Tonight I’m off to an open-air performance of Macbeth, so what better time to post a profile of its writer?
Over the course of his career The Bard wrote or collaborated on over 30 plays (the usual count is 38, although the authorship of some is contested), 154 sonnets, two longer poems, and an uncertain number of other verses. His keen insight into human nature and the human condition meant that his plays never fell neatly into the Classical divisions of tragedy and comedy: quite apart from his historical plays, his tragedies almost invariably contain moments of comedy, while one frequently encounters moments of tragedy in his comedies. Perhaps because of this, his are the most performed plays in the world, translated into every major language; it is sometimes said that not a single day goes by without one of his plays being performed somewhere in the world.
Of course, just because the plays are translated that doesn’t mean that the underlying themes and motives translate well. When I was at university one of my professors told us about an anthropologist who was studying a tribe in north Africa. One night some members of the tribe asked him to tell them the story of the book he was reading, which happened to be ‘Hamlet’. Hamlet’s motives apparently left them baffled – in their culture, if a man died and left a widow it was considered the right and proper thing for his brother to marry her, in order to ensure that she was protected and provided for. Hamlet, they judged, should be grateful that his uncle had done the correct thing by taking his mother to wife!
William Shakespeare was born shortly before the 26th of April 1564 (the date of his baptism) in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, the son of an alderman glover and the daughter of a wealthy landowner. It is likely that he was educated at King’s New School, a free school less than half a kilometre from his home which was chartered in 1553. At the age of eighteen he married, in some haste, 26 year old Anne Hathaway, who bore him a daughter, Susanna, six months followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585 (sadly, Hamnet would die of unknown causes at the age of 11).
It is not known exactly when Shakespeare moved to London and began writing (and performing in) plays, but it seems that a number of his works were in production by 1592. Although they were popular with audiences he was not at the time universally admired, attracting the scorn (perhaps motivated by jealousy) of a number of the university-educated playwrights and critics of his day. Nonetheless, by 1598 his name had enough pulling power to be printed on the covers of the quarto editions of his plays. Over the course of his career he developed a distinct style, gradually moving away from the stylised declamatory speech commonly used in plays at the time and towards a more natural and flowing poetry. His career was a relatively short one, however, and no plays are attributed to him after 1613. He died in Stratford-Upon-Avon, the town of his birth, on 23 April 1616, making this year the 400th anniversary of his death.
Shakespeare’s legacy was secured in 1623 when two of his friends, fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, published the First Folio, now regarded as the authoritative collection of his works. It is prefaced with a poem by Ben Johnson, who described him, with significant foresight, as ‘not of an age, but for all time.’
Shakespeare’s most famous plays (in no particular order) include:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (comedy)
Romeo and Juliet (tragedy)
The Merchant of Venice (comedy)
The Tempest (comedy)
King Lear (tragedy)
King Henry IV parts 1 & 2 (history)
Have you seen many (or any) of Shakespeare’s plays? What did you think of them? Is his reputation justified?