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Who Was William Shakespeare?

This question, followed almost immediately by "If he’s so dead, what makes him so good?", are the two almost anyone asks when confronted with one of his plays, or some of Shakespeare’s poetry. The questions are valid, and I’ll try to answer them below. Please understand that I love the plays and poetry, and teach them to my grade 10 and 11 students shamelessly as the best things ever written, bar none. So … here goes …

Young William was the son of a town glove-maker, John Shakespeare, in Stratford. His father at times held posts of Town Clerk, junior judge (called an ‘Affeeror’), High Bailiff (like a Mayor), and was finally granted his own coat of arms (which was an important possession because it proved you were a "Gentleman", not Yeoman or just plain Freeman..) John Shakespeare became High Bailiff in 1568, when William was four. It was a family of ‘quality’.

William was baptized on April 23rd., 1564. Since baptism records were kept carefully at that time, and birth records were not, celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23rd. is a tradition that is quaintly incorrect, but satisfying.

His early years were probably spent doing what most boys and young men did at that time; work, learn the trade of his father and soak up the local culture. Oh, and go to the local Grammar school, where he learnt Latin. Lots of Latin. Reading. Writing. Memorization. Declamation. (Ten years after he left the school, instruction in English language writing began.) William received a free (and quite dull) education in the late Middle Ages, which fitted him for no particular work but maintained a tradition of what it meant to be educated. Period. No math (or even arithmetic). No science. No geography or history except Latin/Roman history. There was no such thing as an atlas yet (and would not be for almost a century). The big piece of learning that Shakespeare took with him was how to actually write … to make a pen (from a quill) and write … and he wrote in English. He wrote the way he spake, or spoke, and since there was no such thing as a dictionary, he spelt perfectly!

By his mid-teen years, young William had seen several plays put on by touring acting companies that had come through Stratford, and he was familiar with the tradition of the Miracle Play, telling various stories from Christian life (as approved by the Church).

The touring companies of players were strictly controlled by Acts of Parliament, because it was important to be ‘official’ in some way, not just a roving band of marauding riffs (who would NEVER be allowed inside a Town’s gates). At this time, even London was still partly a walled city, and even today some of the old gate names are used, such as Auldgate, Moorgate and Ludgate. You had to have an official Protector of some sort, a sort of sponsor and official guarantor of the legitimacy of your group. So, there were the "Lord Chamberlain’s Men", the "Earl Of Nottingham’s Men", etc.. When William was 13 years old, Stratford was graced with a visit by one of the greatest actors of the day, James Burbage, and the "Earl Of Leicester’s Men".

It was Burbage who design and built the first real ‘theatres’ in the English world, basing the design on bear-baiting pits in Southwark, on the south side of the Thames. His theatre was built in the liberty of Holywell, which was a slum. On one side of his theatre was a barn, on another an open sewer. The people came in droves, and the Preachers of London inveighed against the theatre, the actors, the people who went to the shows and plays themselves. They were roundly ignored, and Burbage had a tremendous success, the sewer and barn notwithstanding. The Burbages, father and two sons, later built The Globe theatre in Southwark (the south shore of the River Thames, across London Bridge), which is where Shakespeare’s plays were mostly performed. On warm days you could smell the left-overs of rotting carcasses and blood spilt in the nearby bear-baiting pits. Didn’t matter … the audiences loved the plays and came … besides, if they had walked over the revolting Finbury Fields to get to the previous theatre, what was the reek of a bear pit? Anyway, the Thames was an open sewer, and there was no such thing as plumbing (yet). Use your imagination.

Teenaged William was in thrall! This he had to be part of. There was, however, a small matter that had to be dealt with first …

Shakespeare had, at age 18, done what remains a bit of an enigma to this day … he had asked for the hand of Anne Hathaway in marriage. It turns out that Anne, who was eight years older than her blushing husband, was pregnant. William was a legal minor, so his father had to ‘pull some strings’ to get wedding licenses, etc., dealt with quickly. William and Anne were married in Worcester, not Stratford, but did go to Stratford to live. Six months after the wedding Susanna Shakespeare was born. Two years later the twins, Judith and Hamnet, Christened on Feb. 2nd., 1585.

Now Anne, William’s wife, was a dyed-in-the-wool Puritan. (Puritans were a right-wing religious political party.) Puritans despised actors, and playwrights more than actors, since it was playwrights that put filthy words and lascivious ideas into peoples’ heads. Indeed, most Puritans felt that acting should only be done to tell ‘good’ (i.e., Bible) stories, and the dialogue should be in Latin. (!) It was well-known by Puritans that plays and actors persuaded audience members into "…The filthy lusts of wicked whoredom". This is a mild description. In a book published in London when Shakespeare was twenty-three, actors were described as being sent by the Devil. They were thought to be "…Apes, hell-hounds, vipers … Crocodiles which devour the pure chastity of single and married persons …". Whew! (Chute, page 55.)

Within two years of the birth of the twins, it seems that Shakespeare had decided to go to London and work as an actor. Anne did not go with him; going to London with a young actor-husband would have offended every Puritan sensibility in her body. The record of his life is a blank until 1592, when there is a note that he is a successfully-established actor in London.

By this time several of his plays had been performed and he was well-known. In this time, plays were always acted out-of-doors. "Special Effects" were in great demand, so battle scenes were frequent, and actors would hide the organs and guts of sheep or swine in their doublets and spill them onto the stage to show they were being disembowelled! Titus Andronicus has an actor who has a hand chopped off on stage, in full view of everyone in the audience, and the heads of his sons are brought on stage, and Lavinia, his daughter, has to stagger on with her hands cut off and her tongue cut out! The London audience ate this stuff up! Actors had to dance, have great lungs, a fantastic memory and, of course, talent as an actor. Shakespeare’s earliest plays were "The Two Gentlemen Of Verona" and "The Comedy Of Errors", (in 1589). In 1592 he wrote, and acted in one of his plays about The Wars Of the Roses, to great acclaim … "The True Tragedy Of Richard, Duke Of York". This was after King John, Henry VI, Part 1, Titus Andronicus (mentioned above, famous for its gore), and Henry VI, Parts 2 & 3 and The Taming Of The Shrew. (Shrew meaning woman/wife.)

The plays rolled out of Shakespeare, and he was the talk of the town. Many are full of bawd and broad jesting about sex, which scandalized foreigners. (Today most people miss the jokes because we don’t speak Shakespearian English. But they’re there.) He worked with "The King’s Men" (previously the "Lord Chamberlain’s Men"), and got to wear royal cloth (given to the senior members of the company by the King, James I).

Along with the plays came poetry: His sonnets are best known. Using a distinctive rhyme scheme in the octave (first 8 lines) and sestet (the last 6 lines), the sonnets tell of love won and lost, of nature, of death and beauty. They are perfect gems of literature. Shakespeare almost invented the 14 line, 140 syllable sonnet form. (Not really, but the style is so strongly associated with him that everyone else’s sonnets, with the single exception of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, pale to dim candles in comparison.)

An example of his sonnets is Sonnet XVIII:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

London at this time had 58 presses printing plays, books, tracts, handbills, forgeries of plays, poetry, notices and advertisements. Oxford had one press, (which we now call the Oxford University Press). The other was at Cambridge (now the Cambridge University Press). London was ready for Shakespeare, and ready to lap up the fruits of his able genius.

(A chronology of his plays is available elsewhere on the net. Go find one if you need it.)

After William’s death in 1616, his plays were slowly gathered into a form for full publication in a ‘Folio’ edition. (‘Folio refers to the size of the sheets of paper. Folio was a large sheet. If it was folded into four pieces, it was called a ‘Quarto’, and if folded again, into eight sheets, an ‘Octavo’.) In odd comparison to the trend at the time, many copies were printed of the First Folio, of which about 250 still exist. Each is worth well over a million dollars. Those readers who are in my classes will be able to see and use my Norton copy of The First Folio.

What makes Shakespeare’s plays great? It is a mixture of several things … his characters show deep insight into their own humanity (instead of being cardboard paste-ups); the inter-character relationships are deep and, where appropriate, show great endurance; the characters are well-formed, even the female characters (judging by the standards of his day), and John Falstaff’s wife is a good example of this. Finally, Shakespeare tells a wonderful story; his story-lines are complex, deep and full of emotional impact. Comedies are truly hilarious, even today. The histories take the usual liberties with sequence and locations that were (and are) acceptable in entertainment, and the tragedies show characters at a great moment in their lives, when raw bits of their souls are opened in front of them, to be seen, understood and shattered. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Hamlet, Brutus, Lear and Julius Caesar are the most easily-accessible of the great tragic protagonists and antagonists.

At the end of his life, Shakespeare’s will left his second-best bed to his wife. Why not the first-best? Ah! The first-best would have been kept for visitors to the family home in Stratford: the second-best was William’s and Anne’s marriage-bed, and William wanted to make sure she got it (in case he died poor and some things had to be sold to pay his debts. He was, first and foremost, an actor, and knew how risky the actor’s life was.)

Shakespeare was born the same year as Galileo. He died in 1616, the year the Manchu Tartars invaded China. In between, the English beat the Spanish Armada and secured England as the pre-eminent European naval power for almost 500 years. Francis Drake sailed around the world and claimed huge chunks of it for England. Champlain came to Canada and explored, and French settlements began in Acadia at Port Royal. Forks were invented to eat with (in Italy) and the English began a settlement in India (Surat). His lifetime spanned momentous changes in knowledge.

But today, we mostly think of the rest of the world compared to Shakespeare, so towering is his stature. For what it is worth, Time Magazine hailed him as the "Man Of The Millennium". His plays have been translated into almost every written language on earth. His remains lie in a Stratford church, his Folio blessed by the words of Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare receives the homage of the world and the eternal re-creation of his genius in our minds whenever his plays are performed.



Bloom, H "Shakespeare The Invention Of The Human" Riverhead 1998
Chute, M "Shakespeare Of London" E.P. Dutton 1949
Gurr, A "William Shakespeare" HarperPerennial 1999
Laroque F "The Age Of Shakespeare" Harry N. Abrams 1993


You may also contact me directly at martin@aller-stead.com