William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

The early years

We do not know much about William Shakespeare’s life. He was born on 23rd April 1564 in Stratford-on-Avon, in Warwickshire. His father belonged to the corporation of glovers and at one time was Bailiff of Stratford; his mother came of a country family of some importance. In his youth he probably attended Stratford’s grammar school, since the knowledge of Latin, Greek and rhetoric which emerges from his plays is of the kind that was then taught in grammar schools. When he was eighteen he married Anne Hathaway, a girl eight years older than him, and in a few years they had three children. The young poet found himself with a large family and no income; it is probably at this time he decided to go to London to work for the theatre.

The beginning of his career

By 1592 Shakespeare was already active in London as an actor and playwright, since in that year dramatist Robert Greene violently attacked him for wanting to excel in everything:”(he)is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in the country”(with a world play on Shakespeare/shake-scene). The years 1592-94 were particularly difficult for players. Because of the plague, which raged all over Europe, theatres were closed and most companies dissolved. It is likely that at this time Shakespeare wrote poetry, possibly under the patronage of an influent nobleman. He quickly won himself a reputation as a poet for his long mythological works: Venus and Adonis(1593) and The rape of Lucrece(1594). Shakespeare’s poems, together with the sonnets (1609), show his knowledge of classical themes and mythological figures as well as his familiarity with the court(one of his patrons and highly-placed friends was the earl of Southampton, to whom venus and Adonis and lucrece were dedicated.) Shakespeare’s fame as a lyrical poet, however, rests upon his sonnets.

The successfull playwright

Shakespeare became first a member of and then a sharer in the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men”, one of London’s leading companies of players(on the accession of james I the company took the name of “King’s men”). He was the most successful playwright of his time, very popular with the London audiences and much appreciated at court. He excelled in all dramatic genres then in vogue: comedies, tragedies and historical plays. Shakespeare also became co-owner of the Globe theatre whan it opened in 1599. The Globe, an open air public theatre, was used in summer while in winter the company acted in the indoor private Blackfriars theatre. Thanks to his great success as a playwright Shakespeare earned enough to be able to retire to Stratford in his later years and buy several properties there. He died in Stratford in 1616.


He was the leading playwright of his time, he was a member of one of the best companies of players : the Lord Chamberlain’s men(after 1603, the king’s men). They performed at outdoor Globe theatre in summer and at the indoor Blackfriars theatre in winter. He excelled in all the dramatic genres then in vogue: comedies, tragedies and historical plays. He is also one of England’s greatest poets, as his collection of sonnets (1609)testifies.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (1599) - The building in context

London’s first professional playhouse – known as “The Theatre”- was built in 1576 by James Burbage, in the suburb of shoreditch just outside the northern gate of the city. When in 1599 difficulties arose over the lease of the property the two sons of James Burbage, Cuthbert and Richard, pulled down the building and transported all the materials to the south side of the thames. The new theatre they built was called “The Globe” and part of the cost was met by Shakespeare and his fellow players. These sharers, as they were called, shared both the expenses and the profits of the thatre. It was a public outdoor playhouse, attended by both the upper classes and the ordinary people; performances took place in the afternoon, and so in daylight. The rounded structure of the Globe and its stage which projected itself in the middle of the arena(spectators were all around it), were the visible architectural expression of the great commonplace of the Elizabethan theatre: all the world is a stage. The idea is central to Shakespeare’s plays : it finds its best expression in Macbeth’s tragic speech after his wife’s death, where he compares man to a poor actor and life to a brief play. We also find it in The tempest, where the island corresponds to the theatre and Prospero to the playwright. The association was even more obvious to Shakespeare’s contemporaries: not only the name itself “Globe” recalls the world, but at the entrance of the picture of Hercules carrying the world on his shoulders, and a latin inscription saying : “the actor makes the world go round”.

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