“To be or not to be,” said Hamlet, prince of Denmark, “that is the question.” Yesterday, Hamlet’s creator was; today, he is not. Of that there is no question.
The poet, playwright, actor and theatrical-company shareholder William Shakespeare (sometimes spelled Shakspeare, Shagspere, Shaxpere, Shaxberd or any number of blessed ways) died today, April 23, 1616, at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was, more or less, 52. His passing was confirmed by his daughter Judith.
Over the course of three decades, Shakespeare rose from working-class obscurity in Warwickshire to become one of England’s foremost playwrights and poets — acclaimed for his penetrating insights into the human character; his eloquent, flexible and infinitely expressive verse; and his readiness to burst the bounds of the English language (drawing on a vocabulary of more than 25,000 words).
Thanes, Romans, countrymen
Among the deeply flawed characters who have strutted and fretted their hour on Shakespeare’s stage, perhaps the foremost is Hamlet, who must decide whether or not to kill the uncle who murdered his father and married his mother. It takes him as much as five hours to decide, depending on the performance, and by then, a good portion of Denmark is dead.
Had Hamlet never existed, playgoers would still speak of Macbeth, an upwardly mobile and downwardly moral Scottish thane who, with the steady prodding of his wife, who may be mad, lets nothing stand between him and the throne and is defeated only by a combination of a C-section baby and traveling trees.
Other immortal creations: Julius Caesar, a great Roman leader who gets a whole play named after him but dies in Act 3; Romeo and Juliet, two young Veronians from warring families who fall in love the only way teenagers can — for keeps; King Lear, a senescent king who disinherits the one daughter who actually likes him; Othello, a brave Moorish soldier who becomes, after a few well-timed prods and a suspicious handkerchief, the kind of fellow who requires a restraining order.
Yet, as indelible as Shakespeare’s tragic creations are, his comedies have proved every bit as enduring. In “The Taming of the Shrew,” a husband uses a variety of psychological torture devices to make his strong-minded wife compliant. (He thinks.)
In “Much Ado About Nothing,” Benedick, a confirmed bachelor, meets Beatrice, a confirmed bachelorette, and together they create the world’s first rom-com. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” scheming fairies make sport with moonstruck lovers, and a queen becomes enamored of an ass, which is not the first time that ever happened.
Shakespeare devoted nearly a quarter of his dramaturgical output to chronicling his native country’s brawling, bloody past. Though not factual in the most scrupulous sense, his history plays bring to roaring life the full panoply of England’s dynasts and claimants and insurgents, all doing whatever it takes to get or keep a crown.
Who could forget the deposed Richard II? (“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the deaths of kings.”) Who could forget the malevolent Richard III? (“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”) Who could forget that great rabble-rouser, Henry V? (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;/Or close the wall up with our English dead!”)
Who could forget Henry VI? Well, we have forgotten him, just a little. Those were early plays.
Imaginative breadth, rapier wit, profound psychological depth, the commercial instincts of a bear-baiter — all these qualities descended, Muselike, upon a glover’s son.
Glover’s son and plot thief
William Shakespeare was born on April 23rd-ish, 1564. His mother was Mary Arden. His father was John Shakespeare, an aspirational sort who worked his way up the social ladder from glovering and whittawering to constabling, burgessing, chamberlaining and, finally, high bailiffing. (Mayoring, if you like.) Sadly, Shakespeare pere was prosecuted four times for wool trading and usury, which may explain why he retired from public life when Will was just 12.
Of William Shakespeare’s four sisters, only one survived to adulthood. Of his three brothers, Shakespeare was the only one who married. From an age that put little store in records, this is practically all we know about his brothers and sisters.
Shakespeare almost certainly received a fine classical education at Stratford’s local grammar school and may have, at some point, acquired French and Italian. His grasp of both geography and history was finite. (No one seems to have informed him that Milan and Verona are not seaports. With all due respect to “Julius Caesar,” the ancient Romans didn’t own clocks, and “Antony and Cleopatra,” the ancient Egyptians, didn’t play billiards. Cato was born roughly three centuries later than “Coriolanus” suggests. Et cetera.)
At the age of 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who gets a nod in one of his later sonnets (“‘I hate’ from hate away she threw/And saved my life, saying ‘not you’”) but about whom precious little is known except that she was eight years older. The record notes, sans judgment, that she was also several months pregnant when they married. Did she entrap him? Did he climb into the trap and calmly fasten its sweet, warm metal jaws around him? The world will never know.
Nor is anyone entirely sure what Shakespeare was doing from 1585 to 1592, other than, at some point, making his way to London, where his vaulting ambition manifested itself through acting in and writing plays.
By 1592, he was enough of a colossus in the theatrical establishment that a dying malcontent named Robert Greene felt the need to drag him to earth, comparing him to “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers” and “is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.” (Greene’s editor later apologized, which is what powerful friends can do for you.)
According to the images that survive of him, Shakespeare was on the balding side and looked surprisingly good with an earring.
Lord Chamberlain’s Men
For most of his career, he wrote for a theater company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, founded in 1594. As a shareholder, Shakespeare benefited both from the troupe’s financial successes and from its ability to survive the winds of Elizabethan political change. (The company’s association with the Earl of Essex became briefly problematic when Essex mounted the world’s most ineffectual revolt against the queen.) With the accession of James I, the players changed their name to the King’s Men and performed before His Majesty on 187 occasions, more than all rival companies put together. The king loved his men.
Before he died, Shakespeare saw his plays performed at Blackfriars Theater, at the Globe (which burned down during a performance of “Henry VIII,” an event perhaps more exciting than anything that happens during “Henry VIII”), at the Inns of Court and at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. His audience extended beyond the bounds of Albion. In 1607, it is reported, the English crew of the Red Dragon merchant ship performed “Hamlet” for local leaders in Sierra Leone. To no small amount of bafflement, one might wager.
In all, Shakespeare wrote between 37 and 40 plays, depending on whom you ask. Some he wrote in collaboration. “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” for instance, does not make sense as the work of a single playwright; in fact, it makes little sense at all. Only 18 of Shakespeare’s plays were published over the course of his life — in flimsy little quartos that practically dissolve if they’re looked at too closely. “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar” are still waiting, but sources say that seven years hence, two of Shakespeare’s acting colleagues will reassemble almost all of the plays into a quasi-definitive First Folio. (We are prescient that way.)
Shakespeare didn’t hesitate to steal plots — from Seneca and Plutarch and Ovid, from Spenser and Chaucer and Holinshed’s Chronicles. Nor did he hesitate to alter those plots. (According to Holinshed, Macbeth’s witches were originally nymphs.) Nor did he hesitate to coin new words. More than 2,000 received their first recorded use in his work, including barefaced, assassination, excellent, frugal, eyeball, auspicious, swagger, zany, summit, moonbeam, obscene, cold-blooded, hot-blooded, epileptic, fashionable, gossip, lonely, grovel, torture, manager, well-read, buzzer and rant.
It should be added that Shakespeare was equally, if not more, revered in his lifetime for his nontheatrical poetry. His “Rape of Lucrece” (not as graphic as it sounds) went into multiple reprints, and “Venus and Adonis” — dedicated to the 3rd Earl of Southampton — was the greatest publishing coup of his career, far outselling any editions of his plays.
Lovers of verse particularly revere Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, which include these fragrant lines: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”; “Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds”; “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,/I all alone beweep my outcast state”; “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”
Shakespeare never subscribed to the penniless-artist school and hoarded his coins as assiduously as Shylock, twice defaulting on fairly measly tax payments. By the time he reached the age of “the lean and slippered pantaloon,” he had purchased high-end real estate in both London and Stratford, as well as a coat of arms. An aspirer just like his father.
Through it all, he continued, rather surprisingly, to act in plays — including his own and those of his friendly rival Ben Jonson. Reached today for comment, Jonson said Shakespeare was “a monument without a tomb” and “not of an age but for all time.” After a couple of ales, Jonson added that his old friend knew “small Latin and less Greek” and, when it was remarked that Shakespeare never had to blot a paper with edits, Jonson snapped, “Would he had blotted a thousand!” (Shakespeare’s other rival, Christopher Marlowe, was unavailable for comment, having been dead 23 years.)
Who got the best bed?
At some point between 1610 and 1613, Shakespeare seems to have retired from the stage. He still got down to London but may have spent increasing amounts of time in Stratford, where he concerned himself with such weighty spiritual affairs as road repairs and land enclosures. It is possible he gardened. It is possible he bored friends and family with hoary stage anecdotes.
He is survived by his wife, Anne, who was bequeathed his second-best bed; his aforementioned daughter, Judith; another daughter, Susanna; and a granddaughter, Elizabeth. He is preceded in death by his son Hamnet and by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who shuffled off this mortal coil well before some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays were even written. Or did he?
Shakespeare will also be survived by: Bardolaters, conspiracy theorists, Freudian theorists, postcolonial theorists, Shakespeare-studies minors, readers in at least 80 languages (including Krio, spoken by freed slaves in Sierra Leone), Stratford-upon-Avon tourists in open-top double-decker buses (“Mind the branches”), “West Side Story,” T-shirts, coffee mugs, key rings, mints, board games, action figures, college-dorm posters, Christmas tree ornaments, bookmarks, temporary tattoos, magnetic poetry kits, shower curtains, onesies, twosies, inspirational memes and Harold Bloom.
In addition, Shakespeare will be survived by Shakespeare.
As long as we speak of “star-crossed lovers” or “cold comfort” or “a pound of flesh” or “a laughingstock” or “a wild-goose chase”; as long as we call imps “puckish” and morbidly obese people “Falstaffian” and refer to jealousy as “the green-eyed monster”; as long as we use phrases like “It’s Greek to me” or “To thine own self be true” or “Clothes make the man” or “The lady doth protest too much” or “Give the devil his due,” Shakespeare will be shaping our everyday speech.
And as long as we wrestle with what it means to be human, Shakespeare will be our companion and our lodestar. The words of Hamlet serve as fitting epitaph for his creator: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!”