Biography of Famous Playwrights: William Shakespeare

About the famous English playwright William Shakespeare, history and biography about the master of drama.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

The Merchant of Venice, Act IV

Of Shakespeare-the-man, the known history is scant. Traditionally, the great Bard was unhappily married, abandoned his family, and left Stratford-on-Avon to become a teacher, soldier, lawyer, or an apothecary. Further, the legends continue, he joined a traveling company of actors and went to London, or fled his birthplace to avoid arrest after stealing Sir Thomas Lacy's deer. Little or no proof exists to support any of these suppositions. There is also very slim evidence concerning either his formal education or his 1st years in London although--traditionally--he began his theater apprenticeship by holding horses outside the playhouses. The facts of baptism, marriage, parentage--and his life after 1594--are more readily established by contemporary records, including the famous will which awards his "2nd best bed with the furniture" to his wife.

Of Shakespeare-the-playwright, the picture is more extensive. The dramatist completed at least 38 plays with well over 100,000 lines of dialogue unequaled, in the history of English literature, for beauty of expression and depth of feeling. The plays' articulate command of vocabulary, coupled with his all-encompassing knowledge of persons, places, and events, has brought numerous challenges throughout the centuries concerning Shakespeare's sole right to authorship of the dramas. No conclusive evidence disallowing his claim has ever been presented.

Thirty-six of the 38 plays attributed to Shakespeare were printed in the First Folio of 1623. The canon can be roughly divided into 4 groups. In his initial works, written between 1590 and 1594, he produced the early historical plays dealing with the War of the Roses: Henry VI, parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III. While stilted rhetoric can be found in these 1st dramas, there was a vast improvement during the latter half of the decade with the more mature Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. With Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, he also showed the capability of handling both tragedy and comedy with the master's touch. Between 1600 and 1608, Shakespeare's experimentation in the classics with Julius Caesar led directly to his other 4 tragic masterpieces: Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet, acclaimed for their unexcelled characterizations. His "dark comedies" of the same period--All's Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure--were partially influenced in tone by the tragedies. Shakespeare's final efforts, between 1609 and his retirement in 1613, gave us 6 lesser dramas including the 2 generally accepted as a collaboration with John Fletcher, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, the latter a derivative of a Geoffrey Chaucer tale.

From 1594--when the ravages of the plague subsided and the theaters again reopened--until retirement in 1613, Shakespeare both acted and wrote for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a London professional troupe. He shared in the profits from his plays 1st at the Globe and later at Blackfriars Theatre, enabling him to return to Stratford as a "gentleman of substance." Following his death on April 23, 1616, his remains were interred beneath the chancel of Stratford Church.

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