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Shakespeare Life and Times

Intro to Shakespeare's life and historical context

Lisa Thyer

on 18 August 2014

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Transcript of Shakespeare Life and Times

William Shakespeare is born on April 23, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire county 100 miles north of London.
Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford. Although while writing in London Shakespeare would attempt to respectively distance himself from his country upbringing, the folk customs of his youth and natural imagery pervade his work.
William was the 3rd of 8 children and the eldest son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden.
Will's Early Life
Will gets his first exposure to
theater at the age of 5 when his father,
the town baliff (or mayor) ordered that payments be to two companies of traveling actors, The Queen's Men and Earl of Worcester's Men, to perform for the town.
"What was the play that the Queen's Men brought to Stratford in 1596? Records do not show, and perhaps it doesn't matter. The sheer magic of playing--the fashioning of an imaginary space, the artful impersonations, the elaborate costumes, the flood of heightened language--may have been enough to capture the young boy forever" (Greenblatt 30).
When Shakespeare is born, Queen Elizabeth I, 31 at the time, had already been reigning for six years. Her reign was controversial and left the Queen initially vulnerable, but thanks to a close counsel of trusted advisers, she reigned unharmed. Elizabeth was known to be far more moderate in government than her father and half-siblings that preceeded her and in religion she was also relatively more tolerant, enjoying things such as theater that many Puritans on the Queen's counsel disapproved.
What kind of theater did Will Shakespeare see?
Theater was often used a covert forum for political criticism: "...some may have remembered the swinish face of Henry VIII, and all in the audience knew that it was only under special circumstances that they could publicly share the thought that monarch was a swine" (Greenblatt 31).
Extremely popular in the 1560's and 70's were "morality plays" or "moral interludes", almost sermon-like plays designed to show the consequences for transgressions such as disobedience, idleness, etc. Shakespeare learned a lot from these simplistic plays:

"That writing builds upon two crucial expectations that drama worth seeing would get at something central to human destiny, and second, that it should reach not only a coterie of the educated elite but also the great mass of ordinary people. [...] And above all they provided him with a source for a theatrically compelling and subversive figure of wickedness" (Greenblatt 33).
The Elizabethan
Era 1558-1603
William goes to school at age 7.
William is withdrawn from school at age 13.
Sonnet 129
[lust] "Is perjured, mud'rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust" (3-4).
William's Latin based education can be seen in his writing in his use of so many vivid synonyms. Students typically spent long hours compiling endless lists of Latin synonyms.
“In the summer the school day began at 6 A.M.; in the winter, as a concession to the darkness and cold, at 7. At 11 came recess for lunch and then instruction began again. The curriculum made few concessions to the range of human interests: There was instruction in the articles of Christian faith, but that must have seemed all but indistinguishable from the instruction in Latin. And the instruction was not gentle: rote memorization, relentless drills, endless repetition, daily analysis of texts, elaborate exercises in imitation, rhetorical variation and performance, all backed up by the threat of violence” (Greenblatt 26).
Although education was free in the town of Stratford, poor boys did not attend school, expected instead to work at a young age. There were also the expenses of quills, candles and paper--an extremely expensive commodity at the time (Rubie 23).
The Life and Times of Billy Shakes
Will's Adolescence
John Shakespeare continues to fall. Most of Mary Arden's property is mortgaged. William is believed to leave home for work or escape.
What did Will do when he left home? According to John Aubrey, a 17th century gossip writer (our equvialent to ENews)"He had been, in his younger years, a schoolmaster in the country" (88).
What caused John Shakespeare's fall?
"The Great Fear"
In 1580, Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed the assassination of England's heretic queen would not be considered a mortal sin, thus making Catholics in 1580 enemies of the crown. Those citizens unable to shake old Catholic ways feared ruin, banishment and even death. By 1585 it was illegal and considered treason to be Catholic.
"Perhaps the secret Catholic was the real John Shakespeare, and the Protestant civic officer was only the worldly, ambitious outward man. Alternatively, perhaps John Shakespeare, securely Protestant for most of his adult life, only briefly returned (during an illness, say, or simply to placate his wife) to the Catholicism he had left behind. Did John Shakespeare's eldest son know the truth? Could he have been sure which was the "real" father[...] He might have sensed that his father was playing a part, without ever knowing securely where the boundary lay between fiction and reality. And Will? By the time he was leaving home in 1579-1580, when he was 15 or 16 years old, had he come to acquire a comparable double consciousness?" (102-103).
William Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway in late November.
"Yet hasty marriage seldom proveth well" (Henry IV, 4.1.18).

"Let still the woman take An elder than herself. So wears she to him. So sways she level in her husband's heart" (Twelfth Night, 2.4.28-30).
Susanna Shakespeare is born May 28, 1583.
Twins, Judith
and Hamnet Shakespeare are born in January 1585.
At some point, soon after the birth of his twins, Will leaves his family and his home to set out for London. Why?
"The Lost Years"
"It was one of the only places in England where you were not surrounded by people who knew you, your family, and many of the most intimate details of your life, one of the only places in which your clothes and food and furniture were not produced by people you knew personally. It was in consequence the preeminent site not only of relative anonymity but also of fantasy; a place where you could dream of escaping your origins and turning into someone else" (166).
Will and the Theater
Will's "Retirement"
Theories: was Shakespeare a sailor, a lawyer, a farmer, a deer poacher, a spy???
According to Greenblatt and many other scholars, it is likely that Shakespeare left home to pursue a passion that plagued him. It is also historically possible that around the time Shakespeare is thought to have left home, a traveling theater company was in his area and rumors had it that they found themselves short-handed in need of an actor.
Or perhaps Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare at all...
(more on this later).
Shakespeare surfaces in London.
"...there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers,
that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde,
supposes he is well able to bombast out blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shakes-scene in a country."
-Robert Greene
Henry VI has been being performed since 1590 and runs until 1592 when Richard III is then produced and runs briefly.
The Comedy of Erorrs (1592-1593) Titus Andronicus
The Rape of Lucretia
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Love Labour's Lost (1594-1595)
The Taming of the Shrew (1595-1598)
Romeo and Juliet
A Midsummer Night's Dream
The Merchant of Venice
Richard II
Will's son, Hamnet, only 11 years old, dies of the plague. Will is not home for the death.
It is widely believed that Henry VI was a response written by Shakespeare to Christopher Marlowe's successful play, Tamburlaine, written in blank verse. Tamburlaine is likely one of the first plays Shakespeare would have seen upon his arrival to London (Greenblatt 189-191).
"Grief fills the room up of my absent child, Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, Remembers of me all his gracious parts, Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form; Then I have reason to be fond of grief. Fare you well. Had you such a loss as I, I could give better comfort than you do" (King John 4.3.17-25).
King John
Henry IV
Much Ado
About Nothing
As You Like It
Henry V
Julius Caesar
The Globe Theater opens. Will becomes one of the first writers to become a shareholder in the theater.
The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600-1601)
Twelfth Night (1600-1601)
Hamlet (staged until the closures of the theaters in 1642)
All's Well That Ends Well
Troilus and Cressida
Measure for Measure
Macbeth (1605-1606)
King Lear (1605-1606)
Timon of Athens (1605-1608)
Elizabeth I dies. King James ascends the throne despite Elizabeth's refusal to abdicate her throne to him while ill.
Antony and Cleopatra
The Tempest (1610-1611 Believed to be Shakespeare's farewell to the stage. )
Henry VIII
The Two Noble Kinsmen (written in collaboration with John Fletcher)
The Plague breaks out in London and all theaters are temporarily closed.
Shakespeare's Rivals:
"The group shared a combination of extreme marginality and arrogant snobbishness" (200).
John Lyly Christopher Marlow Thomas Kyd
Others included: Thomas Watson, Thomas Lodge, George Peele, Thomas Nashe, and Robert Greene. Although they heavily influenced Shakespeare's writing, he was never truly a part of this seedy inner circle, but by 1593 Greene, Watson and Marlowe were all dead, Shakespeare, not yet thirty, had no serious rivals.
Ben Johnson (1572-1637)
The Earl of South Hampton (Henry Wriothesley) to whom several of Shakespeare's sonnets believed to have been written around this time are dedicated.
The Jacobean Era Begins
(1603-1625) King James, son of Queen Mary, ascends to the throne despite threats of uprising and protest. He was known by many critics as "the wisest fool in Christendom" but has been since considered more seriously as a ruler. He loved the theater and actually commissioned his own royal theater company, The King's Players, which Shakespeare was a part of.
1604-Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford dies and so does most of the backing for the Oxfordians conspiracy theory.
Shakespeare returns to Stratford on a more permanent basis.
"Perhaps Shakespeare was drawn home by something else, a motive that--unlike all the others in his very private life--seems to lie in plain sight[...]What Shakespeare wanted was only what he could have in the most ordinary and natural way: the pleasure of living near his daughter and her husband and their child. He understood that this pleasure had a strange, slightly melancholy dimension, a joy, intimately braided together with renunciation--that is the burden of those last plays. But it is a strangeness that hides within the boundaries of the everyday. And that is where he was determined to end his days" (Greenblatt 390).
In his "retirement" Will did not do any writing that we know of. Instead, he worked a grain farmer and merchant.
Shakesperae dies on April 23, 1616
Will's will: His wife is left his "second best bed". Both Anne and his younger daughter Judith seem slighted in the will. Shakespeare left his money and possessions to his eldest daughter, Susanna. No provisions are made for his plays or sonnets.
In 1616 Ben Jonson received a yearly pension of 100 marks (about £60), leading some to identify him as England's first Poet Laureate. This sign of royal favour may have encouraged him to publish the first volume of the folio collected edition of his works that year.
The first
Folio of Shakespeare's works is published.
"To draw no envy (Shakespeare) on thy name,
Am I thus ample to thy Booke, and Fame;
While I confesse thy writings to be such,
As neither Man, nor Muse, can praise too much."--Ben Johnson
auctioned for more than £400,000.
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