A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) needs little introduction. As we pass the four-hundredth anniversary of his death, his reputation as one of the greatest writers in the English language is undeniable - except by those who attribute his works to other writers.
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, allegedly on 23 April 1564. His parents were John Shakespeare, a glover and leather merchant, and Mary Arden, a landed heiress. According to church records, he was the third of eight children. His father was quite successful during William’s early years, including time as an alderman and high bailiff. However, his fortunes declined through the 1570s.
There is no recorded proof of Shakespeare’s education, but it is surmised that he attended Stratford Grammar School, though it is known that he did not progress to university. Apart from his marriage to Anne Hathaway on 28 November 1582, there is practically nothing known about his life until he turned up in London around 1592. By 1594 he was acting and writing; his troupe of players were extremely popular and was patronised by royalty. After the plague forced many theatres to close, Shakespeare and his company planned the opening of the Globe Theatre.
In addition to the 36 plays*, Shakespeare wrote many poems and sonnets throughout his career for a private readership. Wordsworth Editions publishes a generous selection of his works, including his most significant plays, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Hamlet, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Henry V, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Richard II, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale, along with various compilations; The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and The Poems and Sonnets of William Shakespeare.
Evidence of his popularity and success was the fact that his works were published and sold at the height of his career. His success was sufficient to allow him to retire in comfort to Stratford in 1611. It is alleged that he died on his birthday, 23 April 1616, but this may just be a romantic myth.
* 36 without ‘Edward III’, but if you count Edward III that makes 37. If you count ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’, which he wrote but which is lost, and include ‘Edward III’, that makes 38.
***Since the late eighteenth century, there has been an ongoing discussion in some quarters over whether Shakespeare actually wrote his plays, partly based on a belief that nobody from the Midlands could be that literate, and secondly that the knowledge of foreign countries shown belied his background. The most popular contenders for the title of the true bard include Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, although the rank outsiders include Daniel Defoe and Queen Elizabeth.
The Royal Shakespeare Company website sums up their view quite concisely: ‘The phenomenon of disbelief in Shakespeare’s authorship is a psychological aberration of considerable interest. Endorsement of it in favour of aristocratic candidates may be ascribed to snobbery – reluctance to believe that works of genius could emanate from a man of relatively humble origin – an attitude that would not permit Marlowe to have written his own works, let alone Shakespeare’s. Other causes include ignorance; poor sense of logic; refusal, wilful or otherwise, to accept evidence; folly; the desire for publicity; and even (as in the sad case of Delia Bacon, who hoped to open Shakespeare’s grave in 1856) certifiable madness’. Enough said.***