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Sunday, April 23, 2006

William Shakespeare Dies, April 23, 1616

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Today in 1616, William Shakespeare died in Stratford, England. It can be argued that no other human being who has put pen or quill to paper or fingers to a keyboard has contributed more to the development of our sense of story. Shakespeare’s impact can not only be seen in the continued performance of his plays nearly 400 years after his death, but in the number of productions, both on-screen and off, which pay homage to his writings. Despite his fame in modern times, many of the details of his life remain sketchy.

Shakespeare was born in April, 1564. His baptism is recorded as having been on April 26th. Since it was customary at that time to baptize children within a few days of their birth, it is possible that William’s birthday was also April 23, although it is impossible to know the date conclusively.

Shakespeare probably attended a local grammar school, where he would’ve been taught Latin rhetoric, logic and literature. The first known fact of Shakespeare’s life does not surface until he is 18, when he married Anne Hathaway, a local woman who was eight years his senior. Their daughter Susanna was born barely six months later, leading many to concur that the marriage may have happened only because Anne was pregnant. The couple had twins in 1585, Judith and Hamnet. Hamnet died in 1596, at the age of 11.

It is not known exactly when Shakespeare moved to London and became a playwright, but comments on his writings began to appear in 1592, indicating that he had already achieved some level of success by that time. He joined, and eventually became part-owner of a play company known as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, named after the company’s sponsor. The company became so successful that when Lord Chamberlain died, King James I became the troupe’s sponsor. Thus, they changed their name to The King’s Men.

Shakespeare’s plays were most likely all written between 1590 and 1613, although these dates are conjecture. He wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets during his lifetime although, amazingly, his plays were not gathered into one collection until after his death. This is not a reflection of Shakespeare’s lack of fame; on the contrary, he was quite famous during his lifetime. Rather, the non-publication of his plays was a result of the playwright-play company relationship at that time. A playwright’s works were owned by the play company that performed them. Thus, once Shakespeare was finished with one of his works, it’s fate was really no longer in his hands. For his part, Shakespeare probably assumed that his works would die with The King’s Men.
His sonnets were a different matter. Many of these poems were written in the early 1590’s, when London theaters were closed due to an outbreak of the plague. In 1609, a work of Shakespeare’s poems appeared, although it has been claimed that the publication happened without his consent. If this is the case, then it is doubtful that he profited from his sonnets. Copyright law did not yet exist as we know it today, so good writers often had their works stolen outright.

In 1599, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men leased land on which to build the Globe Theater. The theater opened later in the year and was, by all accounts, a success. It burned down in 1613, but reopened the next year on opposite side of the Thames. An exact replica of the second Globe stands on the same location today.

After Shakespeare’s death in 1616, two of his fellow King’s Men began to compile his plays into a book to be published. This was a harder task than it sounds because, in some cases, there wasn’t a remaining whole copy of the script to be found. Instead, those plays had to be pieced together a page at a time using pieces of the scripts that been used by various actors to learn their parts. By 1623, they had collected 36 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays and published them in what was called the First Folio.

There is much academic speculation as to the authorship of Shakespeare’s works. Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere and others have been put forth as the real authors of the plays while Shakespeare, who was certainly a real person, was either one of these men living under another name or was just a hapless bystander. While no one has been able to conclusively link any of his works to anyone other than Shakespeare, the question remains to this day, especially considering that collaborative works between or among playwrights was very common during this time.

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