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The exact date of William Shakespeare’s birth is not known, but his baptism (traditionally held three days after a child’s birth) was recorded on April 26, 1564. His father, John Shakespeare, was a tanner, glover, grain dealer, and prominent town official of the thriving market town of Stratford-upon-Avon. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a prosperous, educated farmer. Though the records are lost, Shakespeare undoubtedly attended Stratford’s grammar school, where he would have acquired knowledge of Latin and the classical writers, training in rhetoric and analysis of texts, and a gained a smattering of arithmetic as well as instruction in the articles of the Christian faith. There is no record that Shakespeare acquired a university education of any kind.
At the age of eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. They had one daughter, Susanna, followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died at age eleven. From 1585, the year in which the twins were baptized, until 1592, when he is first referred to as a dramatist in London, we know nothing of Shakespeare’s life. Consequently, these seven so-called “lost years” are filled with legend and conjecture. We may never know what brought Shakespeare to London or how he entered its world of the theater. The first reference to Shakespeare as an actor and playwright appears in 1592 and was made by Robert Greene, a rival playwright and pamphleteer, who attacked Shakespeare as an “upstart crow” for presuming to write plays (when he was only a mere actor) and for copying the material of established dramatists.
By 1592 Shakespeare had emerged as a rising playwright in London, where he continued to enjoy fame and financial success as an actor, playwright, and part-owner of one of London’s leading theater companies for nearly twenty years. Subsequent references to Shakespeare indicate that as early as 1594 he was not only an actor and a playwright, but also a partner in a new theatrical company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which soon became one of London’s two principal companies. The company’s name changed to the King’s Men in 1603 with the accession of James I, and it endured until the Commonwealth closed the theaters in 1642.
During his career, Shakespeare wrote or collaborated on what most scholars now agree upon as thirty-eight plays. His earliest plays—including Love’s Labor’s Lost, The Comedy of Errors, Richard III, King John, and The Taming of the Shrew—were written between 1589 and 1594. Between 1594 and 1599, Shakespeare wrote both Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar as well as other plays, including Richard II, The Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It. His great tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth—were composed between 1599 and 1607, and were preceded by his last play traditionally categorized as comedy, Measure for Measure. The earlier histories, comedies, and tragedies made way for Shakespeare’s final dramatic form—the plays commonly termed “romances” or “tragicomedies” for their blending of the comic and tragic forms. Written between 1606 and 1611, the romances include Cymbeline, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. These were the plays of a playwright no longer bound by the constraints of his earlier forms.
Although some quarto versions of the plays were printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, there is no definitive extant evidence to suggest that he directly oversaw their publication. It was not until 1623, seven years after his death, that his complete plays were published in the First Folio. However, we do know that Shakespeare did oversee the publication of three narrative poems and a collection of 154 sonnets during his lifetime. Shakespeare retired in 1611 to live as a country gentleman in Stratford, his birthplace, until his death on April 23, 1616.
Shakespeare was the man, who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of Nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily; when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there. —JOHN DRYDEN, 1688