Monday, April 23, 2007

Happy Birthday to you, Master Shakespeare!

from Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac:

Today is believed to be the birthday of William Shakespeare, (books by this author) born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England (1564) [note from Pattie: he was baptized on April 26, and because infants were baptized at three days old, he is believed to have been born on the 23rd of April. Plus, he died on April 23, and for a playwright who emphasized symmetry, it's more than fitting]. He left behind no personal papers whatsoever--no letters, no diaries, not even any manuscripts. For that reason, most of the details about his life are a mystery. What we do know is that he was born at a time when England was just beginning to calm down after decades of religious civil war between Catholics and Protestants. Historians can't be sure, but it is likely that Shakespeare himself grew up Catholic, even though it was technically illegal to be a practicing Catholic at the time. We know that his mother came from a Catholic family, and his father secretly signed a Roman Catholic "Spiritual Testament" and hid it in the rafters of his home.

So Shakespeare may have grown up with the idea that his family was secretly attached to an ancient but now forbidden religion. And there's some evidence that when he was about 16, after attending the public school in his town, he may have taken a job as a tutor for two wealthy Catholic families in Lancashire. If he did, then he would have met a famous Catholic dissident named Edmund Campion who was living in secret with those two families at that time, and who was eventually caught and executed.

If Shakespeare was working as a tutor in his late teens, he must have returned to his home town in 1582, because it was that year that he was forced into a marriage with a woman he'd gotten pregnant: Anne Hathaway. It was apparently not a happy marriage. In 1587, Shakespeare left his family in Stratford and went to live in London by himself, where he began his life as an actor and playwright.

As a playwright, Shakespeare first made his name as a writer of comedies. His most successful early plays were The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, and within a few years, he was among the most popular writers in England. His plays generally attracted an audience of about 3,000 people, at a time when London had a population of about 200,000. So whenever one of Shakespeare's plays was performed, one out of every 65 people in the city was in the audience.

His early popularity made him a lot of enemies. The very first person ever to write about Shakespeare was the poet Robert Greene, who accused Shakespeare of plagiarism, calling him, "An upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers." And in fact most of Shakespeare's plays were not original, but based on historical events or old stories. What made them great was his extraordinary ability with language. He used one of the largest vocabularies of any English writer, almost 30,000 words.

But despite his success, he continued to live in a series of small rented rooms around London, a two-day journey from his family's home in Stratford-upon-Avon. Then, in 1596, Shakespeare learned that his son, Hamnet, died. And even though he hadn't spent much time with the boy, the event apparently had a huge effect on him. It was not long after that news that Shakespeare began writing his first great revenge tragedy, Hamlet, which was first brought to the stage around 1600. Scholars believe that Shakespeare chose to play the role of the ghost.

He went on to produce a series of tragedies in the next several years that are generally considered his greatest work, including Othello (1604), King Lear (1605), and Macbeth (1605). He planned to retire in 1611, after writing his play The Tempest (1611). But he came out of retirement to write at least one more play: Henry VIII (1613).

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