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Lecture no. 6 William Shakespeare (1564-1616): Life and Literary Activity.

The few available facts about Shakespeare’s life are mostly mundane details, reflecting the ordinary existence of an Englishman of his day and social position. He exemplified the enterprising yeoman advancing to gentleman status, a common phenomenon in his day. Like many ambitious early modern Englishmen, he was attracted to London without surrendering his roots in the countryside. In terms of day- to-day life, the only unusual feature was that he was a part of the theatrical world. In Shakespeare’s day, actors, playwrights, and theatrical entrepreneurs were only just emerging from an era in which they were stigmatized by both law and custom. Though in the course of Shakespeare’s

lifetime, the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I gave prestige to acting, and a few theatre people – including Shakespeare – got rich, protest against drama and acting was still very strong in England. Shakespeare’s life falls into three main periods.

1. His first 20 years were spent in Stratford, where his father was a member of the local establishment.

2. His career as an actor and playwright in London lasted about 25 years.

3. Finally, he retired to Stratford, where for about five years before his death he was a

moderately wealthy member of the local gentry. The first two periods are linked by several years about which we know absolutely nothing – the so-called dark years – and the transition between the last two was gradual and cannot be precisely dated. William Shakespeare was baptized on April 25, 1564, and since the normal lag between birth and baptism was several days, his birthday is conventionally regarded as April 23 – also the date of his death 52 years later. The infant Shakespeare survived an episode of plague that swept Stratford in the summer and autumns of 1564, killing about one-eighth of its inhabitants. His father, John Shakespeare, was the son of a farmer who lived near Stratford. John became a tradesman and moved to the town. He prospered and became one of the leading figures of Stratford’s establishment, only to encounter serious financial difficulties, for unknown reasons. These began during Shakespeare’s adolescence and were only resolved 20 years later, with the money Shakespeare earned in the theatre.

Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden Shakespeare, was a member of the gentry, the next higher social class. John Shakespeare’s rise in status through this marriage was quite typical. No record of Shakespeare’s education has survived, but he doubtless attended the excellent Stratford Grammar School, which was appropriate to his family’s status and free of charge, since his father was an official of the town. Shakespeare studied mostly Latin literature, in Latin. The Latin authors he studied, such as Ovid 1 , and Virgil 2 , are echoed, quoted, and occasionally mentioned in his plays.

1 Roman poet known for his explorations of love, especially the Art of Love (c. 1 B.C.) and Metamorphoses (c. A.D. 8).

2 Roman poet. His greatest work is the epic poem Aeneid, which tells of the wanderings of Aeneas after the destruction of Troy.

Shakespeare probably left school at the normal age, about 15. It seems likely, particularly in view of his father’s financial problems, that young William took a job of some sort at this point. A number of possibilities have been envisioned – based on various traditions and on references in the plays that imply familiarity with certain occupations – including assistant schoolmaster, law clerk, gardener, and, perhaps the most natural supposition,

assistant to his father, who was a glover and dealer in commodities. In any case, John Shakespeare’s business activities left the playwright with specialized knowledge

that he was later to put to good use – for instance, when the Clown in The Winter’s Tale puzzles over the

market price of wool in 4.3.32-34, or when a beard is described as “round

(Merry Wives, 1.4.18-19). Within a few years after leaving school, Shakespeare had an affair with Anne Hathaway, which led to her pregnancy and a hasty marriage, late in 1582. Anne, eight years older than her 18-year-old husband, was the daughter of a farmer in a nearby village. In 1583 their first child, Susanna Shakespeare, was born; twins, Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare, soon followed. The christening of the twins in 1585 provides assurance that Shakespeare was in Stratford, but no record of his activities between then and 1592 has survived. That period, utterly opaque to modern investigation, constitutes the “dark years.” There are several scholarly speculations:

most notoriously, there was a local tradition that Shakespeare had been caught poaching 3 by a local nobleman and had thus departed for London as a fugitive. Modern scholarship finds this story highly dubious. a 17th-century writer established a tradition that Shakespeare had been a butcher during this period, reporting that young Will had been known to “kill a calf”. His conclusion was based on a misunderstanding: to “kill a calf” was Elizabethan theatrical slang for a particular comic routine, the details of which are lost. The previous anecdote points to the only certain fact about the dark years: at some point Shakespeare became involved with a theatrical company. Many travelling companies played at Stratford, an important provincial town, during Shakespeare’s youth (Leicester’s Men, the Queen’s Men). However, there is no evidence that such troupes ever recruited on the road, and Shakespeare probably had to go to London to begin his career. a recent theory has focused on the possibility that the young Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, and that during the dark years he was in Lancashire training to be a priest. Stratford was a centre of secret Catholicism, in a period when overt Catholicism was considered by the English government to be treason against the newly Protestant state and was subject to death penalty.

like a glover’s paring-knife”

subject to death penalty. like a glover’s paring-knife” 3 to trespass, esp. on another's game preserve,
subject to death penalty. like a glover’s paring-knife” 3 to trespass, esp. on another's game preserve,
subject to death penalty. like a glover’s paring-knife” 3 to trespass, esp. on another's game preserve,
subject to death penalty. like a glover’s paring-knife” 3 to trespass, esp. on another's game preserve,

3 to trespass, esp. on another's game preserve, in order to steal animals or to hunt.

By whatever roads he may have travelled, Shakespeare was probably in London no later than about

1589, for he was established as an actor and playwright by 1592, when the scurrilous criticism of Robert

Greene makes it clear that he was well known. The response by Henry Chettle makes it just as clear that he

was respected and admired. Several of the plays were already popular – 3 Henry VI is quoted from by

Greene – and while the earliest plays are notoriously difficult to date, it seems likely that they included The

Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, the three Henry VI plays, Richard III, Edward III, and The Taming of

the Shrew.

In recent years, scholars have established that many plays of Elizabethan drama were written

collaboratively, sometimes by teams of several playwrights. Moreover, it seems clear that, especially in

his early years, Shakespeare was a member of such teams – paying his dues, as it were, by contributing to

other people’s projects, before he was assigned his own – and a number of the earliest plays are now

considered to have been written collaboratively. Most certainly determined (though some commentators

disagree on any given point), George Peele was very probably a co-author of Titus and possibly of Edward


In the meantime his career was affected by a plague outbreak that closed the theatres in London for

about two years, beginning in 1592. Shakespeare may have toured the provinces with a company, but he

may have left the theatre for a period. He turned his attention to a purely literary endeavour, the writing of

book-length poems.

His virtues as a writer had by now been established, and the theatre was not regarded as the best

career for a serious literary artist in the 16th century. The likeliest avenue to fame and fortune was to write

major works of poetry or prose. Writers offered their works as tokens of esteem to wealthy nobles, who,

if they were pleased, might respond with a gift of money or even some extended financial support. It was the

aristocracy that supported the literary world, for the most part, with publishing playing only a small role. A

writer might live quite comfortably with a generous patron, and it is evident that Shakespeare attempted to

tap this market during the long layoff due to the plague.

He wrote his two long poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), during this

period and dedicated them to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Some scholars believe he lived at

Southampton’s estate for some part of the time. The first of his dedications is an ordinary approach to a

potential patron, while the second suggests a warm friendship and makes it clear that the earl had responded

positively to the young poet’s work. In fact, that the two men were friends is one of the few undocumented

aspects of Shakespeare’s life that virtually all scholars accept.

Shakespeare returned to the stage in 1594. Strange’s Men were reorganized as the

Chamberlain’s Men in June of that year, and the playwright is assumed to have joined them then or shortly

thereafter. He was to remain with this company for the rest of his career.

During his first few years with them, he wrote a long string of successful plays, probably including

Love’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and King John. An

earlier play, Richard III, was extremely popular as performed by the Chamberlain’s Men; later tradition had

it that it established both Shakespeare and its leading man, Richard Burbage, as important figures in the London theatre world. Throughout the 1590s, and perhaps somewhat later, Shakespeare wrote his Sonnets, a complex sequence of love poems that is one of the masterpieces of English poetry. These poems are often taken to reflect a real love for a man and a woman, but they probably represent merely Shakespeare’s pursuit of a fashionable genre. In any case, if they are autobiographical they are deliberately obscure and can contribute little to our knowledge of his life; they recount no events or incidents, and they offer little concrete information about the persons depicted. Shakespeare continued to turn out plays at a great rate, probably completing the following between 1596 and the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603: The Merchant of Venice, the two Henry IV plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Troilus and Cressida. In 1598 an edition of Love’s Labour’s Lost was the first publication to have Shakespeare’s name on it, as booksellers realized the value of his growing fame. In the same year Francis Meres cited him as among England’s best playwrights for both comedy and tragedy and compared his poetry to the greatest of the ancients. In 1596, after the first years of Shakespeare’s theatrical success, John Shakespeare was awarded a coat of arms 4 . Such tokens of gentlemanly status were nominally awarded for a family’s services to the nation, but they were in fact bought, and it is assumed that the playwright paid the fees for the Shakespeare escutcheon 5 . The absence of any certain association of Shakespeare and Stratford for 13 years has sparked suggestions that the playwright had turned his back on his home, perhaps because of an unhappy marriage. However, the grant of arms, the purchase of New Place, and Shakespeare’s continuing close involvement with Stratford thereafter constitute so firm a commitment to the town as to imply a strong earlier involvement as well. He was soon a force in Stratford, being recorded in 1598 as a leading owner of grain and figuring several times in the correspondence of Richard Quiney as a man of business. In London in 1599, Shakespeare became one of the partners in the new Globe Theatre, a successful enterprise that furthered his prosperity. Most Elizabethan playwrights only wrote, and of the few who also acted, Shakespeare alone was a partner in an acting company, deriving his income from the long-term success of the enterprise, rather than merely from the production of single plays. After the accession of King James in 1603, the company was part of the royal household – the number of courtly performances per year more than doubled – and in the first five years of the new regime, Shakespeare produced an astonishing sequence of major plays: Othello, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, King Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra. Similarly, when, in 1608, the company acquired the

4 Rom. blazon

5 a shield or shieldlike surface on which a coat of arms is depicted.

Blackfriars Theatre, with its unusual new scenic capabilities and its sophisticated clientele, Shakespeare responded with plays in a new genre, the romances. Late in his career, Shakespeare was acquainted with the young Christopher Beeston, whose son, retelling his father’s reminiscences years later, left us one of the few glimpses we have of the living playwright. Beeston described Shakespeare as “a handsome well shap’t man – very good company, and of a very readie and pleasant smooth Witt.” Beeston also said that the playwright “understood Latine pretty well, for he had been in his younger yeares a Schoolmaster in the Countrey” (the earliest such statement), and added that he was “the more to be admired that he was not a company keeper [i.e., a partygoer] and he wouldn’t be debauched 6 .” In late 1603 Shakespeare appeared in a play by Ben Jonson; this may have been his last appearance on stage, for he does not appear on later cast lists. His career as an actor is obscure. We do not, however, know of any role he played or even that he ever appeared in one of his own works (though as a member of the company he probably did). it seems likely that he specialized in roles of older, dignified men, but that his contribution as an actor was not a great one. Late in his career, semiretired, Shakespeare again collaborated with other playwrights. This almost surely reflects Shakespeare’s retirement to Stratford; he was certainly in residence there by 1612, and some scholars believe he may have made the move as early as 1610, writing The Tempest in the country. As the master of New Place, Shakespeare was one of the social leaders of the town; when visiting preachers came for high holy days, they stayed at Shakespeare’s home. In January 1616 Shakespeare’s lawyer prepared a draft of the playwright’s last will and testament. In February his younger daughter Judith married the scandalous Thomas Quiney, and Shakespeare rewrote his will to protect her portion from her husband, signing it on the 25th of March. On April 23 he died. We do not know the cause; a later tradition that he caught a chill drinking with his fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton is almost certainly apocryphal 7 . On April 25 he was buried – 52 years to the day after his baptism – in the chancel 8 of Holy Trinity Church. Shakespeare’s gravestone bears the following epitaph (its archaic spelling modernized): “Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear / To dig the dust enclosed here. / Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / and cursed be he that moves my bones.” These lines have often been attributed to the playwright himself, but they are known on unrelated graves elsewhere and are probably a 17th-century cliché, possibly not even a reflection of Shakespeare’s taste, let alone his pen. This bald recitation of facts is as much as we can know about Shakespeare’s life, unless further evidence is uncovered. Over the centuries speculative scholars and fantasizing enthusiasts have added a great variety of suppositions, extrapolating from the plays to make a more fully motivated, psychologically credible human being – or perhaps simply a more interesting person – than the simple

6 To corrupt.

7 Of questionable authorship or authenticity.

8 Rom. pristol – spatiu din jurul altarului rezervat preotului si coristilor

documents allow. This is most easily done by assuming that the opinions expressed by the major

characters in the plays – and by the persona of the poet in the Sonnets – are those of the author. However,

efforts to interpret the works as fragments of autobiography are generally mistaken; the characters are

imaginary, and because they must occupy all the niches of various fictional worlds, they naturally hold a

wide range of attitudes and opinions. Even very broad interpretations are highly problematic. For instance,

some critics have seen The Winter’s Tale, in which unjust jealousy is followed by reconciliation, as an

autobiographical rendering of the playwright’s relationship with his wife. Though the story is in the play’s

source material, it is argued that Shakespeare must have been driven to choose that source by some similar

experience of his own. However, in the absence of evidence, such a hypothesis remains untestable, and it

certainly seems unnecessary. A writer who could produce almost two plays a year for 20 years and make

real such diverse characters as, say, Falstaff, Hamlet, Volumnia, and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, can

have had no serious problem finding material outside his own life. To argue that specific experiences are

necessary for Shakespeare’s art suggests that, on the evidence of Hamlet, he must have suffered from

writer’s block.

Nevertheless, if considered with care, Shakespeare’s works can help us to a fuller comprehension

of the man. Repeated motifs and concepts in the plays permit us to draw a few conclusions, however

tentatively, about Shakespeare’s sensibility and his general ideas on certain subjects.

The history plays and roman plays reflect a political conservatism – in the sense of resistance to

changes in the existing system of social organization – that we might expect of a man of his time and social

position. The late 16th and early 17th centuries were an anxious period in England, for the newly

Protestant country was at odds with the Catholic powers of continental Europe – to the point of repelling an

attempted invasion – and internal strife bubbled up in such episodes as the rebellion led by Robert

Devereux, Earl of Essex. Indeed, civil war was regarded as a serious prospect during the last years of

Elizabeth’s reign.

In these circumstances Shakespeare’s politics were naturally conservative. For instance, the plays

clearly demonstrate that he places a high value on the preservation of social order and distrusts the

disorder that he sees in popular political assertiveness. From the Plebeians who kill the wrong man in

Julius Caesar to The Tempest’s rebellious Caliban, the common man in his political aspect is generally a

villain, though the playwright’s fondness for the common people of England is evident in his many

sympathetic characterizations. Still, the violent and fickle common man is only a secondary villain. In both

the history and Roman dramas, popular disorder is seen as a symptom of moral sickness rather than a

cause. The rulers of the state are the major focus, as aristocratic shortsightedness, greed, and ambition

lead to usurpations and civil war. Shakespeare clearly found the greatest threat to society in disruption of

the system at the top.

An interpretation of Shakespeare’s life from his work that sparks great controversy is the suggestion

that the Sonnets indicate Shakespeare was a homosexual. However, the love for a man expressed in the

Sonnets is not sexual (as is specified in Sonnet 20), though sexuality is important in the world of the poems.

Sonnet sequences were a fashionable vehicle for comments on love, and they conventionally took unrequited passion as their topic. The love triangle implicit in the Sonnets is probably such a convention – albei 9 more complex and involving than most and so more convincing. In any case it almost certainly does not involve a homosexual relationship. Here, seeming biographical data have been forged from nothing, by applying modern values to premodern materials. As Stephen Booth, a modern editor of the Sonnets, has observed, “William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter.” Moreover, the plays repeatedly focus on heterosexual love and its culmination in marriage. Shakespeare’s heroines are frankly interested in sex. Juliet longs for her wedding night and its “amorous rites” (Romeo and Juliet 3.2.8); Rosalind envisions Orlando, whom she has just met, as “my child’s father” (As You Like It 1.3.11); and Perdita describes Florizel’s body as “like a bank, for love to lie and play on” (The Winter’s Tale 4.4.130). Throughout the plays, Shakespeare celebrates sexuality in marriage, and he plainly sees marriage as a vehicle for the fulfilment of humanity’s place in the natural order of things. Nothing that can be seen of his own marriage suggests that he regarded it in any different light, and there seem no compelling grounds for the idea that he was not a conventional husband with a conventional sex life.

A few elements from the plays do seem related to what we know of Shakespeare’s life. For instance, Stratford is reflected in the early plays, and the playwright’s love of country life is evident throughout his work. English rustics reappear in such unlikely settings as Athens (in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Denmark (Hamlet). Also, looking at Shakespeare’s doomed boys, namely, the Son of Macduff in Macbeth, we notice him to be charming and intelligent, seen in touching conversation with his mother, it is easy to suppose that the playwright was remembering Hamnet.

9 Even though.