Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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William Shakeapeare

Although little is known for certain about Shakespeare there are many important writers of his era of whom we know far less. Of the playwright Kyd, for example, despite his evident great popularity during his life, nothing whatsoever is known, and we are lucky even to know his name. Few of Shakespeare's personal papers survive, and there are no diaries or letters to his friends which might give us an insight into his private life; and if, for instance, biographers look to the Sonnets to provide some clue, all that emerges in the end is further mystery. The apocryphal stories that appeared, inevitably, in the years following his death would not, even if they were true, add a great deal. But of his public life — his work with the King's Men, his business transactions — we do have adequate documentation. What follows is drawn from official documents and from those few reliable comments by his contemporaries that survive.

Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, in April. The 23rd, three days before his baptism, and the date on which he died, is conveniently taken as his birth-day.
Educated, almost certainly at the King's New School at Stratford-upon-Avon. Acquired the "small Latin" and "less Greek" that Ben Jonson credits him with in his dedicatory poem in the First Folio, 1623. 1582 Married Anne Hathaway.
Three children — Susanna, and the twins Hamnet and Judith — born. (Hamnet died when only eleven years old).
Beginning of his career as actor and playwright.
Shakespeare already a force to be reckoned with in the theatre: Robert Greene, pamphleteer and playwright of an older generation, warns against ". upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country."
Plague closes London theatres. Shakespeare dedicates his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, probably also the young man referred to in the Sonnets.
First extant reference to Shakespeare as a member of the troup called the Lord Chamberlain's Men, to which Kempe the celebrated comedian and Burbage the tragedian also belonged. (While it seems clear that Shakespeare was not a leading actor John Aubrey, the diarist, reports that "he did act exceedingly well". He is said by John Davies in an epigram in his Scourge of Folly (pub. 1610) to have favoured "kingly parts"; and it is certain that he played Adam in As You Like It and the Ghost in Hamlet, which Rowe in his 1709 edition says was his finest role. It is also on record that he acted in the plays of Ben Jonson).
Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain's Men resident at The Theatre, their playhouse near Bishopsgate, performing for the public and sometimes before Elizabeth I.
The Lord Chamberlain's Men tear down The Theatre, and use the timber to construct The Globe, in Southwark. Shakespeare now in receipt of ten per cent of the company's profits under a special contract: hence not only actor and principal playwright but also business director of the company.
Timely revival of Richard II at The Globe, commissioned by some of Essex's followers on the day preceding the launch of his rebellion, (8 February), gives a rare suggestion of the political life of Shakespeare and his colleagues. (The rebellion of Bolingbroke against Richard II in the play was clearly open to an allegorical reading in which Bolingbroke became Essex and Richard, Elizabeth I).
Death of Queen Elizabeth and accession by King James I. By Royal Patent the Lord Chamberlain's Men become the King's Men.
26 December — first recorded performance of Measure for Measure. before the King. 1611 Around the date of The Winter's Tale and The Tempest Shakespeare retires to Stratford to his family. His interests in the company have brought him considerable wealth, by now invested in land and property.
23 April, Shakespeare dies aged fifty-two, — according to the Vicar of Holy Trinity from drinking too hard with Drayton and Ben Jonson, and thereby contracting a fever. Buried at Stratford, where his monument is.
Anne Shakespeare dies. John Heminges and Hemy Condell, two of the King's Men, and Shakespeare's colleagues for twenty years, publish all his plays (apart from Pericles) in the First Folio. The First Folio constitutes the sole surviving text of no less than eighteen of the plays, the other eighteen existing also in earlier Quarto editions. The poems were published in Shakespeare's lifetime, but he had gone to his grave not knowing whether his great plays would outlive him

". ..for I loved the man, and do honour his memory (on this side idolatry) as much as any. He was indeed honest, and of an open, and free nature; had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions. .."

Ben Jonson on "Our Fellow Countryman Shakespeare", 1626-37, from Timber: or Discoveries; made upon Men and Matter (1641)


1588-93 The Comedy of Errors
1588-94 Love's Labour's Lost
1590-91 Henry VI Part 2
1590-91 Henry VI Part 3
1591-92 Henry VI Part 1
1592-93 Richard III
1592-94 Titus Andronicus
1593-94 The Taming of the Shrew
1593-95 The Two Gentlemen of Verona
1594-96 Romeo and Juliet
1595 Richard II
1594-96 A Midsummer Night's Dream
1596-97 King John
1596-97 The Merchant of Venice
1597 Henry IV Part 1
1597-98 Henry IV Part 2
1597-1601 The Merry Wives of Windsor
1598-99 Henry V
1598-1600 Much Ado About Nothing
1599 Julius Caesar
1599-1600 As You Like It
1599-1600 Twelfth Night
1600-01 Hamlet
1601-02 Troilus and Cressida
1602-04 All's Well That Ends Well
1603-04 Othello
1604 Measure for Measure
1605-06 King Lear
1605-06 Macbeth
1606-07 Antony and Cleopatra
1605-08 Timon of Athens
1607-09 Coriolanus
1608-09 Pericles
1609-10 Cymbeline
1610-11 The Winter's Tale
1611 The Tempest
1612-13 Henry VIII
1592 Venus and Adonis
1593-94 The Rape of Lucrece
1593-1600 Sonnets
1600-01 The Phoenix and the Turtle
Chronology by Sylvan Barnet, General Editor, The Signet Classic Shakespeare

Shakespeare in Print

Shakespeare seems never to have supervised the publication of any of the thirty-seven plays in which he had a hand, of which eighteen came out in his lifetime in Quarto editions (a Quarto is a volume of sheets folded twice, forming four leaves and eight pages per sheet.) The Quartos are described by his posthumous Folio editors as "...diverse stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors that exposed them," and indeed these texts have never been trusted.

The First Folio (a volume of sheets folded once, each sheet thereby making two leaves and four pages) contains thirty-six plays, whose texts are based both on published and unpublished copies. The Folio is considered the authoritative text, although the editing becomes rather slapdash towards the end of the volume. Editing Shakespeare is not always easy: sometimes two Quartos of a play exist, as well as the Folio, with no clear relationship between any of them. Modern editions of Shakespeare are based primarily on the Folio texts. The Director of the Riverside production has used the Signet Classic edition of Measure for Measure as being the most useful of the current pocket editions. It provides clear analysis of the text and a wealth of useful background to the play and its critical history.

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Last modified: 2012-03-15