No author is more famous than William Shakespeare, yet some contrarians insist that he did not write the plays we know and love. To be or not to be the one, true author... is that the question?
Much of our information about Shakespeare is sketchy, starting with something as mundane as his birth date. Scholars set his date of birth as April 23, 1564, even though no birth record exists. He was definitely baptized, however, on April 26, 1564, at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, an English market town.
Even Shakespeare's name is slippery, and impossible to confirm. Shakespeare himself never used the spelling to which we are accustomed - he used various combinations, such as "Willm Shakspere" and "William Shakspeare," among others. Of course, spelling in general was harder to pin down in those days. The world at large used over 80 different spellings for the name, including "Shappere" and "Shaxberd." Oh well. Shakespeare himself wrote in "Romeo and Juliet," "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
Shakespeare's father was John Shakespeare, a leather and wool merchant, who at times served as alderman and bailiff. His mother was Mary Arden, a landed heiress. Shakespeare had two older sisters and three younger brothers. The family's fortunes apparently suffered in the 1570s.
Shakespeare probably attended King's New School in Stratford, an adequate school, but doubters wonder if the academic standards were high enough to produce the world's greatest playwright. While there, he would have studied Latin grammar and the classics. Of course, as noted in "Henry VI," Shakespeare valued the pursuit of knowledge: "Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven."
On November 28, 1582, eighteen-year-old Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in Worcester, Canterbury Province. She was twenty-six and pregnant. In May of 1583 their daughter Susanna was born.
In February of 1585 the couple became the parents of twins, Hamnet and Judith, but, sadly, Hamnet died of unknown causes at the age of eleven.
The years 1585 to 1592 are known as Shakespeare's "lost years." Absolutely no record exists of his whereabouts or activities. Some scholars believe he spent much of this time in London, perhaps working as a horse attendant at finer theaters, perhaps working on his earliest plays, perhaps working as a teacher, perhaps fleeing town after poaching deer from a local politician's estate. The question will most likely never be settled.
1592 brings evidence of Shakespeare working as an actor and playwright. In 1593 and 1594 he dedicated poems, "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece," to his patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.
From 1594 onward, it is certain that Shakespeare was a member of Lord Chamberlain's Men, a theatrical company. By 1599 he and his partners had built their own theater, the Globe, along the Thames. After the crowning of King James I, in 1603, the company's name was changed to the King's Men.
In 1605 Shakespeare purchased leases of real estate near his family home in Stratford. The leases soon doubled in value and earned a good income. This entrepreneurial savvy or good fortune likely gave him time to write his plays without worrying about finances.
Shakespeare is credited with writing at least 37 plays and 154 sonnets. In addition, there is a lost play, "The History of Cardenio," which was performed during his lifetime.
His plays are categorized as histories, comedies, tragedies, and tragicomedies. The tragicomedies, written at the end of his career, were less dark than the tragedies, ending with reconciliation and forgiveness.
His plays often feature unrhymed Iambic pentameter, although he sometimes wrote blank verse. The tragedies, in particular, often feature soliloquies. Complex wordplay is a hallmark of Shakespeare's plays.
His sonnets, which had perhaps been written only for the eyes of his intimate circle, were published in 1609.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Shakespeare wrote nearly one-tenth of the most quoted lines in the English language. Some of these quotes are so often quoted, that the author may be forgotten. Consider, for example, "Brevity is the soul of wit," or "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them," or "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." These Shakespearean gems, from "Hamlet," "Twelfth Night," and "Hamlet" respectively, have morphed into everyday speech.
Shakespeare's vocabulary was immense - in his body of work he used over 7,000 different words. He wasn't afraid of repetition when necessary, however - the word "love appears 150 times in "Romeo and Juliet."
He introduced almost 3,000 words to the English language, either by inventing them or by being the first to write them down. Words and phrases that have been traced back to him include "fashionable," "wild goose chase," and "eyeball."
He also invented many given names, including Miranda, Olivia, Jessica, and Cordelia.
Shakespeare, the literary giant, was probably the son of illiterate parents. Some say his father must have had a basic ability to read, due to his civic posts, but he always signed his name with only a mark.
Shakespeare's wife and children were more than likely illiterate as well, although his daughter Susanna learned to write her signature.
Shakespeare's own name - no matter how it's spelled - probably comes from the Old English "schakken, to brandish," and "speer, spear." That would explain the design on the family crest Shakespeare commissioned, which featured a spear on a yellow background. The Latin inscription below the shield translates to "Not without Right." Shakespeare presented the crest to his father. "When a father gives to his son," Shakespeare once wrote, "both laugh; when a son gives to his father, both cry."
During Shakespeare's time with the King's Men, he probably did not live with his wife and children. Their home in Stratford-upon-Avon, purchased around 1597, called New House or New Place, was a four-day trip by horse. Scholars believe he spent most of the year working in London, then joining his family during the forty days of Lent, when the London theaters were closed.
Scholars believe Shakespeare's marriage was not a happy one. As he wrote in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The course of true love never did run smooth."
Shakespeare's place in literature has often been called into question. He himself knew the elusive nature of reputation, as he described in "Othello": "Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving."
Some skeptics hold firm to the notion that Shakespeare did not write his own plays, that Edward De Vere, Christopher Marlowe, or Francis Bacon should be credited. After all, church records show that Shakespeare existed, but reveal nothing of his activities.
The skeptics point to the wealth of information in the plays about foreign lands, the royal court, and all-around knowledge that seems beyond the realm of his experience. It is possible, however, that Shakespeare collaborated or gathered knowledge from others.
Shakespeare's name does appear on the title pages of some of his plays, and royal records show he was indeed a member of the King's Men.
Shakespeare loved the theater and he was, undoubtedly, a great student of the human condition. "All the world's a stage," he wrote, in "As You Like It," "and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages." Indeed, life is the greatest stage of all.
Shakespeare retired from the theater in 1613 and spent his final years at New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon. He died on April 23, 1616, and was interred at Holy Trinity Church, where he had been baptized.
He left most of his estate to the male heirs of his daughter, Susanna. His wife did not fare so well. "I gyve unto my wief my second best bed with the furniture," he said in his will. Scholars debate whether this was an insult to Anne or this was in fact their marital bed, with the best bed being reserved for house guests.
Shakespeare's tombstone reflects a concern he addressed in at least sixteen of his plays, including "Hamlet," "Romeo and Juliet," and "Richard III" - grave robbing. The epitaph, which most scholars believe was written by Shakespeare himself, reads as follows: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare, To digg the dust encloased heare; Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, And curst be he that moves my bones."