The Legacy of William Shakespeare
Few writers in the history of Western literature have had the enduring impact of William Shakespeare. Since his death over 400 years ago, Shakespeare’s reputation as a genius and supreme dramatic artist has only grown. His works continue to be widely performed, adapted, and translated around the world. But what exactly accounts for Shakespeare’s phenomenal fame and why is he considered the greatest writer in the English language?
At the heart of Shakespeare’s brilliance are his masterful storytelling skills and his innovative use of language. Shakespeare crafted iconic stories filled with psychologically complex characters grappling with universal themes. His gift for weaving intricate plots that blend drama, comedy, romance and tragedy is unmatched. Shakespeare expanded the dramatic possibilities of character, language, and form.
Moreover, Shakespeare contributed over 1700 words and phrases to the English language, more than any writer in history. From “green-eyed monster” to “strange bedfellows,” Shakespeare’s literary inventions permeate modern speech. His poetic flair for metaphor, rhythm, and wordplay remain stunningly original.
Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies
by William Shakespeare
While written over 400 years ago, Shakespeare’s ability to develop relatable characters makes his plays as relevant today as ever. His work resonates across cultures due to his understanding of human nature. Shakespeare seemed to grasp the full spectrum of humanity like no other writer. His timeless themes of love, ambition, fate, struggle and more offer profound reflections on the human condition.
Shakespeare also advanced the art form greatly through his innovations in theatre. His involvement in The Globe theatre contributed to new techniques in drama and stagecraft. As both playwright and theatre practitioner, Shakespeare expanded the possibilities of English theatre.
Finally, the universality of Shakespeare’s writing has enabled his works to stand the test of time and appeal to audiences all over the world. Though rooted in 16th century England, the breadth of his imagination made his creative output meaningful across social, cultural, and language divides.
Early Life and Education
William Shakespeare was born in April 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, part of the county of Warwickshire in England. His exact date of birth is unknown, but baptismal records indicate he was baptized on April 26, 1564.
Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, worked as a glove maker and wool merchant in Stratford. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a wealthy local landowning farmer. Though the family’s social standing and fortune declined during William’s youth, his childhood was likely still spent in relative comfort.
As the son of a prominent townsman, young William probably received a notable education. Shakespeare would have attended the local Stratford grammar school from roughly age 7 to 14. The Stratford school curriculum consisted of rigorous training in Latin grammar and classics, aimed at preparing pupils for university entrance or careers in law, government or the church. Students studied authors like Ovid, Plautus, Virgil, Cicero, and Livy. Lessons were conducted entirely in Latin, so Shakespeare became fluent in the language. The English education system also emphasized rhetoric, training pupils in the art of persuasive speech and effective writing.
This classical education at Stratford grammar school provided the literary foundation for the future playwright. Shakespeare’s command of language, classical allusions, and comfort with English and Latin literary forms all stem from his diligent schooling. His Stratford schooldays supplied the linguistic skills and general knowledge that would inform his groundbreaking literary career. Even in seemingly mundane administrative records, the burgeoning genius of Stratford’s beloved native son was already evident.
Marriage and Family Life
At the young age of 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior, in late 1582. Anne came from Shottery, a village just one mile west of Stratford. The two may have known each other for years prior to their marriage.
The couple’s first child, daughter Susanna, was born only six months after the wedding in May 1583, suggesting the marriage may have been hastily arranged due to Anne’s unexpected pregnancy. In 1585, Anne bore twins Hamnet (boy) and Judith to the couple as well. Hamnet’s name was likely taken from a friend of William’s, Hamnet Sadler.
Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died tragically at just eleven years old in 1596, the only one of Shakespeare’s children not to survive into adulthood. The cause of Hamnet’s early death is unknown. This devastating loss of his only son may have influenced Shakespeare’s writing of plays dealing with parent-child relationships and bereavement, such as King John and Hamlet.
In 1607, his elder daughter Susanna married Dr. John Hall, a well-respected Stratford physician. Susanna and John Hall went on to have one daughter, Elizabeth, in 1608. Elizabeth was Shakespeare’s only grandchild.
In 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, his younger daughter Judith married Thomas Quiney, a local vintner and tavern owner in Stratford. The couple had three sons together, all of whom unfortunately died young and without marrying.
After Judith’s death in 1662 and Susanna’s daughter Elizabeth’s death in 1670, there were no more direct descendants of William Shakespeare left. His direct lineage ended less than a century after the Bard’s own death. However, Shakespeare’s legacy would be carried on through his beloved works rather than his bloodline.
The Lost Years and Early Career
After the birth of Susanna in 1583 and the twins Hamnet and Judith in 1585, very little historical evidence exists of Shakespeare’s life and activities until he emerges on the London theatre scene around 1592. This gap from roughly the late 1580s to early 1590s is commonly referred to as Shakespeare’s “lost years” by scholars.
Various unconfirmed stories exist attempting to explain activities during this period, such as Shakespeare fleeing Stratford after poaching deer, working as a country schoolteacher, or joining traveling theatre groups. However, no definite records survive of Shakespeare’s whereabouts or means of income during this obscure time.
Despite this mystery surrounding his early adulthood, it is clear Shakespeare was actively involved in the London theatre scene by 1592. The first definitive printed reference to Shakespeare as an established actor and playwright appears in 1592 by fellow dramatist Robert Greene. In his diatribe Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit, Greene dismissively refers to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers” implying Shakespeare had found some success integrating himself among London’s theatrical writers, much to Greene’s dismay.
Scholars agree Shakespeare likely began his theatre career in the late 1580s, steadily gaining recognition as an actor, poet and rising new voice on the literary scene. By 1594 he was clearly established in London as a shareholder and principal actor in the thriving Lord Chamberlain’s Men acting company, one of the leading companies of the day.
So while the precise timeline of activities during Shakespeare’s lost years remains a mystery, he had definitively emerged by the early 1590s as a innovative presence in London theatre circles. His talents as a playwright, poet and performer were clearly garnering attention, setting the stage for his rapid ascent to fame and legendary status in the coming decades of prolific creativity.
Rapid Success and Lasting Fame
The decade from roughly 1589 to 1599 marked Shakespeare’s emergence as a hugely popular playwright and poet. During this prolific period, he produced most of his known works, starting with early comedies like The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew and histories like Henry VI.
As his reputation grew, Shakespeare became an actor, playwright and shareholder in the successful acting troupe known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which performed many of his plays. In 1599, the company built its own theatre called the Globe on the Thames, which hosted Shakespeare productions until the theatre burned down in 1613.
During his career, Shakespeare wrote or contributed to over 40 plays covering comedies, histories, tragedies and romances. Among the most highly regarded works are classics like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth which are considered some of the finest literary works ever produced in the English language.
Shakespeare also cemented his reputation with highly influential non-dramatic poetry, especially the sequence of 154 sonnets exploring love, death, and moral dilemmas. These intimate poems addressed to a mysterious “Fair Youth” remain among the most analyzed works of verse of all time.
By the early 1600s, Shakespeare was firmly established as one of the foremost poetic and dramatic talents working in English theatre. His inventive language, memorable characters, capacity for capturing all facets of human experience quickly earned him fame during his lifetime, and his reputation has only grown in stature since.
Shakespeare elevated English theatre to new creative and literary heights, profoundly shaping the art form over subsequent centuries. That a commoner with a modest education could ascend to such artistic supremacy demonstrated the cultural power of theatre and the limitless potential of human imagination.
The Playwright’s Final Years
While Shakespeare continued to act in plays even after gaining fame as a writer, records suggest he began spending more time back in his hometown of Stratford beginning in the early 1600s. He would travel periodically between Stratford and London to oversee his theatrical investments and stage productions.
By 1608, Shakespeare had acquired property in the Blackfriars district of London near the indoor Blackfriars Theatre. He likely resided part-time in London around 1610-11 while writing his last major plays including The Tempest. But from around 1612 onward he seems to have lived mainly in Stratford.
Despite being a celebrated public figure, few personal documents or anecdotes survive to shed light on Shakespeare’s private life and relationships in these final years. Even the cause of his death in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1616 at the age of 52 remains a mystery.
He was survived by his wife Anne Hathaway and daughters Susanna and Judith. In accordance with his will, Shakespeare was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford just two days after his death. His grave is located in the chancel bearing an epitaph curse against disturbing his remains, which reads in part:
“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear / To dig the dust enclosed here. / Blest be the man that spares these stones / And cursed be he that moves my bones.”
This local man of humble origins but legendary artistic genius was memorialized as a beloved member of the Stratford community. The town continued to embrace its native son in the coming centuries, even as his literary fame grew to mythic proportions in the outside world.
Enduring Literary Legacy
While famous in his own era, Shakespeare’s reputation as a poetic and dramatic genius has only grown over the centuries since his death. In 1623, seven years after his passing, fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell compiled and published Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, known today as the First Folio.
This volume collected 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, helping preserve works that may have otherwise been lost. By the end of the 17th century, Shakespeare was recognized as the greatest English playwright and poet, praised for his artistic vision, wit, Psychologically complex characters, and mastery of language.
His innovative literary techniques, ability to capture the full spectrum of human experience, and transcendent themes exploring love, ambition, honor, fate and more have made him a cultural touchstone in Western society. Lines and characters from his plays have become woven into everyday language and thought.
Shakespeare’s works continue to be extensively studied, interpreted, performed and adapted worldwide. From high school classrooms to blockbuster films, his stories and ideas still resonate powerfully. Over 4,000 film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare plays exist, making him the most portrayed author in cinema.
William Shakespeare rose from modest beginnings to become the quintessential writer of the English language and Western literature through the brilliance of his storytelling, language, universal themes, humanity, and theatre. More than any other artist, Shakespeare has shaped and defined the cultural identity of English literature for over 400 years, securing his legacy as one of the creative geniuses of humanity.
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Shakespeare’s brilliance has made him the quintessential writer of English literature and culture for over 400 years. As Mark Twain wrote, “Shakespeare was an over towering genius, but he was also a reflection of his age, a very imperfect age.” The Bard’s artistic vision, humanity, and literary innovation have cemented his place among the most influential writers in history.