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Danson’s scholarly study examines Shakespeare’s philosophy and how it was demonstrated in his dramas. Bibliography and index. De Grazia, Margreta, and Stanley Wells, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. This work provides an extensive guide to Shakespeare’s life and works. Dobson, Michael, and Stanley Wells, eds. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2001. An encyclopedic treatment of the life and works of Shakespeare. Donno, Elizabeth Story. “The Epyllion.” In English Poetry and Prose, 1540-1674, edited by Christopher Ricks. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1987. This brief introductory survey provides an excellent approach to Shakespeare’s mythological poems, placing them securely in their contemporary literary context. Includes basic documentary notes and a complete bibliography of all relevant materials. Fully indexed. Draper, Ronald P. Shakespeare, the Comedies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Draper provides an analysis of the playwright’s comedies. Bibliography and index. Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from His Life. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001. Duncan-Jones portrays Shakespeare as a man influenced by the political, social, and literary climate in which he found himself. She also examines speculative stories such as his love for a Dark Lady. Includes bibliography and index. Holderness, Graham. Shakespeare: The Histories. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Holderness examines the historical plays of Shakespeare and the historical events on which they were based. Bibliography and index. Honan, Park. Shakespeare: A Life. 1999. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Honan’s life of Shakespeare shuns the mythology that has grown up around the playwright and places him in the context of his age. Kasten, David Scott. A Companion to Shakespeare. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. Offers an innovative and comprehensive picture of the theatrical, literary, intellectual and social worlds in which Shakespeare wrote and in which his plays were produced. Each individual essay stands as an authoritative account of the state of knowledge in its field, and in their totality the essays provide a compelling portrait of the historical conditions, both imaginative and institutional, that enabled Shakespeare’s great art. Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2000. Between 1594 and 1608, Kermode argues, the language of Shakespeare’s plays was transformed, acquiring a new complexity that arose out of the playwright’s increasingly successful attempts to represent dramatically the excitement and confusion of thought under stress. McConnell, Louise. Dictionary of Shakespeare. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000. A basic reference companion. McLeish, Kenneth, and Stephen Unwin. A Pocket Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. This concise guide summarizes the plots and characters of Shakespeare’s plays, providing an easy reference. Marsh, Nicholas. Shakespeare, the Tragedies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Marsh analyzes the tragedies of Shakespeare, providing study guides. Bibliography and index. Proudfoot, Richard. Shakespeare: Text, Stage, and Canon. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001. A study of Shakespeare’s plays, with emphasis on their stage history and how they were produced. Bibliography and index. Richards, Jennifer, and James Knowles, eds. Shakespeare’s Late Plays: New Readings. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. A collection of essays focusing on the playwright’s later plays, including The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Bibliography and index. Frye, Northrop. Northrop Frye on Shakespeare. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. Southworth, John. Shakespeare, the Player: A Life in the Theatre. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2000. A biography that focuses on the dramatist as a member of the theater, writing for the theater in collaboration with the theater company. Thomson, Peter. Shakespeare’s Professional Career. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Thomson examines the theatrical world of Elizabethan England to illuminate Shakespeare’s life and writings. Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997. Vickers, Brian. Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare: A Life in Drama. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. A critical introduction to Shakespeare’s life and work. Wilson, Ian. Shakespeare: The Evidence: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Man and His Work. London: Headline, 1993. Wilson draws on documents discovered during the excavation of the site of the Globe Theatre to delve into the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare’s life, including authorship of his plays, his sexuality, his religion, and the curse he set on his own grave.

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