“To be or not to be,” said Hamlet, prince of Denmark, “that is the question.” Yesterday, Hamlet’s creator was; today, he is not. Of that there is no question.
Poet, playwright, actor and theatrical-company shareholder, William Shakespeare (sometimes spelled Shakspeare, or Shagspere, or Shaxpere, or Shaxberd,1 or any number of blessed ways) died today, April 23, 1616, at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was, more or less, 52. His passing was confirmed by his daughter Judith.
Over the course of three decades, Mr. Shakespeare rose from working-class obscurity in Warwickshire to become one of England’s foremost playwrights and poets3 — acclaimed for his penetrating insights into the human character, his eloquent, flexible and infinitely expressive verse; and his readiness to burst the bounds of the English language (drawing on a vocabulary of more than 25,000 words).
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Among the deeply flawed characters who have strutted and fretted their hour on Mr. Shakespeare’s stage, perhaps the foremost is Hamlet, who must decide whether or not to kill the uncle who murdered his father and married his mother. It takes him as much as five hours to decide, depending on the performance, and by then, a good portion of Denmark is dead.
Had Hamlet never existed, playgoers would still speak of Macbeth, an upwardly mobile and downwardly moral Scottish thane who, with the steady prodding of his wife, who may be mad, lets nothing stand between him and the throne and is defeated only by a combination of a C-section baby4 and traveling trees.
Other immortal creations: Julius Caesar, a great Roman leader who gets a whole play named after him but dies in Act III; Romeo and Juliet, two young Veronians from warring families who fall in love the only way teenagers can — for keeps; King Lear, a senescent king who disinherits the one daughter who actually likes him; Othello, a brave Moorish soldier who becomes, after a few well-timed prods and a suspicious handkerchief,5 the kind of fellow who requires a restraining order.
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William Shakespeare was born on April 23rd-ish, 1564. His mother was Mary Arden. His father was John Shakespeare, an aspirational sort who worked his way up the social ladder from glovering and whittawering to constabling, burgessing, chamberlaining and, finally, high bailiffing. (Mayoring, if you like.) Sadly, Shakespeare père was prosecuted four times for wool trading and usury, which may explain why he retired from public life when Will was just 12.
Of William Shakespeare’s four sisters, only one survived to adulthood. Of his three brothers, Mr. Shakespeare was the only one who married. In an age that puts little store in records, this is practically all we know about his brothers and sisters.
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For most of his career, he wrote for a theater company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, founded in 1594. As a shareholder, Mr. Shakespeare benefited both from the troupe’s financial successes and from its ability to survive the winds of Elizabethan political change. (The company’s association with the Earl of Essex became briefly problematic when Essex mounted the world’s most ineffectual revolt against the queen.) With the accession of James I, the players changed their name to the King’s Men and performed before His Majesty on 187 occasions, more than all rival companies put together. The king loved his men.