April 23, 2016 was likely Shakespeare's 452nd birthday -- and the 400th year anniversary of his death. While there is some uncertainty in knowing when his real birthday was, the day of his death is undisputed. Seventeenth century Europe after all, is now referenced by historians as the Early Modern era, rather than Late-Renaissance. Church records, legal records, published broadsheets, letters, printed books, pamphlets, poems, plays and personal diaries from this time are still mined by historians today in famous libraries all over the world. Yet, very little has turned up to shape the life of most famous writer of all time.
William Shakespeare is with little doubt the most brilliant author in the English language. It is hardly hyperbole to declare this. His characters are amazingly real. He was astoundingly perceptive in his observation of humans. He recreated them on the page -- complex characters with a full range of emotions, and profound internal conflicts, who were intensely, deeply rich in psychological reality. And he did this in “two hours traffic” upon the stages of his time, not in a 500 page novel.
His plays are in verse and no one can compare with the stunning shock of the beauty of his poetry. They are phenomenally well-crafted, and structurally, nearly flawless. Thematically, Shakespeare is unmatched in his ability to touch the human soul, and to speak lucidly and profoundly to human lives. Perhaps the most convincing argument for his genius is that he is the most quoted, most translated of any author on earth. And while we who love his plays get to know his characters very well, not very much is known of the man who created them. We know this:
He was baptized on April 26th in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and his birth is presumed to be three days prior. He went to the Stratford Guild School, a grammar school and then to the King’s New School, where he learned Latin and studied classical literature, including the Bible and mythology. He completed the equivalent of an eighth grade education, leaving school at 14 or 15. He married Anne Hathaway (not the actress) when he was 18 and she was 26, and she was three months pregnant. They had a daughter, Susanna, and later twins, Judith and Hamnet, who died at age 11. By then, Shakespeare was in London, writing, although he invested most of his money in the town. From 1592 to around 1606, he was an actor and a playwright, and later on produced his own plays. He is known to have played character roles: The ghost of Hamlet’s father and Adam in As You Like It, Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida and Brabantio in Othello.
His acting companies performed for royalty. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed for Queen Elizabeth, the King’s Men, for James I. They had the best actor (Richard Burbage) the best theaters (The Globe and the Blackfriars) the best clown (Robert Armin) and the best playwright. Shakespeare was very prosperous during his twenty years in London. He wrote 37 plays, three long poems, and 154 sonnets, but he left almost no letters, other personal correspondence or diaries.
Shakespeare didn’t go out of his way to have his plays published. He did publish—with great success—his longer poems, and his sonnets. He published plays when he thought he could make money, and a few were published during his life as quartos, individual versions that folks could buy and read. But for the most part, he felt that plays were meant to be performed rather than read. After his death, the actors John Heminges and Henry Condell gathered together his plays and published them in folio versions—something like a modern collection.
Shakespeare left London when he was about 50 years old, went back home and bought the best house in town. He died in 1616, on what was likely his birthday, at age 52, reportedly after a night of partying with his pals. He is buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. In his will, he mysteriously left his wife his “second best bed.” He did not want to be buried in Westminster Abbey, in London, where England’s kings, queens, artists and scientists are buried, but instead wrote a warning verse for his tombstone:
Good friend for Jesus’ sake forebear
To dig the dust enclosed here
Blest be the man who spares these stones
And curst be he that moves my bones
In the end, Shakespeare’s characters are left to shape his spirit for us, if not his life. Borrowing here from Macbeth, they strut and fret their hours upon the stage of our lives, to the last syllable of recorded time, for all our tomorrows. And what a haunting and engaging set of spirits they are as their pageants recreate the fabric of our lives and remind us that “we are such stuff / As dreams are made on. And our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” (Tempest 4.1) Listen to some of his other voices:
My bounty is a boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have for both are infinite. Hath not a Jew eyes? The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. Lord what fools these mortals be! Do not forever with thy veiled lids seek for thy noble father in the dust. It is my lady, it is my love. And oftentimes to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths. Or that the everlasting had not fixed his cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter. Unsex me here. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t. O wonder, wonderful, and most wonderful wonderful, and yet again wonderful, and after that out of all whooping.