Almost every nation on earth reads, studies and performs the works of
William Shakespeare. No writer of any country, nor any age, has ever enjoyed
such universal popularity. Neither has any writer been so praised. As William
Hazlitt observed, "The most striking peculiarity of Shakespeare's mind was it's
generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds." It is perhaps
this quality that has earned Shakespeare the supreme accolade, that of lending
his name to an era. Other than a monarch or an emperor, few can boast that a
time or place is so exclusively theirs. As we talk about Napoleonic Europe or
Victorian England, so we speak of Shakespearean London or the Age of Shakespeare.
No other artist, let alone writer, has had their name inscribed on such a
towering edifice. "Thou in our wonder and astonishment, hast built thyself a
long-live monument," wrote Milton, in praise of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare is by far and without doubt the most popular and successful
writer of all time. But what of the man himself? Who was William Shakespeare?
The life of William Shakespeare is shrouded in mystery. There is no
record of him receiving an education, buying a book or writing a single letter,
and no original manuscript of a Shakespeare play survives. There is no direct
record of his conversations, and no one in his home town seems to have known
that he was a successful playwright while he was alive. There is not even a
contemporary portrait to reveal his true appearance. Although a number of
mentions of William Shakespeare the poet-dramatist appear on record during the
1590's and early 1600's, they comment only briefly on his writings, telling us
nothing about the man. Less is known about Shakespeare than almost any other
playwright of his time.
The orthodox version of William Shakespeare's life is probably the most
widely accepted Shakespeare legend of them all. According to it, he was born on
23 April 1564, in an upstairs room of a Stratford house in Warwickshire. He was
born to John and Mary Shakespeare, and was baptized Gulielmus filius Johannes
Shakspere (William, son of John Shakespeare) three days later. His father ran a
successful glove making business on Henley Street. In 1565, his father was
elected alderman, and three days later he became chief magistrate. William began
his education at the local grammar school, learning to read and write. By his
early teens, he had mastered Latin and the art of acting. He took part in the
school's annual play every Whitsun. By his early teens he had moved into the
upper school where he studied logic, poetry and history.
In November 1582, at eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, and by twenty-
one he had fathered three children: twins, Hamnet and Judith, and their older
sister Susanna. In 1587, when Shakespeare was...