Shakespeare was born on April 23, and he died on April 23. He was born in Stratfordupon-Avon, and he died in Stratford-uponAvon. These facts frame many additional facts and many conjectures. He probably received an education in Latin studies at the town’s grammar school, as his father was a municipal officer (mayor and justice of the peace) so could send his son to the school for free. At the age of eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway (1556-1623), a woman who was eight years his senior and who lived in nearby Shottery. Their child Susanna (1583-1649) was born five months later. Two years after that, their twins Hamnet and Judith were born, with Hamnet dying at the age of eleven and Judith surviving to the age of seventy-seven. Anne outlived Shakespeare by seven years, receiving in his will his second-best bed and being buried next to him in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Seven years after the birth of the twins, Robert Greene (1558-1592) writes of Shakespeare as an actor and playwright in London, describing him in Greenes Groatsworth of Wit (1592) as “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapt 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 Shake-scene in a country.” Green was a member of the “University Wits,” a group of Cambridge and Oxford young men—including Christopher Marlowe—that sought to bring their classical learning to the stage. Although Shakespeare attended neither Cambridge nor Oxford, his early plays echo Marlowe’s blank verse; indeed, Shakespeare’s Henry VI Parts I, II, and III, according to the Oxford University Press, may have been co-written by Marlowe, so Marlowe’s influence may have been direct. Shakespeare also demonstrated classical learning on the stage with his Plautean Comedy of Errors (performed in 1594) and his Senecan tragedy Titus Andronicus (performed in 1594).
He dedicated two classically-themed poems to his patron Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton. Both Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) were published as quarto pamphlets, with Venus and Adonis running through eighteen editions and The Rape of Lucrece, eight editions by 1655. In 1594, Shakespeare was a partner in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a theater company from which he derived profits for such plays as Romeo and Juliet (performed around 1595-1596), The Merchant of Venice (performed around 15996-97), Henry IV Parts I and II (performed around 1597-1598), and Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (performed around 1600-1602).
From 1595, he also probably worked on his sonnet sequence that was not published until 1609. These sonnets employ numerous conventions, such as the idealized and aloof woman. He also used the already-extant rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Yet he used it so deftly and naturally that the form is now known as the Shakespearean sonnet. His sonnets reflect on the power of poetry and the matters of poetic art, such as romantic love, in language that compels belief in their truth and authenticity—even though their possibly autobiographical elements have not been proven. For example, they trace a friendship with a beautiful young man and a romance with a dark lady. The identity of either of these figures is unknown, though early conjectures identify the young man as Shakespeare’s patron Wriothesley and the dark lady as a sonnet convention along the lines of Petrarch’s Laura. When published, the sequence was dedicated to an unknown Mr. W. H., described as the sonnets’ only begetter.
In 1599, Shakespeare’s company built the Globe Theater, with Shakespeare being one of six shareholders; the others included the great actor Richard Burbage (1567-1619) and John Heminges (1566-1630) who, with Henry Condell (1576-1627), edited the First Folio (1623) collection of Shakespeare’s plays. In 1613, during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, the Globe was destroyed by fire but was rebuilt the next year. Upon the accession of James I (1603), the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was renamed the King’s Men, and Shakespeare began writing his greatest tragedies, including Othello (performed around 1604), King Lear (performed around 1605-1606), and Macbeth (performed around 1606). With his profits, Shakespeare built New Place, the second largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon.
In 1606, the King’s Men acquired a private theater, Blackfriars, along with its playwrights Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) and John Fletcher (1579-1625), whose style may have influenced Shakespeare’s final romances, including Cymbeline (performed around 1609-1610), The Winter’s Tale (performed around 1610-1611), and The Tempest (performed in 1611). Shakespeare collaborated with Fletcher on Henry VIII (performed around 1612-1613), The Two Noble Kinsmen (performed around 1612- 1613), and Cardenio (performed around 1612-1613). In 1613, Shakespeare retired to Stratford-upon-Avon. He died in 1616, a little over two months after his daughter Judith married Thomas Quiney (1589-1663).
Although these facts seem sparse, they are more in number than facts known about other playwrights of Shakespeare’s time. Yet, they still offer too little knowledge to those around the world who have loved Shakespeare’s works over the course of four hundred years—a man whose invented words enrich the English language; whose characters fill imaginations; and whose range of style, sheer beauty of expression, and depth and breadth of insight authenticate the most profound of human emotions.
The interpretation of Shakespeare over time provides a mirror to the history of interpretation itself. In 1693, Thomas Rymer attacked Othello as not a tragedy but a farce due to its offering, in his opinion, neither meaning nor moral. In 1699, James Drake similarly demonstrated the expectation for moral lessons in art when he admired the poetic justice of Hamlet (first performed around 1609). The eighteenth century evinced interest in the particularities of Shakespeare’s characters; for example, in 1777, Maurice Morgann wrote an essay on the character of Falstaff describing him as not a coward but a sensible man.
Shakespeare’s King Lear suggests a way to interpret or gain meaning from this play (and perhaps his others). This extraordinarily dynamic work, with wheels within wheels of meaning, depicts extreme betrayal, cruelty, and suffering of such intensity that an audience may wish to turn away from it. The character Edgar serves as a type of audience, as almost a pure observer of a painful scene between the mad King Lear and the blinded Duke of Gloucester, Edgar’s own father. But Edgar will not turn away, saying in an aside—presumably to the actual audience— that he would not take this scene from report. And he offers a possible explanation for the purpose and effect of art when he describes himself as one who has gained compassion through suffering, as one who “by the art of known and feeling sorrows,/ Am pregnant to good pity” (220-21).