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The life of Shakespeare: 1564-1616

The mysterious death of Marlowe, the Cambridge graduate, and the brilliant subsequent career of Shakespeare, the grammar-school boy from Stratford, have caused some to speculate that his secret service activities make it prudent for Marlowe to vanish from the scene - and that he uses the name of a lesser man, Shakespeare, to continue his stage career. Others, similarly inclined to conspiracy theories, have convinced themselves that Shakespeare's plays are the work of the statesman and essayist Francis Bacon.

Snobbery rather than scholarship seems to underpin such arguments. Their proponents find it hard to accept that the unknown boy from Stratford should have created the crowning achievement of English literature.

The truth is that William Shakespeare is not such an unknown figure, and the education provided in England's grammar schools of the time is among the best available. Shakespeare's baptism is recorded in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26 April 1564 (this is only three days after St George's Day, making possible the tradition that England's national poet is born, most fortunately, on England's national saint's day).

Shakespeare's father, John, is a leading citizen of the town and for a while a justice of the peace. It is a safe assumption (though there is no evidence) that Shakespeare is educated at Stratford's grammar school.

In 1582, at the age of eighteen, Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway. Their first child, Susanna, is baptized in 1583, followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585.

There is then a gap of several years in the documentary record of Shakespeare's life, but he is involved in the London theatre - as an actor trying his hand also as a playwright - by at least 1592, when he is attacked as an 'upstart crow' in a polemical pamphlet by Robert Greeene. In 1593 he publishes a poem, Venus and Adonis, following it in 1594 with The Rape of Lucrece. Meanwhile he has had performed the three parts of Henry VI and, probably in the winter of 1592, Richard III.

The London theatres are closed for fear of the plague during 1592 and 1593 apart from brief midwinter seasons, but in 1594 things return to normal and Shakespeare's career accelerates. He is now a leading member of London's most successful company, run by the Burbage family at the Theatre. Patronage at court gives them at first the title of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. On the accession of James I in 1603 they are granted direct royal favour, after which they are known as the King's Men.

Shakespeare's share in the profits of this company, operating from the Globe on Bankside from 1599, makes him a wealthy man. Most of the subsequent documentary references relate to purchases in his home town of Stratford.

In 1597 Shakespeare pays 60 for a large house and garden, New Place in Chapel Street. By 1602 he has enough money to purchase an estate of 107 acres just outside Stratford, and he continues over the next few years to make investments in and around the town. In about 1610 he begins to spend less time in London and more in New Place, where he dies in 1616. He is buried in the chancel of the Stratford parish church.

Shakespeare has shown little interest in publishing his plays, for like others of his time he probably regards them as scripts for performance rather than literature. After his death two of his colleagues, John Heminge and Henry Condell, gather the texts of thirty-six plays which they publish in 1623 in the edition known now as the First Folio.

The plays before1601

By 1600 Shakespeare has conclusively demonstrated his genius in every kind of play except tragedy. In dramatizing English history he has progressed from the fumbling beginnings of the three parts of Henry VI (1590-92) to the magnificent melodrama of Richard III (1592), the subtle character study of Richard II (1595), the jingoistic glories of Henry V (1600) and, most successful of all, the superb pair of plays about Henry IV and his wayward son Prince Hal.

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (1597-8) present a rich panorama of English life, from court and battlefield to tavern and rustic retreat. They also introduce, in Falstaff, the most rounded and unforgettable comic character in English literature.

Meanwhile Shakespeare has developed a sweet and delicate strain of romantic poetry, seen first in the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet (1595) and then in the comic romances A Midsummer Night's Dream (1596) and As You Like It (1599). And he has shown his skill in a more knock-about vein of comedy, with The Taming of the Shrew (1593) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600).

All these dates are approximate, to within a year or two, because there is in most cases no firm evidence of the date of first production.

After 1600 there is one more play which combines broad comedy (in the antics of Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek) and enchantingly romantic poetry (as in the very first line, 'If music be the food of love, play on'). This is Twelfth Night, and its first production possibly occurs less than a week into 1601. There is evidence that Shakespeare probably writes it as part of the festivities for Twelfth Night (or January 6) at Elizabeth's court in this particular year.

In general, though, Shakespeare's palette darkens with the new century. The next few years see some much less sunny comedies and his four great tragedies.

Tragedies and dark comedies: 1601-1608

Shakespeare's first attempt at full-scale tragedy, in 1601, brings to the stage a character, Hamlet, whose nature and weaknesses have prompted more discussion than any other Shakespearean creation. His prevailing characteristics of self-doubt and self-dramatization hardly seem promising material for a tragic hero, but Shakespeare uses them to create an intensely personal drama. Each opportunity for action prompts the young prince to indulge in another soul-searching soliloquy, each missed opportunity makes disaster more inevitable.

Othello is the next of the major tragedies, in about 1603, with the 'green-eyed monster' jealousy now the driving force on the path to destruction.

King Lear, in about 1605, is the most elemental of the tragedies, with the old king's sanity buffeted by storms upon an open heath as much as by his treatment at the hands of his unfeeling daughters. Macbeth, a year or so later, makes guilt itself the stuff of tragedy after ruthless ambition has set events upon their course.

These plays are tragic in that each has a central character whose actions drive the events and whose flaws make the conclusion unavoidable. Others written during these years may not be tragedies in this fullest sense, but they have a bitter flavour far removed from comedy. An example is Troilus and Cressida (1602), with its caustic view of the world enunciated by Thersites.

Even the plays of this period which are literally comedies, in the simple sense that they end happily, are in mood closer to tragedy. Examples are All's Well that Ends Well (1603) and Measure for Measure (1604).

In the years after Macbeth Shakespeare tackles two Roman themes. In Antony and Cleopatra (1607) the facts of history carry his two famous lovers to their tragic fates. In Coriolanus (1608) it is the arrogance of the central character which creates the drama - resolved only when his duty as a son, in response to the pleading of his aged mother, results in his own death.

The last plays: 1608-1611

Shakespeare's last four plays, beginning with Pericles, Prince of Tyre in about 1608, share a pattern of rupture, retirement, renewal and reconciliation. Rather like the natural rhythm of winter, followed by hibernation and emergence into spring, the plots begin with violently evil deeds. The good characters somehow escape to safety and a new life, often with a new identity. Years pass and children grow up, until eventually all is resolved.

In Pericles the events supposedly occur in ancient Tyre. In Cymbeline (1609) the tormented family is that of the historic Cunobelin, king of a Celtic British tribe. The Winter's Tale (1611), set in undefined classical times, takes place in the kingdoms of Sicily and Bohemia.

The Tempest (also 1611) is set in a much more suitable context for any story of this kind, half real and half magic: 'The scene, an uninhabited island'. For the past twelve years the island has been home to a victim of political skulduggery - Prospero, duke of Milan, accompanied by his young daughter Miranda. They share the place with a subhuman inhabitant, Caliban, and a spirit who has been trapped here, Ariel.

Since this is an island, and Prospero has magic powers, shipwreck provides an easy way of delivering the evil characters who were responsible for Prospero's exile.

With their arrival, the ingredients are in place for a fantasy playing on many of life's most significant contrasts. The ways of the world, both good and bad, are seen in a fresh light through the innocent eyes of Miranda, to whom everything is new. The benevolent wisdom of Prospero outwits the scheming wiles of his opponents. Drunken crew members have a natural affinity with the discontented Caliban. And the island, as a magical place, can spring its own surprises.

At the end of the play, when Prospero has brought the main characters together in reconciliation, he renounces his magic powers in a farewell epilogue.

Prospero's final speech has often been seen as Shakespeare's own farewell to his theatrical career, relinquishing the magic with which he has conjured so many stories and characters into life on the stage.

It may be so. But he is part author of one more play, Henry VIII (1613), and an event during one of its performances certainly puts the seal on his retirement. A spark from a stage cannon sets fire to the thatched roof of the Globe, which burns to the ground. The theatre is rebuilt, reopening in 1614 with a tiled roof. But the event is likely to confirm Shakespeare in his full-time withdrawal to his properties in Stratford, where he dies in 1616.

The sonnets: 1595-1598

If Shakespeare had written not a single play, he would still rank among England's leading poets because of the 154 sonnets which he writes during the 1590s (they are not published until 1609). The beauty of the individual sonnets, many of them among the best loved poems in the English language, is enhanced by the mysterious personal relationships of which they give tantalizing hints.

The volume of 1609 is dedicated 'to the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets Mr W.H.' Many of the sonnets are addressed to a young man, and the assumption that the loved one is himself W.H. has prompted endless speculation as to who he might be. William Herbert (earl of Pembroke) and Henry Wriothesley (earl of Southampton) have been leading contenders.

In the early poems (1-17) the poet urges the young man to achieve immortality by marrying and having children, but nos 18-25 suggest that he will be immortal anyway through these sonnets addressed to him (as indeed, in his anonymous way, he has proved). The poems up to 126 dwell on the relationship with the young man, sometimes offering pained hints that he is being unfaithful with a woman.

If she is the woman to whom the final sequence of sonnets is addressed, then her identify has stimulated as much fruitless research as that of W.H. Famous only as the dark lady of the sonnets, she is dark physically, dark in the turmoil she creates for her lover, and dark now in escaping the limelight.

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