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William Shakespeare

by D. J. Herda

My favorite aunt always told me that all good people are born in April.  Guess why.  Of course, I always thought it was a joke.  But looking back over some of our favorite scribes, I'm forced to wonder if she didn't have an internal link to the telepathic.  See for yourself: The month has spawned Emile Zola, Washington Irving, Donald Barthelme, Thornton Wilder, Charlotte Bronte, Henry Fielding, Henry James, Marcus Aurelius, Harper Lee, and this, the most famous of all April-born authors, William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon, England, on or around April 23, 1564, in a modest room above the shop on Henley Street where his father, John, made and sold gloves.  He was lucky to have survived to adulthood in sixteenth-century England, since waves of the plague swept across the countryside, and pestilence ravaged Stratford during the hot summer months.

But survive he did, and when he was of age, he was entered in the Stratford school, where he became a respectably proficient student, although some of his testing left something to be desired. 

Shakespeare filled many of his characters with his own experiences.  In The Merry Wives of Windsor, he records a comical scene in which the Welsh headmaster tests the knowledge of one pupil, appropriately named William.  The playwright was undoubtedly recalling his own experiences during his early school years.  As was the case in all Elizabethan grammar schools, Latin was the primary language of learning.  Although Shakespeare likely had some lessons in English, the emphasis was on Latin composition and the study of Latin authors such as Seneca, Cicero, Ovid, Virgil, and Horace.

Shakespeare absorbed much that was taught in his grammar school, for he exhibited an impressive familiarity with the stories of many Latin authors, as evident from his own plays and their sources.  Although most scholars agree that the lad was removed from school around the age of thirteen because of his father's financial and social problems, young William had already acquired a firm grasp of Latin and English and had continued his studies despite his removal.

Shakespeare was a young man when he began to write wonderfully complicated plays that had plots based entirely on Latin stories, such as the Menaechmi of Plautus, as well as striking imagery that was drawn from the Metamorphoses of Ovid and the Lives of Plutarch

In 1582, while a mere youngster of 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, an older and more worldly woman of 26.  He and his wife had three children before he went off to London to seek fame and fortune in the theater.  By 1592, he had become an established actor of some repute.  Several of his plays, including Henry VI, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus, were already popular.  The company staging most of his early work was Pembroke's Men, sponsored by the Earl of Pembroke, Henry Herbert.  The popular troupe performed regularly at the court of Queen Elizabeth. 

The turning point in Shakespeare's career came in 1593.  Although most theatres had been closed since 1592 due to an outbreak of the plague, the bard by then had left the theatre to work on his non-dramatic poetry.  His work paid off.  By the end of 1593, his writing had caught the attention of the Earl of Southampton.  Southampton became Shakespeare's patron, and on April 18, 1593, Venus and Adonis was entered for publication.  Shakespeare had made his formal debut as a poet.

Returning to the theatre in 1594, Shakespeare became a leading member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, formally known as Lord Strange's Men.  They often performed before Elizabeth I.  As payment for their performances, the actors each received 10 pounds--a noble sum for the day.  During his time with the Chamberlain's Men, he wrote several popular plays, including Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, King John, and Love's Labour's Lost.  In 1599, he became part owner of the Globe Playhouse, with which theatre he would be identified for the remainder of his life.

Shakespeare returned to Stratford around 1610, having written 37 plays and 154 sonnets, from tragedies such as King Lear, Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, MacBeth, and Othello to comedies such as As You Like It, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  He lived out the balance of his life rather serenely, enjoying--or so it seems--a long and useful career as one of the most popular and well-known writers on earth.  He wrote only four plays in his last eight years, including his last one, Henry VII in 1613.

William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, and was buried two days later, according to a record in the Stratford Parish Register.  He was laid to rest in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, where he had been baptized 52 years earlier.  His tomb, which lies beneath the floor of the church inside the chancel rail, is covered by a stone inscribed with a curse:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones. 

Stratford-on-Avon is now the second most popular tourist destination in England, after the capital city of London.

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