Wednesday, April 23, 2008

This day in history . . .

According to tradition, the great English dramatist and poet William
is born in Stratford-on-Avon on April 23, 1564. It is
impossible to be certain the exact day on which he was born, but
church records show that he was baptized on April 26, and three days
was a customary amount of time to wait before baptizing a newborn.
Shakespeare's date of death is conclusively known, however: it was
April 23, 1616. He was 52 years old and had retired to Stratford three
years before.

Although few plays have been performed or analyzed as extensively as
the 38 plays ascribed to William Shakespeare, there are few surviving
details about the playwright's life. This dearth of biographical
information is due primarily to his station in life; he was not a
noble, but the son of John Shakespeare, a leather trader and the town
bailiff. The events of William Shakespeare's early life can only be
gleaned from official records, such as baptism and marriage records.

He probably attended the grammar school in Stratford, where he would
have studied Latin and read classical literature. He did not go to
university but at age 18 married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years
his senior and pregnant at the time of the marriage. Their first
daughter, Susanna, was born six months later, and in 1585 William and
Anne had twins, Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet, Shakespeare's only son,
died 11 years later, and Anne Shakespeare outlived her husband, dying
in 1623. Nothing is known of the period between the birth of the twins
and Shakespeare's emergence as a playwright in London in the early
1590s, but unfounded stories have him stealing deer, joining a group
of traveling players, becoming a schoolteacher, or serving as a
soldier in the Low Countries.

The first reference to Shakespeare as a London playwright came in
1592, when a fellow dramatist, Robert Greene, wrote derogatorily of
him on his deathbed. It is believed that Shakespeare had written the
three parts of Henry VI by that point. In 1593, Venus and Adonis was
Shakespeare's first published poem, and he dedicated it to the young
Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd earl of Southampton. In 1594, having
probably composed, among other plays, Richard III, The Comedy of
Errors, and The Taming of the Shrew, he became an actor and playwright
for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which became the King's Men after
James I's ascension in 1603. The company grew into England's finest,
in no small part because of Shakespeare, who was its principal
dramatist. It also had the finest actor of the day, Richard Burbage,
and the best theater, the Globe, which was located on the Thames'
south bank. Shakespeare stayed with the King's Men until his
retirement and often acted in small parts.

By 1596, the company had performed the classic Shakespeare plays Romeo
and Juliet, Richard II, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. That year, John
Shakespeare was granted a coat of arms, a testament to his son's
growing wealth and fame. In 1597, William Shakespeare bought a large
house in Stratford. In 1599, after producing his great historical
series, the first and second part of Henry IV and Henry V, he became a
partner in the ownership of the Globe Theatre.

The beginning of the 17th century saw the performance of the first of
his great tragedies, Hamlet. The next play, The Merry Wives of
Windsor, was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted
to see another play that included the popular character Falstaff.
During the next decade, Shakespeare produced such masterpieces as
Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest. In 1609, his sonnets,
probably written during the 1590s, were published. The 154 sonnets are
marked by the recurring themes of the mutability of beauty and the
transcendent power of love and art.

Shakespeare died in Stratford-on-Avon on April 23, 1616. Today, nearly
400 years later, his plays are performed and read more often and in
more nations than ever before. In a million words written over 20
years, he captured the full range of human emotions and conflicts with
a precision that remains sharp today. As his great contemporary the
poet and dramatist Ben Jonson said, "He was not of an age, but for all

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