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"The Bard of Avon"
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.

Shakespeare's became ardent fans because he gave them what they liked. As an actor, he knew the stage conventions that his audiences relished and the plots that tickled their fancy and excited their imagination. Shakespeare's plays brim with the foibles, passions, and superstitions that have made generations - from the 16th century Elizabethans down to the 20th century Japanese enthusiasts - empathize with his plots, themes and characters. His words are fused with our own conventional wisdom: "All's the world a stages . . . To thine own self be true . . . To be, or not to be . . . He hath eaten me out of house and home . . . Wild-goose chase . . . Something wicked this way comes . . . The world's mine oyster . . . The milk of human kindness . . . Breathe life into a stone . . . Hoist with his own petard . . ."

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.

Shakespeare's craftsmanship should not unnerve any not-so-scholarly homeschooling parents who want to introduce the Bard of Avon to their children. He wrote for people, not pundits, and he meant for people to enjoy his plays and poetry! So, relax, enjoy, and take your time. Before introducing the Bard, "Brush up your Shakespeare." Read Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare, by Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema, Morrow Junior Books, New York, 1992. It is a charming opening and includes a bibliography. Machette Chute has written two good books: Shakespeare of London for adult readers, and Stories from Shakespeare, a retelling of Shakespeare's better-known tales that some consider finer than Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare - another reliable help. She also wrote The Wonderful Winter for young readers.

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.

  • His histories address how the sin of rebelling against authority brings terrible results, or describe the repercussions to rulers who govern unwisely.
  • His tragedies portray how character flaws can destroy both the highborn and humble.
  • His plays relied upon poetic dialogue, soliloquies and asides that his broadly based audiences expected. Find out what these theatrical conventions mean and how they were used.
  • Shakespeare routinely employs visits from ghosts, lovers' crises, one or more murders, or intrigues to secure power. His themes still intrigue our society - the supernatural, lust, and power politics. Examine the techniques and themes in the plays you select.
  • He packed his plays with sublime philosophy, and bawdy gags and outrageous puns.
  • His gift of lyric, humor, sensitivity to sights and sound of English life is a delight, but prudence is essential.

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!

Some Sources:

  • Frank W. Wadsworth, The World Book Encyclopedia, volume 17, S-Sn, pages 342-369.
  • Norrie Epstein, The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard, Viking, 1993.
  • A.L. Rowse, Shakespeare, The Man, revised edition, St. Martin's press, New York, 1988.

Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet

"This site attempts two things: 1)To be a complete annotated guide to the scholarly Shakespeare resources available on Internet. 2) To present new Shakespeare material unavailable elsewhere on the Internet."

© Barbara W. Smith 1998, all rights reserved
Permission is given to reprint any of Barbara's articles in non-profit publications as long as the article is reprinted in full and contains the copyright information and Web site address.

Please send a copy of the publication to:
Third Floor Publishing
PO Box 827
Arnold, MD 21012

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