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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
William Shakespeare lived in an exciting time. The economic prosperity sweeping England contributed to the growing power of the middle class. And this extended to the market town of Stratford, on the Avon River- some one hundred miles from London- where Shakespeare was born, probably on April 23, 1564, during the sixth year of Queen Elizabeth's reign (1558-1603).
England was enjoying what we might call a "boom." Under the queen's brilliant administration, international trade was flourishing, geographical exploration had expanded, artistic creativity was encouraged, and the pursuit of learning was vigorous.
Shakespeare's grandfather had been a tenant farmer, but his father, John, became a prosperous merchant and even held the high office of bailiff, the equivalent of today's mayor. Thanks to his family's prosperity, the future playwright most likely had a good head-start in life. Young Will probably was sent to local schools where he would have learned the Latin and Greek classics that were the basis of education in those days. Some scholars think that it was during this time that Shakespeare acquired his lifelong interest in the classics and developed an ear for poetic rhythm.
After he left school, little is known of Shakespeare's Stratford days, other than at age eighteen he married Anne Hathaway and became the father of three children. Some scholars believe he worked as an apprentice to his father, while others suggest he was a schoolteacher. There is even an old legend that he was driven out of Stratford after hunting game illegally on a nearby estate.
While there is no proof for all this, we do know that John Shakespeare's business losses caused him to give up his local government offices. Not long afterward, William left for London to seek his fortune in that hub of opportunity.
London was bustling with activity and adventure. Creative fervor was in the air as business people and artists mingled in the streets. Caught up in this excitement, Shakespeare soon became a member of an acting company and launched a career in the theater. No doubt he did many backstage jobs before moving on to small acting roles. He might even have collaborated in writing stage texts until he eventually created entire plays by himself.
Among the earliest of Shakespeare's dramatic works are believed to be the romantic comedies set in far-off places- The Comedy of Errors and Love's Labour's Lost. They are typical of many popular Elizabethan plays set in ancient foreign settings.
Less typical were his three plays focusing on the reign of the English monarch, King Henry VI. While each was produced independently- and not in chronological order- they form a unit and share common bonds besides their characters.
Unlike many presentations of historical subjects on stage, Shakespeare's plays explored a number of concerns that reflected current interests. Foremost among these was the fear of a return to the civil disorder of the 15th century that had preceded the accession to the throne of the Tudor monarchs (see Historical Background). Many members of the great 15th-century families were still prominent in Elizabeth's court. As a member of an acting company that frequently performed at court and enjoyed the financial support of the nobility, Shakespeare had direct contact with these family descendants. Could their ambitions and lust for power and revenge rise up again? Would the fragile peace between domestic factions as well as foreign enemies remain secure after the death of Elizabeth? These were questions he had to confront when writing the drama of Richard III's rise to power and rapid downfall.
In order to make a case for his queen- and against the Yorkist claim- Shakespeare studied the history books available at that time. Human motivation, which he wanted to examine, was not recorded in them. All he could find was outlines of events. Few written documents remained from the period of Richard III. Many had been destroyed by his successors while others had simply disappeared. The history books financed by the Tudor court sang the virtues of Richmond and portrayed Richard III as an evil man.
Shakespeare used the information to construct a drama that would sustain audience interest in the story of Richard's villainy. He juggled historical facts by rearranging people and places to support dramatic tension. By all accounts, Richard III was well received in Shakespeare's time, with the great Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage in the title role.
Later in his career, he wrote four more history plays about kings whose reigns preceded the Wars of the Roses (1455-85), and whose lives and actions strongly influenced it. In addition to these plays- and the two unrelated history plays, King John and Henry VIII (whose true authorship is still disputed)- Shakespeare went on to write the great comedies and tragedies that have insured his fame for some four centuries.
During the twilight of Elizabeth's reign and the first years of her successor, James I, Shakespeare created such masterpieces as Hamlet, Othello, Measure for Measure, King Lear, and Macbeth. But when the Globe Theater, in which he owned an interest, burned in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII, he returned to Stratford where he had purchased property, and spent his last days there until his death in 1616 at the age of 52.
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