Today is the day traditionally associated with the birth and death of the person (or persons) known as William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was an actor/manager as well as a playwright. He owned shares in the theatre and made really good money for his company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, eventually being sponsored by King James and becoming the King’s Men.
Shakespeare’s theatre, the Globe, had three different incarnations. The first burned down during Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII when a cannon some embers caught the thatched roof on fire. The Puritans pulled down the second Globe when they declared theatre too sinful to continue. The third Globe now stands in Bankside, Southwark near the original site of Globe one and two.
Sam Wanamaker, an American, built this monument to the great playwright and his plays. You can still see plays there during the warmer months. It is the only building since the Great Fire in London allowed to have a thatched roof.
Ben Johnson said the Shakespeare was the “soul of the age, the applause, delight, the wonder of our stage” and “…not of an age, but for all time.”
Shakespeare is also called the Bard of Avon and in the Victorian era, people so worshiped Shakespeare’s writing that George Bernard Shaw called it “bardolatry.”
Shakespeare was the third of eight children (only five survived into adulthood) and his younger brother, Edmund, was an actor as well.
His father, John, was a glover and leather worker and a “brogger” meaning he did a bit of illegal dealing in…wool…on the side. At one point John was also the town’s ale taster. How do you sign up for that job?
He worked his way up through political positions eventually becoming an alderman, but he also got into trouble for lending money with interest and withdrew from public life.
Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, came from a wealthy family and inherited her father’s farm. You can still visit the farm in Stratford today. Shakespeare references the family name in his play, “As You Like It.” The play takes place in an idyllic place called the forest of Arden. There are also scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s works with really great footnotes called The Arden Shakespeare.
There are not a lot of records of Shakespeare’s life which has caused speculation that he could be more than one person. Some people think he was the Earl of Oxford, Sir Francis Bacon, the Earl of Derby or even Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, thought to be a spy and a “rake-hell” and killed by a dagger through the eye during a drunken brawl.
Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway (no, not the one from The Princess Diaries) was eight years older than he was. They had three children, Susannah and the twins, Hamnet and Judith. In his will, Shakespeare left Anne his second best bed. While many take this as an insult, because Anne was already established and the daughters would have needed more from the estate, he most likely left most of his furnishings and estate to his daughters. Hamnet died when he was 11 and some say he was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s most quoted character, Hamlet.
Shakespeare’s grave at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford has a curse on it so that no one digs up the grave. It says, “Good friend for Jesus’ sake forebear//To dig the dust enclosed here//Blest be the man who spares these stones//And curst be he that moves my bones.” A bit tawdry and simple, another reason people cite when they make the claim that perhaps Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare.
Shakespeare wrote in early modern English and gave us over 2000 of our common words and phrases. Some examples of words first used by Shakespeare are: eyeball, puking, skim milk, obscene, hot blooded and…alligator! If you’ve ever used the phrases, “seen better days,” “it’s Greek to me,” “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind,” “you can’t have too much of a good thing,” “forever and a day,” “pure as the driven snow,” or even “high time,” you are quoting Shakespeare. Check out these two great videos for more phrases. (Horrible Histories, Kenneth Branagh)
Harold Bloom has said that no other writer has created utterly different yet self-consistent voices for more than 100 major characters and many hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages. He says that Shakespeare’s characters are not alive and yet they have altered all of our lives and may have even taught us how to be more human. Finally, Bloom, in his influential work, “Shakespeare The Invention of the Human” says that the “ultimate use of Shakespeare is to let him to teach us to think too well, to whatever truth you can sustain without perishing…”
Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!