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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
William Shakespeare is usually considered the greatest dramatist and finest poet the world has ever known. 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 successfully creates, from drunkards and paid murderers to princes and kings and from inane fools and court jesters to wise and noble generals. Each character springs vividly to life upon the stage and, as they speak their beautiful verse or prose, the characters remind the viewers of their own personalities, traits, and flaws. Shakespeare also made his characters very realistic. The dramatist had an amazing knowledge of a wide variety of subjects, and his well-developed characters reflect this knowledge, whether it be about military science, the graces of royalty, seamanship, history, the Bible, music, or sports.
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, for his Baptism is recorded on April 26 of that year. His mother Mary had eight children, with William being the third. His father, John Shakespeare, was a fairly prosperous 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 and hunted and played sports in the open fields behind his home.
The next definite information about William Shakespeare is that the young man, at age 18, married Anne Hathaway, who was 26, on November 28, 1582. In 1583, it is recorded that Anne gave birth to their oldest child, Susanna, and that twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born to the couple in 1585. By 1592, the family was living in London, where Shakespeare was busy acting in plays and writing his own dramas. From 1592 to 1594, the plague kept most London theaters closed, so the dramatist turned to writing poetry during this period, and his poems, which were actually published unlike his plays, became popular with the masses and contributed to his good 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. It is also known that he was both a leader and stockholder in this acting organization, which became the most prosperous group in London, and that he was meeting with both financial success and critical acclaim.
In 1954, Shakespeare was popular enough as an actor to perform before Queen Elizabeth. By 1596, he owned considerable property in London and bought one of the finest houses in Stratford, known as New Place, in 1597. A year later, in 1598, 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 approximately two plays annually. 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 today. Many literary students and visitors make a pilgrimage to this shrine each year in order to honor William Shakespeare, still recognized after 400 years as the world's greatest poet and dramatist.
The main source of The Winter's Tale is from Robert Greene's popular romance Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, published in 1588. Shakespeare changed all the characters' names and created two new ones, the Clown and Autoycus. Pandosto, King of Bohemia, corresponds to Leontes, King of Sicilia. Bellaria, Queen of Bohemia, becomes Hermione, Queen of Sicilia. Garrinter corresponds to Mamillius. Fawnia becomes Perdita. Egistus, King of Sicilia corresponds to Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Dorastus becomes Florizel, his son. Franion, cup-bearer to Pandosto, is transformed into Camillo. Porrus, an old shepherd, reputed father of Fawnia becomes the old shepherd, reputed father of Perdita. Accordingly, events which take place in Sicilia in Greene's work occur in Bohemia in Shakespeare's, and vice-versa and so the famous Arcadian scene (the sheep-shearing -- Act IV, Scene 4) leaves the traditional Arcadia of Sicilia for Bohemia.
For the rest, Shakespeare followed the story closely except in two vitally important incidents. In the romance, Bellaria dies after her trial and Pandosto commits suicide at the end of the story. However, in The Winter's Tale, Hermione is harbored and finally she, Leontes, and Perdita are reunited and reconciled. In Greene's work, it is Bellaria who asks that the oracle be consulted but in the play this is Leontes' own idea.
Since he is re-writing a story into a play, Shakespeare naturally concentrates on action. He gives life to characters and does everything possible to give credibility to the plot. His greatest technical difficulty had been to indicate the passage of time and to show its effect. Both have been accomplished neatly: the effect of the passage of time is more convincing in The Winter's Tale than it is in Pandosto.
The play was probably written around 1611 and was one of Shakespeare's later plays, also known as the "romances" since they are based loosely on the pastoral romance genre which often contain lessons on virtue as well as vice. Other devices which are featured in this genre are mistaken identities, supernatural events juxtaposed with normal everyday occurrences and the use of 'poetic justice.'