William Shakespeares plays have the reputation of being among the greatest in the English language and in Western literature. Traditionally, the 38 plays are divided into the genres of tragedy, history, and comedy; they have been translated into every major living language, in addition to being continually performed all around the world.
Among the most famous and critically acclaimed of Shakespeares plays are Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth, A Midsummer Nights Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Othello, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice and Richard III.
Many of his plays appeared in print as a series of quartos, but approximately half of them remained unpublished until 1623, when the posthumous First Folio was published. The traditional division of his plays into tragedies, comedies, and histories follows the categories used in the First Folio. However, modern criticism has labelled some of these plays “problem plays” which elude easy categorization, or perhaps purposefully break generic conventions, and has introduced the term romances for what scholars believe to be his later comedies.
William Shakespeare, in terms of his life and his body of work, is the most written-about author in the history of Western civilization. His canon includes 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 epic narrative poems. The First Folio (cover shown at left) was published posthumously in 1623 by two of Shakespeares acting companions, John Heminges and Henry Condell. Ever since then, the works of Shakespeare have been studied, analyzed, and enjoyed as some of the finest masterpieces of the English language.
A Brief Biography
William Shakespeare was born to John Shakespeare and mother Mary Arden some time in late April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. There is no record of his birth, but his baptism was recorded by the church, thus his birthday is assumed to be the 23 of April. His father was a prominent and prosperous alderman in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, and was later granted a coat of arms by the College of Heralds. All that is known of Shakespeares youth is that he presumably attended the Stratford Grammar School, and did not proceed to Oxford or Cambridge. The next record we have of him is his marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582. The next year she bore a daughter for him, Susanna, followed by the twins Judith and Hamnet two years later.
Seven years later Shakespeare is recognized as an actor, poet and playwright, when a rival playwright, Robert Greene, refers to him as “an upstart crow” in A Groatsworth of Wit. A few years later he joined up with one of the most successful acting troupes in London: The Lord Chamberlains Men. When, in 1599, the troupe lost the lease of the theatre where they performed, (appropriately called The Theatre) they were wealthy enough to build their own theatre across the Thames, south of London, which they called “The Globe.” The new theatre opened in July of 1599, built from the timbers of The Theatre, with the motto “Totus mundus agit histrionem” (A whole world of players) When James I came to the throne (1603) the troupe was designated by the new king as the Kings Men (or Kings Company). The Letters Patent of the company specifically charged Shakespeare and eight others “freely to use and exercise the art and faculty of playing Comedies, Tragedies, Histories, Inerludes, Morals, Pastorals, stage plays … as well for recreation of our loving subjects as for our solace and pleasure.”
Shakespeare entertained the king and the people for another ten years until June 19, 1613, when a canon fired from the roof of the theatre for a gala performance of Henry VIII set fire to the thatch roof and burned the theatre to the ground. The audience ignored the smoke from the roof at first, being to absorbed in the play, until the flames caught the walls and the fabric of the curtains. Amazingly there were no casualties, and the next spring the company had the theatre “new builded in a far fairer manner than before.” Although Shakespeare invested in the rebuilding, he retired from the stage to the Great House of New Place in Statford that he had purchased in 1597, and some considerable land holdings ,where he continued to write until his death in 1616 on the day of his 52nd birthday.