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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
It would be nice if we could say that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear when he himself was at an advanced age. We could picture him becoming concerned with retirement and the disposal of his property and goods. But the theory collapses when you realize that Shakespeare was only 41 years old when the first performance of King Lear was recorded in an official document.
Besides, the plot line, involving two older men and their respective family problems, is only a small part of the play. King Lear is about much, much more and undoubtedly reflects deeper concerns that Shakespeare had developed in his already considerable experience as a playwright.
By the time he wrote King Lear, this adventurous young man from Stratford had led a remarkable life, even for Elizabethan times, which we tend to think of as more exciting than our own. During the reign of Elizabeth I, England experienced a period of relative stability and, more important, prosperity. All the arts flourished, but the growth of drama was nothing short of phenomenal. At the zenith of Elizabeth's power and influence, William Shakespeare came to London and wrote the 37 plays that have established him as the greatest playwright in the English language.
How did it all begin? What purpose drove him to produce this incredible body of work? Where did his inspiration come from?
There are many theories about Shakespeare, but very little that is known for certain. He was born in 1564 and raised in Stratford-on-Avon, some 100 miles from London. His father was a successful middle- class tradesman and had even held public office. Young Will attended local schools, which means he received a good, substantial education. It gave him a background in the classics as well as proficiency in the three "Rs."
At 18, William married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. She subsequently bore a daughter, Susanna, and shortly afterward, twins, Hamnet and Judith.
How the young husband provided for his family during the first years of marriage is unknown. A strong tradition holds that he was employed locally as a schoolteacher, but there is no evidence to prove it.
We do know that he left Stratford sometime in his mid-20s and settled in London. There he first came to notice as a poet, the writer of two long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. These poems were favorably received and launched his reputation.
About the same time, he turned his attention to the theater. He wrote one tragedy, Titus Andronicus, but most of his earliest plays were comedies, including The Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labor's Lost, and The Taming of the Shrew. Romantic comedy, satire, farce- all flowed from his pen at the outset of his career. They concerned relationships among lovers, friends, families, but they didn't plumb the depths.
Overlapping the production of these comedies were his earliest history plays. Toward the end of the 16th century Shakespeare produced the series of four great historical works that remain the pinnacle of his achievement in that type of theater- Richard II; Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; and Henry V.
As the years wore on, Shakespeare turned from his interest in politics and the glorification of England to more profound comedies. Two of the best known, Measure for Measure and All's Well that Ends Well, show an interest in darker human behavior.
It's not surprising, then, that the greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies were also written during this period, the first decade of the new century. Now the poet-playwright was at the absolute height of his powers, and one brilliant drama followed the next- Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, all written and performed within a few short years.
Shakespeare was still relatively young, but he had matured. He was a playwright of some repute, and also an actor who performed both in his own plays and in plays by others. He could very well afford to look around and question why everything in life wasn't perfect and rosy.
King Lear examines a broad range of philosophic ideas. There's a somber tone and not much frivolity in the play. But the playwright in Shakespeare knew he couldn't simply stage a dull discussion of abstract notions. And so he told a story in order to hold the audience's attention and to get his points across. The play explores more profound themes than any of Shakespeare's tragedies, but it also offers a central figure of such heroic proportion that our attention is riveted to him and his fate. When you read the play today, or see it performed, you can't help but be moved by the powerful speech Shakespeare puts into the mouths of his characters- speech so rich and poetic that some readers refer to King Lear as Shakespeare's greatest poem.
Shakespeare continued to write tragedies- Coriolanus, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra- but he found the world of myth a better setting for his developing interests. A new type of play, the romantic tragicomedy, began to appear- The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Cymbeline.
Shakespeare's involvement with a theatrical company called the King's Men- both as actor and playwright- kept him active until 1613, when the Globe Theatre in which the company performed burned down. Perhaps he took it as an omen, but Shakespeare returned at about that time to Stratford, where he spent his final years. He died on April 23, 1616, at the age of 52.
William Shakespeare never lived to be as old as Lear. Nor was he ever a king. But his rich imagination and talent enabled him to create a world so true that we can enter it even today.
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