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.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ is thought to have been written in the mid 1590’s and is
probably Shakespeare’s first non-historical tragedy. Shakespeare adapted the story from an earlier tale concerning Romeus and Juliet, which was in the form of a long narrative poem. The play was first
performed in 1594 just after a sustained outbreak of plague in London when Richard Burbage played the part of Romeo and a Master Robert Goffe played the part of Juliet.
Young boy actors usually played female roles, because women were not allowed to appear on stage until the seventeenth century.
Whilst the play is still enjoyed by audiences worldwide in its original form, it has been successfully
adapted to a ballet by Prokofiev in 1935; a modern dress musical, West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins in 1961; a traditional dress film by Zeferrelli in 1968 starring Olivia Hussey and
Leonard Whiting; and the 1997 film Romeo and Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes, a modern dress version.
Romeo and Juliet also inspired Tchaikovsky to write one of his most melodic overtures commonly known as his love theme in 1869.