William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-on-Avon. The
son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, he was probably educated at the King
Edward IV Grammar School in Stratford, where he learned Latin and a little
Greek and read the Roman dramatists. At eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, a
woman seven or eight years his senior. Together they raised two daughters:
Susanna, who was born in 1583, and Judith (whose twin brother died in boyhood),
born in 1585.
Little is known about Shakespeare's activities between 1585 and 1592. Robert
Greene's A Groatsworth of Wit alludes to him as an actor and playwright.
Shakespeare may have taught at school during this period, but it seems more
probable that shortly after 1585 he went to London to begin his apprenticeship
as an actor. Due to the plague, the London theaters were often closed between
June 1592 and April 1594. During that period, Shakespeare probably had some
income from his patron, Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, to whom he
dedicated his first two poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape
of Lucrece (1594). The fomer was a long narrative poem depicting the
rejection of Venus by Adonis, his death, and the consequent disappearance of
beauty from the world. Despite conservative objections to the poem's
glorification of sensuality, it was immensely popular and was reprinted six
times during the nine years following its publication.
In 1594, Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain's company of actors, the
most popular of the companies acting at Court. In 1599 Shakespeare joined a
group of Chamberlain's Men that would form a syndicate to build and operate a
new playhouse: the Globe, which became the most famous theater of its time.
With his share of the income from the Globe, Shakespeare was able to purchase
New Place, his home in Stratford.
While Shakespeare was regarded as the foremost dramatist of his time,
evidence indicates that both he and his contemporaries looked to poetry, not
playwriting, for enduring fame. Shakespeare's sonnets were composed between
1593 and 1601, though not published until 1609. That edition, The Sonnets of
Shakespeare, consists of 154 sonnets, all written in the form of three
quatrains and a couplet that is now recognized as Shakespearean. The sonnets
fall into two groups: sonnets 1-126, addressed to a beloved friend, a handsome
and noble young man, and sonnets 127-152, to a malignant but fascinating
"Dark Lady," whom the poet loves in spite of himself. Nearly all of
Shakespeare's sonnets examine the inevitable decay of time, and the
immortalization of beauty and love in poetry.
In his poems and plays, Shakespeare invented thousands of words, often
combining or contorting Latin, French and native roots. His impressive
expansion of the English language, according to the Oxford English
Dictionary, includes such words as: arch-villain, birthplace, bloodsucking,
courtship, dewdrop, downstairs, fanged, heartsore, hunchbacked, leapfrog,
misquote, pageantry, radiance, schoolboy, stillborn, watchdog, and zany.
Shakespeare wrote more than 30 plays. These are usually divided into four
categories: histories, comedies, tragedies, and romances. His earliest plays
were primarily comedies and histories such as Henry VI and The Comedy
of Errors, but in 1596, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, his
second tragedy, and over the next dozen years he would return to the form,
writing the plays for which he is now best known: Julius Caesar,
Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony
and Cleopatra. In his final years, Shakespeare turned to the romantic with
Cymbeline, A Winter's Tale, and The Tempest.
Only eighteen of Shakespeare's plays were published separately in quarto
editions during his lifetime; a complete collection of his works did not appear
until the publication of the First Folio in 1623, several years after his
death. Nonetheless, his contemporaries recognized Shakespeare's achievements.
Francis Meres cited "honey-tongued" Shakespeare for his plays and
poems in 1598, and the Chamberlain's Men rose to become the leading dramatic
company in London, installed as members of the royal household in 1603.
Sometime after 1612, Shakespeare retired from the stage and returned to his
home in Stratford. He drew up his will in January of 1616, which included his
famous bequest to his wife of his "second best bed." He died on April
23, 1616, and was buried two days later at Stratford Church.