*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Throughout human history, a small number of creative individuals have left a mark on the world that will last forever — arguably none more than William Shakespeare. After a prolific career writing plays and poems, the “Bard of Avon” died on April 23, 1616 at the age of 52. In the five centuries since he took London by storm, his influence on literature, the theater and even the English language continues to impress.
The third of eight children born to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, very little is known of the world-renowned playwright’s youth in Stratford-upon-Avon — even his birthday is a mystery. What can be said for certain is he was baptized on April 26, 1564 at a small church in the tiny town in west-central England. It is likely he attended King’s New School for a standard English education focused on Latin authors like Cicero, Ovid and Virgil before his marriage to Anne Hathaway near the end of November 1582 at the age of 18.
For the next decade, until his name began appearing in London theater circles, historians are left to speculate as to his career (possibly a teacher) and reasons for moving to the capital of England (allegedly fleeing a charge of deer poaching). Some claim he gained entry to the city’s performing arts culture by working as sort of valet for play attendees, caring for their horses while they watched the latest works of celebrated writers like Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe.
By 1592, however, Shakespeare was clearly an active participant, with his plays alluded to in Groats-Worth of Witte as “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers” by noted playwright Robert Greene — a dismissal of the relatively uneducated Shakespeare’s historical drama Henry VI, Part 3. Within two years, he was one of the chief performers and primary partners in Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an acting company, affording him the ability to exert more creative control on the plays he wrote.
Business boomed, in no small part due to Shakespeare’s by now classics like Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to mention his sweeping masterpieces on English kings, Richard III and Henry IV among them. In five short years, the company was financially secure enough to build its own venue on the banks of the River Thames, the infamous Globe Theatre. Having seen his personal wealth grow, Shakespeare moved Anne and his two remaining children into a large home in Stratford.
Despite the overwhelming success of their productions — enough to win a royal patent from King James I and a name change to the King’s Men — Shakespeare and his co-stars and fellow owners were somewhat dismissed by the London theatrical elite. Even as printed copies of his writings sold briskly and actors like Richard Burbage and William Kempe rose to fame bringing them to life on stage, some regarded his style as an affront to the Roman tradition revered during the period. That is not to say Shakespeare’s writings were not loved — his poems were extremely popular, even more than his plays — just that the scope of his legacy was hardly predictable at the time.
According to Nicholas Rowe, the first man to publish a biography of the Bard, Shakespeare retired to Stratford in 1613. Though he likely remained active in London, he published the last play bearing his name the same year, a minor collaboration for the King’s Men with John Fletcher called The Two Noble Kinsmen. Three years after stepping away from the stage, he died on April 23, 1616 at his home. Buried two days later at Holy Trinity Church, a short poem was inscribed on the stone laid over his burial plot:
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
Seven years after his death, John Heminges and Henry Condell — friends of Shakespeare and actors from the King’s Men — published First Folio, a 36-text collection of “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies.” Half of the manuscripts within were printed in full for the first time, including Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. The book also contained the only known copy of Macbeth, preventing the tale of royal treachery from being lost to history. In the preface, actor Ben Jonson wrote Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time.”
It would be more than a century before the truth of Jonson’s statement would be evident. Suppressed during the middle of the 1600s by a Puritan social movement led by Oliver Cromwell and then brushed aside for classically-inspired writings by Fletcher and Jonson, Shakespeare’s reputation blossomed once again by the 1760s. As his works reached continental Europe, luminaries of the Age of Enlightenment like Voltaire and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe praised Shakespeare’s particular flair for encapsulating tragedy and comedy from one moment to the next.
When Romanticism came to the fore in the early 19th century, and especially in the Victorian period that followed, Shakespeare was brought into the spotlight once again. By that time, A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson — leaning heavily on Shakespeare’s writings — had been in print for almost a century and writers like Thomas Carlyle were referring to him as “King Shakespeare.” (George Bernard Shaw, a playwright during the late 1800s and early 1900s, would call the fascination “bardolatry.”) During the 20th century, as his plays took the stage in even greater numbers, the Bard’s masterpieces became the most widely-performed by a large margin.
Beyond the artistic range of influence his 38 plays and 154 sonnets have had, Shakespeare can in some ways be credited as a father of modern English: according to scholars, as many as 1,700 words and phrases in common use today can be attributed to the text of his writings — even everyday words such as “hint” and “bedroom.”
Also On This Day:
1014 – Brian Boru leads Munster Irish forces to a victory over Viking-backed King of Leinster, Mael Morda mac Murchada, at the Battle of Clontarf, ending Viking influence in Ireland.
1635 – Boston Latin School, the first public school in the United States, is founded.
1920 – The Grand National Assembly of Turkey is founded in Ankara on the same day the government of Sultan Mehmed VI is denounced in favor of a temporary constitution.
1945 – Hermann Goering is fired by Adolf Hitler after requesting permission to take over the Third Reich.
1985 – Coca-Cola famously debuts an updated recipe as New Coke, receiving intensely negative feedback and pulling the formula three months later.