On April 26th, 1564 in the provincial town of Stratford-upon-Avon, the name Guilielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare was scrawled into the baptism registry of the Holy Trinity Church. A few days earlier, William Shakespeare was born.
The eldest surviving child to parents John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, William Shakespeare’s actual date of birth remains unknown. It was, however, common practice among Protestants (the official religion of Elizabethan England) to baptize a child within a few days of their birth. And so, Shakespeare’s birthday has traditionally been celebrated on the 23rd of April in 1564, a date shared – perhaps in contrived poetic symmetry – with that of his death in 1616.
Shakespeare grew up in Stratford as the older brother to five siblings; brothers Gilbert, Richard, and Edmund, and sisters Anne and Joan. As a young student, Shakepeare attended the Stratford grammar school where an emphasis on classical Latin and Greek education would come to influence many of his works later in life.
At the age of eighteen, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior who was pregnant with their first daughter, Susannah, at the time of their engagement. William and Anne lived in Stratford, and had two more children – twins Judith and Hamnet – in 1585. Anne would remain in Stratford until her death in 1623.
London and Theater Career
Sometime after his marriage and the birth of his three children, Shakespeare moved to London where he established himself as an actor and playwright by the early 1590s. In 1592, the first known reference to Shakespeare’s work as a dramatist – mention of a “Shake-scene” – appeared in a pamphlet penned by contemporary playwright Robert Greene. The first quarto editions of his early poetry and plays came into print shortly thereafter in 1594.
Shakespeare wrote and acted primarily with a theater troupe called The Lord Chamberlain’s Men under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. After Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603, King James I ascended the throne and became the royal patron of the troupe, subsequently renamed The King’s Men. In the final decade of the sixteenth century, Shakespeare’s company performed in various venues around London, landing a more permanent residence in the Globe Theater after its construction in 1599.
Throughout his incredibly prolific career, Shakespeare wrote at least 38 plays, 158 sonnets, and various other works of poetry currently attributed to his authorship. Shakespeare wrote alongside contemporary playwrights Ben Johnson, Thomas Kid, Christopher Marlowe, and John Fletcher, and worked closely in business and acting with fellow troupe members including Richard Burbage, John Heminges, and Henry Condell.
Given the radically different nature of Jacobean printing practices from that of our modern standards, questions of textual authority and collaboration comprise a major component of contemporary Shakespearean scholarship, though they were not the central concerns of playwrights of the time.
Death and Legacy
On April 23rd, 1616, Shakespeare died of an unknown illness at the age of fifty-two. At the time of his death, only 18 of his plays had been published in quarto form. It was not until 1623 that his friends and fellow troupe members undertook the onerous task of compiling his works for publication in the First Folio.
Unlike many writers who earn the critical title of ‘genius’ only after time has proved a worthy measure of excellence, Shakespeare’s talent was recognized almost immediately; his plays found willing theaters and audiences eager to bring his verse to life from the moment of their conception at the end of the sixteenth century, and continue to hold tremendous staying power in contemporary venues around the world.
The historic and thematic scope of Shakespeare’s works is wide-ranging, and the cultural and literary impact of his artistic contributions cannot be overstated. Nearly four centuries after his death, Shakespeare remains the most produced playwright in both America and England.
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