William Shakespeare (23/4/1564-23/4/1616)


The Martin Droeshout Engraving – William Shakespeare First Folio

‘To the Reader
This figure that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut,
Wherein the graver had a strife
With Nature, to out-do the life:
O could he but have drawne his wit,
As well in brasse, as he has hit
His face; the print would then surpasse
All that was ever writ in brasse:
But since he cannot, reader, looke
Not on his picture, but his booke.
B. J.’

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire and was baptised on 26 April 1564. His father was a glovemaker and wool merchant and his mother, Mary Arden, the daughter of a well-to-do local landowner. Shakespeare was probably educated in Stratford’s grammar school. The next documented event in Shakespeare’s life is his marriage in 1582 to Anne Hathaway, daughter of a farmer. The couple had a daughter the following year and twins in 1585. There is now another gap, referred to by some scholars as ‘the lost years’, with Shakespeare only reappearing in London in 1592, when he was already working in the theatre.

Shakespeare’s acting career was spent with the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, which was renamed the King’s Company in 1603 when James succeeded to the throne. Among the actors in the group was the famous Richard Burbage. The partnership acquired interests in two theatres in the Southwark area of London, near the banks of the Thames – the Globe and the Blackfriars.

Shakespeare’s poetry was published before his plays, with two poems appearing in 1593 and 1594, dedicated to his patron Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets were probably written at this time as well. Records of Shakespeare’s plays begin to appear in 1594, and he produced roughly two a year until around 1611. His earliest plays include ‘Henry VI’ and ‘Titus Andronicus’. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Richard II’ all date from the mid to late 1590s. Some of his most famous tragedies were written in the early 1600s including ‘Hamlet’, ‘Othello’, ‘King Lear’ and ‘Macbeth’. His late plays, often known as the Romances, date from 1608 onwards and include ‘The Tempest’.

Shakespeare spent the last five years of his life in Stratford, by now a wealthy man. He died on 23 April 1616 and was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. The first collected edition of his works was published in 1623 and is known as ‘the First Folio’. (BBC history)

I’m in the process of viewing Hamlet (Derek Jakobi/Claire Bloom version recommended by my tutor) on DVD and reading the play. So thus felt the need to get a feel for the author and the times he lived in, before embarking on same.

So – if luck would have it, whilst in the library the other day searching for the text, I spotted a thoroughly researched book by James Shapiro, which specifically deals with the year 1599, in which the author reckons, Shakespeare doubtless would have lived.

James Shapiro worked tirelessly for fifteen years on the background of the book, and also taught Shakespeare in schools. So – what a perfectly nice introduction to the bard, from someone who is clearly dedicated to Shakespeare. Shapiro won the 2006 Samuel Johnson Prize as well as the 2006 Theatre Book Prize for his work 1599: a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.

I read the preface/prologue of the book. I discovered that Shakespeare was a shareholder/involved in the Globe/Rose theatres, which produced plays by the new time. One year alone, sixty plays were written between all the dramatists and their competitors.

I also learned that if somebody murdered a person and was able to quote the bible in Latin he was spared the prospect of hanging. Actors were privileged in that sense, as they were scholarly and had to read Latin as part of their job. One such actor at Shakespeare’s theatre was saved from a hanging after an on-stage argument with a fellow actor/dramatist, because of a loophole in the medieval law in place at the time. An ancient law which allowed ministers to escape executions on the grounds that they were touched by God and therefore above human laws. In fact – it was Ben Jonson,author of the recitation directly under the etching of Shakespeare up above. He was branded with a “T” on the base of his thumb, which was indicative of Tyburn. It intimated that if ever he as much as engaged in a similar crime – his fate would definitely be the gallows at Tyburn. Scary!  Apparently, the actor that he murdered (Gabriel Spencer) had also taken the life of another person in the past. Life in those days was very cheap and people murdered each other at random for small misdemeanours.

Ben Jonson (1572–1637) was sometimes Shakespeare’s friend but always his rival. Or, rather, Jonson set Shakespeare up as his rival. History would remember him as “the next” greatest playwright of the English Renaissance.

A very shrewd incident occurred in the aftermath of Shakespeare’s team finding themselves at a ‘theatre crossroads’. You see – when the theatre lease had run its course, the team were sent packing by the miserable owner of the land, despite the former having built the theatre themselves when they were leaseholders. They knew that Allen was a nasty piece of work, so they plotted to take the theatre down when they knew he went away for the duration of Xmas. The snow was thick on the ground and the Thames was frozen over when they speedily got to work, it was really hard-going for the helpers, as they pulled down the timber in such adverse weather conditions that blighted London. News got to Allen and an attorney came and accused them of trespassing, but they simply ignored the latter.

When they finally had all the postings and timber down, they fled off on horses to a secret warehouse on the opposite side of the Thames, where they stashed the timber out of sight of Allen and his cohorts. Rumour had it that they had crossed over the frozen Thames, however that would have been nigh impossible with the weight of the horses/men and timber. The new theatre, that became the infamous Globe was eventually built at the end of that summer. That shook Allen!

Shakespeake was touring with his theatre group when his one and only twin son, Hamnet died. The twins were named after two very close friends of William: a baker named Hamnet Sadler and his wife, Judith. Tragically, Hamnet Shakespeare died in 1596 at the age of eleven.

The plague and early deaths were common-place in those days. The mid-forties was the average age of life expectancy.

Elizabethans were very fond of the theatre, and came out in their thousands each week to see them. Plays were changed on a daily basis and so many of them were discarded with if they proved unpopular. The playhouses also attracted a fair amount of riff-raff. A play was even banned, ironically Ben Jonson was embroiled in it and ended up in prison.

A Swiss tourist (Platter) pointed out at the time that the English learned about the rest of the world via the stage plays.

There is also a lot about Shakespeare as a person/personality that is unknown, as only very famous people lives, such as royalty, for example, were recorded in those days and he was far from being royal. He earned a very good wage from the theatres as a playwright. He travelled between London and Stratford,* the latter of where his wife Anne Hathaway and his children, Susanna, Judith and Hamnet resided.*

*Sometime during the eighties, I recall seeing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard, at Stratford-upon-Avon, with my friend, Jenni Armstrong. I remember being very clueless about the play due to its language complexity. The play expands upon the exploits of two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the courtiers  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Whilst in Stratford-upon Avon in the past, I also visited Anne Hathaway’s Cottage.

Now that I will be again introduced to the bard’s minor characters in Hamlet  I’m prepared to rise above the difficult language barrier – with the help of my tutor, to explore the meaning of the play.

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