Acknowledged to be the greatest playwright in the English Language, Shakespeare has written 37 plays. A literary icon, yet he remains enduringly elusive – Shakespeare’s doctrines, political and social, are elliptical. His plays offer no clues as to whether he was a liberal or conservative, a rebel or a conformist. (Even)a computer would have difficulty in programming all the points of view his plays contain (Peter Brook).
For years I entertained the romantic notion that he was a poor boy made good. Encouraged by teachers who told us he was the son of a cobbler, his wealthy and achievements gave me hope – hmm i told myself seems like if he can make it, I could at least do something with my life too. And then when I went to the university, I soon discovered to my chagrin that his father was a skilled craftsman – an established Stratford glove maker and leather dresser who also traded in other commodities such as wool and grain. He rose to the position of senior bailiff, the modern equivalent of a modern mayor but beginning in 1572, his fortunes declined until he lost most of his holdings and position in society. His mother was from a prominent Catholic family.
Shakespeare was born at one of his father’s two houses in April 1564. He only had one wife – Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. It was a hasty marriage – six months later after the registration of the marriage, his daughter, Susanna Shakespeare was born. Two years later, a pair of twins – a son and a daughter were born. Then he left his family for London. The years following his marriage and before he left for London were often called the “lost years” because nothing much was known about what he did during that period. There were conflicting details and records but it was his time in London that made him famous and wealthy.
Early career in London
He probably started out as an actor. Indeed he continued to act even when his playwriting career flourished. Remarkably he outdid his more educated rivals even with his first plays – “Henry VI”, “Titus Andronicus” and “The Comedy of Errors”. One of his rival dramatist Robert Greene in his bitter deathbed pamphlet called Shakespeare an “upstart crow beautified with our feathers” accusing him of plagiarism. However Shakespeare was quickly vindicated by the writer of the play that he was accused of plagiarising from and issued a formal retraction and admitted that Shakespeare was civil, upright and honest. When the plague hit London, theatres were closed and Shakespeare started writing poems and sonnets. Among them was “Venue and Adonis”, a highly erotic and ornate mythological poem.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are considered a continuation of the sonnet tradition that swept through the Renaissance, from Petrarch in 14th-century Italy and was finally introduced in 16th-century England. Although Shakespeare’s sonnets largely observed the stylistic form of the English sonnet—the rhyme scheme, the 14 lines, and the meter, they contain significant departures of content that made them seemed to be rebelling against well-worn 200-year-old traditions during that period. Instead of expressing worshipful love for an almost goddess-like yet unobtainable female love-object in the Petrarchan convention, Shakespeare introduced a young man and a Dark Lady, who is no goddess. Goddesses in those days were not much different from the Korean actresse with their snowny-white skin that glows in the dark and in the light. Thankfully and refreshingly, Shakespeare’s female figure in his sonnets was very dark! As a further departure, or you could say a a further act of rebellion, Shakespeare explored themes such as lust, homoeroticism, misogyny, infidelity, and acrimony.
On this note I end here for Part 1 of my series on Shakespeare.