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SHAKESPEARE'S LIFE AND WORKS
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE was baptized at Stratford-onAvon on April 26, 1564, so that the date of his birth is probably April 22 or 23. He was the son of John Shakespeare, who had left his father's farm at Snitterfield about thirteen years before, and had come to Stratford, where he engaged in business (especially in the sale of agricultural produce), and became one of the prominent citizens of the town, holding office in the borough more than once. He married, in 1557, Mary Arden, the daughter of a wealthy farmer of excellent family, whose home was at Wilmcote, near Stratford. The dramatist, accordingly, came of good English stock.
Shakespeare grew up in the little town of Stratford, in one of the most beautiful districts of England. He received his education in the Stratford grammar school, where he got the small Latin and less Greek" with which Ben Jonson credited him. But his training, at least in Latin, was doubtless pretty thorough, and Jonson's statement must be interpreted in the light of his own very unusual scholarship. Shakespeare, nevertheless, was
not primarily a scholar; his immense knowledge of men and things was gained in other ways.
In 1582, when he was a mere boy of less than nineteen years, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman of twenty-seven, the daughter of a neighboring farmer in the little village of Shottery. The marriage does not seem to have been a very happy one; and three years later, in 1585, Shakespeare left Stratford, without his family (three children had been born to him), and went up to London. The tradition that he abandoned Stratford on account of difficulties into which he had fallen through poaching on the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy may have at least an element of truth in it, but there is no certainty regarding the details.
The London to which Shakespeare went in 1585 or 1586 must not be thought of as the vast metropolis we know to-day. It was a city of between one and two hundred thousand inhabitants only. But it was the center of the stirring life of a period more keenly alive, perhaps, than any other in English history, and it afforded a stimulating environment for the development of a genius like Shakespeare's. It was a time when horizons had been almost immeasurably widened. The discovery of the New World, with the possibilities which it was still thought to hold of realizing the dreams of centuries, had quickened men's imaginations to a degree which it is difficult for us to grasp. The Reformation had brought with it a new freedom of thought; the Revival of Learning had opened up another new world, and from Italy especially" that great limbec of working brains," as one
of Shakespeare's contemporaries called it—young Englishmen were eagerly bringing back new literary forms. The war with Spain, that culminated in the defeat of the Armada, was awakening a new national consciousness. In a word, when Shakespeare came up to London, he found a community intensely alive at every point,—a community surpassingly adapted to call out just such powers as he possessed, and no less ready to respond to what it thus called out.
Particularly was this true in connection with the drama. Plays founded (for the most part) on the Bible had been popular all over England for centuries. Then, as the Latin comedies and tragedies-especially those of Plautus and Seneca-were more and more studied in the schools, and as the influence of the Renaissance in Italy and France had spread to England, the field had widened. And just at the time when Shakespeare arrived in London a group of young university men were giving the drama a fresh impetus and enlarging still further its scope. Plays of all sorts were being written, in response to the varying popular demand; delicate court comedies, like John Lyly's; plays that experimented in many fields, like those of Peele and Greene; crude but powerful tragedies, like Kyd's; dramas like Marlowe's, that expressed, in the new medium of blank verse, the boundless aspirations of the time; plays that dealt with history, mythology, fairylore, adventure, crime-everything was grist that came to the playwrights' mill, and the demand for more plays. was steadily growing.
And with the demand for more plays went hand in
hand the demand for more theaters. When Shakespeare came to London there were only two. Before Hamlet was written six new ones had been established. With one exception they were without the city walls, since theaters were forbidden within the civic jurisdiction, and the most popular of them, including the Globe, were just across the river, on what was known as the Bankside. Here, then, either across London Bridge or in little boats, came of an afternoon (for the plays were always given by daylight) the throngs of Londonerstradesmen, gallants, staid citizens, soldiers, sailors who formed the audience at the Rose, the Swan, the Globe, and (later) the Hope. Their destination, however, was very different from the theaters we know. The buildings were round or hexagonal, and for the most part open to the sky, except for a sort of hood that in some cases projected over the stage. The larger part of the audience stood in the pit (see note on III, ii, 12), where the admission price was low; there were, however, galleries as well, and seats were also provided on the stage. And the stage itself was utterly unlike ours. It projected straight out into the body of the theater-in one case, we know (for the plans have been preserved), practically half the distance to the outer wall-so that it was surrounded by spectators on three of its four sides, and actually had spectators seated on it too. An Elizabethan intimate relation
play, in other words, stood in the most
to its audience; the stage was a little island in a sea of upturned faces, and the sea encroached upon the island even then, There were no long waits for shifts of