Lecture 8: The Sixteenth Century
William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire. In the year of his birth, the worst epidemic of plague in years occurred; one sixth of the population was wiped out.
Shakespeare's father, John, was an alderman (the equivalent of a member of the city council) and an influential member of the community; he was a glover and wool-dealer by trade. William was the second of eight children, three of whom died in infancy or childhood. The youngest son, Edmund, followed his older brother into the theater and became an actor.
Shakespeare went to the local grammar school, where education was conducted almost entirely in Latin; the teachers were M.A.s from Oxford. We have no specific records of Shakespeare's school career, but if he were typical, he would have entered grammar school at the age of seven. He would have studied Latin grammar and classics, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, and history. He went to school with Richard Field, who, as an adult, also moved to London, where he became a printer and, years later, printed Shakespeare's sonnets.
Shakespeare might have gone on to university, except that his father's fortunes began to fail when William was about thirteen, and his education was cut short.
Shakespeare's father was deep in debt by the time William reached adulthood (he even stopped going to church, where his creditors might find him); although Shakespeare likely helped in the family business, it wouldn't have made him much money. He may also have worked for a time as a schoolmaster. But he needed money at that time: on Dec. 1, 1582, he married Anne Hathaway. He was 18; she was 26, and three months pregnant. Their first daughter, Susana, was born in May 1583. Twenty months later, in January 1585, Anne gave birth to twins, Hamnet and Judith. About two years later, probably in 1587, Shakespeare left Stratford and went to London where he became an actor.
Shakespeare would have been exposed to theater early and frequently; touring groups of professional players came to Stratford to perform at least two or three--and some years, as many as five--times a year. When the troupe known as the Queen's Men came to Stratford in 1587, they were lacking an actor, who had been killed by a fellow actor on the road. Another troupe, Leicester's Men, also visited Stratford that year, and they were short a couple of actors. One of the groups may have recruited Shakespeare at this time.
Shakespeare was apparently a good and popular actor. But as time went on, writing plays became more important to him than acting, although he acted throughout his career. He worked for several theater companies and in 1591, came under the patronage of Lord Southampton. (That is, Lord Southampton paid Shakespeare's bills and gave him a stipend to write. It was common practice for the wealthy to act as patrons to artists, musicians, writers, and poets.) In 1591, Shakespeare's Henry VI Part I won him popular acclaim. Terrible outbreaks of plague in 1592 and 1593 killed many theater people, but Shakespeare survived and had popular successes, among them The Taming of the Shrew and Richard III. And in 1593, Venus and Adonis, a collection of sonnets, was published and he achieved success as a poet, as well.
In 1594, he, James and Richard Burbage, and several others formed the Lord Chamberlain's Men. James, the father, had been an actor and was a theater owner and producer; he and several partners, Shakespeare among them, later built the Globe Theatre. Richard, the son, was the leading actor in the Lord Chamberlain's company. The company that might have been their most threatening competitor was the Lord Admiral's Men, with Philip Henslowe as its producer, Edward Alleyn the greatest of tragic actors, as its star,and Christopher Marlowe as its writer. But Marlowe was killed in 1593, and Alleyn withdrew from the stage in that same year. The Lord Chamberlain's Men thus became the leading theater company in London.
Shakespeare is the only Elizabethan dramatist known to have written, produced, and acted as well as owning a share of the theatre. For seventeen years he was part owner of the Globe Theatre, and for eight years he was part owner also of the company's second theatre, the Blackfriars.
The Lord Chamberlain's Men was a close company of around twenty to thirty men (with three or four boys to play the women's parts). They acted together day after day, in the theatre during the season, at Court during the Christmas holidays; they rehearsed nearly every day. When not acting in London, they toured the countryside together. One of the members of the company was Edmund Shakespeare, William's younger brother.
The company didn't just perform a play for a season and then start a new play for the next season; once they learned a play, it became part of a repertoire of plays that they could draw on at any time, or upon request. For example, during a summer, they might perform, on different nights, three or four different plays; in the winter, they might do the same as they toured the countryside. And at Court, they would perform whatever was requested of them by the Queen; sometimes, they performed for several nights in a row, doing a different play each night.
In 1596, Shakespeare's only son, Hamnet, died at the age of eleven, and was buried on August 11. That same year, Shakespeare commissioned a coat-of-arms for his family, and also purchased the finest house in Stratford: New Place. A few years later, in 1602, he bought 107 acres of land in Stratford.
The Globe Theatre opened in 1599 with a performance of Henry V. It was full to its capacity of 2000 people, and the play was a great success. The performance probably started at about 2 p.m. There were three entrances to the theater: one for those standing in the Yard (also known as the Pit), who paid a penny for admission; one for those in the middle galleries, who paid two pennies, and one for those in the upper tiers, who paid three pennies. During the performance, food and drink were carried around and sold.
Queen Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603, and King James I acceded to the throne. He immediately took the Lord Chamberlain's Men under his patronage, and they became the King's Men. They doubled the number of performances at Court, and King James doubled their pay for each play, too. James also gave them a license to play in any town or university, so that they no longer had to persuade mayors and civic authorities to allow performances. In the ten years before they became the King's Men, their performances at Court averaged three per year; afterward, they averaged thirteen known performances per year, and spent a good portion of their time preparing for command performances. The Court was becoming a larger source of profit than the Globe.
In about 1605, Shakespeare wrote King Lear. He was drawing on old sources and early versions of the story, of course, but also on current events. A year or two before the play was written, a gentleman named Sir Brian Annesley was certified as insane by his two older daughters greedy for his inheritance; his youngest daughter, Cordell (or Cordelia), tried to protect him.
On June 5, 1607, Shakespeare's oldest daughter, Susanna, was married; in September 1608, his mother died. (His father had died in 1601.) He was almost certainly present at his daughter's wedding, since he now spent his summers in Stratford. And he probably took time out from his business dealings in London to go to his mother's funeral. At the time, the King's men were occupied in taking over the leading private theater, Blackfriars Theatre. This was a huge benefit for the Company, since the Blackfriars was an enclosed theatre, not open to the weather, and would allow them permanent winter quarters. By now, Ben Jonson, one of the most prominent playwrights of the next generation, was a fixture of the King's Men, and two other dramatists, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, were also recruited; Fletcher became Shakespeare's collaborator and eventually his successor. There was another visitation of the plague in 1608, and most of the theaters were closed in the later part of the year. The Blackfriars didn't open under its new management until 1609.
The plague interrupted the printing trade, too, but one of the books published that year was Shakespeare's Sonnets: Never Before Imprinted. Since copyright laws were not yet in place, we don't know how much Shakespeare had to do with this printing of his sonnets. We do know that the sonnets were probably written much earlier in his life, perhaps in the early 1590s. We also know that many of the sonnets were written to or refer to a specific woman with whom Shakespeare had a love affair. By scholars, she is referred to as "The Dark Lady," but we don't know for sure who she was. There has been a great deal of speculation, of course, about her identity. She may have been a woman named Emilia Basso, a dark-haired beauty from a family of court musicians, married to Will Lanier, who was also a court musician. But there are many possibilities, and no one can be certain. There would be a certain symmetry to life if the Dark Lady were Emilia Basso: after her death, Emilia Basso's third husband married Cordelia Annesley.
By 1612, Shakespeare's production of plays was slowing down and he was spending more time in Stratford. But he wasn't ready to retire yet: he produced Henry VIII in 1613; in fact, on July 29, 1613, the Globe Theatre was burned down during a production of the play. Cannon were shot off at King Henry's entry, and a spark set the thatched roof on fire. But the theater was rebuilt (this time with no thatch to the roof).
Shakespeare died suddenly two months after his younger daughter's wedding, on April 23, 1616. The cause of death is not known; he appears to have been in perfect health a month before, when he made his will.
The three great tragedies, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth were written very close together (see Chronology, below) and address many similar themes. In these plays, unlike Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare seems to be examining the nature of evil; it is not just a plot device, but rather a theme of central interest. In Hamlet, for example, Claudius murders his brother for profit: he gains his wealth, his throne, his queen, and his power. But the evil in Lear seems to be independent of rational causes. Lear is a difficult father, but the cruelty of Reagan and Goneril seems too great to have been caused by anger at a capricious father. They enjoy torturing him and their other victims. They are not simply dysfunctional or neurotic; they are evil, just as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth is evil, and Iago in Othello is evil. In Hamlet, Claudius feels some guilt for his actions, although not enough to truly repent: he, like Hamlet, is tortured. Regan and Goneril show no remorse; they take pride in their actions and revel in their power.
Lear is also different from some of the earlier tragedies in its attitude that life is good and heroism is possible. The world of Hamlet is a dark and terrible place; Hamlet wishes only to leave it. But King Lear passionately loves life. He is capable of being a great fool. But he is also capable of gratitude and remorse, and the malice of his daughters and his physical suffering do not deaden his heart. We pity Lear, but we also see that the human spirit is victorious in the end.
Shakespeare took the story of King Lear from earlier sources, most notably a play called Leir. In the earlier versions of the story, King Lear does not die, but Cordelia kills herself from despair. In his retelling of the play, Shakespeare alters the plot, turning the story from a melodrama to a tragedy: Cordelia's strength and Lear's transformation pit their doomed heroism against the evil of Regan and Goneril.
Chronology of Shakespeare's Works
The dating of Shakespeare's poetry and plays has always been a source of controversy, due to the loss of records and the fact that many times, accurate records were not kept. In some cases, the date of composition is known. In other cases, it has to be deduced from other records, dates of performances, or evidence from within the plays. The following Chronology is taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, G. Blakemore Evans, editor.
- I Henry VI, 1589-90 (revised 1594-95)
- II Henry VI, 1590-91
- III Henry VI, 1590-91
- Richard III, 1592-93
- Venus and Adonis, 1592-93
- The Comedy of Errors, 1592-94
- Sonnets, 1593-99
- The Rape of Lucrece, 1593-94
- Titus Andronicus, 1593-94
- The Taming of the Shrew, 1593-94
- The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1594
- Love's Labour's Lost, 1594-95 (revised 1597 for court performance)
- Additions to Sir Thomas More, 1594-95
- King John, 1594-96
- Richard II, 1595
- Romeo and Juliet, 1595-96
- A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1595-96
- The Merchant of Venice, 1596-97
- I Henry IV, 1596-97
- The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1597 (revised ca. 1600-01)
- II Henry IV, 1598
- Much Ado About Nothing, 1598-99
- Henry V, 1599
- Julius Caesar, 1599
- As You Like It, 1599
- Hamlet, 1600-01
- The Phoenix and Turtle, ca. 1601
- Twelfth Night, 1601-02
- Troilus and Cressida, 1601-02
- All's Well That Ends Well, 1602-03
- Measure for Measure, 1604
- Othello, 1604
- King Lear, 1605
- Macbeth, 1606
- Antony and Cleopatra, 1606-07
- Coriolanus, 1607-08
- Timon of Athens, 1607-08
- Pericles, 1607-08
- Cymbeline, 1609-10
- The Winter's Tale, 1610-11
- The Tempest, 1611
- Henry VIII (may have collaborated on this play with Fletcher), 1612-13
- Cardenio (a lost play; may have collaborated with Fletcher), 1612-13
- The Two Noble Kinsmen (may have collaborated on this play with Fletcher), 1613
If you'd like more information on any of the topics in this lecture, see the Links page. Enjoy!
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Shakespeare the Man, by A. L. Rowse
2. Shakespeare's Life and Art, by Peter Alexander.
3. A Literary History of England, ed. Albert C. Baugh