www.whyville.net Mar 30, 2000 Weekly Issue

William Shakespeare

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     Have you noticed that the streets of Myville are all named after famous scientists and artists from the Renaissance? In case these folks aren't so famous to you, you might want to follow along this series of articles, and get to know the person on whose street you're living. This week's article is about an author who changed the face of literature.

by Lois Lee
Times Staff

William Shakespeare
1564 - 1616

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 to an affluent family in Stratford-on-Avon, England. His father, John Shakespeare was a public official and his mother, Mary Arden was also from a rich family. William was one of eight children, and his famiy lived near the town square. The square was a busy and happening place; the town's open-air market was there, and traveling bands of entertainers performed there as well. Living close by, William had no lack of entertainment, and most likely even got his first taste of the theatre there.

For formal education, William only attended elementary school, which was not uncommon for his time. He learned some latin and greek since they were required subjects, even in grade school. Scholars know little else about William's childhood.

On November 27, 1582, William married Anne Hathaway who was eight years older than he was. On May 26, 1583, Susanna Shakespeare was born and then, in 1585, twins, Judith and Hamnet. Some say that during this time in his life, Shakespeare was an apprentice to a butcher. Rumor has it that even then, William was a ham (no pun intended): when he would slaughter a calf, he would do it in a high style and cap it with a speech.

Shakespeare apparently did not believe in paper trails because there is very little evidence of what he did between the years of 1585-1592. These are known as Shakespeare's "Lost Years". He resurfaces five years later in London. He had several small parts in plays that were performed by a group known as the Chamberlain's Men.

William Shakespeare (Courtesy of Palomer College)

The Chamberlain's Men, as you'd guess from the name, was a group with only men, because women were not allowed to act in those days. The Chamberlain's Men performed primarily at a theatre in London known simply as "The Theatre". Unfortunately, the landlord of the building, Giles Allen, was a puritan who did not approve of plays and drama. So, in 1597 when the lease expired, the Chamberlain's Men were forced to move to the Curtain Theatre, a less desirable location.

The Chamberlain's Men tried to negotiate with Allen to move back to the Theatre, but Allen could not be budged. As a last resort, the actors took advantage of a clause in their lease that allowed them to dismantle the building. The gathered by night and took the Theatre apart, transporting it board by board across the Thames river to the Bankside where they were used to build the a new theatre!

This new place, known as the Globe Theatre, was an innovative building for its time; the stage was in a courtyard with covered seats, and it housed up to 3000 people in its audience. Shakespeare was one of the men who snuck the boards across the river, and he also became one of the owners of the Globe Theatre.

Beginning in 1608, this bunch of actors were allowed to perform at an indoor theater, the Blackfriars, as well. The indoor theater charged higher admission prices, and the plays aimed at a more sophisticated audience. This is where Shakespeare would perform many of his tragedy's and romantic plays.

His first written work (that we have knowledge of), "Venus and Adonis", appeared in 1593. He eventually became a successful actor and writer. The public loved his plays because they appealed to the commoner. People went to the theatre then as we would go to the movies, now, but there was more crowd participation: the actors knew when they were performing badly because they would be pelted by the audience (projectiles!).

Shakespeare was not liked by everyone though. It sounds funny to us now, but back then other playwrights accused him of corrupting the English language! Despite these criticisms, Shakespeare's work has come to shape the English language. Some lines from his plays and sonnets are probably the most well-known quotes in English literature:

  • "To be or not to be, that is the question."
  • "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
  • "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"
  • "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!"
  • "Kiss me, Kate!"
  • "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

Note from Editor: Which plays and sonnets are these quotes taken from? Each one is from a DIFFERENT source. Send your answers to times@whyville.net to win 30 clams!

Many of his plays have even been made into movies: The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, and more. This just goes to show that more than 400 years after they were written, Shakespeare's plays still have mass appeal. And why shouldn't they? Love, murder, politics, intrigue, and fantasy -- the elements that grab us are all there.

All said and done, Shakepeare wrote 154 sonnets, 37 plays, and 2 long poems, but he did not become rich. Though he earned a good living and made wise investments, actors and writers were not paid like those of today. When he retired from the theatre around 1611, he lived at the family house in Stratford.

Shakespeare died in 1616, with some amount of mystery surrounding his dealth. There is a legend of how he died, but the report came from a diary half a century after Shakespeare's death, and cannot be confirmed otherwise: "Shakspear, Drayton and Ben Jhonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted".

He was buried in the Trinity Church of Stratford-on-Avon. In Shakespeare's time, after a graveyard becomes full, the graveyard workers would dig the corpses up and burn the person's bones in a huge fireplace. In addition, some people would strip the corpse after the burial. Shakespeare did not want this to happen to him, so he wrote this as his own epitaph:

Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare, to digg the dust encloased heare, Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones, And curst be he yt moves my bones.
His body has been left in peace, though not necessarily just because of his compelling verse. Ironically, people wanted to dig up the his corpse some years ago to see if it was indeed Wiliam Shakespeare. Thankfully, this was not allowed by the local government.

Click here to learn more about William Shakespeare.


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