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The Comedy of Errors
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.
SOLINUS, Duke of Ephesus.AEGEON, a Merchant of Syracuse.ANTIPHOLUS OF EPHESUS, Twin brothers and sons to Aegion and ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE, and Aemelia, but unknown to each other.
DROMIO OF EPHESUS, Twin brothers, and attendants onDROMIO OF SYRACUSE, the two Antipholuses.
BALTHAZAR, a Merchant.ANGELO, a Goldsmith.A MERCHANT, friend to Antipholus of Syracuse.PINCH, a Schoolmaster and a Conjurer.
AEMILIA, Wife to Aegeon, an Abbess at Ephesus.ADRIANA, Wife to Antipholus of Ephesus.LUCIANA, her Sister.LUCE, her Servant.
A COURTEZANGaoler, Officers, Attendants
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
SCENE 1. A hall in the DUKE'S palace.
[Enter the DUKE, AEGEON, GAOLER, OFFICERS, and other ATTENDANTS.]
AEGEON.Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall,And, by the doom of death, end woes and all.
DUKE.Merchant of Syracuse, plead no more;I am not partial to infringe our laws:The enmity and discord which of lateSprung from the rancorous outrage of your dukeTo merchants, our well-dealing countrymen,--Who, wanting guilders to redeem their lives,Have seal'd his rigorous statutes with their bloods,--Excludes all pity from our threat'ning looks.For, since the mortal and intestine jars'Twixt thy seditious countrymen and us,It hath in solemn synods been decreed,Both by the Syracusians and ourselves,To admit no traffic to our adverse towns;Nay, more,If any born at Ephesus be seenAt any Syracusian marts and fairs;--Again, if any Syracusian bornCome to the bay of Ephesus, he dies,His goods confiscate to the Duke's dispose;Unless a thousand marks be levied,To quit the penalty and to ransom him.--Thy substance, valued at the highest rate,Cannot amount unto a hundred marks:Therefore by law thou art condemn'd to die.
AEGEON.Yet this my comfort,--when your words are done,My woes end likewise with the evening sun.
DUKE.Well, Syracusan, say, in brief, the causeWhy thou departedst from thy native home,And for what cause thou cam'st to Ephesus.
AEGEON.A heavier task could not have been impos'dThan I to speak my griefs unspeakable!Yet, that the world may witness that my endWas wrought by nature, not by vile offence,I'll utter what my sorrow gives me leave.In Syracuse was I born; and wedUnto a woman, happy but for me,And by me too, had not our hap been bad.With her I liv'd in joy; our wealth increas'dBy prosperous voyages I often madeTo Epidamnum, till my factor's death,And he,--great care of goods at random left,--Drew me from kind embracements of my spouse:From whom my absence was not six months old,Before herself,--almost at fainting underThe pleasing punishment that women bear,--Had made provision for her following me,And soon and safe arrived where I was.There had she not been long but she becameA joyful mother of two goodly sons;And, which was strange, the one so like the otherAs could not be disdnguish'd but by names.That very hour, and in the self-same inn,A mean woman was deliveredOf such a burden, male twins, both alike:Those,--for their parents were exceeding poor,--I bought, and brought up to attend my sons.My wife, not meanly proud of two such boys,Made daily motions for our home return:Unwilling I agreed; alas! too soon!We came aboard:A league from Epidamnum had we sail'dBefore the always-wind-obeying deepGave any tragic instance of our harm;But longer did we not retain much hope:For what obscured light the heavens did grantDid but convey unto our fearful mindsA doubtful warrant of immediate death;Which though myself would gladly have embrac'd,Yet the incessant weepings of my wife,Weeping before for what she saw must come,And piteous plainings of the pretty babes,That mourn'd for fashion, ignorant what to fear,Forc'd me to seek delays for them and me.And this it was,--for other means was none.--The sailors sought for safety by our boat,And left the ship, then sinking-ripe, to us;:My wife, more careful for the latter-born,Had fast'ned him unto a small spare mast,Such as sea-faring men provide for storms:To him one of the other twins was bound,Whilst I had been like heedful of the other.The children thus dispos'd, my wife and I,Fixing our eyes on whom our care was fix'd,Fast'ned ourselves at either end the mast,And, floating straight, obedient to the stream,Were carried towards Corinth, as we thought.At length the sun, gazing upon the earth,Dispers'd those vapours that offended us;And, by the benefit of his wish'd light,The seas wax'd calm, and we discover'dTwo ships from far making amain to us,--Of Corinth that, of Epidaurus this:But ere they came--O, let me say no more!--Gather the sequel by that went before.
DUKE.Nay, forward, old man, do not break off so;For we may pity, though not pardon thee.
AEGEON.O, had the gods done so, I had not nowWorthily term'd them merciless to us!For, ere the ships could meet by twice five leagues,We were encount'red by a mighty rock,Which being violently borne upon,Our helpful ship was splitted in the midst;So that, in this unjust divorce of us,Fortune had left to both of us alikeWhat to delight in, what to sorrow for.Her part, poor soul! seeming as burdenedWith lesser weight, but not with lesser woe,Was carried with more speed before the wind;And in our sight they three were taken upBy fishermen of Corinth, as we thought.At length another ship had seiz'd on us;And, knowing whom it was their hap to save,Gave healthful welcome to their ship-wreck'd guests;And would have reft the fishers of their prey,Had not their bark been very slow of sail,And therefore homeward did they bend their course.--