William Shakespeare is probably the most famous of the classical writers.
But what do we know about him? Let's learn about the man himself, as well as his works.
Some are born to greatness
It's a funny thing that such a famous man would have so little known about him. It is believed that he was born in April of 1564 (the same year that the well-known scientist Galileo was born) in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the middle of England. His parents were John Shakespeare and Mary Arden.
His father was a man of some importance in the local community, but the Shakespeare's were pretty much of the common social scene. Young William attended the local free school, but we don't know if his siblings ever had any schooling at all.
When he was 18 he married Anne Hathaway. They would have a girl and twins.
Home where Anne Hathaway grew up.
Then the Earth just opened up and swallowed him right up.
The play's the thing
OK, I'm a bit overly dramatic. But after his twins' birth in 1585, he disappears from all records until 1592; we then have a written criticism of one of his plays. This letter shows a conflict between William and some of his fellow writers. The problem was that many of how fellow writers were educated at University, while Shakespeare had a much more humble education.
But even with a clash of egos, William continued to live as a dual homer (pigeon that flies between two places); in London, he continued to be a successful playwright, actor and businessman. Then he would go back to Stratford-upon-Avon to be a family man.
He kept himself busy. In the course of his life, he wrote a total of 38 plays: 12 histories (plays telling stories from the past), 14 comedies, and 12 tragedies. His theatre troupe was invited, more than one time, to perform their plays before the king. Here is a sampling of some of his plays.
The Taming of the Shrew – A comedy that begins with some gentlemen seeking to marry the fair Blanca. The thing is, it is the custom that a girl cannot marry until her older sisters did so first. The problem is that her older sister Katerina has such a temper and refuses to marry. A conspiracy is hatched to see her married to a man named Petruchio. And so it begins.
Romeo and Juliet – perhaps the most well-known of his tragedies, and one that has had many makeovers with settings from New York gangs to cold war politics, and even leprechauns.
Twelfth Night – One of my favorites. A pair of twins – Viola and Sebastian – are separated, each thinking the other is dead. Viola then dresses as her 'late' brother, takes up a job with the local count, and then falls in love with him.
The count sends Viola (aka Sebastian) to speak to the woman he loves, the countess. But the countess falls for Viola, thinking she is a man named Sebastian.
And to top things off, the real Sabastian shows up and gets quickly confused with Viola. Crazy!
Henry V – History about King Henry V and his invasion of France as a part of the hundred's Year War. His speech, given on St. Crispin's day, is a total classic.
Give us a quote
In his works, William Shakespeare penned lines that have become famous, even everyday phrases. Here are some:
“To be, or not to be” – Famous quote from Hamlet.
"The lady doth protest too much, methinks" – Often, a guilty person will go overboard in claiming to be innocent.
“If music be the food of love play on.” – Often misused to imply there should be romantic music in romantic moments.
“All that glisters is not gold.” – Just being shiny and fancy doesn't mean it is of great value.
“Brevity is the soul of wit.” – An intelligent person knows when to keep things short.
“But, for my own part, it was Greek to me.” – Being 'Greek to me' means you don't understand something.
"Break the ice."
"Dead as a doornail" – Really and utterly dead.
"Eaten me out of house and home."
“Give the devil his due” – Give praise where it belongs, no matter who it goes to.
“Jealousy is the green-eyed monster” – Jealousy is described as a 'green-eyed monster.'
I believe this is because of his gift for words, sometimes in ways that might make a modern English teacher go in a fit. My favorite example comes in his play Richard II. A nephew comes to his uncle with a greeting and is cut short by the uncle. You see, the nephew is fighting against the king, and the uncle is very upset with this.
In this famous line, Shakespeare uses the words uncle and grace (a title of respect, as in 'your grace') as both a noun and a verb. To say that he resents him calling him [his] grace and uncle.
Check it out:
Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle:
I am no traitor's uncle; and that word 'grace.'
In an ungracious mouth is but profane.
Such beautiful, poetic language.
Some achieve greatness
Even in his day, Shakespeare became very well known and wealthy. In 1599 (in his thirties), he went in with some other investors to build a theatre called the Globe.
Drawing of original Globe theatre.
Inside the modern reconstruction of the Globe.
But his play-writing did not always go so smoothly. Around 1600 the Bubonic plague (aka the Black death) struck London in two bursts. Plays were canceled, and public gatherings were forbidden (sounds familiar?) for what amounts to a total of 5 years!
This leaves little work for anyone working in the theatre.
With his professional work on hold, William wrote sonnets, a type of poetry. And boy did he write, composing 154 in all. But perhaps his most famous and quoted is Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to s summer's day? Here is the whole thing.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
But it seems that not long after this, he started spending less time in London and more at home. He would not have too long to live.
Like much of his life, we know a lot less than we would like. All we know about his death comes from what was written a while after his death. According to the account, he went out to drink and socialize in April of 1616 but came home with a fever. He would soon die at the age of 52 (it is guessed). It seems that the illness came on quickly, as he stated he was in perfect health when he rewrote his will a month before.
Shakespeare may not be among us anymore, but his plays and poetry live on still. It has been said a classic is something that stands the test of time. This is true for his works. Even 400 years after his death, he writes things that we can relate to.
This is why his work is classic.
Obviously, with the current topic, the works of Shakespeare would be the great literature here. But learning how to understand his works can be challenging, but it can be done – and that includes children. Here are some pointers:
No Fear Shakespeare by SparkNotes is a great resource. They have books that, on one side, have the text of the play, but the other side has the play reworded into modern words, allowing one to read the play and to understand what was said.
There are a lot of movie versions out there. You can view them in connection with reading or alone. It works well to break it up in installments to allow discussion of what is going on.
Comedies are a good start for an introduction.
There's no shame in rereading a play multiple times to grow in understanding. This is how I made it through my Shakespeare class.☺
(1989) This is an excellent film adaption by Kenneth Branagh. There are some battle scenes.
(1996) This adaptation is set in a Victorian-era setting and is a lot of fun. The film adds an extra scene, not in the play, which sets up the context of the play. But it is done so well that one wouldn't know it is a modern addition—a well-done film.
On the web
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
This site allows access to all his plays and sonnets.
Globe Theatre: Performance during Shakespeare's time
This video takes you on a tour of the reconstructed Globe Theatre and talks about it.
This page is part of the No Sweat Shakespeare site and has links to all Shakespeare's sonnets.
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