I’m a Canadian living in London under the shadow of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s image has been carefully imprinted on the global cultural economy. As a human being, I am always fascinated by life stories and history. As a Canadian I’m stuck with literary giants like Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood. Brits get William Shakespeare. It wasn’t always that way.
The Key Dates That Made William Shakespeare
26 April 1564 Shakespeare Christened
There’s no record of Shakespeare’s birth. On this date he was christened. England was under the reign of Elizabeth I who changed the official religion from Catholic to Protestant. There was a lot of tensions between these two sects, something we see reflected in his work. John Shakespeare was a member of the borough council of Stratford-upon-Avon. In other words, his dad was a council worker – pretty dull really.
We know he was the third of eight children, but the two eldest children didn’t survive infancy making him, in fact, the eldest of six.
1571 Shakespeare’s education
His father was a bailiff or debt collector. This likely meant young William was sent to a local grammar school. He’d have studied the greek classics, religious studies and he would have learned plays in Latin. His work reflects each of these sources. Shakespeare probably dropped out of school at 15. There’s no record of him going to university.
So a council worker’s son, eldest of six surviving kids who was an early school leaver.
1585-1592 Marriage and the lost years
Anne Hathaway found herself pregnant by Willaim and they married when she was three months ‘up the duff’. Anne was 26. Shakespeare just 18.
There are records of two more baptisms, but nothing at all for seven years, called the Lost Years. At some point he dumped his familiy in Stratford and moved to London. Eventually he became known as a playwright and actor. Some suggest he worked as a teacher, a butcher or lawyer’s clerk. A hundred years later his first biographer suggested that Shakespeare disappeared to London to escape punishment for deer poaching. Whatever, for these seven years we have nothing of Shakespeare.
1592 Shakespeare’s first review
Shakespeare got his first review in 1592 and it was a stinker.
Playwright Robert Greene called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”. Basically he was accused of rising above his rank and trying his hand where previously only the university educated had worked. In 2016 Bourne director Paul Greengrass lamented the fact that young filmmakers were ‘screwed to the ground‘ unless they had wealthy families. Shakespeare had a similar social-economic scenario when he was breaking in.
Elizabethan theatre was shifting to the secular from religious. New companies were formed, including Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men to entertain the public with secular drama. These companies were financed by wealthy patrons.
Coming out of his so-called lost years it appears Shakespeare had written three parts of Henry VI and Richard III and had a review.
October 1596 he beomes a gentleman
It’s thought that William revived his father’s lapsed application for a family coat of arms in 1596. By now apparently he was also a successful businessman. In the application he had to defend himself against accusations that “Shakespeare ye player” did not merit the honour of a coat of arms. By this time Shakespeare’s company had performed Romeo and Juliet, Richard II and a Midsummer Night’s Dream.
1598 First Opening Title Credit
Love’s Labour’s Lost was the first time Shakespeare’s name was front cover and used as a selling point. He started getting rave reviews. Author Francis Meres called him “the most excellent” in both comedy and tragedy. He had several performances for the royal Family.
1599 The Globe is built
Shakespeare’s plays made him both famous and wealthy. By now he was a 12.5% shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. They raised some money and built the Globe. Shakespeare was also wealthy from property dealings. He bought a huge house in Stratford for his family and buy-to-let properties in London. Not only was he now established as a successful playwright, he was also showing he had business skills and savvy too.
1603 Royal patronage
1609 Sonnets published
1613 His last play
23 April 1616 Shakespeare dies
A month before his death, Shakespeare wrote a will in which he stated he was in perfect health. Although there isn’t a specific reference to his death the rector in Stratford wrote fifty years later that Shakespeare died after a big party where he drank too much.
1623 First folio published
Seven years after his death the first collection of his work – 38 plays – was published. It was compiled by two of his friends: John Heminge and Henry Condell. A mere 750 copies were printed. In 2006 Christies auctioned one copy for £2.8m. It is thought that 288 copies survive.
1644 The Globe demolished
A powerful group of protestant Christians called Puritans gained power and outlawed plays and theatres in 1642. Two years later, the Globe was demolished. You would be whipped and fined if you were caught performing a play or attending a theatre. Shakespeare and his contemporaries’ work were no longer performed in public. It wasn’t until the Restoration of Charles II sixteen years later that plays were legalised again.
1769 Jubilee celebrations
Shakespeare’s reputation grew over the next hundred years. Samuel Johnson wrote his English dictionary and quoted Shakespeare thousands of times. Shakespeare, he said, coined and introduced countless words and phrases into the language.
In 1769, the actor David Garrick organised a celebration of Shakespeare’s life. Sadly, due to rain, no plays were performed.
Shakespeare had become famous.
1841 Shakespeare and National Pride
As the British Empire expanded so did Shakespeare’s influence. His work was seen as a good way to instill cultural patriotism into the newly conquored subjects. In 1841 Thomas Carlyle described him as a “real, marketable, tangibly useful possession.” Later literary critics argue that Shakespeare was used to subordinate the cultures or the countries it occupied. Shakespeare is adapted, exported, translated across the globe.
1899 Shakepeare on film
The first Shakespeare film was made in 1899. The film was a simple photographic record of a small part of a production of King John.
20 March 1961 Royal Shakespeare Company formed
Sir Peter Hall was the first artistic director of the RSC. He was determined to relaunch Shakespeare on stage and to essentially re-release Shakespeare’s work in a bold, fresh and original way. The company offeres traditional and innovative productions of the Bard’s work in Stratford and in London.
1997 The Globe rebuilt
After years of painstaking research and private fundraising the Globe was rebuilt a few hundred metres from it’s original site on the south bank of the Thames. In 2015 nearly 400,000 tickets were sold for Shakespearian theatre at the site proving that he is still box-office worthy after 400 years.
6 August 2015 Benedict Cumberbach debuts in Hamlet
One of the most anticiapted theatre openings ever featured a modern-day dressed Benedict Cumberbach as Hamlet. Fans queued overnight for a chance to get on-the-day tickets for the sold-out production at the Barbican Centre.
Although the official press night is not until 25 August, some early reviews of the performance emerged on Thursday.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Jan Moir called Cumberbatch “electrifying” and “completely amazing” and gave the production five stars.
“By the time he took his bows… drenched in sweat, the audience were on their feet, clamouring for more,” she wrote.
Is Shakespeare big or what?
His plays reach the stage or silver screen with the very best actors. Movies based on his stageplays are amongst the biggest films ever.
Here’s the wrinkle. If a couple of his friends hadn’t published that first portfolio in 1623 and if David Garrick hadn’t mounted the Shakespeare Jubilee he might well have sunk into oblivion.
Of course those actions have ensured that Shakespeare gained the public consciousness. His skill at writing stories of universal appeal means that they will be remembered forever. His body of work represents a financial and cultural treasure trove. His plays and sonnets still inspiring and entertaining audiences around the world.