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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.
ALONSO, King of Naples SEBASTIAN, his Brother PROSPERO, the right Duke of Milan ANTONIO, his Brother, the usurping Duke of Milan FERDINAND, Son to the King of Naples GONZALO, an honest old counsellor ADRIAN, Lord FRANCISCO,Lord CALIBAN, a savage and deformed Slave TRINCULO, a Jester STEPHANO, a drunken Butler MASTER OF A SHIP BOATSWAIN MARINERS
MIRANDA, Daughter to Prospero
ARIEL, an airy Spirit
IRIS, presented by Spirits CERES, presented by Spirits JUNO, presented by Spirits NYMPHS, presented by Spirits REAPERS, presented by Spirits
Other Spirits attending on Prospero
SCENE: The sea, with a Ship; afterwards an Island
ACT 1 SCENE 1 [On a ship at sea; a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard]
[Enter a SHIPMASTER and a BOATSWAIN severally]
BOATSWAIN. Here, master: what cheer?
MASTER. Good! Speak to the mariners: fall to't yarely, or we run ourselves aground: bestir, bestir.
BOATSWAIN. Heigh, my hearts! cheerly, cheerly, my hearts! yare, yare! Take in the topsail. Tend to th' master's whistle.--Blow till thou burst thy wind, if room enough.
[Enter ALONSO, SEBASTIAN, ANTONIO, FERDINAND, GONZALO, and OTHERS]
ALONSO. Good boatswain, have care. Where's the master? Play the men.
BOATSWAIN. I pray now, keep below.
ANTONIO. Where is the master, boson?
BOATSWAIN. Do you not hear him? You mar our labour: keep your cabins: you do assist the storm.
GONZALO. Nay, good, be patient.
BOATSWAIN. When the sea is. Hence! What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin! silence! Trouble us not.
GONZALO. Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard.
BOATSWAIN. None that I more love than myself. You are counsellor: if you can command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more. Use your authority: if you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long, and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap.--Cheerly, good hearts!--Out of our way, I say.
GONZALO. I have great comfort from this fellow. Methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him: his complexion is perfect gallows. Stand fast, good Fate, to his hanging! make the rope of his destiny our cable, for our own doth little advantage! If he be not born to be hang'd, our case is miserable.
BOATSWAIN. Down with the topmast! yare! lower, lower! Bring her to try wi' th' maincourse. [A cry within] A plague upon this howling! They are louder than the weather or our office.--
[Re-enter SEBASTIAN, ANTONIO, and GONZALO]
Yet again! What do you here? Shall we give o'er, and drown? Have you a mind to sink?
SEBASTIAN. A pox o' your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!
BOATSWAIN. Work you, then.
ANTONIO. Hang, cur, hang! you whoreson, insolent noisemaker, we are less afraid to be drowned than thou art.
GONZALO. I'll warrant him for drowning, though the ship were no stronger than a nutshell, and as leaky as an unstanched wench.
BOATSWAIN. Lay her a-hold, a-hold! set her two courses: off to sea again: lay her off.
[Enter MARINERS, Wet]
MARINERS. All lost! to prayers, to prayers! all lost!
BOATSWAIN. What, must our mouths be cold?
GONZALO. The King and Prince at prayers! let us assist them, For our case is as theirs.
SEBASTIAN. I am out of patience.
ANTONIO. We are merely cheated of our lives by drunkards.-- This wide-chapp'd rascal--would thou might'st lie drowning The washing of ten tides!
GONZALO. He'll be hang'd yet, Though every drop of water swear against it, And gape at wid'st to glut him.
[A confused noise within:--'Mercy on us!'-- 'We split, we split!'--'Farewell, my wife and children!'-- 'Farewell, brother!'--'We split, we split, we split!'--]
ANTONIO. Let's all sink wi' the King.
SEBASTIAN. Let's take leave of him.
GONZALO. Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground; long heath, brown furze, any thing. The wills above be done! but I would fain die dry death.
[The Island. Before the cell of PROSPERO]
[Enter PROSPERO and MIRANDA]
MIRANDA. If by your art, my dearest father, you have Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them. The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch, But that the sea, mounting to th' welkin's cheek, Dashes the fire out. O! I have suffered With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel, Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her, Dash'd all to pieces. O! the cry did knock Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish'd. Had I been any god of power, I would Have sunk the sea within the earth, or e'er It should the good ship so have swallow'd and The fraughting souls within her.
PROSPERO. Be collected: No more amazement: tell your piteous heart There's no harm done.
MIRANDA. O! woe the day!
PROSPERO. No harm. I have done nothing but in care of thee, Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter, who Art ignorant of what thou art, nought knowing Of whence I am: nor that I am more better Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell, And thy no greater father.
MIRANDA. More to know Did never meddle with my thoughts.
PROSPERO. 'Tis time I should inform thee farther. Lend thy hand, And pluck my magic garment from me.--So:
[Lays down his mantle]
Lie there my art.--Wipe thou thine eyes; have comfort. The direful spectacle of the wrack, which touch'd The very virtue of compassion in thee, I have with such provision in mine art So safely ordered that there is no soul-- No, not so much perdition as an hair Betid to any creature in the vessel Which thou heard'st cry, which thou saw'st sink. Sit down; For thou must now know farther.
MIRANDA. You have often Begun to tell me what I am: but stopp'd, And left me to a bootless inquisition, Concluding 'Stay; not yet.'
PROSPERO. The hour's now come, The very minute bids thee ope thine ear; Obey, and be attentive. Canst thou remember A time before we came unto this cell? I do not think thou canst: for then thou wast not Out three years old.
MIRANDA. Certainly, sir, I can.
PROSPERO. By what? By any other house, or person? Of any thing the image, tell me, that Hath kept with thy remembrance.
MIRANDA. 'Tis far off, And rather like a dream than an assurance That my remembrance warrants. Had I not Four, or five, women once, that tended me?