On this day in 1564, by most accurate accounts, William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. Known as the Bard, Willy Shakes, and by a few other monikers, the English poet, dramatist, and actor is seen as the English national poet and considered by many to be the greatest dramatist of all time. He is also the bane of many students’ very existence.
Shakespeare occupies a singular position in world literature; other poets, such as Homer and Dante, and novelists, such as Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens, have transcended national barriers, but Shakespeare reigns supreme. His plays, written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries for a small repertory theater, are now performed and read more often and in more countries than any nearest rival.
Born to the merchant class, Will’s father, John Shakespeare, was a burgess of the borough; he engaged in various kinds of trade and appears to have suffered some fluctuations in prosperity. His wife, Mary Arden, of Wilmcote, Warwickshire, came from an ancient family and was the heiress to some land. Shakespeare himself attended a quality grammar school, where his education would consist mostly of Latin studies, learning to read, write, and speak the language fairly well and studying some of the classical historians, moralists, and poets.
Eschewing college, Shakespeare married at 18 to “Anne Hathaway of Stratford,” in 1582 upon the consent of her friends and upon once asking of the banns. The couple produced three children; Susanna, and two years later, twins Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet, the only son, died at age 11.
For the ensuing period, the Bard’s life is a cipher until his name surfaced in the words of another author in 1592. Said dramatist Robert Greene from his deathbed, “There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”
Making toney acquaintances in London, there is little indication of the exact manner by which an ambitious Shakespeare’s professional life evolved into his remarkable success. What can be deduced is that for 20 years Shakespeare devoted himself assiduously to his art, writing more than a million words of poetic drama of peerless quality.
From 1594 or so onward Shakespeare was an important member of the Lord Chamberlain’s company of players (called the King’s Men after the accession of James I in 1603). They had the best actor in Richard Burbage, the best theater with the Globe and the best dramatist in Shakespeare. Willy Shakes himself had become a full-time professional man of his own theater, sharing in a cooperative enterprise and intimately concerned with the financial success of the plays he wrote.
Preoccupied with death, among other matters large and small, Shakespeare himself passed on the date of his birth in 1616, leaving the vast bulk of his estate to his two grandsons from his elder daughter. He did, however, leave his “second-best bed” to his widow Anne. No name was inscribed on his gravestone in the chancel of the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon. In lieu thereof appears the tidy farewell:
“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.”
With infinitely too many remarkable verses to choose from, perhaps the most apt closure to this treatment lies in Shakespeare’s words from Hamlet, which may make for sound political advice to a certain political party:
“Tis too much proved—that with devotion’s visage,
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.”