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William Shakespeare 1564-1616"
By Barbara Smith
Strictly speaking, a bard is an exalted national poet, and the "Bard of Avon" remains for millions the greatest English playwright and poet of all time, penning 37 plays and 126 sonnets. Some scholars believe he was incapable of writing the majestic prose and poetry, arguing Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon or even good Queen Bess herself penned the plays and poems. James Barrie whimsically observes, "I don't know if Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare, but if he did not, he missed the opportunity of his life." (Epstein)
Most of what is said about Shakespeare's life is based upon what we know about Elizabethan England, because no personal papers, either diaries or letters, survive. Nor did Shakespeare ever compile his work so, after his death, colleagues organized his manuscripts.
William Shakespeare was born after a tumultuous century of violent religious and political events, into the quiet town of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. The eldest son of a prosperous businessman, he probably attended Stratford grammar school, which would mean he was thoroughly schooled in Latin and the Bible. Memorization and rhetoric were major ingredients of an Elizabethan education, and "history was read almost entirely for moralizing purposes, the lessons taught by experience, the consequences of good and ill course . . . " (Rowse) He was expected to converse in Latin at school and would have begun his study with Aesop and Cato. Next he would have read Cicero, Ovid, and Seneca plus some Greek New Testament.
Though his mother was from a prosperous Roman Catholic family, William Shakespeare belonged to the Church of England, the national Protestant church and would have read the Geneva Bible. As a boy growing up in a small town, he also received an education from the Church because attendance was obligatory. Thus, Shakespeare knew the Church: its liturgy, services, sermons and teaching. He frequently quoted Genesis, Psalms and the Gospel of Matthew in his work, and concluded his will according to a Protestant formula that committed his soul to Jesus Christ, and asked "that for Jesus sake, none disturb his bones."
He did not attend Cambridge or Oxford University, probably because of his father's subsequent financial difficulties, and other personal reasons. In 1582, when he was 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior and expecting their first child, Susanna, who was born six months later. In 1585, twins were born and baptized Hamnet and Judith. His son died just as Shakespeare was granted a coat of arms, and later, his only granddaughter died without children.
Shakespeare moved to London in 1585, where he may have acted, written and invested in local groups during the years. From 1589 to 1594 his first plays were produced and well-received by most. Still, his lack of university training piqued a contemporary rival dramatist, Robert Greene. Greene attacked Shakespeare in 1592 in a pamphlet entitled A Groats-worth of Wit, as a presumptuous actor who was trying to write plays like an educated dramatist. (Notice whose plays we remember!)
When the plague closed theaters in London for the next two years, audiences fled the city and foiled the prospering playwright - but not the poet. During this hiatus, Shakespeare may have begun writing his sonnets and other plays while living at the estate of the Earl of Southampton. For the next decade Shakespeare continued writing and acting in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a company formed in 1594.
Official documents, such as tax assessments, court records and land titles testify that Shakespeare prospered. Amassing a small fortune in real estate he invested practically all his money in Stratford. Shakespeare "was determined to cut a figure as an independent gentleman, in the town where his father had once been prominent and then lost face with his affairs becoming embarrassed." (Rowse) As a successful and popular playwright, Shakespeare now could write "gentleman" after his name. He applied for and was granted a coat of arms on behalf of his father, whose request had previously been denied. The Shakespeare family motto? "Non sanz droit" ("Not Without Right"). Their crest is a falcon shaking a spear. (Epstein) In 1599 he became a principal shareholder in the Globe playhouse - and he became a successful businessman. His theater company, now called the King's Men, performed 12 times a year at court, as well as performing at the Globe. Shakespeare retired from London in 1610 to his home in Stratford, mixing the life of a country gentleman and playwright. The exact cause of his death in 1616 is unknown.
HE GAVE THEM WHAT THEY WANTED.
Americans have a long standing love affair with the Bard. From the early colonists to the pioneers who dramatized his plays throughout the "wild west"; to a successful modern musical, "Kiss Me Kate," that Cole Porter based upon "The Taming of the Shrew." In that musical, a singing gangster urges his disreputable pal, "Brush up your Shakespeare, Start quoting him now - Brush up your Shakespeare and the women you will wow." Still, wowing women is not why the Shakespeare Club of Dallas, one of the sundry groups of dedicated amateur enthusiasts, has met for more than 75 years. Members of this club, who graduated years ago from ivy league schools, delight to ponder the work of one who never attended college.
HOW CAN YOU TEACH ABOUT THE ILLUSTRIOUS BARD?
Productions of Shakespeare's plays are now on video; use them to initiate beginners into the plays people have enjoyed for centuries. Get several copies of a play or two and a colored pen. Simply begin reading aloud; enjoy what you do understand and mark what you don't. Use those underlined segments to outline literary and history investigations.
Whether he believed in God or not, William Shakespeare understood and wrote about what happened to people who stepped out from under God's chain of authority. Most of his plays were based upon well known tales.
Shakespeare did not flinch from describing the life he saw. Decide in advance "how" you will discuss the ribald and the ennobling passages. During the Victorian era Harriet and Thomas Bowdler produced a volume, The Family Shakespeare, that includes "sanitized" versions of Shakespeare's popular plays. The Bowdlers live on through their name: to "bowdlerize" has come to mean to purge a work of any unmentionable words. (Epstein) So brush up your Shakespeare, not to impress the ladies, but to have a ripping good time!
Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet
© Barbara W. Smith 1998, all rights reserved
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