My words fly up, my thoughts remain below
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
-- From Hamlet, Act III, Scene 3
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is simply the greatest English writer of all times. His plays survive to the current day and exist as standards by which comedy and tragedy both are often judged. He is unquestionably the most famous Elizabethan writer and quite possibly the most well known writer of all time.
Parish records verify that William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, and counting backwards the customary three days from this date (according to Anglican tradition, babies are baptized on their third day of life), Shakespeare was likely born on April 23, 1564.
Shakespeare grew up in the market town of Stratford-on-Avon, which served as a local government seat. Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, was a daughter of the local gentry who held a great deal of property in and around the town. His father, John Shakespeare, was a glovemaker and farmer, so when Mary chose to marry John, she took a few steps down the social ladder in the area.
Shakespeare attended Stratford Grammar School, which was his right as the child of a burgess. The classic Elizabethan education was taught there at the time, so Shakespeare became versed in the classics at an early age, reading the literature and rhetoric of ancient Greek and Latin and receiving a thorough grounding in the bible. Shakespeare also cultivated a knowledge of history, and his surviving adolescent writings are mostly those of historical accounts, describing events throughout the history of England and the world.
In 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior, and the pair had three children, Susanna, Hamnet, and Judith. Hamnet, Shakespeare's only son, would die at the age of eleven. However, Shakespeare was very unhappy in this married life, and by 1590 he was spending much of his time traveling to London to participate in the burgeoning theater scene there. He kept his family fed, however, by picking up a wide variety of odd jobs, many of which were later reflected in his plays.
Starting in 1591 and through 1616, Shakespeare began accumulating perhaps the most impressive body of writing ever produced by an English author. His first work, The Comedy of Errors, was sharply criticized upon its release by playwright-critic Robert Greene, who condemned Shakespeare as an impudent "upstart," pronouncing the young writer not worthy of attention. However, Greene's diatribe was soon retracted by his editor because a number of leading literary figures at the time began to speak out in favor of the Bard, who wrote several top comedies in 1591 and 1592.
When the plague struck london from late 1592 to 1594, Shakespeare retreated to Stratford-on-Avon and focused mostly on writing poetry; in this period he wrote most of his poetry, including Venus and Adonis and virtually all of his Sonnets. But when London's air became clean again in 1594, the stage beckoned to Shakespeare and he returned to London.
As the century came to a close, Shakespeare began to write more works based on historical events, plays based on various English monarchs. He was considered a top playwright in London at the turn of the century and began to accumulate some money, investing in real estate outside of London and Stratford-on-Avon. He also spent the off-seasons investing in grain at Stratford.
During the first decade of the century, Shakespeare began writing his tragedies, which were immensely popular and cemented his reputation. He would go into semi-retirement, however, in 1611 with the release of The Tempest, considered to perhaps be the greatest of his comedies. Shakespeare died of unknown causes in April 1616.
Shakespeare's lineage didn't progress very far. Both of his daughters were married, but the children in both of their marriages died early in their youths. Thus, there is no direct lineage to Shakespeare.
The World of Shakespeare
William Shakespeare lived most of his life under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, whose impact on England was tremendous during her reign from 1558 to 1603. Under the reign of the Great Virgin Queen, England prospered as a commercial entity (largely taking the place of Spain), but England also made an enormous expansion into the New World and put into place the foundations of what would become the British empire.
This was a time shortly after the Renaissance and the Reformation. The Renaissance had caused a cultural reawakening in Europe through a rediscovery of the Greek and Roman classics and a massive creative outburst, while the Reformation had resulted in England becoming a Protestant (Anglican) state after the civil war between Elizabeth (Protestant) and her sister "Bloody" Mary (Catholic).
In essence, it was an age of an awakening England discovering its cultural and imperial might in several different dimensions. The feudalism that had ruled England for so long was being cast aside and England was clearly a nation on the rise. This headiness spread throughout the country through the spread of arts and new inventions, and it wouldn't be long before the Industrial Revolution would take hold and drive England to the top of the world.
Many beginning Shakespearean readers wonder where to begin digging through the wealth of plays that the Bard wrote. It is widely accepted, however, that five of Shakespeare's plays rise above the rest and provide a wonderful foundation for the beginning Shakespeare reader. These five are truly the essentials of Shakespeare.
Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark is probably the best known of William Shakespeare's works, and may well be the most famous English play ever written. This play displays the fully mature Bard's extraordinary talents, but also has developed a reputation as a difficult work to break down. This is because Hamlet is a very complex character within a play that exhibits many intertwined and multilayered themes. It is a play of internal conflict and revenge.
King Lear is a play driven by the mesmerizing central character, who descends into madness as the play bears on mostly due to his internal conflicts about the true intentions of his children. The popularity of this play is likely due to the realistic painting of Lear himself as he breaks down, not knowing who to trust and eventually not even trusting himself.
Macbeth is likely the Bard's darkest play, invoking a touch of the supernatural in Macbeth's bloody rise to power in Scotland and the subsequent demises of both himself and his lady. Macbeth is surely the darkest central character in any of Shakespeare's works, as his machinations result in a great deal of mistrust and, eventually, murder and suicide.
Othello introduces the element of race into Shakespearean tragedy. Iago, a wonderfully evil and manipulative fellow, convinces Othello (who is black) that his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful, leading to a complex web of deceit, jealousy, rage, and murder. This is perhaps the best example of Shakespeare's ability to weave a plot; there is no monolithic character here.
The Tempest is the lone comedy included in the upper echelons of Shakespeare's works. The tale revolves around Prospero and his daughter Miranda who have been exiled to an island that has some mystical powers. Prospero draws upon these to create a mighty tempest with which to produce revenge upon his friends. This play has a great deal of comedic elements but a streak of seriousness runs through the play as well.
These five plays are considered the essentials of Shakespeare, and deservedly so; most literature written in the interim has mostly just followed themes established in these five works of genius.
Trying to summarize Shakespeare's cultural impact is much like summarizing Isaac Newton's impact on physics or Donald Knuth's impact on computer science; it's simply so pervasive that it cannot be done.
Shakespeare's literary contributions to the world are incomparable. His writings establish him as the foremost literary talent of his own Elizabethan Age and, even more impressively, as a genius whose creative achievement has never been surpassed in any age.
To this day, many dramas and comedies are loose adaptations of the work of Shakespeare, his works are taught in the schooling of nearly every child in the English speaking world, and his plays are constantly being acted out by countless theatrical troupes. Beyond this, his words are woven throughout English-speaking culture in ways that are as countless as the stars themselves.
All's Well That Ends Well
As You Like It
The Comedy of Errors
Love's Labours Lost
Measure for Measure
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Merchant of Venice
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Taming of the Shrew
Troilus and Cressida
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Henry IV, part 1
Henry IV, part 2
Henry VI, part 1
Henry VI, part 2
Henry VI, part 3
Antony and Cleopatra
Romeo and Juliet
Timon of Athens
A Lover's Complaint
The Rape of Lucrece
Venus and Adonis