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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
William Shakespeare is usually considered the greatest dramatist and poet of the English language. No other writer’s plays and poetry have been produced so many times or in so many countries or translated into so many languages. One of the major reasons for Shakespeare’s popularity is the variety of rich characters that he creates, from drunks and murderers to princes and kings, and from wise fools and court jesters to naive and foolish leaders. Each character springs to life on stage, and, as they remind the audience of its own individual personalities, traits, and flaws. He had an amazing knowledge of a wide variety of subjects, and his well-developed characters reflect this knowledge.
In Shakespeare’s time, few biographies were written, and none of the literary men of the Elizabethan Age was considered important enough to merit a book about his life. The first portfolio of his works, collected as a memorial to Shakespeare by members of his own acting company, was not published until 1623, seven years after his death. His first biography was written one hundred years later. As a result, many of the facts of Shakespeare’s life are unknown. It is known that he was born in Stratford-on-Avon in England, sometime in early 1564, because his baptism is recorded on April 26 of that year. His mother, Mary, had eight children; William was the third. His father, John Shakespeare, was a glovemaker and trader who owned several houses in Stratford and became the town’s mayor when Shakespeare was a boy. The young Shakespeare probably studied in the local grammar school.
The next definite information about William Shakespeare is that, on November 28, 1582, at age 18, he married Anne Hathaway, who was 26. In 1583, Anne gave birth to their first child, Susanna, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born in 1585. By 1592, the family was living in London, where Shakespeare was busy writing his own dramas and acting. From 1592 to 1594, the plague kept most London theaters closed, so he turned to writing poetry during this period, and his poems, which were published (unlike plays which were only performed), became popular with the masses and contributed to his reputation as a writer. From 1594 to the end of his career, Shakespeare belonged to the same theatrical company, known first as Lord Chamberlain’s Men and then as the King’s company. He was both a leader and stockholder in this organization, which became the most prosperous group in London; he met with both financial success and critical acclaim.
In 1594, Shakespeare was popular enough as an actor to perform before Queen Elizabeth. By 1596, he owned considerable property in London, and in 1597, he bought New Place, one of the finest houses in Stratford. A year later, he bought ten percent of the stock in the Globe Theatre, where his plays were produced. In 1608, he and his colleagues also purchased The Blackfriars Theatre, where they began to hold productions during the winter, returning to the Globe during the summer months. Throughout the rest of his life, Shakespeare continued to purchase land, homes, and businesses. He obviously was a busy man between handling his business ventures, performing on the stage, and writing or collaborating on the thirty-seven plays that are credited to him.
Shakespeare’s most productive years were from 1594 to 1608, the period in which he wrote all of his great tragedies, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. During these fourteen years, he furnished his acting company with an average of two plays per year. After 1608, it appears he went into semi-retirement, spending more time in Stratford and creating only five plays before his death on April 23, 1616. He was buried before the altar in the Stratford Church, where his body still lies.