Who Was William Shakespeare? Meet the man behind legendary literature (2023)

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VonMadeleine Muzdakison December 6, 2020

Who Was William Shakespeare? Meet the man behind legendary literature (1)

One of only two definitive portraits of William Shakespeare, by engraver Martin Droeshout. Published in 1623 in the famous First Folio of Shakespeare's works. (Photo:Wikimedia Commons[Public area])

Who Was William Shakespeare? Most people don't know much about the Englishman other than that he wrote plays. But for over 400 years, the playwright has managed to captivate readers, filmmakers and fans of pop culture alike. The answer to his appeal may lie in the immortal characters of his works, or perhaps in his poetic voice. Every generation reinvents Shakespeare. The spectators seated in the Globe Theater laughed at the crude jokes ofTwelfth Night; 400 years later, a young Channing Tatum played Duke Orsinoshe is the man, a role that subtly introduced millennials to the works of Shakespeare.

Whether one can recite the speech from the balconyRomeo and Juliet— or Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo was your first crush — read on to learn more about Shakespeare, the man behind the legend.

Wer war William Shakespeare?

The name William Shakespeare has been associated with popular literary treasures for 400 years. However, Shakespeare's beginnings were more humble than his enduring fame would suggest. The writer was born in 1564Stratford-upon-Avon, a market town in Warwickshire, England. The son of a glove maker, not much more is known of his early life. Like many other boys of modest means, he was probably educated in Latin at a local school. There are records documenting his marriage to 26-year-old Anne Hathaway in 1582 at the age of 18. Anne was likely already pregnant as the couple's first child was born six months later. By 1585 the couple had three children together.

After several "lost years," Shakespeare appears for the first time in the Records of theLondoner Theaterszenein 1592. With critics already attacking his plays, the writer had probably been a resident of the city for some time. Busy writing plays, his works have been performed byplayer—Groups of actors under the patronage of an aristocrat. However, Shakespeare himself often played roles in his own dramatic works. 1599, theGlobe Theaterwas built in London on the banks of the Thames; Shakespeare was notoriously associated with the institution and wrote as its in-house playwright. He was successful at the Globe both critically and financially.

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The house where Shakespeare was probably born in Stratford-Upon-Avon. (Photo:Stock photosvon ALICIA G. MONEDERO/Shutterstock)

After three decades of writing, William Shakespeare died of an unknown death in 1616 at the age of 52Church of the Holy Trinityfrom Stratford Upon Avon. A monument with a bust of the bard was erected some time before 1623 - inscriptions compare Shakespeare to the classical figures Socrates and Virgil. 1623 became the famousFirst FolioA collection of 36 Shakespeare plays was published posthumously. His wife Anne survived him, but died in the year of publication. There are no direct descendants of the famous playwright as his grandchildren all died without children of their own.

What did Shakespeare look like?

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The Chandros portrait of John Taylor, widely believed to be of William Shakespeare. (Photo:Wikimedia Commons[Public area])

It is often easier to understand historical figures when you can visualize them. With regard to Shakespeare, scholars debate which accounts of the famous writer are accurate. When deciding whether aportraitis a true representation, there are several considerations. Was a portrait made from life? Was it always attributed to a historical figure, or was this attribution made decades or even centuries later? Does the portrait match written descriptions of the historical figure?

Only two portraits of Shakespeare have been positively associated with him since his time. One of these is the bust on the memorial in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which was sculpted after Shakespeare's death but before his wife's death. Scholars believe the bust likely resembles the author, since his wife and many others who knew him would have attended the church and been involved in the planning of the subsidiary bust. There are no written descriptions of his appearance. The only other reliable reference to Shakespeare's face is an engraving printed on the book's title pageFirst Folio. Created by Martin Droeshout, it is known asDroeshout portraitand was praised as an exact likeness by Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Johnson.

There are many other portraits that claim to depict Shakespeare. Some were painted during his lifetime but cannot be positively identified as the author. The most widely used by scholars is theChandos portraitwhich was painted sometime in the first decade of the 17th century. The portrait by an unknown artist resembles the well-known paintings of Shakespeare. Once in the private collections of the Duke of Chandos, the portrait now hangs in theNational Portrait Galleryin London, whose experts believe the sitter is probably Shakespeare himself.

If you're curious about the portraits of Shakespeare and the questions they ask scholars, check out this podcast from theFolger Shakespeare-Bibliothektitled "Shakespeare unlimited.“

What was Shakespeare's world like?

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The modern Glove Theatre, modeled on the Elizabethan building destroyed by fire. (Photo:Stock photosby ANDREI NEKRASSOV/Shutterstock)

Walking the streets of Elizabethan London you would avoid horse-drawn carriages and street vendors selling eels and pies. Bustling and crowded, late 16th- and early 17th-century London was the commercial center of a British Empire entering a period of rapid colonial expansion. Eating and drinking were popular pastimes and there were thousands of places to indulge. Shakespeare would not have drunk tea like modern Britons (a fashion beginning in the 18th century); He would have drunk a lot of beer and wine with localstavernsAndguest houses. He probably paired his drink with oysters, meat pies and other delicacies offered in these establishments.

TheTheaterof Elizabethan London were centers of activity. The guests eagerly watched the playbills and enthusiastically participated in new plays. While only men were allowed to act on stage, women and men crowded the audience. At an opening performance you could meet people from all classes. Theatrical etiquette wasn't quite the same as it is today - the audience probably booed, cheered and spoke fairly freely. Shakespeare - as playwright and player - would have been right in the middle of all this excitement.

Another strong feature of Elizabethan London was less cheerful - even in Shakespeare's time,bubonic plaguewas a common danger of urban life. Between 1603 and 1610, several bouts of the deadly Black Death swept through London. Theaters were closed during this plague season. As a result, Shakespeare and his fellow actors were often unemployed. It is likely that Shakespeare spent much of those perilous days with his family in the country.

What did Shakespeare create?

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Frontispiece of Shakespeare's Sonnets, published 1609. (Photo:Wikimedia Commons[Public area])

Most people can rattle off several Shakespearean titles. Few could list all his works, 39 of which are attributedplaysand 154 detachedSonnets. Famous titles includeRomeo and Juliet,Weiler,As you Like It, AndTwelfth Night. In general, all 39 plays can be divided into comedies, stories and tragedies. Thecomedies-such asA lot of noise about nothingAndA Midsummer Night's Dream—often show the misadventures of witty lovers and ridiculous fools. In contrast,tragedies-includingWeilerAndRomeo and Juliet– with melancholic speeches and unhappy lovers.

Shakespeare'sstoriesare less read by popular audiences, but they share many of the characteristics of his tragedies. Based on previous English kings, these dramatizations of dethronement and scandal tell the story of how theTudorDynasty. Scholars note that the bard didn't just massage the facts for dramatic effect; Shakespeare legitimized the Tudors by denigrating all former contenders to the throne in the turmoilWar of the Rosestwo generations earlier. This twist may have won Shakespeare's favor at courtElisabeth Iand her successorJames VI. and I.

A mainstay of Romanticism, Shakespeare's Sonnets is an impressive collection of 154 poems. The plays were first published together in one book in 1609. Written in rhyme and meterSo nicewas a common poetic form of the early modern period. Shakespeare's sonnets are considered some of the best of their time. Most are addressing a mysterious young man, while some are speaking to a woman, possibly a lover. The pieces touch on love, jealousy, beauty and death, among other things.

Great art should be accessible to everyone. You can read all of Shakespeare's plays and poems online for free atThe Complete Works of William Shakespeare, a website hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Did Shakespeare even exist?

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Shakespeare's grave next to his wife Anne Hathaway. (Photo: David Jones viaWikimedia Commons[CC BY 2.0])

William Shakespeare has been at the center of many conspiracy theories -- as well as more legitimate scholarly questions -- over the centuries. These theories of alternative authorship emerged in the mid-19th century, when Shakespeare's works were widely revered in Britain and the United States. Known asAnti-Stratfordian, some people believeChristoph Marlowe- a contemporary and competing playwright - wrote the works. Others suggest, some even say, an aristocratic authorFranz Speckwrote the plays. Perhaps the author behind the words was even oneFrau.

Although many join the debate with no background in English literature or history, it has never gained much traction among scholars. There is much evidence of Shakespeare's life, although manuscripts by his own hand have not survived. Commentaries and allusions by his contemporaries consistently identify Shakespeare as a playwright, even if they did not always appreciate his work. It is clear to scholars that not all of Shakespeare's plays are written entirely in his own words. Contrary to the rules ofPlagiarismAndCopyright ©today this was not illegal in Shakespeare's day. Playwrights often borrowed characters, whole passages, and storylines from their contemporaries or playwrights of previous generations. Far from not being the author, Shakespeare behaved similarly to other authors of his time.

Shakespeare heute

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William Shakespeare, a statue built in 1874 in Leicester Square, London, UK. (Photo:Stock photosby CLAUDIO DIVIZIA/Shutterstock)

Shakespeare is much more famous today than when he was alive. One of his greatestFamous works,Weiler, has beentranslatedor listed in over 75 languages. His plays have been box office hitsFilmfor global markets – including inBollywoodand Japan. Countless adaptations of the bard's actions - some more subtle than others - have shaped literature for centuries. SelfMusicianlooked up Shakespeare. Ballad by Taylor Swiftlove storymodernized the story of Romeo and Juliet during Dire Straits 1980Romeo and Julietis in the opinion of the author one of the greatest love songs of all time.

Today, Shakespeare's plays are read in almost every American high school English class. College courses are dedicated exclusively to the bard. Hamlet remains one of the most coveted roles for aspiring theater actors.

If you're in London, you can see Shakespeare's plays atGlobe Theater- converse with the ghosts of past players in the rebuilt Replica Theater. Watch candlelit productions that bring the preeminent themes of power, love and loss into the 21st century. Recent appearances includeRichard IIwith an all-black cast and a rendition ofMacbethto cool the bone during the COVID-19 pandemic (available to watchonline). Lose yourself in art in troubled times and think back to Shakespeare writing immortal words during another plague.

Related articles:

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Interview: Researcher creates free archive of over 3,000 19th-century Shakespeare illustrations

You can stream Shakespeare's greatest plays for free on Globe Theater YouTube

Patrick Stewart recites Shakespeare's sonnets for his online fans while in self-isolation

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