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William Shagsbere. Shaxpere. Shackerpere. Scheackespyrr?
William Shakespeare’s Life
We assume that William Shakespeare was born April 23, 1564, but it is not an exact date. Only the date of his baptism is recorded (April 26) and traditionally, the baptism took place three days after birth. Shakespeare died April 23, 1616 at the age of 52 in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Shakespeare’s parents, John and Mary, were well to do. His father was a high bailiff (equivalent to a town mayor) and his mother had eight children. However, the prosperous times did not continue. John, Shakespeare’s father, began to accumulate debt. Shakespeare most likely went to grammar school (which was a school that taught young boys Latin, Greek, and important pieces of fiction. It was harder than high school, but easier than university) because of his father’s status in the community but he did not attend college. Shakespeare’s contemporary critics were scornful of his lack of education and did not consider him in the same league as other writers like Ben Johnson and John Milton. Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582 when he was 18 years old and she was 26. Because Shakespeare was still a minor, he had to get his father’s permission to get married. The rush to the altar became obvious when, six months after the wedding, their first child Susanna was christened on May 26, 1583. Two years later Anne gave birth to twins, Hamnet and Judith (Hamnet died at aged eleven of unknown causes. Judith went on to marry, have children and died at age seventyseven). From about 1583 to 1592 there are very few records of what Shakespeare did, these are called the Lost Years. There is much speculation about what might have happened in this gap: that Shakespeare was chased out of Stratford because he poached deer, he became a moneylender, a sailor, a soldier, a gardener, a coachman, or a printer. One thing is certain: by 1592 Shakespeare was no longer
living in Stratford-Upon-Avon with his wife and children; he was living in London, writing plays and poetry. A journey from London to Stratford would take four days on foot or two days on horseback. By 1592, Shakespeare resurfaces: there is documentation that Shakespeare was well established in the theatre community. A contemporary writer accuses Shakespeare of being “an upstart crow”. This means that Shakespeare had enough credibility to ruffle the feathers of other, well-established playwrights in London. Although Shakespeare might have thought his fortunes were on the rise in 1592, he could not control the bubonic plague (the “Black Death”). The disease closed all of the theatres in January 1593 and they remained closed until the spring of 1594. During this time, Shakespeare wrote poetry and sonnets to keep himself fed. From 1594, when the theatres re-opened, until 1599 are considered the high points in Shakespeare’s life. They are years of increased production, both in writing and in performing (and he did perform his own plays). Shakespeare continued his work as a principle actor and manager of an acting company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and so was guaranteed a steady income. In 1599, Shakespeare and partners bought the Globe Theatre in London, which became one of the most important theatres in history. In 1597, Shakespeare bought a new house in Stratford, aptly named New Place. This house was the second biggest house in Stratford, which showed to all those around him just how successful he had become. In 1603, after Elizabeth I died, James VI of Scotland became James I of England. Shakespeare’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, became the King’s Men and received royal patronage. This meant that Shakespeare now received a pension from King James to perform in front of the court. Consequently, Shakespeare was able to retire from acting and playwriting a rich man.
Shakespeare died April 23, 1616 from unknown causes. There is much speculation about what may have caused his death: shock over his daughter Judith’s death, “intolerable entrails”, a fever caught while drinking too much, but nothing concrete will ever truly be known about how he died.
Historical Context to Shakespeare’s Life:
During the fifteenth century, England’s elite was enjoying the Golden Age. This age was also called the Renaissance (the rebirth), the Reformation (when England split from the Catholic church centred in Rome to form the Protestant church centred in London), the Age of Exploration (the discovery of Newfoundland in 1497 by John Cabot [Giovanni Caboto] paved the way for the colonization of Canada by the English), the Age of Discovery (how blood circulates through the body, invention of the telescope, laws of planetary motion, and decimal fractions to name a few), and the Elizabethan era (when Elizabeth I reigned: 1559 to 1603. As a patron of the arts, she gathered writers, painters, sculptors, and other artists to her court from around the world). For peasants this era wasn’t always rosy: the Enclosure Act took away their livelihood. The Enclosure Act meant that the upper class landlord could take the land away from peasants and turn it into pasture without notice, without redress, or reason and so the peasant that was working the land is now homeless and jobless. These now homeless peasants moved to the bigger centres, like London to make their new homes and consequently, London grew 400% (from around 50,000 to 200,000 in a hundred years) during the reign of Elizabeth I. To makes matters even worse, there is an economic recession hitting England. So while the rich were enjoying themselves, the poor were getting poorer.
Famine and plague were everyday problems: the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosey” taught to children overtly references the plague. The “ring around the rosey” is the painful pus-filled sores, “pocketful of poseys” are the flowers people carried around under their noses to cover the scent of decaying bodies, “ashes, ashes” are bodies of those who have already died, which have been cremated to stop the spread of disease and “we all fall down” means that everyone dies anyway. There is no such thing as “clean” and “sanitary”. No one bathes regularly, ditches along the side of the road are public washrooms, butchers throw the carcasses of dead animals into the streets, no dentists and the doctors that are around have rudimentary training. The bubonic plague was the number one killer, followed closely by smallpox and tuberculosis (consumption).
Monarchy in Shakespearean England:
Henry VII 1. m. Catherine of Aragon | Mary I 2. m. Anne Boleyn | Elizabeth I 3. m. Jane Seymour | Edward VI 4. m. Anne of Cleves 5. m. Catherine Howard 6. m. Catherine Parr
6 So how did James VI become James I of England? James was a cousin of Elizabeth I of England through James’ mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary’s grandmother, Margaret was Henry VIII (Elizabeth I of England’s father) sister. Margaret was sent to Scotland to marry the Scottish king and Margaret’s son married a
French princess (Marie of Guise) and they had a daughter also named Mary. Mary had a very wild life, murdering one husband (blowing him up) in order to marry another and in the course of her life had a son, James. James became the heir to the English throne as well as the Scottish throne because Elizabeth I never married or had children of her own. Consequently, James was her nearest relative. As monarchs changed, religion was a constant see-saw between Catholic and Protestant and persecution of each. King Henry VIII had separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 and declared the Church and State as one entity. He created the Protestant or Anglican Church of England. When Henry died, his daughter, Mary ascended the throne. She was staunchly against the new religion because part of the reason Henry had created this new religion was so that Henry could divorce Mary’s mother, Catherine, and marry another woman, Anne Boleyn. Mary saw this new religion as the cause for her parents’ divorce and she wanted England to return to the Catholic faith. So, Mary set about burning and executing all of the Protestants she could find, which is how she gained the nickname Bloody Mary. When Mary died, Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth ascended the throne. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn. Mary and Elizabeth did not get along because of who Elizabeth’s mother was and what religion Elizabeth
represented. Elizabeth was Protestant, which made sense because her father, Henry, had created this religion so that he could marry her mother. And so when Elizabeth gained the throne, she tried to make England Protestant again. All of this religious waffling took place in the course of less than thirty years, or just about one person’s lifetime in the sixteenth century. If you thought it was confusing for you, imagine how confusing it was for a peasant, not knowing if they would be burned or executed for praying the wrong prayer! In Renaissance England, the head of the state was the head of the Church and appointed by God. This order was called The Great Chain of Being. Within each category there was a subcategory. For example: in the men category would be all of the divisions of nobility from dukes to lords and knights. This chain of being ensured that everyone was kept in their proper place.
Did Shakespeare Write His Own Plays?
There has been debate over the centuries as to whether or not Shakespeare actually wrote his own plays Other candidates for authorship include Francis Bacon (English philosopher and scientist), Christopher Marlowe (English dramatist and spy), or Edward de Vere (English playwright and poet) Most of the claims have been rejected by established authorities as baseless Shakespeare did write his own plays and computer analysis supports this claim
Shakespeare’s plays are written in Modern English (1450 – present) Old English (A.D. 449 – 1066 [Norman Conquest of England]) looks like this: þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon (of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped: Beowulf) Middle English (1066 – 1450) looks like this: “Whan that Aprill with his its shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote” (When April with its sweet showers/ pierced to the root March’s drought: Canterbury Tales: Prologue ) The English Shakespeare wrote with was not standardized, even within his own plays (so the same word might be spelled two or more different ways in the same play; look at the first page and the different spellings of “Shakespeare”)
9 Page from Beowulf
Page from the Canterbury Tales
Page from the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays
Timeline: Putting it into Perspective:
Shakespeare’s Birth (1616)
Theatre in the Round:
Theatre in the Round is a form of theatre in which the area where the acting occurs is completely surrounded by the audience. The stage may raised above the audience, or it may be at floor level. This form of theatre is thought to increase interaction between the actors and audience. Theatre in the Round began in Ancient Greece and can be traced to medieval England, especially Shakespearean theatre.
The Globe Theatre:
Shakespeare bought a theatre in London on the banks of the Thames River (pronounced “temz”). If you were to attend a play at the Globe, it would have been an exciting event! The grounds surrounding the Globe Theater would have been bustling with people. There would be stalls selling merchandise and refreshments creating a market day atmosphere. Non-playgoers would flock to the Globe Theater to go to the market stalls and soak in the holiday-like atmosphere. The Globe would have particularly attracted young people and there were many complaints of apprentices avoiding work in order to go to the theater. Theatre performances were held in the afternoon, because, of course, there was limited artificial lighting. The Globe theatre could hold 1500 people in the audience and this number expanded to 3000 with the people who crowded outside the theatres. Queen Elizabeth I loved watching plays but these were generally performed in indoor playhouses for her pleasure. She would not have attended the plays performed at the amphitheatres such as the Globe. Upper Class Nobles would have paid for the better seats in the Lord's rooms paying 5d for the privilege. The gentry would pay to sit in the galleries often using cushions for comfort. The Lower Classes and the Commoners, were called the Groundlings or Stinkards. They would have stood in the theatre pit and they put 1 penny in a box at the theatre entrance - hence the term 'Box Office'.
The Structure of a Play:
Play: the entire piece of literature put together; a dramatic work for the stage or to be broadcast; a specific piece of drama, usually enacted by diverse actors who often wear makeup or costumes to make themselves resemble the character they portray Act: a division or unit of a drama. The number of acts in a production can range from one to five, depending on how a writer structures the outline of the story. The length of time for an act to be performed can range from 30 to 90 minutes. Scene: a subdivision of an act of a play in which time is continuous and the setting is fixed and which does not usually involve a change of characters. There can be any number of scenes within an act. Line: a horizontal row of written or printed words; (lines) the words of an actor’s part in a play. There are generally hundreds of lines in a play. Shakespearean plays are “Five Act” plays, meaning that there are five acts. Plays can also be split into one and three acts.
Act 1 – Exposition. We meet the dramatis personae, and time and place are established. We learn about the antecedents of the story. Attention is directed toward the germ of conflict and dramatic tensions. Act 2 – Complications. The course of action becomes more complication, the “tying of knots” takes place. Interests clash, intrigues are spawned, events accelerate in a definite direction. Tensions mount and momentum builds up. Act 3 – The Climax of Action. The development of conflict reaches its high point, the Hero stands at the crossroads, leading to victory or defeat, crashing or soaring. Act 4 – Falling Action. Reversals. The consequences of Act 3 play out, momentum slows and tension is heightened by false hopes, fears. if it’s a tragedy, it looks like the Hero can be saved. If not, then it looks like all may be lost. Act 5 – Catastrophe. The conflict is resolved, whether through a catastrophe, the downfall of the Hero or through his victory or transfiguration. Freytag’s Dramatic Model
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