To be perfectly honest, I have never been able to “get into” Shakespeare, despite many attempts in high school and outside. The beauty of Shakespeare’s use of the English language is undisputed but I simply cannot understand it in the original form. I enjoy a number of his works as adapted for the screen, but only if “translated” into modern English. I do recall referring to The Bard in school as “Billy Shake A Spear”; I cannot remember who came up that epithet but I suspect it was my father (who also coined “Barely Man Enough” when referring to the singer Barry Manilow whom my sister and mother adored).
I chose to write about William Shakespeare today for it was on November 1, 1604, that his “Othello” received its first performance; seven years later on the same date, “The Tempest” was premiered. Both of the these debuts occurred at Whitehall Palace in London. Since I happen to have a stamp picturing Shakespeare, it seems as good a time as any to present his biography.
William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon”. His extant works, including collaborations, consist of approximately 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and a few other verses, some of uncertain authorship. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, baptised there on April 26, 1564. His actual date of birth remains unknown, but is traditionally observed on April 23, Saint George’s Day. This date, which can be traced back to an 18th-century scholar’s mistake, has proved appealing to biographers because Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616. He was the third child of eight and the eldest surviving son. At the age of 18, he married Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children: Susanna and twins Hamnet and Judith.
Sometime between 1585 and 1592, Shakespeare began a successful career in London as an actor, writer, and part-owner of a playing company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as the King’s Men. At age 49 around 1613, he appears to have retired to Stratford, where he died three years later. Few records of Shakespeare’s private life survive, which has stimulated considerable speculation about such matters as his physical appearance, sexuality, religious beliefs and whether the works attributed to him were written by others.
Shakespeare produced most of his known work between 1589 and 1613. His early plays were primarily comedies and histories, which are regarded as some of the best work ever produced in these genres. He then wrote mainly tragedies until about 1608, including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, considered some of the finest works in the English language. In his last phase, he wrote tragicomedies, also known as romances and collaborated with other playwrights.
Many of his plays were published in editions of varying quality and accuracy during his lifetime. However, in 1623 John Heminges and Henry Condell, two friends and fellow actors of Shakespeare, published a more definitive text known as the First Folio, a posthumous collected edition of his dramatic works that included all but two of the plays now recognized as Shakespeare’s. It was prefaced with a poem by Ben Jonson, in which Shakespeare is hailed, presciently, as “not of an age, but for all time”.
Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church two days after his death. The epitaph carved into the stone slab covering his grave includes a curse against moving his bones, which was carefully avoided during restoration of the church in 2008:
(Modern spelling: Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, / To dig the dust enclosed here. / Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.)
Sometime before 1623, a funerary monument was erected in his memory on the north wall, with a half-effigy of him in the act of writing. Its plaque compares him to Nestor, Socrates, and Virgil. In 1623, in conjunction with the publication of the First Folio, the Droeshout engraving was published.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, his works have been repeatedly adapted and rediscovered by new movements in scholarship and performance. His plays remain highly popular and are constantly studied, performed and reinterpreted in diverse cultural and political contexts throughout the world.
Most playwrights of the period typically collaborated with others at some point, and critics agree that Shakespeare did the same, mostly early and late in his career. Some attributions, such as Titus Andronicus and the early history plays, remain controversial while The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio have well-attested contemporary documentation. Textual evidence also supports the view that several of the plays were revised by other writers after their original composition.
The first recorded works of Shakespeare are Richard III and the three parts of Henry VI, written in the early 1590s during a vogue for historical drama. Shakespeare’s plays are difficult to date precisely, however, and studies of the texts suggest that Titus Andronicus, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona may also belong to Shakespeare’s earliest period. His first histories, which draw heavily on the 1587 edition of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, dramatize the destructive results of weak or corrupt rule and have been interpreted as a justification for the origins of the Tudor dynasty.
The early plays were influenced by the works of other Elizabethan dramatists, especially Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe, by the traditions of medieval drama, and by the plays of Seneca. The Comedy of Errors was also based on classical models, but no source for The Taming of the Shrew has been found, though it is related to a separate play of the same name and may have derived from a folk story. Like The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which two friends appear to approve of rape, the Shrew’s story of the taming of a woman’s independent spirit by a man sometimes troubles modern critics and directors.
Shakespeare’s early classical and Italianate comedies, containing tight double plots and precise comic sequences, give way in the mid-1590s to the romantic atmosphere of his most acclaimed comedies. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a witty mixture of romance, fairy magic, and comic lowlife scenes. Shakespeare’s next comedy, the equally romantic Merchant of Venice, contains a portrayal of the vengeful Jewish moneylender Shylock, which reflects Elizabethan views but may appear derogatory to modern audiences. The wit and wordplay of Much Ado About Nothing, the charming rural setting of As You Like It, and the lively merrymaking of Twelfth Night complete Shakespeare’s sequence of great comedies.
After the lyrical Richard II, written almost entirely in verse, Shakespeare introduced prose comedy into the histories of the late 1590s, Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. His characters become more complex and tender as he switches deftly between comic and serious scenes, prose and poetry, and achieves the narrative variety of his mature work. This period begins and ends with two tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, the famous romantic tragedy of sexually charged adolescence, love, and death; and Julius Caesar — based on Sir Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives — which introduced a new kind of drama. According to Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro, in Julius Caesar, “the various strands of politics, character, inwardness, contemporary events, even Shakespeare’s own reflections on the act of writing, began to infuse each other”.
In the early 17th century, Shakespeare wrote the so-called “problem plays” Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and All’s Well That Ends Well and a number of his best known tragedies. Many critics believe that Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies represent the peak of his art. The titular hero of one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Hamlet, has probably been discussed more than any other Shakespearean character, especially for his famous soliloquy which begins “To be or not to be; that is the question”.
Unlike the introverted Hamlet, whose fatal flaw is hesitation, the heroes of the tragedies that followed, Othello and King Lear, are undone by hasty errors of judgement. The plots of Shakespeare’s tragedies often hinge on such fatal errors or flaws, which overturn order and destroy the hero and those he loves. In Othello, the villain Iago stokes Othello’s sexual jealousy to the point where he murders the innocent wife who loves him. In King Lear, the old king commits the tragic error of giving up his powers, initiating the events which lead to the torture and blinding of the Earl of Gloucester and the murder of Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia. According to the critic Frank Kermode, “the play offers neither its good characters nor its audience any relief from its cruelty”.
In Macbeth, the shortest and most compressed of Shakespeare’s tragedies, uncontrollable ambition incites Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, to murder the rightful king and usurp the throne until their own guilt destroys them in turn. In this play, Shakespeare adds a supernatural element to the tragic structure. His last major tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, contain some of Shakespeare’s finest poetry and were considered his most successful tragedies by the poet and critic T. S. Eliot.
In his final period, Shakespeare turned to romance or tragicomedy and completed three more major plays: Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest, as well as the collaboration, Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Less bleak than the tragedies, these four plays are graver in tone than the comedies of the 1590s, but they end with reconciliation and the forgiveness of potentially tragic errors. Some commentators have seen this change in mood as evidence of a more serene view of life on Shakespeare’s part, but it may merely reflect the theatrical fashion of the day. Shakespeare collaborated on two further surviving plays, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, probably with John Fletcher.
It is not clear for which companies Shakespeare wrote his early plays. The title page of the 1594 edition of Titus Andronicus reveals that the play had been acted by three different troupes. After the plagues of 1592–3, Shakespeare’s plays were performed by his own company at The Theatre and the Curtain in Shoreditch, north of the Thames. Londoners flocked there to see the first part of Henry IV, Leonard Digges recording, “Let but Falstaff come, Hal, Poins, the rest … and you scarce shall have a room”.
When the company found themselves in dispute with their landlord, they pulled The Theatre down and used the timbers to construct the Globe Theatre, the first playhouse built by actors for actors, on the south bank of the Thames at Southwark. The Globe opened in autumn 1599, with Julius Caesar one of the first plays staged. Most of Shakespeare’s greatest post-1599 plays were written for the Globe, including Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.
After the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were renamed the King’s Men in 1603, they entered a special relationship with the new King James. Although the performance records are patchy, the King’s Men performed seven of Shakespeare’s plays at court between November 1, 1604, and October 31, 1605, including two performances of The Merchant of Venice. After 1608, they performed at the indoor Blackfriars Theatre during the winter and the Globe during the summer. The indoor setting, combined with the Jacobean fashion for lavishly staged masques, allowed Shakespeare to introduce more elaborate stage devices. In Cymbeline, for example, Jupiter descends “in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt. The ghosts fall on their knees.”
The actors in Shakespeare’s company included the famous Richard Burbage, William Kempe, Henry Condell and John Heminges. Burbage played the leading role in the first performances of many of Shakespeare’s plays, including Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. The popular comic actor Will Kempe played the servant Peter in Romeo and Juliet and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, among other characters. He was replaced around 1600 by Robert Armin, who played roles such as Touchstone in As You Like It and the fool in King Lear.
In 1613, Sir Henry Wotton recorded that Henry VIII “was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and ceremony”. On June 29, however, a cannon set fire to the thatch of the Globe and burned the theatre to the ground, an event which pinpoints the date of a Shakespeare play with rare precision.
William Shakespeare has been commemorated in many statues and memorials around the world, including funeral monuments in Southwark Cathedral and Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Scott #1250 was released on August 14, 1964, at the the home of the American Shakespeare Festival Theater and Academy in Stratford, Connecticut, part of the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. The stamp pictures the playwright on the stage of an Elizabethan theater, holding a quill in his right hand next to which is the famed skull of Yorick from Hamlet. Designed by Douglas Gorsline, the black brown on tan paper stamp was printed by the rotary process and issued in panes of fifty stamps each, perforated 10½ x 11. An initial printing of 118 million stamps was authorized with a total of 123,245,000 printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.