The life and work of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare lived according to his own text: A man of many parts, and a man for all the world. Each generation in turn since his death seems to have found some new, distinct quality in his plays that meets its concerns or catches its preoccupations. So who was this sublime genius? Where did this universal talent have its origins? As far as family and place are concerned, the answers are quite ordinary: William Shakespeare was born of modest origins in an inconspicuous Midlands market town. He was born on 23 April 1564, in a small English town; Stratford-upon-Avon. He married Anne Hathaway at the age of eighteen, but left his wife and children in Stratford when he moved to London in the late 1580s, possibly joining one of the theatre companies that had passed through his home town.
It can be seen through his successful legacy that Shakespeare’s knowledge and practical experience was extraordinarily rich and revealing, especially in comparison to other playwrights of the period, such as Christopher Marlowe or John Webster. Shakespeare produced most of his known work between 1589 and 1613. His early plays were mainly comedies and histories, genres he raised to the peak of sophistication and artistry by the end of the 16th century. He then wrote mainly tragedies until about 1608, including Hamlet, King Lear, Othello and Macbeth; each considered some of the finest works in the English language. In his last phase, he wrote tragicomedies, also known as romances, and collaborated with other playwrights.
Shakespeare’s culture is engrained in his work. While the literary and artistic achievements of the Renaissance have meant that the period has often been termed the ‘Golden Age’, the economic and social conditions of the period were far from ideal. War, disease, famine, and high unemployment made life arduous and fragile at best. Shakespeare was heavily influenced by the conditions of his time and his plays address some of the deeper anxieties of his day. As theatrical scholar Arthur Kinney (2000) notes; No performance was simply make believe; and no performance was innocent of truth. English drama of the Renaissance gives us our most immediate and accurate portrayal of the period which gave it birth.
The alternation of single lines, called stichomythia, is a scheme Shakespeare borrowed from the Roman playwright Seneca and used in different ways in many of his plays. Stephen Greenblatt says that; The rhetorical devices, along with the subtle modulations from blank verse to rhymed couplets to boisterous comic prose, are so deftly handled that their pleasures are accessible to the learned and unlearned alike. This breadth also reflects the very wide range of cultural materials that Shakespeare has cunningly woven together, from the classical heritage of the educated elite to popular ballads and folk customs, from refined and sophisticated entertainments to the corner delights of farce.
As part of The Lord Chamberlain's company of players including actors Richard Burbage and William Kemp, Shakespeare performed for Queen Elizabeth in 1594. The sons of James Burbage built the Globe theatre five years later which became the home and wealth of this same company. William's career peaked in 1603 when King James employed the players and the company was renamed the King's Men. By 1611 he returned to his family in Stratford completing the last of his plays The Tempest and Henry VIII. On 25 April 1616, William Shakespeare was buried aged fifty-two with a lasting inscription on his stone:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell published the First Folio containing the works of this extraordinary writer.