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A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Biography of Shakespeare
Since William Shakespeare lived more than 400 years ago, and many records from that time are lost or never existed in the first place, we don't know everything about his life. For example, we know that he was baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon, 100 miles northwest of London, on April 26, 1564. But we don't know his exact birthdate, which must have been a few days earlier.
We do know that Shakespeare's life revolved around two locations: Stratford and London. He grew up, had a family, and bought property in Stratford, but he worked in London, the center of English theater. As an actor, a playwright, and a partner in a leading acting company, he became both prosperous and well-known. Even without knowing everything about his life, fans of Shakespeare have imagined and reimagined him according to their own tastes, just as we see with the 19th-century portrait of Shakespeare wooing his wife at the top of this page.
William Shakespeare was probably born on about April 23, 1564, the date that is traditionally given for his birth. He was John and Mary Shakespeare's oldest surviving child; their first two children, both girls, did not live beyond infancy. Growing up as the big brother of the family, William had three younger brothers, Gilbert, Richard, and Edmund, and two younger sisters: Anne, who died at seven, and Joan.
Their father, John Shakespeare, was a leatherworker who specialized in the soft white leather used for gloves and similar items. A prosperous businessman, he married Mary Arden, of the prominent Arden family. John rose through local offices in Stratford, becoming an alderman and eventually, when William was five, the town bailiff—much like a mayor. Not long after that, however, John Shakespeare stepped back from public life; we don't know why.
Shakespeare, as the son of a leading Stratford citizen, almost certainly attended Stratford's grammar school. Like all such schools, its curriculum consisted of an intense emphasis on the Latin classics, including memorization, writing, and acting classic Latin plays. Shakespeare most likely attended until about age 15.
For several years after Judith and Hamnet's arrival in 1585, nothing is known for certain of Shakespeare's activities: how he earned a living, when he moved from Stratford, or how he got his start in the theater.
Following this gap in the record, the first definite mention of Shakespeare is in 1592 as an established London actor and playwright, mocked by a contemporary as a "Shake-scene." The same writer alludes to one of Shakespeare's earliest history plays, Henry VI, Part 3, which must already have been performed. The next year, in 1593, Shakespeare published a long poem, Venus and Adonis. The first quarto editions of his early plays appeared in 1594. For more than two decades, Shakespeare had multiple roles in the London theater as an actor, playwright, and, in time, a business partner in a major acting company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men (renamed the King's Men in 1603). Over the years, he became steadily more famous in the London theater world; his name, which was not even listed on the first quartos of his plays, became a regular feature—clearly a selling point—on later title pages.
Shakespeare prospered financially from his partnership in the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later the King's Men), as well as from his writing and acting. He invested much of his wealth in real-estate purchases in Stratford and bought the second-largest house in town, New Place, in 1597.
Among the last plays that Shakespeare worked on was The Two Noble Kinsmen, which he wrote with a frequent collaborator, John Fletcher, most likely in 1613. He died on April 23, 1616—the traditional date of his birthday, though his precise birthdate is unknown. We also do not know the cause of his death. His brother-in-law had died a week earlier, which could imply infectious disease, but Shakespeare's health may have had a longer decline.
The memorial bust of Shakespeare at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford is considered one of two authentic likenesses, because it was approved by people who knew him. (The bust in the Folger's Paster Reading Room, shown at left, is a copy of this statue.) The other such likeness is the engraving by Martin Droeshout in the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays, produced seven years after his death by his friends and colleagues from the King's Men.
THESEUS, Duke of Athens. EGEUS, Father to Hermia. LYSANDER, in love with Hermia. DEMETRIUS, in love with Hermia. PHILOSTRATE, Master of the Revels to Theseus. QUINCE, the Carpenter. SNUG, the Joiner. BOTTOM, the Weaver. FLUTE, the Bellows-mender. SNOUT, the Tinker. STARVELING, the Tailor.
HIPPOLYTA, Queen of the Amazons, bethrothed to Theseus. HERMIA, daughter to Egeus, in love with Lysander. HELENA, in love with Demetrius.
OBERON, King of the Fairies. TITANIA, Queen of the Fairies. PUCK, or ROBIN GOODFELLOW, a Fairy. PEASBLOSSOM, Fairy. COBWEB, Fairy. MOTH, Fairy. MUSTARDSEED, Fairy.
PYRAMUS, THISBE, WALL, MOONSHINE, LION } Characters in the Interlude performed by the Clowns.
Other Fairies attending their King and Queen. Attendants on Theseus and Hippolyta.
SCENE: Athens, and a wood not far from it.
SCENE I. Athens. A room in the Palace of THESEUS.
[Enter THESEUS, HIPPOLYTA, PHILOSTRATE, and Attendants.]
THESEUS Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour Draws on apace; four happy days bring in Another moon; but, oh, methinks, how slow This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires, Like to a step-dame or a dowager, Long withering out a young man's revenue.
HIPPOLYTA Four days will quickly steep themselves in nights; Four nights will quickly dream away the time; And then the moon, like to a silver bow New bent in heaven, shall behold the night Of our solemnities.
THESEUS Go, Philostrate, Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments; Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth; Turn melancholy forth to funerals-- The pale companion is not for our pomp. --
Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword, And won thy love doing thee injuries; But I will wed thee in another key, With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.
[Enter EGEUS, HERMIA, LYSANDER, and DEMETRIUS.]
EGEUS Happy be Theseus, our renowned duke!
THESEUS Thanks, good Egeus: what's the news with thee?
EGEUS Full of vexation come I, with complaint Against my child, my daughter Hermia.-- Stand forth, Demetrius.--My noble lord, This man hath my consent to marry her:-- Stand forth, Lysander;--and, my gracious duke, This man hath bewitch'd the bosom of my child. Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes, And interchang'd love-tokens with my child: Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung, With feigning voice, verses of feigning love; And stol'n the impression of her fantasy With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits, Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats,--messengers Of strong prevailment in unharden'd youth;-- With cunning hast thou filch'd my daughter's heart; Turned her obedience, which is due to me, To stubborn harshness.--And, my gracious duke, Be it so she will not here before your grace Consent to marry with Demetrius, I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,-- As she is mine I may dispose of her: Which shall be either to this gentleman Or to her death; according to our law Immediately provided in that case.
THESEUS What say you, Hermia? be advis'd, fair maid: To you your father should be as a god; One that compos'd your beauties: yea, and one To whom you are but as a form in wax, By him imprinted, and within his power To leave the figure, or disfigure it. Demetrius is a worthy gentleman.
HERMIA So is Lysander.
THESEUS In himself he is: But, in this kind, wanting your father's voice, The other must be held the worthier.
HERMIA I would my father look'd but with my eyes.
THESEUS Rather your eyes must with his judgment look.
HERMIA I do entreat your grace to pardon me. I know not by what power I am made bold, Nor how it may concern my modesty In such a presence here to plead my thoughts: But I beseech your grace that I may know The worst that may befall me in this case If I refuse to wed Demetrius.
THESEUS Either to die the death, or to abjure For ever the society of men. Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires, Know of your youth, examine well your blood, Whether, if you yield not to your father's choice, You can endure the livery of a nun; For aye to be shady cloister mew'd, To live a barren sister all your life, Chanting faint hymns to the cold, fruitless moon. Thrice-blessed they that master so their blood To undergo such maiden pilgrimage: But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn, Grows, lives, and dies, in single blessedness.
HERMIA So will I grow, so live, so die, my lord, Ere I will yield my virgin patent up Unto his lordship, whose unwished yoke My soul consents not to give sovereignty.
THESEUS Take time to pause; and by the next new moon,-- The sealing-day betwixt my love and me For everlasting bond of fellowship,-- Upon that day either prepare to die For disobedience to your father's will; Or else to wed Demetrius, as he would; Or on Diana's altar to protest For aye austerity and single life.
DEMETRIUS Relent, sweet Hermia;--and, Lysander, yield Thy crazed title to my certain right.
LYSANDER You have her father's love, Demetrius; Let me have Hermia's: do you marry him.
EGEUS Scornful Lysander! true, he hath my love; And what is mine my love shall render him; And she is mine; and all my right of her I do estate unto Demetrius.
LYSANDER I am, my lord, as well deriv'd as he, As well possess'd; my love is more than his; My fortunes every way as fairly rank'd, If not with vantage, as Demetrius's; And, which is more than all these boasts can be, I am belov'd of beauteous Hermia: Why should not I then prosecute my right? Demetrius, I'll avouch it to his head, Made love to Nedar's daughter, Helena, And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes, Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry, Upon this spotted and inconstant man.
THESEUS I must confess that I have heard so much, And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof; But, being over-full of self-affairs, My mind did lose it.--But, Demetrius, come; And come, Egeus; you shall go with me; I have some private schooling for you both.-- For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself To fit your fancies to your father's will, Or else the law of Athens yields you up,-- Which by no means we may extenuate,-- To death, or to a vow of single life.-- Come, my Hippolyta: what cheer, my love? Demetrius, and Egeus, go along; I must employ you in some business Against our nuptial, and confer with you Of something nearly that concerns yourselves.
EGEUS With duty and desire we follow you.
[Exeunt THESEUS, HIPPOLYTA, EGEUS, DEMETRIUS, and Train.]