William Shakespeare was the most remarkable storyteller that the world has ever known. Homer told of adventure and men at war, Sophocles and Tolstoy told of tragedies and of people in trouble. Terence and Mark Twain told comedic stories, Dickens told melodramatic ones, Plutarch told histories and Hand Christian Andersen told fairy tales. But Shakespeare told every kind of story – comedy, tragedy, history, melodrama, adventure, love stories and fairy tales – and each of them so well that they have become immortal. In all the world of storytelling he has become the greatest name.
Shakespeare’s ability to summarize the range of human emotions in simple yet profoundly eloquent verse is perhaps the greatest reason for his enduring popularity. If you cannot find words to express how you feel about love or music or growing older, Shakespeare can speak for you.
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon on 23rd April 1564.
His father William was a successful local businessman, and his mother Mary was the daughter of a landowner. Relatively prosperous, it is likely the family paid for Williams education, although there is no evidence he attended university.
In 1582 William, aged only 18, married an older woman named Anne Hathaway. They had three children, Susanna, Hamnet and Juliet. Their only son Hamnet died aged just 11.
After his marriage, information about the life of Shakespeare is sketchy, but it seems he spent most of his time in London – writing and acting in his plays.
Due to some well-timed investments, Shakespeare was able to secure a firm financial background, leaving time for writing and acting. The best of these investments was buying some real estate near Stratford in 1605, which soon doubled in value.
It is thought that during the 1590s he wrote the majority of his sonnets. This was a time of prolific writing and his plays developed a good deal of interest and controversy. His early plays were mainly comedies (e.g. Much Ado about Nothing, A Midsummer’s Night Dream) and histories (e.g. Henry V)
By the early Seventeenth Century, Shakespeare had begun to write plays in the genre of tragedy. These plays, such as Hamlet, Othello and King Lear, often hinge on some fatal error or flaw in the lead character and provide fascinating insights into the darker aspects of human nature. These later plays are considered Shakespeare’s finest achievements.
Death of Shakespeare
Shakespeare died in 1616; it is not clear how he died, and numerous suggestions have been put forward. John Ward, the local vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford (where Shakespeare is buried), writes in a diary account that:
“Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.”
In 1616, there was an outbreak of typhus (“The new fever”) which may have been the cause. The average life expectancy of someone born in London, England in the Sixteenth Century was about 35 years old, Shakespeare died age 52.
Shakespeare the Poet
William Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets mostly in the 1590s. These short poems, deal with issues such as lost love. His sonnets have an enduring appeal due to his formidable skill with language and words.
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:”
– Sonnet CXVI
The Plays of Shakespeare
The plays of Shakespeare have been studied more than any other writing in the English language and have been translated into numerous languages. He was rare as a play-write for excelling in tragedies, comedies and histories. He deftly combined popular entertainment with an extraordinary poetic capacity for expression which is almost mantric in quality.
“This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!”
– Lord Polonius, Hamlet Act I, Scene 3
During his lifetime, Shakespeare was not without controversy, but he also received lavish praise for his plays which were very popular and commercially successful.
His plays have retained an enduring appeal throughout history and the world. Some of his most popular plays include:
Romeo and Juliet
Popular quotes of Shakespeare
This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
– Polonius, giving Laertes a pep talk. (Hamlet)
To be, or not to be: that is the question
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die: to sleep;
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
– Hamlet (to Horatio on seeing a ghost)
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
– The Tempest (Prospero)
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Julius Caesar (Cassius to Brutus)
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
– Macbeth (on learning of the death of Queen)
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
— Hamlet in Hamlet
Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin, as self-neglecting.
—Dauphin in Henry V
Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win,
By fearing to attempt.
—Lucio in Measure for Measure
All the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players:
they have their exits and their entrances;
and one man in his time plays many parts…
—As You Like It, Act II,
Here are some examples of Shakespeare’s most popular passages:
- The seven ages of man
- Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
- We band of brothers
- The green-eyed monster
- What’s in a name?
- Now is the winter of our discontent
- If music be the food of love
- Beware the ides of March
- We are such stuff as dreams are made on
- Something is rotten in the state of Denmark
- To be, or not to be: that is the question
It is interesting to note that George Bernard Shaw (1865-1950), who ridiculed those who worshipped Shakespeare (inventing an insulting term to denote the study of Shakespeare — bardolatry), secretly admired Shakespeare a great deal and often told his close friends that he thought the Bard had an unsurpassed command of the language.
Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend’st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?
Return, forgetful Muse, and straight redeem
In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem
And gives thy pen both skill and argument.
Rise, resty Muse, my love’s sweet face survey,
If Time have any wrinkle graven there;
If any, be a satire to decay,
And make Time’s spoils despised every where.
Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life;
So thou prevent’st his scythe and crooked knife.
Sonnet 100: Translation to modern English
Where are you, Muse, that you’ve forgotten for so long to give me the inspiration to write about the one who gives you all your power? Are you using up your energy on some worthless poem, dimming your power in order to brighten unworthy subjects? Come back, forgetful Muse, and compensate for the wasted time by helping me to write some good verses. Sing to the ear that values your songs and gives you both the skills and the poetic subject. Get up, lazy Muse. Examine my love’s sweet face and see if time has engraved any wrinkles there. If there are any be a satirist, attacking ageing and making everyone despise time’s power to destroy. Give my beloved more fame than time can destroy and so stop his scythe and crooked knife.