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Shakespeare's Works

Page history last edited by Alyssa Bussard 12 years, 4 months ago


William Shakespeare


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Though William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous English playwright, remarkably little is known about his early life. He was baptized on April 26, 1564 according to church records, leading historians to believe  he was born three days earlier, on April 23, 1564. His parents were John Shakespeare, a glover, and Mary  Arden. They lived in Stratford, England. Neither of them were literate, which makes William Shakespeare’s success even more remarkable. William was the third of eight children, according to the register at the church  at which he was baptized, but three of his siblings died in childhood. England during that time was beseiged by plague and disease, and the fact that the majority of  William’s siblings  survived childhood is impressive. There is no record of William attending school, but because of the quality of his writing, it is assumed that he began attending school in Stratford at around  the age of six or seven. Where Shakespeare went after this, and how he was employed or what he studied is not known.


There are no public records of Shakespeare until his marriage at the age of 17 or 18 in November of 1582 to the 26-year-old daughter of a farmer, Anne Hathaway.  Hathaway was pregnant at the time, and in May of 1853, public records show they had a daughter, Susanna.  In 1585, they had twins, a boy named Hamnet, and a girl named Judith.


No records of Shakespeare’s activities are found between the mid-1580s and 1592.  This time period is known as Shakespeare’s “Lost Years.”  Scholars only speculate as to what Shakespeare did during these years. He may have moved visited places such as Italy, he may have worked as a glover,  as his father, or as  a school teacher. He may have worked to refine his writing ability and become more educated.


William Shakespare reappears in London in 1592, as an actor and writer, when he is attacked in a pamphlet written by dramatist Robert Greene.  Shakespeare lived alone in London while his family remained in Stratford.


After focusing on writing sonnets and poems when a plague epidemic closed theatres between 1592 and 1594, Shakespeare joined the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men, as an actor, writer, and managing partner.  Shakespeare’s plays were staged in inns, courtyards, royal palaces, residences playhouses and the Globe Theatre.


Shakespeare’s success as a writer and his wise investing made him financially prosperous.  He was also of high standing in his community and earned the rank of gentleman.  He was able to buy the second largest house in Stratford for himself and his family, in 1597.  In 1599, he became a major shareholder in the Globe Theatre, which was under construction. 


In 1603, the newly crowned King James I decided to call Shakespeare’s acting company, the King’s Company, often referred to as the King’s Men.  Shakespeare’s work continued to grow in popularity and critical acclaim.  His theatre company became the most popular in London. He even had his plays published and sold in the midst of his career, which was a success not enjoyed by any other playwright at the time. He also earned the respect and friendship of other writers of the time, such as John Donne, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Ben Jonson.


Shakespeare left the theatre and moved back to Stratford in 1611.  He is believed to have died on his birthday, April 23, 1616, although he had written just a month before that he was in good health.  The epitaph on his tomb in Holy Trinity Church reads:


 Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear

 To dig the dust enclosed here.

 Blest be the man that spares these stones,

 And curst be he that moves my bones.



Shakespeare’s Stage




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In The Norton Shakespeare, Andrew Gurr provides readers with a thorough background on Shakespeare’s Stage: “The Globe was Shakespeare’s principal playhouse. He put up part of the money for its construction and designed his best plays for it. It was built on the south side of the Thames in 1599, fashioned out of framing timbers of an old theater. Essentially, it was a polygonal scaffold of twenty bays or sections, nearly 100 feet in outside diameter, making a circle of three levels of galleries that rose to more than 30 feet high, with wooden bench easting and cushions for those who could afford them. This surrounded an open “yard,” into which the stage projected.


The yard was over 70 feet in diameter, nearly half the audience stood on their feet to watch the play from inside this yard, closest to the stage platform. The stage extended out nearly to the middle of the yard, so the actors could stand in the center of the crowd. The uncertain privilege of having standing room in the open air around the stage platform could be bought with the minimal price for admission, 1 penny. It had the advantage of proximity to the stage and the players; its disadvantage was keeping you on your feet for the two or three hours of the play, as well as leaving you subject to the weather. If you wanted a seat, or if it rained and you wanted shelter, you paid twice as much to sit in the three ranks of roofed galleries that circled behind the crowd standing in the yard. With some squeezing, the theater could hold over 3,000 people. It was an open-air theater because that gave it a larger capacity than a roofed hall. The drawback of its being open to the weather was more than outweighed by the gain in the daylight that shone on the stage and spectators alike” (Gurr, 84-85).



The Original Staging Techniques



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“Costume was a vital element in the plays, a mute and instant signifier of the scene. If a character entered carrying a candle and dressed in a gown with a nightcap on his head, he had evidently just been roused from bed. Characters who entered wearing cloaks and riding boots and possibly holding a whip had just ended a long journey. York, entering in Richard II with a gorget was preparing for battle. Even the women’s wigs that the boys wore could be used to indicate the wearer’s state of mind. Hair worn loose and unbound meant madness, whether in Hamlet’s Ophelia or Troilus’s Cassandra.


Comparable audience expectations could be roused by other visual features. Characters with faces blackened and wigs of curly black wool were recognized as Moors, alien and dangerous non-Christians. Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus and the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice acquire that character as soon as they come in view. For The Merchant of Venice, Shylock wore his ‘Jewish gabardine’ and may also have put on a false nose, as Alleyn was said to have done for the title role of The Jew of Malta. Other national characteristics were noted by features of dress, such as the Irish ‘strait strossers’ that Macmorris would have worn in Henry V. the dress of the women in the plays, who were usually played by boys with unbroken voices, was always a special expense. The records kept by Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose playhouse and impresario for the rival company to Shakespeare’s, show that he paid the author less for the script of A Woman Killed With Kindness than he paid the costumer for the heroine’s gown" (Gurr, 89-91).



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Visit these pages to learn more about Shakespeare's Works:




Shakespeare's Sonnets








Gurr, A. (2008). The Shakespearean Stage.  In S. Greenblatt (Ed.), The Norton Shakespeare (pp. 79-99) New York: Norton & Company.




Shakespeare, W. (2008). The Norton Shakespeare (S. Greenblatt, Ed.) New York: Norton & Company.




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