Despite being history’s most produced and studied English playwright, little is known of William Shakespeare’s life. One of six siblings, Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon on or about April 23, 1564. He married Anne Hathaway in 1582 and had three children. For the seven years after, Shakespeare fell off all record. Eventually, he arose in London and joined The Lord Chamberlain’s Men acting troupe. In 1603, when the troupe came into King James’ favor, they officially became The King’s Men.
Shakespeare’s professional days are a mixture of fact and legend. In 1601, he and his business partners purchased property on the south bank of London’s Thames River, where they established The Globe Theatre. There, the acting company performed many of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. Famed for integrating elegant verse into equally compelling stories and dialogue, Shakespeare’s works are deep in metaphor, illusion, and character; sometimes even taking precedence over plot. He began his career writing historical plays, bawdy comedies, and the occasional tragedy. Later in life, his plays became more structurally complex, featuring his iconic Hamlet and Macbeth and the curious tragicomedies Cymbeline and The Tempest.
William Shakespeare died on or about April 23, 1616, and is interred at a chapel in Stratford-upon-Avon. Most early modern playwrights did not publish their work, but 18 of Shakespeare’s plays were printed before he died. Luckily, his plays survived because friends and colleagues commemorated his life in a publication known as the First Folio.
A century after his death, questions began to arise; his birthdate, deathdate, and even the spelling of his name are in question. No definitive portrait exists of the man, and no government record lists his theatric profession.
Many scholars have questioned the ability of a minimally educated man to create such challenging writing. Some theorists have long held that “Shakespeare” was a nom de plume for another playwright, nobleman, or even collection of writers. However, the vast majority of scholars believe that unofficial documentation provides proof of Shakespeare’s existence and prolific abilities. Regardless, Shakespeare’s plays have been translated to 118 languages and are now in constant production around the world,
The Globe Theatre was a circular wooden structure constructed of three stories of galleries (seats) surrounding a courtyard. The performance space had no front curtain, but was backed by a large wall with one to three doors out of which actors entered and exited. In front of the wall stood a roofed house-like structure supported by two large pillars, designed to provide a place for actors to “hide” when not in a scene. The roof of this structure was referred to as the “Heavens” and could be used for actor entrances.
The theatre itself housed up to 3,000 spectators, mainly because a great number had to stand. The seats in the galleries were reserved for people from the upper classes who primarily came to the theatre to be prominently seen. Sometimes, wealthy patrons were even allowed to sit on or above the stage itself. The lower-class spectators, who came to be known as groundlings, stood in the open courtyard and watched the play on their feet. The groundlings were often loud and rambunctious during the performances and would eat, drink, shout at the actors, and socialize during the performance. Playwrights were therefore forced to incorporate lots of action and bawdy humor in their plays in order to keep the audience’s attention.
During Shakespeare’s day, new plays were written and performed continuously. A company of actors might receive a new play, prepare it, and perform it every week. Because of this, each actor in the company had specialized in one stock character that he could perform with little rehearsal. Such characters might include romantic lovers, tragic soldiers, fools and clowns, and women characters. Because women were not allowed to perform on the stage at the time, young boys whose voices had yet to change played the female characters in the shows.
Other than a few pieces of stock scenery, like forest and palace backdrops, set pieces were very minimal. There was no artificial lighting to convey time and place, so it was up to audience to imagine what the full scene would look like. Because of this, the playwright was forced to describe the setting in greater detail than would normally be heard today.