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William Shakespeare

The 23rd April 2016 marks 400 years since the death of the world famous playwright William Shakespeare. Shakespeare lived and wrote his plays mostly during the Elizabethan era heavily influenced by the political, religious and cultural events around him.

The links between William Shakespeare and English history 

William ShakespeareWilliam Shakespeare was born during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I when literature and the theatre prospered. Shakespeare wrote or co-wrote ten plays that were based on episodes in English history. 

One of his main sources of information for these plays was Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Shakespeare’s plays were less concerned with historical accuracy than with entertaining an audience and they say more about the society he was living in.


Supporting the Tudors

Although the Queen supported the arts, plays were subject to censorship. Shakespeare’s early works Henry VI and Richard III are often seen as supporting Tudor propaganda.  Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, is portrayed as England’s rightful ruler who ended the Wars of the Roses by uniting the houses of York and Lancaster with his marriage to Elizabeth of York “the true succeeders of each royal house”.  Richard III, whom Henry Tudor defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field, is depicted as a deformed and treacherous villain who usurped the throne, the image of Richard III that most people still think of today.

Henry V

King Henry V was seen as one of England’s greatest military heroes. Shakespeare’s play focuses on the Battle of Agincourt and was written at a time when England was at war with Spain. There was also rebellion in Ireland and Shakespeare makes reference to this in Henry V. In March 1599 Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex left London to cheering crowds to suppress the uprising in Ireland.  “As, by a lower but loving likelihood, were now the General of our gracious Empress - as in good time he may - from Ireland coming, bringing rebellion broached on his sword, how many would the peaceful city quit to welcome him!” However, the expected victory didn’t happen and the military campaign was a failure. The “General” Devereux fell from favour at court and was placed under house arrest.

Plots & Rebellions

The Elizabethan era was also a time of religious upheaval as England converted to a Protestant State. The Pope had declared Elizabeth a heretic. Several Catholic plots to remove the Queen from the throne were uncovered, including the Babington Plot which ultimately led to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. Several of Shakespeare’s plays feature conspiracies and plots to overthrow the existing regime and his characters often discuss what qualities a good leader should have.

In 1601 the disgruntled Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex launched his own rebellion against the government. His supporters commissioned the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put on a performance of Richard II the day before the rebellion to try and get public support. Richard II tells of the last two years of Richard’s life, his overthrow by Henry Bolingbroke and his imprisonment and murder. Queen Elizabeth is said to have remarked “I am Richard II, know you not that?” The rebellion failed and the Earl of Essex was executed.

King James I also faced Catholic plots to remove him from the throne. On 5 November 1605 there was a failed attempt to assassinate the King by blowing up the House of Lords during the state opening of Parliament. Shakespeare probably wrote Macbeth soon after as there are several references to the Gunpowder Plot within the play. The porter’s speech about the “equivocator” is generally believed to be a reference to the Jesuit priest Henry Garnet. Father Garnet wrote a treatise on equivocation, which was a way of using words to conceal the truth without telling a direct lie, which would be a sin.  Garnet was executed for not passing on his knowledge of the plot.

King James I commissioned a medal to commemorate the plots failure. When Lady Macbeth instructs her husband to "look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't" this may refer to the medal which pictures a serpent hiding amongst flowers.

James I was not a popular monarch. In Macbeth, Shakespeare makes several references to King James. In one instance the witches show Macbeth a vision of a long line of kings which the most distant “twofold balls and treble sceptres carry”. This is an image of James as the rightful heir to the throne and alludes to James being King of England and Scotland. It may also represent the king’s desire for a union between the two countries. The kings are descendants of Banquo who was believed at the time to be an ancestor of King James, so it is unsurprising that Shakespeare portrays him as a man of good character. The King was after all the patron of the King’s Men.

Historical References

It’s not just Shakespeare’s English history plays that reflect the world he lived in. In Coriolanus the people of Rome, who are facing starvation due to grain shortages and high food prices, are rioting over the hoarding of grain by the ruling patricians.  It is set in Roman times but has parallels with the poor harvests which brought famine to England in the late 1590’s and to the Midlands Revolt of 1607 over the enclosure of common land by wealthy landowners. A landowner himself, Shakespeare was named in a dispute over land enclosures. He had also been prosecuted for hoarding grain in the hope of selling it on for a higher price.

Many popular phrases we use today come from Shakespeare’s works and he contributed hundreds of words to the English language. Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V was used to boost public morale at the time of the D-Day landings. When Richard III’s skeleton was discovered in the car park in Leicester the big question was whether or not he was the deformed hunchback of Shakespeare’s play. Four hundred years after his death William Shakespeare remains one of England’s greatest playwrights.

Who was William Shakespeare?

William Shakespeare, actor, playwright and poet, was born in Stratford upon Avon in 1564. Although the date of his birth is often given as the 23 April, St George’s Day, there is no documentary evidence of this. The parish register held at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford records the baptism of Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare (William son of John Shakespeare) on the 26 April 1564.

William was the third of eight children although his two elder sisters died in infancy.  His mother Mary Arden came from a prominent Warwickshire farming family. William’s father John Shakespeare was a glove maker and leather worker by trade, but he had other business interests and court documents show he illegally traded in wool. He later fell into debt and lost his position as an alderman for non-attendance at council meetings.

Nothing is known of William’s upbringing. He may have attended the local grammar school where he would have been taught Latin and studied classical works.

In 1582 at the age of 18, William married the 26 year old Anne Hathaway, who was already pregnant with their first child Susanna. They went on to have two more children, twins Judith and Hamnet who were baptised on the 2 February 1585. His son Hamnet died at the age of eleven in 1596.

Becoming a Playwright

At some point after February 1585 Shakespeare left his family in Stratford upon Avon and went to London where he became an actor and a playwright. These seven years are known as the Lost Years as there is no record of William Shakespeare until 1592, when Henry VI Part I is performed at the Rose Theatre and the playwright Robert Greene calls Shakespeare, “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers” in Groats-Worth of Wit.

Shakespeare was a member of the acting company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and he acted in his own and other people’s plays. While Robert Greene may not have thought much of Shakespeare’s talents, in 1597 he was able to purchase New Place, the second largest house in Stratford upon Avon and the following year Love’s labour’s Lost was published under his own name.  In 1599 the Globe Theatre opened and Shakespeare was one of the shareholders. He invested money in land and property and was a part owner of the Blackfriars Theatre. Shakespeare was also reported for not paying his taxes.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed at court for Queen Elizabeth I and after her death in 1603 they were given royal patronage by King James I, renaming themselves the King’s Men.

Shakespeare's Death

In March 1616 William Shakespeare finalised his Will, leaving his wife the “second best bed”, a phrase which has led to much speculation about their relationship.

William Shakespeare died on the 23 April 1616 of unknown causes. He was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon.  The epitaph on his grave reads “Good friend for Jesus' sake forbear, to dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, and cursed be he that moves my bones.”