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 some 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. He was patronized by both Elizabeth I, and
James I, 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 Julius Caesar was the first play to be performed at The Globe Theatre in around 1599. As always, Shakespeare was anxious to please
his main patron, Queen Elizabeth I, who was now in the twilight of her reign.
‘King Lear’ was first performed in 1606 and put into print in around 1607/08. This print was known as the First Quarto. A later edition known as
The Folio was printed in 1623. The Folio contains 100 lines that do not appear in the Quarto, and the Quarto has 300 lines that do not appear in the Folio edition.
The story on which King Lear is based was well-known in Elizabethan times.
It appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, which was published in 1135. The origin of the tale is set in pre-Christian Britain and there are definite Pagan references in King Lear. Although Shakespeare has adapted the original tale almost beyond recognition, there is still a clear reference to the fairy-tale element involving King Lear’s test of love set to his three daughters. Shakespeare has also changed the ending of the tale from a happy one to one more befitting a tragedy.
The audience is left pondering the extent to which divine justice has played its part in the play.
As we have seen in other Shakespearean works there is a clear message to be absorbed by the post-Elizabethan audience concerning stability and harmony in
Those coming to the play for the first time should be aware of the message Shakespeare is providing, and its relevance to the English history of the day.
On the death of Henry VIII, who you will recall was excommunicated by the Pope, which ultimately led to the creating of the Church of England and the growth of the Protestant faith, England faced much upheaval as Catholic vied with Protestant in order to secure the throne. Queen Mary succeeded the throne soon after the death of Henry VIII and set about purging the Protestants from her realm. Her reign was short-lived and she was succeeded by Elizabeth I, a Protestant Queen. She brought stability to England over her long reign, but there was always anxiety amongst the people concerning who would be her heir all the while she remained unmarried. When it became clear that she would not marry and as she approached old-age, unrest grew among the common people that they would see a return to civil unrest. However, throughout her reign, Elizabeth sought reconciliation amongst Catholics and Protestants, and when she named her heir, James VI of Scotland and I of England, the future seemed secure.
The Elizabethan audience watching King Lear for the first time would, therefore, have been appalled at the King’s proposal to split his Kingdom amongst his
daughters, the consequence of which was chaos. Shakespeare’s message therefore, is that the division of a country weakens it, and strong leadership is essential in order to ensure stability.