William Shakespeare: Biography of the playwright

Shakespeare is the English Molière. Representative of his language and his time, his story fuels controversy. His plays are recognized, such as Othello, Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet.

Who is William Shakespeare? – If his work has crossed the centuries to become a monument of universal literature, the history of Shakespeare seems condemned to be written in the conditional as it is subject to controversy . So many theses scaffolded on the true identity of the English playwright, on the plays he would have written or on the life he led. Its very existence has sometimes been questioned.

If France waited until the 20th century to hear a controversy over the authorship of Molière’s texts, Shakespeare saw his legitimacy questioned from the middle of the 19th century in favor of Bacon, Marlowe, and even Queen Elisabeth in person. Like Homer, mythical father of Greek literature, the authors who became the symbol of their language – do we not say the “language of Shakespeare ” or the “language of Molière” – today suffer from strong suspicions. It is true that Shakespeare, with a sometimes obscure career and texts retouched by posterity, is particularly badly placed. “remains the most recognized, even if it has to put up with “mythological” quirks such as a date and place of birth agreeing perfectly with the date and place of death.

The birth of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564  in Stratford-on-Avon in the county of Warwick in England into a Catholic family. His father John is a former wealthy peasant turned glovemaker and Mary Arden, his mother, comes from the bourgeoisie. Little is known of William’s early life, except that he was certainly a pupil of the Stratford school and that his father apparently had financial difficulties. In November 1582, William married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior and who gives him a child in the month of May. Twins followed in February 1585. Then, we lost track of Shakespeare for a long time. Almost nothing is known of his formative years. The traditional hypothesis is that Shakespeare would have left Stratford to avoid reprisals from a certain Sir Thomas Lucy on whose lands he would have poached. He would then have gone to London. But this supposition rests above all on the anecdote of Falstaff’s hunting offense in Henry IV. No material element or testimony is able to confirm it.

Shakespeare, Globe Theater playwright and actor

Still, in 1592 , the murderous pen of the playwright Robert Greene reports on Shakespeare’s presence in London in the theatrical world. Greene indeed stigmatizes the game and the pen of the Stratfordien in a pamphlet called “A liard of malice”. During the ten years between his marriage and this famous article, nothing is known of the author: from a precocious husband in Stratford, he became a playwright and actor recognized on the effervescent scene of the Elizabethan theater. But the route he took remains unknown to us. This is also a point that feeds the critical theses on the identity of Shakespeare. As Elizabethan theater peaks in London, Shakespeare wins the taste of the authorities, which assures him success and a comfortable financial situation. He settles at Théâtre du Globe with the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” company, of which he is one of the members. The troupe takes the name of their protector Lord Chamberlain, then official censor of theatrical performances.

William Shakespeare’s plays

If you don’t really know Shakespeare, you can distinguish four periods in these works. From 1590 to 1594, these met the expectations of the authorities: they staged historical and political dramas such as Henry VI and Richard III . Wisdom, the harmony of powers are opposed to the disorders and injustices born of personal ambition. Shakespeare wrote in the same period many comedies such as The Taming of the Shrew and poetic works such as Venus and Adonis . Works from the following period, from 1594 to 1600, belong to similar registers. Thus the playwright wrote Henry IV  , but also A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a typical example of the fancifully-toned comedies of the time. But Shakespeare also wrote one of his most famous tragedies there: Romeo and Juliet .

The tragedies of William Shakespeare

From 1600, the works take on a more serious tone and are imbued with pessimism. Thus, in Hamlet , the young prince of Denmark, faced with the need for revenge, struggles to find the strength to fulfill his tragic destiny and maintains an ambiguous relationship with death. Death, excess, not to say madness, are indeed recurring themes of these tragedies. Thus, in the character of Ophélie, love, madness and suicide follow one another in an inevitable crescendo. As for the tyrant Macbeth , he reigns in blood and unreason. Even comedies aren’t really comedies anymore, so much pessimism lurks behind humor. Thus All’s well that ends well or Measure for measureare now classified as “problem parts”. Unfortunately, we do not know of any biographical element that allows us to understand this change in Shakespeare’s writing. During this period, which ran until 1608, the troupe, well established at the Globe and then at the Blackfriars, changed its name after the death of Queen Elisabeth in 1603. It then took the name of “King’s Men” (troupe du King). After 1608, the tragedies gave way to less dark tragi-comedies which nonetheless remained serious, for example the Winter’s Tale or the Tempest .

Death by William Shakespeare

In 1611, Shakespeare decided to retire from the theater and retire to his native lands. Over his last five years, we only know that Shakespeare has had some legal disputes over land ownership. He died on April 23, 1616 at the age of 52 . Buried in the choir of Trinity Church in Stratford, he leaves behind an impressive work and an explicit epitaph cursing anyone who would open or move his grave. Although he enjoyed the recognition of the public and the court during his lifetime, the fate of William Shakespeare remains poorly understood., if not in broad strokes. Yet his complete works were published in 1623 in the famous Folio. In fact, they never sink into oblivion in England. In France, it was not until the romantics that Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream were recognized and appreciated. But since then, Shakespeare has been thought of as an essential author in the same way as national writers. This is also the case in many countries where plays are still performed regularly. The stagings, often very stripped down or transposed into today’s world, testify to Shakespeare’s modernity. With multiple adaptations of Hamlet , Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, the cinema also regularly pays tribute to the English playwright.

William Shakespeare: key dates

April 23, 1564: Birth of Shakespeare
According to tradition, Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon to a wealthy father and a middle-class mother. The playwright will spend his youth in Stratford before leaving for London for unknown reasons. He will then be one of the greatest playwrights of the Elizabethan theater, working successfully at the Globe Theater. He will return to his native land in 1611 to die there five years later, on April 23.
1582: Marriage to Anne Hathaway
Shakespeare married at the age of 18 to a woman eight years his senior. Anne Hathaway is a farmer’s daughter and she is already three months pregnant. Their daughter Suzanne will be born the following May.
May 26, 1583: Birth of his first daughter, Suzanne
February 2, 1585: Birth of twins: Judith and Hamnet
January 29, 1595: First presentation of “Romeo and Juliet”
Shakespeare has the love tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” performed for the first time. The story, which has become as universal as Tristan and Iseult, is inspired by a short story by Matteo Bandello, an Italian writer from the first half of the 16th century. As in the Greek tragedies, two families are subjected to a destiny of hatred, without each knowing the reasons and trying to understand them. Thus, the enmity between Capulet and Montaigu appears as a fatality which ends in the death of the two lovers. But this dramatic outcome also allows the reconciliation of the two families. The story will inspire many composers, such as Berlioz or Bellini, but also filmmakers.
1601: Shakespeare presents “Hamlet”
Shakespeare has his famous drama “Hamlet” performed for the first time, known to all for its line “to be or not to be, that is the question”. She stages the tragic destiny of a young Danish prince, Hamlet, who must avenge his father. The hero is marked by his irresolution in the face of destiny which must nevertheless be fulfilled. The decay of feudal morality and the irony in the face of death make Hamlet one of the most universal tragedies in literature.
1606: “Macbeth” on the boards
Shakespeare completes his last great tragedy: “Macbeth”. After the revelations of three witches reminiscent of the oracles of Greek tragedy, Macbeth becomes consumed by ambition. He ascends the throne after a series of murders and becomes a bloodthirsty tyrant. This last tragedy of crime and the irony of existence will greatly influence the romantics.
1611: Shakespeare retires to Stratford
June 29, 1613: Fire at the Globe Theater
The Globe Theater on the banks of the Thames in London accidentally catches fire during a performance of “Henry VIII” by William Shakespeare. Opened in 1599, the theater in the shape of a circle was immediately rebuilt, then closed by the Puritans in 1642. Finally, rebuilt identically, it was reopened in 1997.
April 23, 1616: Shakespeare dies in Stratford aged 52
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