Drama had become very popular in England during the later Middle
Ages, beginning with morality plays and evolving into a more
entertainment as the power of the Church weakened. In 1534, "...King
VIII...renounced the sovereignty of the Pope and declared himself the
of the English Church....Between 1536 and 1542 all the religious
were seized and their possessions confiscated by the Crown. By degrees
the English language, instead of Church Latin, became the language for
religious offices" (Bell and Grebanier, English Literature: The
to 1800, 62). By the time of the High Renaissance, acting
had been formed, many theatres had been built, and universities were
studies in classic Roman drama.
The typical Elizabethan theatre was a round or octagonal
construction with a semi-roofed stage area and a roofed three-story
The stage itself was a raised platform backed by a tiring-house which
as an actors' dressing room as well as providing background scenery
complete with balcony if necessary. Actors entered and exited the stage
via the tiring-house, or in special circumstances from trap doors in
stage floor, or from the ceiling, also called the shadow or heavens.
stage was open on three sides, and a penny admission would garner
room (for the "groundlings") in the open yard area, with gallery
available at double that price. Topping the tiring-house was a turret
small hut from which a flag flew or a trumpeter blew to announce the
performance, always performed between the hours of two and four or five
in the afternoon. The Globe Theatre, built at Bankside, south of the
in 1598-99, is most often associated with Shakespeare, as he was both a
shareholder and an actor there. The Globe was destroyed when it caught
fire during a performance of Henry VIII in 1613; it was rebuilt
the following year, then closed by the Puritans in 1642, and demolished
in 1644. A faithful reconstruction of the Globe Theatre was opened on
South Bank in London in June 1997.
An adaptation of Johannes de Witt's sketch of the
Theatre, c. 1596
William Shakespeare is universally recognized as the world's
playwright/poet, producing perhaps the most famous sonnets in the world
and, with his 36 plays, proving equally adept at comic, tragic, and
The First Folio of 1623 provides the only text for 18 of Shakespeare's
plays. Approximately 125 copies of the Folio are still existence
and about 75 of the copies are in the Folger Library in Washington. No
authorial handwritten (signature) versions of any of the plays exist.
the composition of Shakespeare's plays with any pretense to accuracy is
difficult at best and impossible at worst. To approximate a date, we
rely on a number of possibilities:
- 1564: William Shakespeare born to John and Mary Arden Shakespeare
and baptized on April 26th. John Shakespeare was a leatherworker
by trade and a politician by choice; he was elected Ale-taster of
Stratford in 1557 and Chamberlain in 1561. His wife had already given
birth to two children (Joan, born 1558, died at the age of 2 months,
probably from bubonic plague; and Margaret, born 1562, died one year
later, probably from the plague as well). William probably attended the
school (King Edward IV Grammar School, aka King's New School), which
offered free tuition to sons of burgesses.
- 1565: Father John is elected Alderman of Stratford.
- 1566: A brother, Gilbert, is born.
- 1568: Father John is elected Mayor of Stratford.
- 1569: A sister, Joan (named after her deceased sibling), is born;
she would survive all her siblings (dying in 1646 at the age of 77).
She married a hatter named William Hart and had four children, one of
whom (William Jr.) became an actor.
- 1570: Father John is accused of Usury.
- 1571: A sister, Anne, is born.
- 1574: A brother, Richard, is born.
- 1578: Father John falls behind in payment of taxes; William is
withdrawn from school.
- 1579: Sister Anne Shakespeare dies, probably from bubonic plague.
- 1581: A brother, Edmund, is born.
- 1582: William obtains a marriage license on November 27th for
- 1583: Daughter Susanna born and christened on May 26th.
- 1585: Twins Judith and Hamnet born and christened on February 2nd.
- 1586: Father John is removed from the Stratford Board of Aldermen.
- 1589: William is named with his parents in a land dispute in
Wilmcote near Stratford.
- 1592: Henry VI Part 1
is produced by Lord Strange's Men at The Rose; Robert Greene, London
playwright and theatre critic, publishes
printed allusion to William Shakespeare, calling him "an upstart Crow"
in a pamphlet titled Groatsworth of
- 1592-1593: Theatres close because of plague.
- 1593: William is a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later
Men, a theatrical group sponsored by the head of the royal household.
- 1596: Hamnet Shakespeare, William's only son, dies (possibly from
the plague) and is buried on
- 1597: William purchases New Place, a substantial residence in
- 1599: William is granted a request for a coat-of-arms and becomes
shareholder in the Globe Theatre; father John is reinstated on the
Stratford Town Council.
- 1601: Father John Shakespeare dies.
- 1607: Brother Edmund Shakespeare (who was an actor in London)
dies, probably from bubonic plague; William pays for his funeral.
Daughter Susanna marries Dr. John Hall.
- 1608: Daughter Susanna gives birth to Elizabeth Hall; Mother Mary
(Arden) Shakespeare dies.
- 1612: Brother Gilbert Shakespeare (who was a London haberdasher)
dies; William retires to Stratford.
- 1613: Brother Richard Shakespeare dies; Globe Theatre is
destroyed by fire.
- 1614: Globe Theatre is rebuilt.
- 1616: Daughter Judith marries Thomas Quiney; William Shakespeare
dies on April 23rd and is buried on April 25th in the
Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.
- 1623: Publication of the First Folio of his collected plays by
- terminus a quo — the point from which it could be written
- terminus a quin — the limit to which it could be written
- Revel's account — Master of the Revels was the sole issuer of
licenses from the reign of Henry VII until 1737.
- reference to contemporary events
- indebtedness to earlier plays
- author's style and progress as a writer
- Stationer's Register
- scattered reference to plays in publications of the time
Shakespeare's importance: Neither before nor since has a writer
demonstrated such universal appeal as William Shakespeare. His
is drawn from every walk of life, as are his characters. His comedies
always contain tragic elements, just as his tragedies almost always
comic elements. He plumbs the depths of the human heart and soars the
of the human spirit.
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