400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s Death

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is eminent for being one of the most influential writers in Western literature but remains a figure of many mysteries. We know for example that he was born and baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon, northwest of London, but the exact date of his birth is still very much an unknown. For a man who was so prolific, the Bard did little to leave much evidence of his personal life for us to explore. Even his Last Will and Testament makes no reference to his illness or what  might have killed him on April 23, 1616 (although historians have suggested that perhaps the plague, fever, or even excessive drink may have finished him off). What little we do know about his life tells us that he attended grammar school in Stratford, became an actor in London, and later retired in Stratford to live out the remainder of his life. That might seem cut and dry, but history is never as simple as that.

Controversy around Shakespeare revolves around two independent schools of thought: (1) that all the works of Shakespeare can be attributed to his great hand and that those works represent the greatest body of literature known to the English language; and (2) that there is no conclusive or irrefutable evidence that links Shakespeare to the plays, sonnets, poems and other writings claimed by the Bard. You can see where this is going. Shakespeare either willingly or jokingly left his life to conjecture. We don’t know for sure even if Shakespeare is how we are supposed to spell his name. The Bard signed a few documents but spelled them different ways each time. Who’s laughing now! Shakespeare’s contemporaries mention his name often but never his occupation, leaving us with only logical guesswork to ascertain his vocation and status. Did Shakespeare attend university? Not to our knowledge. But how could a grammar school educated man write so vividly and accurately of court life, foreign issues, language, and literature in general? Well, certainly his early education would have allowed him to call on classic works and we know he was blessed with a magnificent imagination and mastery of language. The more we ask about Shakespeare, the more questions seem to arise. “To be, or not to be – that is the question” takes on a whole new meaning.

Shakespeare’s family history is ‘somewhat’ more straightforward. Born to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden in Stratford to a well-to-do family, William grew up with three younger brothers and two younger sisters. John, Shakespeare’s father, was a businessman who rose to prominence around 1568 to High Bailiff – equivalent to a town mayor – but mysteriously disappeared from public life not long after (some historians have suggested that John was burdened with considerable debt and went into hiding to avoid repaying that debt). William Shakespeare would marry Anne Hathaway at the age of 18, early even for the time. Anne gave birth to Susanna in 1583, and to Judith and Hamnet in 1585. Hamnet would die prematurely at the age of 11 in 1596, only a few years after Shakespeare supposedly moved to London for work. It is at this juncture that Shakespeare’s life is referred to as the “Lost Years”. Between the birth of his twins in 1585 and his appearance in London in 1592, we know absolutely nothing of his whereabouts or what he was doing during those years. The “Lost Years” has inspired a great deal of controversy.

However, 1592 does reflect an important time in Shakespeare’s life. His earliest play, Henry VI, was performed at the Rose Theatre signalling the real beginning of his career in London. Shakespeare would author and co-author almost 40 plays, and published a poetic masterpiece of 154 sonnets in 1609. Entrepreneurial by spirit, Shakespeare was also part-owner of a theatre company called The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and, from 1599, part-owner of the famous Globe Theatre.

Here is an excellent timeline of Shakespeare’s plays by Linda Alchin:

1592 – Henry VI Part I is produced. First printed in 1594
1592-93  – Henry VI, Part II first performed. First printed in 1594
1592-93 – Henry VI, Part III first performed. First printed in 1623
1594 – Titus Andronicus first performed. First printed in 1594
1594 – The Comedy of Errors. First printed in 1623
1593-94 – Taming of the Shrew first performed. First printed in 1623
1594-95 – Two Gentlemen of Verona first performance. First printed in 1623
1594-95 – Love’s Labour’s Lost first performed. First printed in 1598
1594-95 – Romeo and Juliet first performed. First printed in 1597
1595-96 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream first performed. First printed in 1600
1596-97 – The Merchant of Venice first performed. First printed in 1600
1597-98 – Henry IV, Part I first performed. First printed in 1598
1597-98 – Henry IV, Part II first performance. First printed in 1600
1598-99 – Much Ado About Nothing first performed. First printed in 1600
1598-99 – Henry V first performed. First printed in 1600
1599-00 – As You Like It first performed. First printed in 1623
1600-01 – Julius Caesar first performed. First printed in 1623
1601 – First recorded production of Richard II. First printed in 1597
1600-01 – Richard III first recorded performance. First printed in 1597
1600-01 – Hamlet first performed. First printed in 1603
1600-01 – The Merry Wives of Windsor first performance. First printed in 1602
1602 – First recorded production of Twelfth Night. First printed in 1623
1602-03 – All’s Well That Ends Well first performed. First printed in 1623
1604 – First recorded production of Troilus and Cressida. First printed in 1609
1604 – First performance of Measure for Measure. First printed in 1623
1604-05 – Othello first performed. First printed in 1622
1606 – First recorded performance of King Lear. First printed in 1608
1605-06 – Macbeth first performed. First printed in 1623
1606-07 – Antony and Cleopatra first performed. First printed in 1623
1607-08 – Coriolanus first performed. First printed in 1623
1607-08 – Timon of Athens first performed. First printed in 1623
1608-09 – Pericles first performed. First printed in 1609
1611 – First recorded production of The Tempest. First printed in 1623
1611-12 – Cymbeline first recorded performance. First printed in 1623
1611-12 – The Winter’s Tale first recorded performance. First printed in 1623
1612-13 – Henry VIII first performed. First printed in 1623
1612-13 – The Two Noble Kinsmen. First printed in 1634

The BBC once described Shakespeare in the following terms: “Not of an age, but for all time.” Truer words have never been spoken. As one of the most celebrated playwrights in history, Shakespeare’s work has been performed, translated, and analysed in many languages around the globe. His mastery of the English language has given us upwards of 300 words and phrases that we continue to use in our everyday parlance. In many respects, his legacy lies in just how effectively he has united us around his body of work and its continued relevance not only to our generation, but for those who have come before us and to those who will come after. His mystery remains a strength. His life a testament to a time of unrivalled greatness. I fear we may never be able to duplicate Shakespeare’s profound contribution; but at least we can honour it through teaching and re-teaching something that is often overlooked: the beauty and power of language combined to tell a really great story.

For further information on William Shakespeare please feel free to consult some of the following sources:

10 Phrases From Shakespeare We Still Use 400 Years After His Death
http://abcnews.go.com/Lifestyle/10-phrases-shakespeare-400-years-death/story?id=38619454

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/home.html

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
http://shakespeare.mit.edu/

The Wonder of Will – 400 Years of Shakespeare
http://www.folger.edu/shakespeares-works

The National Portrait Gallery – 96 Portraits of Shakespeare
http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp04051/william-shakespeare?search=sas&sText=Shakespeare&OConly=true

The Legacy of Shakespeare
http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/culture/literature-and-creative-writing/literature/the-legacy-shakespeare

William Shakespeare after John Faed albumen carte-de-visite, 1864 or before 3 5/8 in. x 2 1/4 in. (92 mm x 58 mm) image size Given by Algernon Graves, 1916 NPG Ax39783
William Shakespeare after John Faed
albumen carte-de-visite, 1864 or before
3 5/8 in. x 2 1/4 in. (92 mm x 58 mm) image size
Given by Algernon Graves, 1916
NPG Ax39783

Note: cover image courtesy of Barry Novis.

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