He was not of an age, but for all time
Ben Jonson on William Shakespeare
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Everyone thinks they know who Shakespeare was. But sometimes, when someone is as influential and world-famous as William Shakespeare, it’s worth repeating the basics.
William Shakespeare was a professional actor and playwright from Stratford-Upon-Avon. He worked in London, writing on average three plays a year for the acting company the Lord Chamberlain’s - later King’s - Men, whilst sustaining his family in Stratford. Whatever we think about him as a writer, he was principally a man of the theatre: he worked collaboratively and knew his playhouses intimately. He acted in plays by other playwrights and, as a shareholder in the Globe he profited from every aspect of the playmaking business. This made him rich, and he is recorded as being a careful and conservative investor.
Shakespeare was born in 1564. His father was a glover and later an alderman. He was educated at the local grammar school, gaining a strong grounding in Latin and rhetoric, ideal skills for accessing classical source material for plays and writing dramatic dialogue. He married young, becoming a father at the age of eighteen; as such there were many things binding him to Stratford – this makes it all the more remarkable that he chose a career far away in the unpredictable and disreputable London theatres. However, Shakespeare remained rooted in Stratford, buying property and investing locally. His plays contain many allusions to Warwickshire dialogue, people and places. He died in Stratford in 1616.
We don’t know when Shakespeare arrived in London and there are many theories and myths regarding how his life in theatre began. The theatres were new, controversial and hugely popular but were attacked by churchmen as immoral and dangerous. Banned from the City of London, they were built outside the city in areas called liberties. However, the theatres’ financial success combined with Elizabeth I’s enjoyment of plays enabled the leading companies to achieve wealth and respectability. The Chamberlain’s Men gained royal patronage under King James I. By that time, indoor theatres were also fashionable – the King’s Men performed at the Blackfriars Theatre from 1609 – these theatres targeted a more affluent audience, mirroring the social rise of the playing companies from vagabond status to (relatively) respectable businessmen.
Shakespeare quickly staked a claim as a leading writer with plays such as Henry VI and the gory Titus Andronicus. Early playwrights were almost exclusively university-educated - the first published reference to Shakespeare attacks him as an actor arrogant enough to presume himself a playwright. Shakespeare’s singular talent was unprecedented, but it is important to note that he worked in competition and collaboration with other playwrights, as well as keeping a careful eye on theatrical fashions. His genius for wordplay, dramatic dialogue and characterisation was born from adapting and rewriting material from novels, histories, classical myth and older plays. Shakespeare wrote for the same company for most of his professional life, meaning that roles such as Hamlet and King Lear would have been written for Richard Burbage, clown roles for Will Kemp and, later, Robert Armin. The influence of the personalities and talents of the King’s Men on Shakespeare’s dramatic art cannot be overestimated.
Acting styles changed over the course of Shakespeare’s career, and it’s likely that Shakespeare’s innovation and experimentation in drama were central to these changes, as he developed methods of writing that showed characters’ inner lives. Pivotal to Shakespeare’s breakthrough was that, unlike other early playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene, he was also an actor. However we read Hamlet’s famous ‘advice to the players’, on the surface it advises against an overly mannered style of performance and Shakespeare’s plays contain many jokes and allusions to old-fashioned and bombastic playing styles, suggesting that – however the King’s Men’s style of acting would appear to us now – he and his colleagues pursued what was, for them, a more naturalistic mode of performance.
Shakespeare worked hard to feed a local, loyal popular audience, as well as his royal and aristocratic patrons. Unfortunately, only a small number of the plays performed between 1576, when the first London theatre was opened, and 1642, when the theatres were closed by Parliament, were published. Had Shakespeare’s colleagues not collected his plays into the ‘First Folio’ of 1623, around half of his plays, including – amazingly - Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest would have been lost. Theatre’s artistic status in literature had improved by the time of Shakespeare’s death, and he was mourned as a brilliant writer by his peers. But no one could have known that this popular artist, writing for a local audience in a single city, would grow in reach and influence over four hundred years to become arguably the most celebrated writer of all time.