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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
William Shakespeare

The world's most performed playwright. The first record of him is his baptism in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26 April 1564, but the tradition is that he was born on April 23 (a date which has the added national attraction of being St *George's day). This was also the date on which he died 52 years later.

His father was a leading citizen of the town and his mother was born Mary *Arden. It is a safe assumption that Shakespeare was given a good education at Stratford's *grammar school. When he was 18 he married Anne *Hathaway, who was about seven years older than him. For the next ten years nothing is known of his life, but by the early 1590s he was in London and making a name for himself as poet, playwright and actor. The only works which he wrote for publication date from this period, being two rhetorical exercises in epic verse, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). The *Sonnets, private poems for a circle of friends, were probably also written during the 1590s.

The social mix of the theatrical audience of the time helped develop Shakespeare's art, for no other playwright has so successfully combined the highest flights of poetry with such broad comedy. After three uneven chronicle plays on Henry VI, his first unqualified success was *Richard III, which is thought to date from 1592–3. In the next few years he continued his coverage of English history of the previous two centuries, with *Richard II and the two parts of *Henry IV (where his ability to create a rounded comic character finds perfect expression in *Falstaff) and finally with *Henry V.

By this time other sides of his multifaceted genius had revealed themselves – in the tragic romance of *Romeo and Juliet, the comic romance of A *Midsummer Night's Dream, *As You Like It and *Twelfth Night, the knockabout comedy of The *Taming of the Shrew and The *Merry Wives of Windsor, and the historical tragedy of *Julius Caesar. All these are believed to have been written by about 1600, when Shakespeare was 36.

He had been for some years a leading member of London's best theatrical company, the *Chamberlain's Men, and as such he owned a share in the new theatre, the *Globe, which they built in 1599 on Bankside. So it was the patrons of the Globe who were the first audiences for the great series of tragedies which now followed, starting with *Hamlet in about 1601, and continuing with *Othello, *Macbeth and *King Lear.

Although Shakespeare is believed to have written parts of *Henry VIII (during a performance of which in 1613 the Globe caught fire and was destroyed), The *Tempest is generally considered his last play. At the end of it the magician, Prospero, destroys his magic staff and book – an appropriate touch, since at about this time Shakespeare seems to have given up the theatre and retired to New Place, the house which he had bought in Stratford.

Since the age of 44 he had been a grandfather, his elder daughter Susanna having herself had a daughter in 1604 (who became his last surviving descendant, and died in 1670). His only son Hamnet had died at the age of 11, some four years before the writing of Hamlet. When Shakespeare himself died, he was buried in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford.

Tradition maintains that he chose the doggerel verse above the grave:
Good friend, for Jesu's sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
Within a few years of his death a bust of Shakespeare was put up on the wall of the church, where it may still be seen. It is one of the only two portraits which have any authenticity.

The other is the so-called Droeshout Portrait, the print commissioned from Martin Droeshout for the title-page of the *First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, published as a tribute to him in 1623 by his fellow actors. There was a strong disincentive to publish the plays when they were new (with no law of copyright, the authentic text was a closely guarded property of the theatre company), but during his life about half the plays had appeared as separate *quartos. Their titles differ not only from quarto to quarto but even in separate parts of the First Folio, with the result that some are still used in slightly varying forms today.

In spite of all the changes of fashion, Shakespeare's plays have held their own at every period as the most frequently performed works on the English-speaking stage. The theory that a boy from provincial Stratford could not have written them (the *Baconian theory) derives more from snobbery than scholarship.

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