Shakespeare - Grand Erie District School Board

William Shakespeare’s birthdate is generally accepted to have been April 23,
1564 in Stratford-Upon Avon, England.
The precise date
of his birth is
unknown, but, as
was the custom of
the time, he was
baptized at
Stratford’s Church
of the Holy
Trinity on April
26th, 1564.
The delay between birth and baptism was due to the significantly high
infant mortality rate of the time. A child who survived the first few days
was more likely a ‘keeper’. There are few records of Shakespeare’s early
days in Stratford. He was not famous until later in life, and as all records
were kept on paper, they were easily damaged or lost.
Shakespeare’s father was John, and his mother was Mary (nee
Arden). John Shakespeare was a glove-maker by trade (an
important detail worth remembering for later) and dabbled in local
politics, holding positions such as Alderman and High Baliff, or
Mary came from a landowning family, and in marrying her, John
Shakespeare was marrying into a higher class than his own.
Shakespeare’s education came at the local Grammar School, and
here he would have been intensively instructed in Latin grammar
and Classics. He also would have learned mathematics, history,
geography, and natural sciences, and by the time he finished his
formal education would have learned roughly what a modern
student learns by the end of grade eight.
In 1582, when
was 18, he
married Anne
Hathaway, who
was 26.
This is Anne
This is not
Anne Hathaway.
Some speculate that theirs was a hastily-arranged wedding, as Anne
gave birth 6 months after the wedding. A woman of 26 was also rather
old for marriage at that time, as the average life span was only 42 for
women (less in cities such as London because of poor sanitation). A 26year old woman could have already lost 10 years of potential childbearing years. For this reason, her ‘availability’ to 18-year old William
Shakespeare raises some eyebrows. That the marriage may have been
forced on William Shakespeare helps to explain some of his actions
later on.
Shakespeare and his wife had three children: Susanna, born in
1583; and the twins Hamnet and Judith, born two years later.
In 1596, Hamnet contracted the black plague and died shortly
after. He was buried in Stratford.
Sometime around 1585, Shakespeare left his wife in Stratford, and there
are no records of him until the early 1590s in London, where playwright
Robert Greene made the first historical mention of Shakespeare in the
theatre, claiming,
“there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his
Tiger's heart wrapped in a Player's 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 Shakescene in a country.”
Others suggest he was
unhappy in his marriage,
and sought escape, but
his strict Catholic
upbringing provided
certain barriers to leaving
the marriage in a more
‘modern’ way.
But why did he leave
Stratford? Some have
speculated that he was
running from a charge of
It is certainly possible that he
spent the ‘lost years’ between
1585 and 1590 travelling the
English countryside, learning the
craft of the theatre. At the time,
the play houses in London were
frequently shut by the Master of
the Revels, often because of
outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague,
something which happened easily
in the unsanitary and cramped
conditions found in a theatre
(when you are packed in like
sardines, and there is no
plumbing, it’s just as easy to go on
the floor as it is to push and shove
your way out of the crowd).
Here is an example of one of the
buboes that would form in the joints
of someone affected by the plague.
Not fun.
With the theatre closed, the
theatre company would pack
up and travel the countryside,
putting on performances at
various towns and villages.
There are records of such
companies coming through
Stratford while Shakespeare
grew up, and it’s not
unreasonable to suggest that
he saw an opportunity when
one came through in 1585,
and opted to join it (some
records suggest that he held
horses for patrons) rather than
face trial for poaching, or
endure the trials of marriage.
By the time he is mentioned by Greene, Shakespeare had already
established himself as an actor, but it is as a writer that he is known today.
In a career stretching from
approximately 1590 to 1613,
Shakespeare wrote
• 37 or 38 plays that we
know of
• 154 Sonnets, and
• two epic poems, “The
Rape of Lucrece” and
“Venus and Adonis”
His plays generally fit the traditional dramatic genres. He wrote
• histories such as Richard II, Julius Caesar, Henry IV parts 1 and 2,
Henry V, and King John.
• comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, The
Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, The Comedy of
Errors, and As You Like It.
• He is probably most famous, however, for his tragedies, which
include such plays as Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear
and Othello.
• Toward the end of his career, he wrote plays which ran against the
expectations of genres. These are often known as the ‘problem plays’
(as they are problematic to define, genre-wise) or ‘romances’, but
made today would likely be called ‘tragicomedies’. These include
plays such as Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale.
The theatres of Shakespeare’s era were generally open-air theatres. They had a stage
which was not behind a main curtain, and would have a trap door in the middle. At
the back of the stage was often a balcony (sometimes called the ‘inner above’).
Because there was no main curtain, it was difficult to change the stage from scene to
scene, so changes in setting were usually told to the audience by the actors
themselves in their dialogue (e.g. A character walks onstage carrying a torch and
comments on how cold it is. The torch suggests that it is night time, and the
temperature suggests winter).
The lack of a curtain also
made it difficult to have
characters die onstage
during the play – where
would the bodies go after
the scene was finished?
Because of this,
characters usually die
offstage in Shakespeare’s
plays except for during
the last scene.
It was also illegal for
women to act during
Shakespeare’s era. This
meant that all parts in
all of Shakespeare’s
plays were played by
males. Young boys
(teenagers) whose
voices hadn’t deepened
or who had youthful
features would play the
parts of the female
characters, and as they
got older would
‘graduate’ to the male
The actors had to be very talented not only in elocution, but also in
dancing, fencing, tumbling and singing.
The theatre was considered a low or improper form of entertainment – not the
sort of thing that a ‘proper’ person would attend. For that reason, it was illegal
for the play houses to be in London itself, so they were built across from the
Thames river which was, at the time, the city limit. Patrons wishing to see a play
could look across the river at the various play houses and see which were flying
flags. The flag indicated that a play would be performed that day, and the colour
of the flag would indicate whether it was a history, comedy or tragedy.
Because the plays were performed on weekends – including Sundays, they were
competition with the Church, which wanted and expected for people to attend
services and pay their tithe. An outbreak of the plague amongst people who had
attended a performance would be great propaganda for the church to suggest
that God was punishing people for attending the theatre instead of church.
Because the church was both wealthier and more influential than actors,
playwrights, and even theatre owners, it was able to persuade the Master of the
Revels to shut the theatre down with great frequency.
What the theatre needed was to
have a fan of significant power
and influence, and Shakespeare’s
acting company, The Lord
Chamberlain’s Men, certainly
found one. Queen Elizabeth I was
a fan of the theatre, and as she
would have had “Divine Right”,
her presence in the theatre
would mean that it couldn’t
possibly be low. As he became
more famous, Shakespeare got
some money, and in 1599 opened
his own theatre, called the Globe.
When Queen Elizabeth died
in 1603, her cousin, King
James VI of Scotland assumed
the throne of England,
becoming King James I. Soon
after, Shakespeare’s acting
company would be known as
the King’s Men.
William continued to enjoy his success in the theatre, and retired back to
his wife in Stratford a relatively wealthy man in 1613. On April 23, 1616,
Shakespeare died.
He is buried where he was Christened, at the Church of the Holy Trinity
in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
 Shakespeare’s plays are universal. That is, they
transcend time and place. The story of Romeo and
Juliet, for example, works just as well in modern
California or done Kabuki-style.
 Shakespeare also made a significant contribution to our language.
 He invented hundreds of words and phrases which are used all the time
today without much recognition of their original source.
 Here are some of the most popular Shakespeare phrases in common use today:
 A laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
 A sorry sight (Macbeth)
 As dead as a doornail (Henry VI)
 Eaten out of house and home (Henry V, Part 2)
 Fair play (The Tempest)
 I will wear my heart upon my sleeve (Othello)
 In a pickle (The Tempest)
 In stitches (Twelfth Night)
 In the twinkling of an eye (The Merchant Of Venice)
 Mum's the word (Henry VI, Part 2)
 Neither here nor there (Othello)
 Send him packing (Henry IV)
 Set your teeth on edge (Henry IV)
 There's method in my madness (Hamlet)
 Too much of a good thing (As You Like It)
 Vanish into thin air (Othello)
Furthermore, there can be no
doubt that Shakespeare was a
master of the artistry of the
English language. He wrote with
such fluidity of thought, word,
rhythm, and sound that the work
is presented in a complex
manner, but is not unintelligible,
even for the inexperienced
reader. Often a single line would
have several different meanings,
each providing us with insight
into a character or plot. For
example, five lines from a scene
from Richard III present much
more than at first observed:
Rivers. Have patience, madam; there’s no doubt his Majesty
Will soon recover his accustomed health.
Grey. In that you brook it ill, it makes him worse.
Therefore for God’s sake entertain good comfort
And cheer his Grace with quick and merry eyes.
Queen Elizabeth. If [the King] were dead, what would betide on me?
Grey. No other harm but loss of such a lord.
Queen Elizabeth. The loss of such a lord includes all
harms.2 (1.3.1-8)
At a first glance, these characters seem only to be concerned about the poor health
of their King. Yet each line reveals something about each character. Lord Rivers cares
nothing for the King’s well being, and desires only to comfort the Queen, so that he
might be well in her favor and possibly gain some higher position. Lord Grey knows
nothing of the King’s true condition, and honestly foolishly believes he will recover.
The Queen is far more concerned with what will become of her once the King is
dead, than she is concerned about the death of her husband. The fact that all this
might be gathered from so few words is a sign of a very skilled and crafty author,
one which certainly must be studied and learned from.
In a nutshell,
Shakespeare’s works
permeate our culture
so exhaustively that we
are doing ourselves a
disservice by not
attempting to
understand them in
the context of our
current culture. From
words and phrases,
idioms and clichés, to
films, music and art,
Shakespeare is present.
The idea of whether or not William Shakespeare, the son of a glove-maker from
Stratford, was capable of writing the finest plays in history has been around for
centuries. There are a number of reasons for this, including:
Shakespeare did not have the formal education that many believe he would have
had to have had in order to write at the level he did.
There are no existing copies of anything that Shakespeare wrote, except for a few
signatures which have been described as “the labourious scrawl of an illiterate.”
Shakespeare’s upbringing would have been too meagre for him to have done the
travelling needed for the precise knowledge of European geography expressed in his
A rather deep understanding of the working of the royal inner court is expressed in
his plays, and this knowledge would not have been available to someone of
Shakespeare’s social class and ranking.
There are no confirmed portraits of Shakespeare which were made in his lifetime –
strange for someone whose fame would have been as great as his by the end of his
So… who wrote the plays? A
number of names have been
suggested, but are almost all easily
dismissed. The most compelling
possibility is that Edward de Vere,
17th Earl of Oxford was the true
author. He was a noted poet, was
well-educated, travelled
extensively, and was a member of
royal circles. The ‘proof’ of his
authorship, however, is all
circumstantial, and in the absence
of any clear evidence, it’s not really
worth supposing that anyone other
than William Shakespeare of
Stratford was the man who wrote
the plays bearing his name.
In Conclusion
Shakespeare is considered by many to have been the finest writer to have
ever lived. Esteemed scholar and literary critic has claimed that Shakespeare
invented humanity as we live it today. Bloom also claimed that “Shakespeare
will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us
how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves... he may teach us how
to accept change in ourselves as in others, and perhaps even the final form
of change.”
… but let’s end with a statement from the Bard himself:
All the world's a stage, And all the men and women
merely players.

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