Around 1568, a group of actors visited Stratford and put on a play before the entire town, with permission from John Shakespeare, the mayor of the town. The people loved the play, especially the small children. All of them looked up to the actors, as they returned each year to perform different plays. They had dreams of one day becoming actors, but only one of these children fulfilled this dream. This child was the mayor's son, William Shakespeare.
At this time, actors in England usually spent their careers traveling to new towns, performing plays at city buildings or local inns. However, with the help of James Burbage, this all changed. James Burbage designed and built the first theatre in England. The actors could then settle down in one place and perform in a place built for plays. The theatre was a huge success, and many more began popping up over England, but this theatre built by James Burbage was forever known as The Theatre.
The layout of the stage consisted of five levels. The lowest level was for trap doors built into the stage. The next level was the main stage, where the actors did most of their performing. Above this was the balcony level, which could be used to represent anything from a city wall to a mountain. The next level contained pulleys which could raise or lower anything from above. The top level was used for creating sounds of rain or thunder, or dropping important objects from the sky.
William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway at age 18. In two years, they had three children, a daughter named Susanna, and twins, Hamnet and Judith. He didn't stay in Stratford long after this though. He left his family to pursue a career as an actor in London.
Shakespeare wrote his first play in 1592. It was a historical play called Henry VI, which was one of the biggest successes of the year. Some scholars criticized him because he did not have a university education like most playwrites, but probably the only reason he was criticized for this was because his play was so popular.
After the success of his historical play, he wrote a tragedy called Titus Andronicus, and then The Comedy of Errors, a humorous comedy. Not many playwrites wrote so many different types of plays in so short a time, but Shakespeare was certainly not like any other English playwrite.
Very early in Shakespeare's career, however, many theatres closed due to the plague in England, and playwrites were not in high demand. Shakespeare then turned to another type of writing and wrote a narrative poem entitled Venus and Adonis. This was a huge success and he received praise for it by the scholars who gave him no respect as a playwrite. His next poem was called Lucrece, which was just as successful as his first. In spite of his success as a poet, he gave up poetry after Lucrece was published. He joined Lord Chamberlain's Acting Company in 1594, and for the rest of his career, he only wrote plays for this company.
Other actors in Shakespeare's company included Will Kempe, the most popular comic of his time, and Richard Burbage, son of James Burbage, the designer of The Theatre. Other important members of the company were John Heminges, who was their permanent business manager, and Henry Condell, another actor in the company. These two men later published the first complete edition of Shakespeare's play, after Shakespeare's death.
Shakespeare wrote many plays which were adaptations of earlier plots. Some of these include King John, The Taming of The Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet. Some said he could turn a flat, one-sided plot into a masterpiece. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare mixes the humor of Mercutio and Juliet's nurse into a serious tragedy. Not many playwrites of this time mixed comedy with tragedy, but he did this because the two elements combine in real life and he felt they were free to combine in his plays.
None of the critics who had praised his poems ever mentioned his plays. However, he was singled out by Francis Meres, a London writer. Meres stated, "Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds of the stage." Meres was not a distinguished literary critic, but he reassured the middle class readers who were already fans of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare's acting company was doing what no other acting company had ever done. Usually acting companies bought plays from writers, and the writer had no further input in the production of the play. However, Shakespeare wrote, produced, and sometimes even acted in his own plays. He helped design costumes and props for the play, so it was presented exactly as he intended.
Although times were bad in England, and the company struggled with money, Queen Elizabeth supported the actors, and they were always able to make money. However, a few years after the company was formed, The Theatre Richard Burbage had inherited from his father was in financial trouble. The lease on his land had expired, and the owner would not renew it. The company had to find a new place to perform their plays. Instead of finding another theatre, they decided to dismantle The Theatre and move it to a different location. Each member paid a part of the expenses, and each member received partial ownership of their new theatre, called The Globe. They made The Globe the finest and by far the most memorable theatre in England.
In the early days of The Globe, Shakespeare wrote three of his best romantic comedies: Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and Much Ado About Nothing. All are known for their highly improbable plots. Shakespeare, however, could make the characters in his plays so believable and human, that the plots seemed perfectly reasonable.
After many comedies, Shakespeare wrote the Roman tragedy Julius Caesar. Although many stories had been done about Caesar, and the story was a legend in England, Shakespeare's version surprised many people by it's originality. The play centers around Marcus Brutus, Caesar's friend, who eventually kills Caesar. It explores what drives a group of well-respected men to commit murder, and the events that take place afterwards.
One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, and one of the most praised plays of the English language is Hamlet. This melodrama centers around the main character, Hamlet, who had the great ability to express in words emotions that many people only slightly felt. This character won the crowd over quickly and it was an instant success. It received praise by many critics who weren't fond of Shakespeare before this time.
Hamlet was published in 1603, the same year Queen Elizabeth died, ending the Elizabethan era. The new ruler was King James, who was as much of a fan of acting as Queen Elizabeth. In fact, one of the first things he did as the new ruler of England was make a list of the best actors in England and form an acting company. The new group was actually just Lord Chamberlain's company with the edition of Lawrence Fletcher, King James' favorite actor. This group of actors now were called the King's Men.
Shakespeare's next great tragedy was Othello, which was a tragedy of jealousy. It is about a man who believes that his wife is unfaithful to him. This jealousy finally turns into rage and he kills her. After Othello, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, a tragedy of ambition. This is about Macbeth and his wife, who believe that they can kill the King of Scotland and quietly take the throne. They find, however, that this murder leads to other murders and they are consumed with guilt. Macbeth would have been very controversial if it had been any other playwrite, but Shakespeare at this time could write whatever he wanted. He was thought of as the "Lord of Language". This, as well as his friendship with King James, allowed him to conquer any topic without fear of being censored.
In 1608, the King's Men purchased a theatre at Blackfriars. They now had access to two theatres, and the people who couldn't travel far enough to get to one, could visit the other.
The Tempest, probably the last play written by Shakespeare before his retirement, was a fairy tail. It contained many enchantments and spirits, and a monster. By the time it opened in December of 1611 however, Shakespeare had retired from the King's Men.
After his retirement, he wrote only one play, Henry VIII. The premiere of this play was a huge event in England, and many people crowded into The Globe to watch it. During the play however, a cannon which was used for effects misfired and caused a fire inside the theatre. No one was hurt, but The Globe was ruined. It had burned to the ground before anyone could stop it.
Considering the success of the company, they were quick to rebuild The Globe. Shakespeare helped pay for the repairs, but he never gave the company another play. He died on April 23, 1616, in Stratford and was buried at a local church.
After Shakespeare's death, Henry Condell and John Heminges published the first complete edition of Shakespeare's plays. This was the first time many of the plays were available to be read. Some plays were published before he died. They were done on cheap pamphlets and some didn't even contain his name. Heminges and Condell, in fear of the plays being lost, decided to publish the plays instead of selling them to other acting companies. They probably lost a lot of money doing this, but they believed that their "friend and fellow" deserved the best. Ben Jonson summarized it best by stating, "He was not of an age, but for all time."
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