No biography was written of Shakespeare during his life. Today little can be factually supported of what we believe to be the events of the life of William Shakespeare, and much debate continues to this day.
We believe William Shakespeare was born April 22 or 23, 1564 at Stratford-upon-Avon, the son of Mary Arden and John Shakespeare, a glove-maker, one of eight children, five of whom survived to adulthood. He was baptized April 26 1564. He had early education from a tutor and at seven entered the Free School in Stratford where he learned a little Latin and even less Greek. When he was about thirteen he was removed from school and apprenticed to a butcher, for an unknown period of time.
In November 1582, at age eighteen, he was obliged to marry Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. Their first child, Susanna, was born six months later. A pair of twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born February 21, 1585. Due to his twenty years of living apart from Anne and his brief mention of her in his will, it is assumed that theirs was not a happy marriage.
It is said that Shakespeare’s conviction for poaching deer from the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy inspired him to write his first literary work, a satire of Sir Thomas. Shakespeare departed for London, leaving his family behind, and soon attached himself to the theater working at menial jobs. (as a keeper of playgoers’ horses by one tradition). He was able to return to Stratford once the poaching incident was forgotten.
By 1592 Shakespeare was a recognized actor and in that year wrote and produced his first play, Henry VI, Part One (although some critics believe Love’s Labour’s Lost to have been his first). The success of the play led to Parts Two and Three. In 1593 Shakespeare published a long poem Venus and Adonis based upon Ovid. It was dedicated to the Earl of Southampton to whom The Rape of Lucrece (1594) was also dedicated. It was also for the Earl that his famous Sonnets were written. It is believed that Shakespeare never meant for the Sonnets to be published; one edition full of mistakes was quickly suppressed.
In 1594 Shakespeare became the principal shareholder of an acting company that was destined to become the most celebrated of its day, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later known as The King’s Men after the accession of King James). The same year he also acted in a play of unknown authorship before Queen Elizabeth.
At the time of writing Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream - usually attributed to the year 1595 - Shakespeare was thirty-one, already on his way to a successful theatrical career, and had been acting for five years in London. He had written either historical or comedy plays for a number of years. He had been married for twelve years and had three children.
In August 1596 his son Hamnet died and early the next year he bought a home, New Place, in the center of Stratford. His relative prosperity is shown by his purchase of more than a hundred acres of farmland in 1602, a cottage near his estate and a half interest in the tithes of some local villages in 1605.
In September 1598 Shakespeare began a friendship with the then unknown Ben Johnson and produced his play Every Man in His Humour. In 1599 The Globe Theatre was built in London, and Shakespeare’s company began acting there. Despite general disquiet at the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 and the beginning of the rule of James I, from Scotland, Shakespeare’s fortunes were unaffected and his license to perform at the Globe was extended. Troilus and Cressida, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, all were performed there before the theater was destroyed by fire in 1613.
Shakespeare retired from the stage by 1613, and his last few years were seemingly quiet. One known incident revolves around his involvement in a heated and lengthy dispute over the enclosure of common-fields around Stratford.
Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 and was buried at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford. A monument to him has since been erected in Poets Corner of Westminster Abbey. Seven years after his death his fellow actors published the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
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A listing of Shakespeare’s plays with probable date of authorship
Henry VI, Part One, 1590
The Comedy of Errors, 1590
Titus Andronicus, 1590
Henry VI, Parts Two and Three, 1590-92
Richard III, 1591
King John, 1591-98
The Taming of the Shrew, 1592
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1592-93
Richard II, 1595
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1595
Romeo and Juliet, 1595
Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1595
The Merchant of Venice, 1596-98
As You Like It, 1597
Henry IV, Part One, 1597
Henry IV, Part Two, 1597
The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1597
Much Ado About Nothing, 1598-99
Henry V, 1599
Julius Caesar, 1599
Twelfth Night 1601
Troilus and Cressida, 1602
All’s Well That Ends Well, 1603-04
Measure for Measure, 1604
King Lear, 1604-05
Pericles, Prince of Tyre, 1606-08
Timon of Athens, 1607
Anthony and Cleopatra, 1606,07
The Winter’s Tale, 1610-11
The Tempest, 1611
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Shakespeare and dance
Dance played an important part in Elizabethan and Jacobean life, so it is understandable that Shakespeare would be sensitive to dance. Music, poetry and dance were essentials of the Elizabethan education in addition to sterner pursuits. The average Elizabethan was like Overbury's Fine Gentleman: "he carries his pumps in his pocket, and lest he should take the fiddlers unaware, whistles his own galliard." Queen Elizabeth I favored dancing on Sundays. On a visit to Kenilworth in 1557 lords and ladies danced for her on the Sabbath "with lively agility and commendable grace." James I, who followed Elizabeth on the throne, preserved the court dancing although he frowned on the use of tobacco.
Shakespeare contains many references to dance of both the courtly and popular kind. The popular English morris dance is mentioned in Henry V "Whitsun morris-dance" and All's Well That Ends Well "a morris for May-day." In Love's Labour's Lost "he will make one in a dance or play the tabor to the Worthies and let them dance the hay."
From Henry V on the eve of Agincourt
"they bid us to the English dancing-schools,
And teach lovotas high and swift corantos;
Saying our grace is only in our heels."
In A Midsummer Night's Dream there is a seeming reference to dance "Nine men's morris … filled up with mud" but this refers not to a dance but a piece of turf squared off for playing a country game with movable stones.
Shakespeare also uses dance in his plays. In Romeo and Juliet the masked dance is an integral part of the action, the catalyst that finally brings Romeo and Juliet together. In A Midsummer Night's Dream the lovers fill the three hours following the history of Pyramus and Thisbe in a bergomask. Part of the plot, but less integral, are the dances in Henry V and the Muscovite mask in Love's Labour's Lost. In As You Like It and elsewhere, a dance brings the play to a happy conclusion, following the Elizabethan tradition of bringing a comedy to a close as there was no curtain.
Dance is to used enrich the imagery of Shakespeare's poetry, as in the following examples:
"By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or on the beached margent of the sea
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind."
(A Midsummer Night's Dream)
Forsake unsounded depths to dance on sands."
"If you find him sad
Say I am dancing; if in mirth
Report that I am sudden sick."
"He at Philippi kept
His sword e'en like a dancer, while I struck
The lean and wrinkled Cassius."
"When you dance I wish you
A wave o' the seas, that might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so, and own
No other function."
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Shakespeare at the Ballet
Undoubtedly Romeo and Juliet is the Shakespearean play that is most often performed as a ballet, arguably because the lyrical pas de deux that is at the heart of many ballets fits well with this story. Many other plays by Shakespeare have been adapted for ballets, a sampling of which follows.
The earliest adaptation of Shakespeare to ballet seems to be Noverre’s Antoine et Cléopâtre in Stuttgart, 1761, a story Jean Aumer used for the Paris Opera in 1808.
The Tempest first appeared as a ballet in 1774 at the King’s Theatre London. In 1834 it was choreographed by Coralli to music by Schneitzhöffer, and there was a version by Filippo Taglioni in 1838. Michael Smuin’s The Tempest was created in 1980 for the San Francisco Ballet with music by Paul Chihara and Purcell. Other versions have been by Glen Tetley with music by Nordheim (1979) and Rudolf Nureyev (1982).
Hamlet was first danced on stage in 1788 in Venice with choreography and music by Francesco Clerico, as a grand ballet pantomime. Other Hamlets include those of Nijinska, 1934 (music of Liszt, in which she herself danced Hamlet); Robert Helpmann, 1942 (for the Royal Ballet to music by Tchaikovsky); Konstantin Sergeyev, 1970 (for the Kirov Ballet, music Chervensky); and both Pierre Lacotte and Vittorio Biagi in 1976. John Neumeier also presented a Hamlet Connotations in 1976.
The first Othello of record was by Salvatore Viganò from February 6, 1818 in Milan. He also produced a Coriolanus. Chabukiani made a full length ballet in 1957 with music by Machavariani. John Butler produced a striking Othello for the three main characters, Othello, Desdemona and Iago to music of George Crumb in 1972, and there is also José Limon’s famous The Moor’s Pavane for the four main characters set to Purcell’s music. Other versions have also been presented by Erika Hanka (1955), Jirí Nemecek (1959), Serge Lifar (1960) Jacques d’Amboise (1967) and Peter Darrel with music by Liszt (1971).
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is represented by two very well known ballets, Balanchine’s full length A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the New York City Ballet, 1961 and The Dream, a one act ballet by Sir Frederick Ashton, made for the Royal Ballet in 1964. Petipa’s Pas d’action was a miniature version of this story over a hundred years ago (1877). Mendelssohn’s music has been choreographed to by Fokine as Les Elfes, and Lichine as Nocturne. The earliest reference to a ballet on this theme seems to be Shakespeare or a Midsummer Night’s Dream at La Scala, Milan, January 27, 1855 choreographed by Giovani Corsati to music of Giorza.
We have also had Le Piq’s Macbeth, 1785; Bourmeister’s 1942 The Merry Wives of Windsor; John Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew in 1969 for the Stuttgart Ballet, and Much Ado About Nothing in Moscow, 1976.
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The Theater in Shakespeare's Day
Going to the theater in Shakespeare's day was a completely different experience than it is today. The Globe was typical of those theaters, with a majority of the audience standing in the open air in front of the stage. If it rained, most of the audience would get wet. They were not a quiet bunch but a riotous crowd who could purchase food and drink from strolling vendors during the course of the performance. If the performance failed to please, they would talk, jeer, catcall or hiss. For twice the price of admission the middle class could sit in seats with a roof over their head in curved tiers around the inside of the building. The very important or rich could sit in a position directly above the stage or even on stools on stage.
The stage would be surrounded by the public in the central yard on three sides. The most luxurious amount of scenery would be to have a curtain at the rear that would cover the three doors through which all entrances and exits were made. Only essential props such as a bed or a throne were brought onto the stage. The imagery was painted in the words of the playwright and the imaginations of the audiences.
All lighting was natural. Plays began at two o'clock, the beginning of the show being announced by a trumpet fanfare and three sharp knocks. Nighttime could be suggested by the actors carrying torches or lanterns, but again the language was there to support the stage setting. For example Oberon evokes the night with "I'll met by moonlight, proud Titania!"
Costume design is considered critical to the success of modern day productions, but in Shakespeare's time it was the actors who supplied their own apparel. They could pick up whatever was available in the dressing room or purchase special items at their own expense. A variety of periods of design could stand next to one another on stage.
An actor could see the audience as well as they could see him, so a great connection was established between the two. The actor would play himself against the crowd and would sometimes improvise speeches of his own to suit the occasion. It was considered shameless for a woman to appear on stage so the roles of girls were played by boys and older women by older men.
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Origins Of The Tale of Romeo and Juliet
The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet was not entirely of Shakespeare’s own invention. The common dramatic practice of his day was to draw upon existing history, writings and legend as material for plays. Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet takes essentials of its plot from the common currency of European literature. The story of the "pair of star crossed lovers" driven to destruction by the strife between their parents' families was told many times in many forms during the two centuries before Shakespeare brought it to the stage in the 1590s. But within a few years Shakespeare’s version quickly became "the" version of Romeo and Juliet.
As a detail of the plot, someone who was thought to be dead, mourned, entombed but then awakened can be traced back via poems, prose and classical legends to the very earliest origins of the tragic tradition. Many ancient myths (e.g. Demeter and Persephone, Orpheus and Eurydice) have resurrection motifs. In the second century AD the Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus tells of two teenagers, Anthia and Habrocomes, who fall in love and marry. Anthia becomes separated from her husband and is rescued from robbers by a man named Perilaus, who then seeks to marry her. To escape this second marriage Anthia bribes a physician to prescribe her a potion with which to commit suicide. Unknowing to her, he actually gives her a drug that will merely feign death. She swallows this potion on her wedding day. Thought dead, she is interred in a tomb where she awakens only to be carried away by tomb-robbers. Habrocomes learns of Anthia’s apparent death and hastens to her tomb. After many twists of plot he is reunited with Anthia. It is thought that Shakespeare had no knowledge of this tale.
By the fifteenth century many more familiar features of the story were developed. Masuccio Salernitano’s 1476 Cinquante Novelle includes the story of Mariotto and Giannozza of Sienna who are secretly married by a friar. Mariotto is banished after he kills a citizen in a quarrel, and Giannozza’s father arranges a marriage for her. The friar provides Giannozza with a sleeping potion; she is thought dead and entombed. In the meantime word is sent to Mariotto of her plan. The message never reaches him as the messenger is attacked by robbers, so when Giannozza sets sail for Alexandria to be with her love, Mariotto returns home to mourn Giannozza. While attempting to open her tomb, Mariotto is arrested and beheaded. Giannozza witnesses the execution, cradles the fallen head and subsequently dies of a broken heart. As Salernitano referred to the two protagonists as contemporaries, they have since been considered quasi-historical characters.
A later version by Luigi da Porto (1485-1529) in his Istoria novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti transfers the events to Verona, renames the lovers Romeo and Giulietta, and specifies a feud between the Montecchi and the Cappelletti. The story follows the familiar line with Romeo returning and finding Giulietta seemingly dead. He takes a poison and Giulietta awakens in time to speak with Romeo before he dies. She commits suicide by holding her breath. Learning of the tragic circumstances, the feuding families are reconciled. Da Porto created several characters including Marcuccio (Mercutio), Theobaldo (Tybalt), Friar Lorenzo (Friar Laurence) and the Conti de Lodrone (Paris).
Da Porto’s life story is almost as romantic. An heroic, good looking and brave young man, he was left for dead in 1510 after a battle between the Venetians and Impérials. He survived, but was seriously disfigured. His Venetian general, mindful of his good looks, wrote "Odious is the victory that costs so high a price!" Da Porto retreated from the world and gave himself over to literature. His touching and tender Giulietta e Romeo made him famous throughout literate Italy, but the success was not great enough. He died at age 43 from the burden of solitude and regret of his fragile health.
The tale was translated and elaborated by, among others, Matteo Bandello (Nouvelle, 1554), and Boistuau and Bellforest (Histoires Tragiques, 1559) acquiring a conspiratorial nurse and a young man who would evolve into Benvolio. The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, a long narrative poem (from the Italian Bandello) by Arthur Brooke (1562) was Shakespeare’s main source for his play. Shakespeare also shows a passing indebtedness to William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure of 1566. At the time of writing Romeo and Juliet - usually attributed to the year 1595 - Shakespeare was thirty-one and was already on his way to a successful theatrical career. Shakespeare dramatically compressed the time scale of events in Brooke’s poem from months into four days - from Sunday morning until Thursday morning - and draws his characters much more deeply.
Shakespeare’s plays have been subjected to many interpretive adjustments during their long history in order to suit the taste of the day. Romeo and Juliet is no exception. A success from its first presentation - "it ‘hath been often (with great applaufe) plaid publiquely" - it has been presented in many languages and settings and freely adapted.
A 1682 adaptation by William Davenport, who slowed the pace of the play, was described by Samuel Pepys as "the worst that I ever heard." In 1679 Thomas Otway adapted the play into The History and Fall of Caius Marius, setting the action in ancient Rome, with much new poetry and with the famous speech beginning "O Marius, Marius! wherefore art thou Marius?" Perhaps Otway’s most notable change was to allow the dying hero to live until the heroine awakens in the tomb so that they may die together. Although not an immediate success, this production seems to have completely superseded Shakespeare’s play for some forty years.
Theophilus Cibber’s production of 1744 mixed material from Romeo and Juliet with lines borrowed from Two Gentlemen of Verona and Otway’s text. David Garrick’s 1748 and 1750 versions did much to establish the enduring popularity of the play (he had performed it over 450 times by 1800), but he also made major revisions. Amongst other changes the character of Rosalind was eliminated, Juliet’s age increased to eighteen (she was thirteen in Shakespeare’s original), many speeches were cut and, as in previous versions, Juliet was able to awaken before Romeo’s death so that the two could share a final impassioned exchange.
In the nineteenth century Thomas Bowdler in his Family Shakespeare sought to purge the works of all bawdy features and several actors, including J.P. Kemble and G.R. French and censored the sexual frankness of the original. However, in the 1840s many attempts were made in England and the United States to revive the original version of the play, although often the bawdy side of the play was still toned down. In another development, Romeo was often played by an actress, a reversal of the Elizabethan custom of assigning female roles to boys. Actresses also took on the role of Hamlet, so nineteenth century audiences seem to have been adaptable to this change.
With the twentieth century came multiple revivals of the play and it reached a larger audience through its inclusion in school curriculums and presentations in film, radio, television and video. Even audiences who were unfamiliar with the play came to know of it through several comedic parodies.
Romeo and Juliet has also acquired more than its quota of musical descendants. No other play by Shakespeare has inspired so many composers, including Bellini, Berlioz, Gounod, Tchaikovsky, Benda, Schwanberg, Malipiero and Bernstein.
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World events around the time of Shakespeare’s writing Romeo and Juliet
Ruined Roman city of Pompeii discovered
Plague kills 15,000 in London
Christopher Marlowe killed in tavern brawl.
London theaters closed on account of the plague
Henry IV crowned King of France
First opera performed, Dafne by Jacopo Peri,
Dutch begin to colonize the East Indies
Mercator’s atlas published
Tomatoes introduced into England
First water closets installed at Queen’s Palace, Richmond
Sir Francis Drake died
Galileo invents the thermometer
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