Who Was William Shakespeare?

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

      It seems we know more about Caesar and Cleopatra, two subjects of his plays who lived centuries earlier - than we know of the man Shakespeare. Yet even in the 16th Century in which he lived, the biographies of those other than royalty or significant church people were seldom assembled, seldom written. So that even as a new millennium is upon us it is still possible to argue whether "Shakespeare" was a real person, or the artistic name of someone else.

It seems well established that John Shakespeare, a glove maker of Stratford-upon-Avon, and his wife Mary, had the third of their 8 children, William, on April 23, 1564, as recorded in the Holy Trinity church registry of Stratford. As the son of a prominent middle class businessman, young William probably attended the well regarded local school (still in use) which prepared students for the serious professions, rigorous 9 hour days, all year long, from the age of 7. And he probably was entertained by the frequent appearance in Stratford of traveling companies of actors.

In 1582, William, age 18, received a license to marry Anne Hathaway, 26, a farmer's daughter. Beyond this date, until about 1592, in what have been labeled "the lost years", detail of his life is virtually non-existent.

But in 1592, Shakespeare is a known actor and playwrite of London. In 1594 he joined a company called The Lord Chamberlain's Men, the most popular theater group in London, at which time at least 6 of his plays had been in production. When fear of plague closed London theaters, Shakespeare turned to poetry, a more highly regarded art form in Elizabethan England. When the theaters re-opened, Shakespeare set about writing two plays per year.

In 1599, Shakespeare and a few others became owners of The Globe, an outdoor theater in a London suburb, reported capable of holding 3,000 spectators. Shakespeare's personal wealth grew. In 1603, Queen Elizabeth died, and her cousin, James I, a theater enthusiast, became King. In 1608, Shakespeare and his company obtained a 21 year lease on the Blackfriars Theater in London, perhaps the world's most modern, with artificial lighting and heating. During this period of acquiring the Globe and the Blackfriars (1599 - 1608) Shakespeare produced nearly all the plays for which he became famous.

In the eight years to follow, Shakespeare gradually withdrew from London and theater, settling again in Stratford. On April 23, in 1616, his birthday, Shakespeare died. He was buried inside the Stratford parish church. He had eight children, one of which died before him.

There were critics then, and critics today, who maintain that a middle class man from Stratford was too uneducated, too unworldly, to have written such extraordinary plays and poetry. However, among present day scholars, few doubt that what is attributed to "Shakespeare" was in fact composed by the man born in 1564.

For those wishing to explore the notion that Shakespeare's works were written by someone else, one might be interested in the society of "Oxfordian" (search on the name) wherein the works of Shakespeare are declared to be the writings of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and a homosexual (although he fathered several children) who, in this essayist's opinion, had the misfortune to die (1604) before Shakespeare stopped writing plays while using annecdotes which de Vere could not have known (ie 1605: Guy Fawkes and the "Gunpowder Plot", or 1609: a Bermuda shipwreck, supposedly the basis for "The Tempest"). No matter: the game is to discredit Shakespeare as a "low-born" when in fact the school that he attended (which still exists) was known then and now as "very vigorous". You be the judge.

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