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William Shakespeare (1564-1616)


English poet, dramatist, and actor, considered by many to be the greatest dramatist of all time. Some of Shakespeare's plays, such as Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, are among the most famous literary pieces of the world. However, his early works did not match the artistic quality of Marlowe's dramas. Ben Jonson (1572-1637), another contemporary playwright, said that Shakespeare's "wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too". Shakespeare possessed a large vocabulary for his day, having used 29,066 different words in his plays. Today the average English-speaking person uses something like 2,000 words in everyday speech.

"It may be that the essential thing with Shakespeare is his ease and authority and that you just have to accept him as he is if you are going to be able to admire him properly, in the way you accept nature, a piece of scenery for example, just as it is." (Ludwig Wittgenstein in Culture and Value, 1980)

There are few records of Shakespeare´s personal life. Rumors arise from time to time that he did not write his plays, instead suggesting the real author was Christopher Marlowe, or Queen Elizabeth or Edward De Vere (1550-1604), whom T.J. Looney identified in 1920 as the author of Shakespeare's plays. A large body of 'Oxfordians' have since built on this claim and the reluctance to believe that a man of humble origins could not create such magnificent works. According to some numerologists, Shakespeare wrote The King James Version of the Bible at the age of 46. Their "evidence": Shake is the 46th word of the 46th Psalm, Spear is the 46th word from the end in the 46th Psalm.

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small country town. Stratford was famous for its malting. The black plague killed in 1564 one out of seven of the town's 1,500 inhabitants. Shakespeare was the eldest son of Mary Arden, the daughter of a local landowner, and her husband, John Shakespeare (c. 1530-1601), a glover and wood dealer. John Aubrey (1626-1697) tells in Brief Lives that Shakespeare's father was a butcher and the young William exercised his father's trade, "but when he kill'd a Calfe he would do it in a high style, and make a speech." In 1568 John Shakespeare was made a mayor of Stratford and a justice of peace. His wool business failed in the 1570s, and in 1580 he was fined £40, with 140 other men, for failing to find surety to keep the peace. There is no record that his fine was paid. Later the church commissioners reported of him and eight other men that they had failed to attend church "for fear of process for debt". The family's position was restored in the 1590s by the earnings of William Shakespeare, and in 1596 he was awarded a coat of arms.

Very little is known about Shakespeare early life, and his later works have inspired a number of interpretations. T.S. Eliot wrote that "I would suggest that none of the plays of Shakespeare has a "meaning," although it would be equally false to say that a play of Shakespeare is meaningless." (in Selected Essays, new edition, 1960). Shakespeare is assumed to have been educated at Stratford Grammar School, and he may have spent the years 1580-82 as a teacher for the Roman Catholic Houghton family in Lancashire. When Shakespeare was 15, a woman from a nearby village drowned in the Avon. Her death was ruled accidental but it may have been a suicide. Later in Hamlet Shakespeare left open the question whether Ophelia died accidentally or by her own hand. At the age of 18, Shakespeare married a local girl, Anne Hathaway (died 1623), who was eight years older. Their first child, Susannah, was born within six months, and twins Hamnet and Judith were born in 1585. Hamnet, Shakespeare's only son, died in 1596, at the age of 11. It has often been suggested, that the lines in King John, beginning with "Grief fills the room of my absent child", reflects Shakespeare's own personal feelings.

Hamlet was first printed in 1603. It is Shakespeare's largest drama, based on a lost play known as the Ur-Hamlet. The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) once said that "Hamlet is a vulgar and barbarous drama," but he also saw that there are "some sublime  passages worthy of the greatest genius." Prince Hamlet, an enigmatic intellectual, mourns both his father's death and his mother's remarriage. His father's ghost appears to him and reveals that Claudius, married to Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, poisoned him. Hamlet, fascinated by cruelly witty games, swears revenge. "The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!" He stages an old play whose story has a parallel to that of Claudius. Hamlet's behavior is considered mad. He kills the eavesdropping Polonius, the court chamberlain, by thrusting his sword through a curtain. Polonius's son Laertes returns to Denmark to avenge his father's death. Polonius's daughter Ofelia loves Hamlet, but the prince's sadistically brutal behavior drives her to madness. "Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" he tells Ophelia who dies by drowning. Before the slaughter that ends the story, Hamlet says to his friend Horatio: "I shall win at the odds. But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart." A duel takes place and ends with the death of Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet, whose final words are "the rest is silence."

According to a legend, Shakespeare left Stratford for London to avoid a charge of poaching. After 1582 Shakespeare probably joined as an actor one or several acting companies. He soon became a central figure in London´s leading theater company, the Lord Chamberlain´s Company, renamed later as the King´s Men. He wrote many great plays for the group. A new theater, called The Globe, was built in 1599. What happened in the "Lost years" between 1585 and 1592 is not known.

Shakespeare was known in his day as a very rapid writer: "His mind and hand went together," his publishers Heminges and Condell reported, "and what he thought, he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers." Despite all the praise, some writers were not enthusiastic about his plays. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) called A Midsummer Night's Dream "the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life." Voltaire wrote: "Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada," "Shakespeare is the Corneille of London, but everywhere else he is a great fool..."

Shakespeare composed also two heroic narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594). Some of his 154 sonnets, which were first published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe, he circulated amongst his private friends. The sonnets refer cryptically to several persons, including a handsome young man, a woman called the 'Dark Lady', and a rival poet. Shakespeare's name was also on the title page of The Passionate Pilgrim (1599), issued by the publisher William Jaggard. The identity of the brunette, who was featured in Shakespeare's later poems, has been a mystery. According to one theory, she was the Countess of Pembroke. George Bernard Shaw believed she was one of Elizabeth I's ladies-in-waiting, Mary Fritton. Some have thought she was the mother of Shakespeare's supposed illegitimate son, Henry Davenant. Or she might have been Marie Mountjoy, Shakespeare's London landlady, or the black prostitute Luce Morgan, or Emilia Bassano, the daughter of a court musician and mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Hunsdon. And there is a theory that the Dark Lady was not a "she" at all, but Shakespeare's patron Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.

"My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!"

(in Romeo and Juliet)

Romeo and Juliet was based on real lovers who lived in Verona, Italy, and died for each other in the year 1303. At that time the Capulets and Montagues were among the inhabitants of the town. Shakespeare found the tale in Arthur Brooke's poem 'The Tragical Historye of Romeus and Juliet' (1562). The play has inspired other works, such as Berlioz's dramatic symphony (1839), Tchaikovsky's fantasy-overture (1869-80), and Prokofiev's full-length ballet (1938). The Tempest, often considered Shakespeare's farewell to his theatrical art, has inspired Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, and Jean Sibelius, who wrote music for it in 1926.

About 1610 Shakespeare returned to his birthplace, where he had a house, named New Place. He lived there as a country gentleman, drank beer, and co-wrote with John Fletcher The Two Noble Kinsmen, first published in 1634. A number of Shakespeare's plays came out during his lifetime, but none of the original dramatic manuscripts have survived. Love's Labour's Won was listed by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury (1598) among Shakespeare's plays. It may be a lost work or an alternative title for another play. The original Globe burned down in 1613, and was rebuilt next year. Shakespeare's later plays were also performed at the Blackfriars Theatre, which was run by a seven-man syndicate. Shakespeare was one of its members.

Shakespeare's company used the Globe in the summer and the indoor Blackfriars in the winter. Under the patronage of King James I, the company also performed at court, more often than during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The dramatist John Dennis (1657-1734) claimed, that The Merry Wives of Windsor was written at her command. Macbeth, with its witches and portrayal of the legendary ancestor of the Stuart kings, Banquo, had a special appeal to James. He had also written a book about demology.

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616. His widow was legally entitled to a third of the estate. Shakespeare also bequeathed his "second-best bed" to his wife – at that time the best bed was the grand prize of a forfeited estate. Anne Hathaway died seven years after her husband. It has been said that she and her daughter wished to be buried in Shakespeare's grave.

A folio edition of Shakespeare's collected works – known as the First Folio, appeared in 1623. The volume was put together by his friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell. On Shakespeare's gravestone are four lines of verse. It is not certain that the Bard of Avon wrote the famous epitaph: "Good friend, for Jesus´ sake forbeare / To digg the dust enclosed here! / Blest be ye man that spares thes stones / And curst be he that moues my bones." However, in the text there is an onomatopoetic to his name, with "sake" in the first line, and "spares" in the third.

For further reading: Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate (2009); Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd (2006);Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt (2005); Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom (1999); William Shakespeare: His Life and Work by Anthony Holden (1999); William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life by S. Scoenbaum (1975); Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess (1970); How Shakespeare Spent the Day by Ivor Brown (1964); Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed.  Geoffrey Bullough (1957-1966); William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems by E.K. Chambers (1930); The Elizabethan Stage by E.K. Chambers (1924); Shakespeare's England by Walter Raleigh (1916); Outlines of the Life of William Shakespeare by J.O. Halliwell-Phillips (1887) - For further information: William Shakespeare biographiesSee also: Geoffrey Chaucer's drama Troilus and Criseyde, Alexander Pope, Anton Tammsaare, Isaiah Berlin, Eugenio Montale. Suomeksi Shakespearelta on käännetty Kootut draamat I-IX, suomentajana Paavo Cajander. Muita suomentajia ovat olleet mm. Pietari Hannikainen, Yrjö Jylhä, Eeva-Liisa Manner, Veijo Meri, Matti Rossi, Kersti Juva  ja Lauri Sipari.

Selected plays: (the dates of Shakespeare's earlier plays are uncertain)

  • Henry VI, Part 1, 1589-90
    - Kuningas Henrik Kuudes, 1 osa (suom. Paavo Cajander, Draamoja 24, 1907) / Raivoisat ruusut: kronikka vallasta (suom. Aila Meriluoto, 1990)  / Henrik VI. Ensimmäinen osa (suom. Matti Rossi, 2010)
  • Henry VI, Part 2, 1590-91
    - Kuningas Henrik Kuudes, 2 osa (suom. Paavo Cajander, Draamoja 25, 1907) / Raivoisat ruusut: kronikka vallasta (suom. Aila Meriluoto, 1990)  / Henrik VI. Toinen osa (suom. Matti Rossi, 2007)
  • Henry VI, Part 3, 1591-92
    - Kuningas Henrik Kuudes, 3 osa (suom. Paavo Cajander, Draamoja 26, 1907)  / Raivoisat ruusut: kronikka vallasta (suom. Aila Meriluoto, 1990) / Henrik VI. Kolmas osa (suom. Matti Rossi, 2007)
  • The Comedy of Errors, 1592-93
    - Hairauksia (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1910) / Erehdysten komedia (suom. Leena Tamminen, 2009)
  • Richard III, 1592-93
    - Kuningas Rikhard Kolmas (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1897) / Rikhard III (suom. Matti Rossi, 1977 & 2004)
  • The Taming of the Shrew, c. 1593
    - Kuinka Äkäpussi kesytetään (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1912) / Miten äkäpussi kesytetään (suom. Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1964) / Kuinka äkäpussi kesytetään (suom. Leena Tamminen, 2007)
  • Titus Andronicus, 1594
    - Titus Andronicus (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1912; Pentti Saaritsa, 2009)
  • The Two Gentlemen of Veron, 1594
    - Kaksi nuorta veronalaista (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1910; Leena Tamminen, 2005)
  • Love's Labour's Lost, 1594-95
    - Turhaa lemmen touhua (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1910; Juhani Lindholm, 2011)
  • Romeo and Juliet, 1594-95
    - Romeo ja Julia (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1881; Yrjö Jylhä, 1955; Lauri Sipari, 1981; Marja-Leena Mikkola, 2006)
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1595-96
    - Kesäyön unelma (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1891; Yrjö Jylhä, 1955) / Kesäyön uni (suom. Lauri Sipari, 1989) / Juhannusyön uni (suom. Matti Rossi, 2005)
  • Richard II, 1595-96
    - Kuningas Rikhard Toinen (suom. Paavo Cajander, 2. p. 1920) / Richard II (suom. Matti Rossi, 2008)
  • The Merchant of Venice, 1596-97
    - Venetian kauppias (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1882) / Venetsian kauppias (suom. Yrjö Jylhä, 1956; Esko Elstelä, 1974)
  • King John, 1596-97
    - Kuningas Juhana (suom. Paavo Cajander, 2. p. 1920; Matti Rossi, 2008)
  • Henry IV, Part 1, 1597-98
    - Kuningas Henrik Neljäs, Edellinen osa (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1897) / Henrik IV. Ensimmäinen osa (suom. Matti Rossi, 2004)
  • Henry IV, Part 2, 1597-98
    - Kuningas Henrik IV, Jälkimmäinen osa (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1898) / Henrik IV. Toinen osa (suom. Matti Rossi, 2004)
  • Much Ado About Nothing, 1598-99
    - Paljon melua tyhjästä (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1906; Kersti Juva, 2009)
  • Henry V, 1599
    - Kuningas Henrik Viides (suom. Paavo Cajander, 2. p. 1922) / Henrik V (suom. Matti Rossi, 2009)
  • As You Like It, 1598-1600
    - Miten haluatte (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1910; Esko Elstelä, 1970) / Kuten haluatte (suom. Kirsti Simonsuuri, 2010)
  • Julius Caesar, 1599-1600
    - Julius Caesar (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1884; Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1983; Lauri Sipari, 1997; Jarkko Laine, 2007)
  • Hamlet, 1600-01
    - Hamlet, Tanskan prinssi (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1897; Veijo Meri, 1982) / Hamlet (suom.  Yrjö Jylhä, 1955; Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1981)  
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1600-01
    - Iloiset Windsorin rouvat (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1906) / Windsorin iloiset rouvat (suom. Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1964; Kersti Juva, 2006)
  • Twelfth Night; or, What You Will, 1601-02
    - Loppiaisaatto eli mitä mielitte (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1899) / Loppiaisaatto (suom. Esko Elstelä, 1972; Lauri Sipari, 1990; Pentti Saaritsa, 2012)
  • All's Well That Ends Well, 1602-03
    - Loppu hyvä, kaikki hyvä (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1911) / Loppu hyvä, kaikki hyvin (suom. Tiina Ohinmaa, 2007)
  • Othello, 1604-05
    - Othello (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1884) / Othello: Venetsian mauri (suom. Yrjö Jylhä, 1955)
  • Measure for Measure, 1605
    - Verta verrasta (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1911) / Mitta mitasta (suom. Lauri Sipari, 1994; Tiina Ohinmaa, 2005)
  • King Lear, 1605-06
    - Kuningas Lear (suom. 1872; Paavo Cajander, 1883; Yrjö Jylhä, 1936; Matti Rossi, 1975 & 2005)
  • Macbeth, 1605-06
    - Ruunulinna (sovitus: J.F. Lagervall, 1834) / Macbeth (suom. Kaartlo Slöör-Santala, 1864; Paavo Cajander, 1885; Yrjö Jylhä, 1936; Matti Rossi, 1983 & 2004)
  • Antony and Cleopatra, 1606-07
    - Antonius ja Kleoparta (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1895; Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1989)
  • Coriolanus, 1607-08
    - Coriolanus (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1887; Lauri Sipari, 2008)
  • Timon of Athens, 1607-08
    - Timon Ateenalainen (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1900; Lauri Sipari, 2011)
  • Pericles, Prince of Tyre, 1609 (probably only partly written by Shakespeare)
    - Pericles, Tyyroksen prinssi (suom. Anna-Maija Viitanen, 2012)
  • Troilus and Cressida, 1609
    - Troilus ja Cressida (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1911) / Troilos ja Cressida (suom. Anna-Maija Viitanen, 2009)
  • Cymbeline, 1609-10
    - Cymbeline (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1920; Lauri Sipari, 2010)
  • The Winter's Tale, 1610-11
    - Talvinen tarina (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1894; Esko Elstelä, 1974; Jyrki Vainonen, 2006) 
  • The Tempest, c. 1611
    - Myrsky (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1892; Arvi Kivimaa, 1963-64; Esko Elstelä, 1972; Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1986; Arto af Hällström, 1995; Alice Martin, 2006; Matti Rossi, 2010)
  • Henry VIII, 1612-13
    - Kuningas Henrik Kahdeksas (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1910) / Henrik VIII, tai Kaikki on totta (suom. Lauri Sipari, 2012)
  • The Two Noble Kinsmen, 1613-14 (first printed in 1634 as "by the memorable worthies of their time, Mr John Fletcher, and Mr William Shakespeare, Gent."
    - Kaksi jalosukuista (suom. Lauri Sipari, 2012)
FILM ADAPTATIONS - Shakespeare's plays have been adapted to screen many hundred times. Here are some films: The Taming of the Shrew, 1929, starring Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks - A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1935, dir.  Max Reinhardt-William Dieterle - Romeo and Juliet, 1935, dir.  George Cukor - As You Like It, 1936, dir.  Paul Czinner (script adaptation: J.M.Barrie and Robert Cullen) - Henry V, 1945, dir.  Lawrence Olivier - Hamlet, 1948, dir.  Lawrence Olivier - Macbeth, 1948, dir.  Orson Welles - Othello, 1952, dir.  Orson Welles - Julius Caesar, 1953, dir.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz - Romeo and Juliet, 1954, dir.  Renato Castellani - Richard III, 1955, dir. Lawrence Olivier - Othello, 1956, dir.  Sergei Jutkevitsh - Forbidden Planet, 1956, dir.  Fred M. Wilcox (based on The Tempest) - Throne of Blood/The Castle of the Spider's Web/Cobweb Castle, 1957, dir.  Akira Kurosawa (based on Macbeth) - Hamlet, 1964, dir.  Grigori Kozintsev (translation of the play: Boris Pasternak) - Falstraff, 1965, dir.  Orson Welles - The Taming of the Shrew, 1967, dir.  Franco Zeffirelli, starring Elisabeth Taylor and Richard Burton - Romeo and Juliet, 1968, dir.  Franco Zeffirelli - King Lear, 1970, dir.  Peter Brook - King Lear, 1970, dir. by Grigori Kozintsev - Macbeth, 1972, dir.  Roman Polanski - The Tempest, 1982, dir.  Paul Mazursky - Ran, 1985, dir.  Akira Kurosawa (based on King Lear) - King Lear, 1987, dir.  Jean-Luc Godard - Hamlet liikemaailmassa/Hamlet Goes Business, 1987, dir.  Aki Kaurismäki - Henry V, 1989, dir.  Kenneth Branagh - Hamlet, 1991, dir.  Franco Zeffirelli - Prospero's Books, 1991, dir.  Peter Greeneway - Men of Respect, 1991, dir.  William Reilly (based on Macbeth) - As You Like It, 1992, dir.  Christine Edzard - Much Ado about Nothing, 1993, dir. Kenneth Branagh - Othello, 1995, dir.  Oliver Parker - Hamlet, 1996, dir. by Kenneth Branagh - William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, 1996, dir.  Baz Luhrman - Twelfth Night, 1966, dir.  Trevor Nunn - Looking for Richard, dir. Al Pacino, 1996 - Shakespeare in Love, 1998, dir.  John Madden (partly based on Romeo and Juliet) - 10 Things I Hate About You, 1999, dir.  Gil Junger (based on The Taming of the Shrew) - William Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, 1999, dir.  Michael Hoffman - Love's Labour Lost, 2000, dir.  Kenneth Branagh - O aka The One, 2001, dir.  Tim Blake Nelson (based on Othello) - The Merchant of Venice, 2004, dir.  Michael Radford, starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Lynn Collins, Joseph Fiennes - Hamlet, 2005, dir. Stephen Cavanagh, starring James Lecky, Yvonne Richardson, Stephen Cavanagh - As You Like It, 2006, dir. Kenneth Branagh, starring Takuya Shimada, Brian Blessed, Richard Clifford  - The Banquet, 2006, dir.  Feng Xiaogang, starring Zhang Ziyi (loosely based on Hamlet) - Macbeth, 2007, dir.  Geoffrey Wright, starring Sam Worthington, Victoria Hill, Lachy Hulme, Steve Bastoni - Hamlet, 2007, dir. Aleksandar Rajkovic - Hamlet, 2007, dir. Alexander Fodor - Le roi Lear, TV movie 2007, dir. Don Kent, starring Michel Piccoli - Henry V, 2007, dir. Peter Babakitis - The Merchant of Venice, 2009, dir. Douglas Morse - The Tempest, 2010, dir. Julie Taymor  - The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2011, dir.  Christopher Luscombe, starring Christopher Benjamin, Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward - Coriolanus, 2011, dir. Ralph Fiennes, starring Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler and Brian Cox - King Lear, 2012, dir. Michael Radford, starring Al Pacino - Romeo and Juliet, 2013, dir. Carlo Carlei, starring Stellan Skarsgård and Hailee Steinfield

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