Having died almost four hundred years ago, the works of William Shakespeare
are still widely performed, adapted and read throughout the world. This is testimony to his genius and his position must be as one of the greatest literary figures of any age.
He was a prolific writer, composing thirty-seven plays over his life.
Like all great men, he has received criticism over the years as to whether
he had the ability to produce all the work attributed to him. In the absence of any concrete proof to the contrary, it is safe to attribute all his work to Shakespeare’s pen.
He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England on 23rd April 1564. His father was a dealer in grain and his mother was the daughter of a prosperous farmer. It is likely that he received a good education and this was probably obtained at King’s New School, being the local Grammar School. However, there is evidence to show that the family’s fortunes did decline and that Shakespeare was unable to complete his schooling.
In November 1582 he married Anne Hathaway and they had a daughter, Susanna,
six months later. This supports the theory that the marriage was, perhaps, forced on William Shakespeare. They had twins later named Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died at the age of eleven.
Little is known about Shakespeare’s life between 1585 and 1592. Some
scholars think he may have been a soldier, this being based on the detail contained in Henry IV and Henry V, concerning the corruption involved in army life.
He also worked as an actor and this led him to the city lights of London.
By the year 1599 it is clear that Shakespeare was a wealthy man because he
applied to the College of Heralds for a Coat of Arms for his family. He also purchased a substantial property in Stratford.
In July 1605, Shakespeare paid '440 for the lease of a large portion of
tithes (taxes) on real estate in the Stratford area. This meant that he received a 10% income from the agricultural products obtained from the land. He was able to double his capital investment.
On 25th March 1616, Shakespeare revised his last Will and Testament and he died on 23rd April in the same year. His body was laid to rest in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford.
Shakespeare did not start his work as an actor and playwright until the
early 1590’s, but he enjoyed almost immediate success, soon becoming the most popular artist in England, and part owner of the Globe Theatre. This has been carefully restored to its former glory and is an
important theatrical venue in London.
Both Elizabeth I, and James I patronized him, and it was the latter monarch who gave Shakespeare the great honor of being a King’s Player. By 1594 he had become a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
His works were collected and printed in various editions in the centuries
following his death, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century, his work had a worldwide reputation.
It is evident that some of his work may have been lost, but he can claim to have composed thirty-seven plays and one hundred and fifty-four sonnets. The sonnets were first published in 1609 and stand among the finest works of English poetry. The plays are divided into four groups – historical plays, comedies, tragedies and late romances. Most of these were drawn from existing sources. The first collected edition of plays was published in 1623. Much of his work as a playwright stands the test of time, and can easily be successfully adapted to the modern age.
Stratford-upon-Avon is the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company (R.S.C.)
and still actively keeps Shakespeare’s work alive. It is the ambition of many an actor worldwide to appear in a Shakespeare play at Stratford with the R.S.C. Many of the great actors of the twentieth
century started their careers with the R.S.C.
It is thought that ‘Hamlet’ was written around 1602 and it bears a strong
resemblance to the Spanish tragedy by Thomas Kyd, which was performed around the mid 1590’s.
The original was a bloodthirsty tale as well, but the difference is that Hamlet refines the tale because of Shakespeare’s eloquence of verse.
There are numerous famous quotations contained in Hamlet, many of which are
still used in everyday language today.
Shakespeare’s play was very successful as the topic, the revenge strategy,
was popular with the people of Elizabethan England. The play is punctuated with larger than life characters that are either passionate, melancholy, violent, mad or overdramatic, no doubt delighting the
audiences of the day, just as it still does.
Like other works by Shakespeare, the language is sometimes difficult to
understand, and it is always easier to watch a Shakespeare play rather than read it.
It helps if the reader has a good sense of imagination so that he can visualize the scene in which the characters enact their part. It is worth taking time over the words and poetry for they are cleverly constructed and give a good insight into the characters.
It is not surprising that there have been many film versions of Hamlet, the
most recent being Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version in which he also starred as Hamlet. The language was not modernized.
The earliest notable version was by Laurence Olivier who also starred in the
title role. This was nominated for four Academy Awards, and was made in black and white, which helped to give it a stark psychological feel.
However, arguably the best version was that of Franco Zeffirelli starring
Mel Gibson as Hamlet, in 1990. He captures Shakespeare’s fast pace and passion in this version.
There was also a version made in 1969 by Tony Richardson, which was also
Although all four of these films use the same basic script, they are all
different, showing how adaptable and flexible Shakespeare’s work is.
All four films provide different facets of the genius that is Shakespeare.