Saturday, 1 February 2014

A Short Intro to Shakespeare (though not to his work)

William Shakespeare

He came from Warwickshire (in the middle of England, not the South East, where London is). Most of the county was covered with the Forest of Arden. His birthplace was Stratford-on-Avon. And, lest you should wonder, the name means that this place was a “straight ford” on the Avon River. “Avon” originally meant just “river,” so there are a few Avon rivers in England. In fact, the Welsh word for “river” (afon) is pronounced the same way.

His birthplace, as far as Londoners were concerned, meant that he spoke with a strong country accent. That would not have been a big problem, socially, at the time. The famous Sir Francis Drake, for example, was a Devon boy, and would have talked like one of the Pirates of the Caribbean. (grin).

Shakespeare’s father was, at first, quite prominent in this little place. He was in the town government, for example. He was able to ensure that young Shakespeare could get an education in the Stratford Grammar School, which was about 200 years old at the time and still stands. Shakespeare entered the school at about age six or seven and may have had to leave, due to his father’s financial and social problems, about age thirteen. He would have learned his letters, numbers, a little Greek, and (more importantly) the Latin language, as well as Classics and composition. (One of Shakespeare’s friends later wrote that Shakespeare had “little Latin and less Greek.” His English was pretty good, though).

What he did after he left school, we don’t know. One story is that he put in time as a butcher. That would have added subjects to his education that he never would have learned in school.

At the age of eighteen married a twenty-six-year-old woman named Anne Hathaway. She gave birth to Susanna about six months later. Then came the twins, Hamnet and Judith, two years later. Hamnet died of plague at the age of eleven. Susanna married a prominent doctor and did well. Judith, sadly, had troubles including, for a while, excommunication by the church.

Young Master William eventually went to London between 1585 and 1592, and started a career on the stage as an actor, writer, and part-owner of a playing company called “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men,” which became the “King’s Men” after James I succeeded Elizabeth I. His early plays were mostly comedies and histories; his later ones were tragedies. His last works were “tragicomedies” or “romances,” a more complex kind of comedy. This group includes The Tempest. Finally, a small group of his plays are called “problem plays” because there is no way to place them into any of those categories. Computer analysis has shown that some of his plays were collaborations with other playwrights, so we can now say which parts of them were his and which ones weren’t.

He was a successful businessman. He eventually built a new theatre (The Globe). He made money from a grain handling business in Stratford. Shakespeare seems to have retired from the stage in about 1613 at the age of 49. This would make him an old man for the time. The average life span, including the very common infant deaths, was probably around 30. So, not surprisingly, he died in Stratford just three years later.

Shakespeare made sure that both girls inherited money from him directly, although Susanna got the majority of it. And speaking of his will, there is some controversy that it gave to his wife so little: furniture and his “second best bed.” Apparently, though, the custom was that the widow inherited a third of the estate anyway, and the second best bed is the one that the man and wife customarily slept in. The best bed was for guests. So he wasn’t as hard-hearted as one would think.

Shakespeare’s Portraits

Two portraits of Shakespeare were traditionally accepted as genuine, although both were created after his death. The first is an engraving on the title page of The First Folio, a large collection of his plays that was put together and published by Shakepeare’s friends after his death. The other is a statue in the Stratford church, part of a memorial put up for him soon after his death.

Recently, several other portraits of Shakespeare have been found: The Cobbe Portrait and the Chandos Portrait among them. Those, plus the First Folio portrait by Droeshout are below.
The Sanders Portrait has also been identified as a painting of Shakespeare, and was recently proven to have been painted during his lifetime.