Shakespeare is renowned as the English playwright
and poet whose body of works is considered the greatest
in history of English literature.
Surprisingly for the world's greatest playwright, we
actually know very little about Shakespeare's life.
What few details we have come from church records, land
titles and the written opinions of others. Very little
is known about young Shakespeare.
We know that Shakespeare was baptized on April 26,
1564 and it is assumed that he was born on April 23,
1564. We also know that in 1582 at age eighteen, Shakespeare
married Anne Hathaway, an older women who was twenty
six at the time. Shakespeare left Stratford for London
to make his fortune roughly fours years later.
Shakespeare headed to London sometime in 1586, there
already was an established community of playwrights.By
1595, Shakespeare was suffiently successful to be named
as one of the more senior members of the Lord Chamberlain's
men, an acting company that performed frequently before
court. This was no small honor; this prominent theatre
company later became the royal company called the King's
Men, making Shakespeare an official playwright to the
King of England.
By 1596, Shakespeare was so successful as a playwright
that his family was finally granted a Coat of Arms which
amongst other things allowed Shakespeare to call himself
a "gentleman". Shakespeare's fortunes were
also improving during this time; in 1597 he purchased
the second largest house in Stratford which he called
New Place and began buying up land around Stratford.
One year later, Shakespeare became a ten percent owner
of the new purpose built theatre in London, the famous
Globe Theatre were so many of his plays would later
be performed. By 1611, Shakespeare retired, returning
to Stratford and in 1616 Shakespeare died, famously
bequething his second-best bed to his wife, often seen
as a sign that his marriage may not have been happy.
Shakespeare's works are often divided into four periods
beginning with what is referred to as an experimental
period starting around 1591 and ending around 1593 which
includes Titus Andronicus, Love's Labour's Lost,
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors and
The Taming of the Shrew.
The second period ending around 1601, marks the establishment
of Shakespeare and includes the tragedy Romeo and
Juliet, the comedies, The Merchant of Venice,
A Midsummer-Night's Dream, Much Ado about Nothing, The
Merry Wives of Windsor and the history plays, Henry
IV, Parts I and II, Henry V, Richard II,
King John and Julius Caesar.
The third period ending around 1610 marks perhaps the
apex of Shakespeare's work with the tragedies, Hamlet,
Othello, Macbeth, King Lear but also comedies such
as Twelfth Night, All's Well that Ends Well and
the epic history play, Antony and Cleopatra.
The final period ends around 1611 with the plays, Cymbeline,
Henry VIII and romances such as The Tempest
and The Winter's Tale.
The Shakespeare we read today comes from The First
Folio of 1623 written by fellow actors John Heminge
and Henry Condell to preserve Shakespeare's legacy.
Amazingly, no original manuscripts survive reflecting
the fact that many of these manuscripts were written
purely for performance and were not regarded as pieces
of literary work. There is also no general consensus
on when all the plays were first performed. It might
surprise readers to know that many of Shakespeare's
plays, especially in the experimental period were hardly
original, borrowing plot features from earlier plays.
Likewise with his history plays, Shakespeare compresses
events and does not follow history too closely to add
to the drama. However borrowing plots and taking liberties
with historical facts was not uncommon in Shakespeare's
time and his skill for language, imagery, pun and his
creative adaption of myth and history have set Shakespeare
apart as arguably the greatest playwright of all time.
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