PHOTOS BY MICK O'REILLY
His works have moved us tears, to laughter, to love, to relate. And his words have become cornerstones in the English language.
By Mick O’Reilly, Senior Associate Editor
His was the son of a glove maker from Stratford-Upon-Avon. He sought fame and fortune on the stage in London. He found eternal recognition in his plays and sonnets. William Shakespeare remains the greatest playwright in the English language, where his characters were bound with flaws and failings, heroism and hubris; cowardice and comedy. Their words, though penned more than 400 years ago, remain vibrant and relevant today, capturing the human condition, encapsulating a notion that endures through the centuries. They have become essential phrases that pervade our world and our communication. Studied, parsed, dissected still by scholars and students alike. Yes, Shakespeare’s world is alive today.
During his lifetime, William Shakespeare is acknowledged to have written a total of 38 plays, with the earliest being one of the three parts of King Henry VI, with Part 1, 2 believed to have been written between 1589 and 1591. He is also generally acknowledged to have written 154 sonnets. Together, the body of his work represents the greatest contribution to written English at a time when the printed word allowed for its influence to be fundamental to the growth of the written language.
Click this link: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/ for a full collection of the works of William Shakespeare
THE MILESTONES IN THE LIFE OF A LITERARY GENIUS
Gulf News, with inputs from Guardian News and Media Ltd.
On 26 April, Stratford-upon-Avon parish archives record the baptism of “Gulielmus filius Iohannes Shakespere” (William, son of John Shakespeare). The Shakespeare household is comfortable: Mary (nee Arden) comes from a rich farming family; John is a maker of fine gloves and a successful businessman who will end up as Stratford’s mayor. William is one of seven children, and the oldest son. Though it’s usually celebrated on 23 April, his actual date of birth is unclear.
Having received a top-notch education at Stratford grammar school, Shakespeare’s future is put in doubt when a local woman, Anne Hathaway, discovers she is pregnant with their child. She is 28, he is just 18; the couple have to apply for a special licence to marry in a hurry. Their first child, Susanna, is born the following May. Twins, Hamnet and Judith, follow in 1585. Another product of the love affair may be Shakespeare’s early sonnet 145, which puns teasingly on Anne’s maiden name (“‘I hate’ from hate away she threw”).
Writer Robert Greene publishes a bitter denunciation of “an upstart crow” who “with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you”. This is the first reference to Shakespeare as a working playwright – maliciously twisting a line from Henry VI Part III to accuse its author (a mere “player”) of stealing tricks from his better-educated betters. It’s not clear when the 28-year-old Shakespeare first came to London and started working as an actor-writer. It’s even less clear when exactly he left his wife and three young children, still less how often – or even if – he returned to his home town.
In August the 11-year-old Hamnet is buried in Stratford; cause of death is unknown, as is whether Shakespeare attends the funeral – though some biographers have speculated that his interest in putting twins on stage, and writing a play whose hero has a remarkably similar name to his dead son, is a quiet way of paying tribute. In any case, as a writer he has barely been busier. The early history plays (c1590–92) have been huge audience-pleasers; his gory, co-written tragedy Titus Andronicus (c1594) has been a success, as are The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c1594), and his titillating poem Venus and Adonis (1593), which has been a publishing sensation. Creatively, there seems to be little Shakespeare can’t do.
Shakespeare’s name appears on the front of the second published editions of his hit historical dramas Richard II and Richard III, as well as the first edition of Love’s Labour’s Lost – a rare honour for an Elizabethan playwright, one that indicates his burgeoning fame. Now a member of leading company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare is also listed as one of the “principal comedians” in colleague-cum-rival Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour. More ignobly, he is recorded as dodging taxes in the London ward of Bishopsgate.
A major turning point for Shakespeare and his company happens in May, when they throw open the doors on the Globe theatre, the most impressive playhouse London has yet seen (albeit built partly from the remains of their previous theatre in Shoreditch, demolished owing to a fractious land dispute). Henry V and Julius Caesar are among the new plays that christen the space, and 1599 may also be the year Shakespeare begins work on early drafts of Hamlet, a tragedy that occupies him in various forms until around 1604. In its experimental dramaturgy and its philosophical and emotional depth, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most ambitious work to date, and one of the greatest pieces of theatre ever written in the English language.
Another turning point occurs when Queen Elizabeth I – for whom the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed regularly – dies. Luckily for the playwright, the new monarch, James I, soon takes Shakespeare and his colleagues under his wing and renames their company the King’s Men. As well as playing hectic seasons at court, Shakespeare will write several plays, notably Measure for Measure (1604) and Macbeth (1606), that flatter the king’s interests in justice, religion and witchcraft while simultaneously probing deep questions about power and its abuses.
King Lear has its premiere on 26 December in front of a packed court at Whitehall. It’s not known how James I responded to this bleakest of tragedies about a monarch who divides his kingdom and loses his mind, but Shakespeare seems to have been dissatisfied with the script, revising it several years later. Other plays he writes in this period – Othello, All’s Well That Ends Well, Timon of Athens – are similarly shadowy and equivocal in tone, perhaps reflecting the tense atmosphere at court following rumbling disputes about the unification of England and Scotland, and the shock discovery of the Gunpowder plot in November 1605. The sunny Elizabethan comedies Shakespeare perfected in the late 1590s seem a world away.
In the autumn season the King’s Men move into the Blackfriars, a well-appointed indoor playhouse across the Thames from the Globe that will be their winter home. Candlelit, intimate and with a resident company of musicians, the space inspires a final run of plays from Shakespeare: Pericles (c1609), Cymbeline (c1610), The Winter’s Tale (c1611) and The Tempest (c1611). Poetically dense, technically demanding and replete with mystic themes, they are the high points of his last great phase.
In his introduction to The White Devil, the up-and-coming tragedian John Webster pays tribute to “the right happy and copious industry of M. Shakespeare”; by this stage, in his 48th year, Shakespeare has written at least 40 plays, and perhaps contributed to more. As well as being successful, he is wealthy – owner of the second largest house in Stratford and a portfolio of land investments. He is also highly litigious, particularly where money is involved. In 1612 he appears in court to testify in a case regarding the dowry of his French landlord’s daughter (despite owning a large amount of property, in London Shakespeare prefers to rent).
Catastrophe strikes on 29 June, when the Globe burns to the ground after a prop cannon sets fire to the thatch during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. The company promptly rebuild the theatre – this time with a tile roof – but their lead playwright is not involved; the event may hasten his retirement. Two final plays, Cardenio (the script is now lost), and The Two Noble Kinsmen, are his last contribution to the stage, both co-written with younger colleague John Fletcher.
In January, Shakespeare and his lawyers begin to draw up his will; in March, a number of last-minute changes are made – notably cutting out his daughter Judith (whose marriage he seems to have disapproved of), and bequeathing his 61-year-old wife his “second best bed”. Given the shaky state of his signature, Shakespeare himself may already be ailing; by the end of April he will be dead. He is buried soon afterwards in the same church where he was baptised, Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, a few days after his 52nd birthday.