- Shakespeare, William
- (1564-1616)England's greatest drama-tist. The son of a successful merchant and alderman of Stratford-on-Avon, he was educated in the excellent local school and learned enough Latin to become familiar with many classical authors, but he never attended a university. In 1582 at age 18 he contracted an im-prudent and probably rather unhappy marriage necessitated by the bride's pregnancy. This early marriage, coinciding with a reversal of his father's fortunes, seems to have thrown William on his own re-sources. The years following it are virtually undocumented, but sometime before 1590 William (unaccompanied by his family, who remained in Stratford) had settled in London, active as a poet and also on the flourishing London stage. The first hard evidence for his liter-ary career is an attack by another playwright, Robert Greene, charg-ing that Shakespeare's success was due to plagiarism. Both in his ear-liest plays and those he wrote at the end of his career, Shakespeare worked with collaborators; some of these are known, others are a matter of speculation.Thirty-seven surviving plays are attributed to Shakespeare, includ-ing comedies, tragedies, history plays, and romances. In addition, during a long closure of the London theaters by plague, he wrote two lengthy narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrèce (1594), both dedicated to the Earl of Southampton. He also produced a significant body of Sonnets (ca. 1593-1603; published in 1609). The peak of Shakespeare's achievement rests in the great tragedies Hamlet (ca. 1599-1601), Othello (ca. 1603-1604), King Lear (ca. 1605-1606), and Macbeth (ca. 1606-1607), but his come-dies, such as Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream, most of which appeared in the mid-1590s, are also major achievements. In his English history plays dealing with the political turmoil of Lan-castrian England, he not only created the remarkable comic figure of Falstaff but also traced the political and personal maturation of the future King Henry V. These history plays constitute a new genre in the development of drama, unlike any classical model. Yet he also wrote several plays with classical themes, of which Julius Caesar is probably the most widely admired. Even one of his comedies, The Comedy of Errors, an early work (ca. 1590), conforms closely to neoclassical standards; the influence of the Roman comedian Platus is obvious. Shakespeare's later plays are often classed as tragicome-dies or romances and are rather somber in tone, especially the last of his major plays, The Tempest (ca. 1611). This play seems to be a work of farewell, and Shakespeare retired to Stratford after it, though he re-turned to the stage in 1613, writing Henry VIII and, with the collab-oration of John Fletcher, Two Noble Kinsmen. After these produc-tions, he abandoned the theater entirely, probably because of ill health.Shakespeare prospered in the theater, becoming one of the owners of the successful theatrical company for which he wrote, acquiring a respectable home in Stratford for his family, and as early as 1598 at-tracting praise from other writers for his plays and sonnets. Several of his plays were published in his lifetime, some of them in quite de-fective form and evidently all without the dramatist's permission. In 1623 two of his former colleagues brought out a folio edition of his collected works, including most of those now known. In the centuries since his death, many critics have challenged Shakespeare's authorship of the plays and poems, which have been attributed by various critics and at various times to various individuals, including Edward de Vere, the earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, and Christopher Mar-lowe—the last being a particularly impressive "true author" since he died before most of Shakespeare's major plays were written. Essen-tially, all these efforts, even when presented by skillfull and learned advocates, are rooted in an aristocratic snobbery that refuses to be-lieve that a man of such humble origins could have become so great an author. By any reasonable standard of judgment, the question is easily resolved: Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.