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Much Ado About Nothing
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.
DON PEDRO, Prince of Arragon. DON JOHN, his bastard Brother. CLAUDIO, a young Lord of Florence. BENEDICK, a young Lord of Padua. LEONATO, Governor of Messina. ANTONIO, his Brother. BALTHAZAR, Servant to Don Pedro. BORACHIO, follower of Don John. CONRADE, follower of Don John. DOGBERRY, a Constable. VERGES, a Headborough. FRIAR FRANCIS. A Sexton. A Boy.
HERO, Daughter to Leonato. BEATRICE, Niece to Leonato. MARGARET, Waiting-gentlewoman attending on Hero. URSULA, Waiting-gentlewoman attending on Hero.
Messengers, Watch, Attendants, &c.
Scene I. Before LEONATO'S House.
[Enter LEONATO, HERO, BEATRICE and others, with a Messenger.]
LEONATO. I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Arragon comes this night to Messina.
MESSENGER. He is very near by this: he was not three leagues off when I left him.
LEONATO. How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?
MESSENGER. But few of any sort, and none of name.
LEONATO. A victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers. I find here that Don Pedro hath bestowed much honour on a young Florentine called Claudio.
MESSENGER. Much deserved on his part, and equally remembered by Don Pedro. He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion: he hath indeed better bettered expectation than you must expect of me to tell you how.
LEONATO. He hath an uncle here in Messina will be very much glad of it.
MESSENGER. I have already delivered him letters, and there appears much joy in him; even so much that joy could not show itself modest enough without a badge of bitterness.
LEONATO. Did he break out into tears?
MESSENGER. In great measure.
LEONATO. A kind overflow of kindness. There are no faces truer than those that are so washed; how much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at weeping!
BEATRICE. I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars or no?
MESSENGER. I know none of that name, lady: there was none such in the army of any sort.
LEONATO. What is he that you ask for, niece?
HERO. My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua.
MESSENGER. O! he is returned, and as pleasant as ever he was.
BEATRICE. He set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle's fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt. I pray you, how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed? for, indeed, I promised to eat all of his killing.
LEONATO. Faith, niece, you tax Signior Benedick too much; but he'll be meet with you, I doubt it not.
MESSENGER. He hath done good service, lady, in these wars.
BEATRICE. You had musty victual, and he hath holp to eat it; he is a very valiant trencher-man; he hath an excellent stomach.
MESSENGER. And a good soldier too, lady.
BEATRICE. And a good soldier to a lady; but what is he to a lord?
MESSENGER. A lord to a lord, a man to a man; stuffed with all honourable virtues.
BEATRICE. It is so indeed; he is no less than a stuffed man; but for the stuffing,--well, we are all mortal.
LEONATO. You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them.
BEATRICE. Alas! he gets nothing by that. In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one! so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse; for it is all the wealth that he hath left to be known a reasonable creature. Who is his companion now? He hath every month a new sworn brother.
MESSENGER. Is't possible?
BEATRICE. Very easily possible: he wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat; it ever changes with the next block.
MESSENGER. I see, lady, the gentleman is not in your books.
BEATRICE. No;an he were, I would burn my study. But, I pray you, who is his companion? Is there no young squarer now that will make a voyage with him to the devil?
MESSENGER. He is most in the company of the right noble Claudio.
BEATRICE. O Lord, he will hang upon him like a disease: he is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad. God help the noble Claudio! If he have caught the Benedick, it will cost him a thousand pound ere a' be cured.
MESSENGER. I will hold friends with you, lady.
BEATRICE. Do, good friend.
LEONATO. You will never run mad, niece.
BEATRICE. No, not till a hot January.
MESSENGER. Don Pedro is approached.
[Enter DON PEDRO, DON JOHN, CLAUDIO, BENEDICK, BALTHAZAR, and Others.]
DON PEDRO. Good Signior Leonato, you are come to meet your trouble: the fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you encounter it.
LEONATO. Never came trouble to my house in the likeness of your Grace, for trouble being gone, comfort should remain; but when you depart from me, sorrow abides and happiness takes his leave.
DON PEDRO. You embrace your charge too willingly. I think this is your daughter.
LEONATO. Her mother hath many times told me so.
BENEDICK. Were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?
LEONATO. Signior Benedick, no; for then were you a child.
DON PEDRO. You have it full, Benedick: we may guess by this what you are, being a man. Truly the lady fathers herself. Be happy, lady, for you are like an honourable father.
BENEDICK. If Signior Leonato be her father, she would not have his head on her shoulders for all Messina, as like him as she is.
BEATRICE. I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.
BENEDICK. What! my dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?
BEATRICE. Is it possible Disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain if you come in her presence.
BENEDICK. Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart;for, truly, I love none.
BEATRICE. A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that. I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
BENEDICK. God keep your ladyship still in that mind;so some gentleman or other shallscape a predestinate scratched face.
BEATRICE. Scratching could not make it worse, an 'twere such a face as yours were.
BENEDICK. Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
BEATRICE. A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
BENEDICK. I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i' God's name; I have done.
BEATRICE. You always end with a jade's trick: I know you of old.
DON PEDRO. That is the sum of all, Leonato: Signior Claudio, and Signior Benedick, my dear friend Leonato hath invited you all. I tell him we shall stay here at the least a month, and he heartly prays some occasion may detain us longer: I dare swear he is no hypocrite, but prays from his heart.
LEONATO. If you swear, my lord, you shall not be forsworn. [To DON JOHN] Let me bid you welcome, my lord: being reconciled to the prince your brother, I owe you all duty.
DON JOHN. I thank you: I am not of many words, but I thank you.
LEONATO. Please it your Grace lead on?
DON PEDRO. Your hand, Leonato;we will go together.
[Exeunt all but BENEDICK and CLAUDIO.]
CLAUDIO. Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato?
BENEDICK. I noted her not; but I looked on her.
CLAUDIO. Is she not a modest young lady?
BENEDICK. Do you question me, as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgment; or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?
CLAUDIO. No; I pray thee speak in sober judgment.
BENEDICK. Why, i' faith, methinks she's too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise; only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome, and being no other but as she is, I do not like her.
CLAUDIO. Thou thinkest I am in sport: I pray thee tell me truly how thou likest her.
BENEDICK. Would you buy her, that you enquire after her?
CLAUDIO. Can the world buy such a jewel?
BENEDICK. Yea, and a case to put it into. But speak you this with a sad brow, or do you play the flouting Jack, to tell us Cupid is a good hare-finder, and Vulcan a rare carpenter? Come, in what key shall a man take you, to go in the song?
CLAUDIO. In mine eye she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on.
BENEDICK. I can see yet without spectacles and I see no such matter: there's her cousin an she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December. But I hope you have no intent to turn husband, have you?
CLAUDIO. I would scarce trust myself, though I had sworn to the contrary, if Hero would be my wife.
BENEDICK. Is't come to this, i' faith? Hath not the world one man but he will wear his cap with suspicion? Shall I never see a bachelor of threescore again? Go to, i' faith; an thou wilt needs thrust thy neck into a yoke, wear the print of it and sigh away Sundays. Look! Don Pedro is returned to seek you.
[Re-enter DON PEDRO.]
DON PEDRO. What secret hath held you here, that you followed not to Leonato's?