Shakespeare’s Life and Influences in His Work
Arguably, the most well-known man in English literature is William Shakespeare, often referred to as England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon.” Born roughly around April 23, 1564, Shakespeare grew up a middle child in Stratford-upon-Avon with his mother, father, and siblings. In his lifetime, Shakespeare not only wrote multiple sonnets, poems, and collaborated works with various authors, but also finished thirty-seven plays by himself, some of the most famous being Hamlet or Macbeth. It is clear the writings are still impacting culture today, from the majority of high schools and colleges pouring over his work to the Hollywood side of things borrowing plots for new productions. However, not everything about Shakespeare’s life is common knowledge- perhaps the lesser known being how his life experiences influence his work.
Although there is no record of Shakespeare attending any sort of school, due to his father’s standing in multiple civic positions, it can likely be concluded that Shakespeare attended a local grammar school beginning around the age of six or seven. Assuming he had attended the King Edward VI School, Shakespeare would have learned the alphabet and basic reading skills prior. Just as in many other schools, the curriculum consisted heavily of Latin classics, such as works by Ovid and Virgil, as well as works by Homer. With such a huge emphasis on these influential writers, it’s no wonder Shakespeare took to writing in his later years.
Looking at some of Shakespeare’s works, it is obvious he has a special place in his heart for the countryside and the exposure of nature that accompanies it, perhaps due to the small agricultural town he grew up in. His descriptions of rural life are often filled with pleasantries, and he even commonly hints at nature’s mystical side. In his play As You Like It, Shakespeare contrasts the fiendish courtly life with the romantic and pastoral life. As the characters are thrown out of the city and into the wilderness, they realize the truthfulness and happiness of the forest, and Shakespeare even hints at the forest’s healing properties when it comes to the hearts of men. In contrast to this, the way Shakespeare depicts city life is highly negative. It is often represented as a confusing labyrinth, filled with harsh imposed orders and overcrowded buildings, and one can conclude this is due to Shakespeare’s own experiences when he lived in London as an adult. Often times, towns went unpaved and without sewers, and additional trash was dumped haphazardly in the streets. This created the perfect conditions for rats and similar animals to thrive, and therefore allowing life-threatening diseases such as the bubonic plague to fester.
Shortly after moving to London, Shakespeare received word that his only son, Hamnet, had died, most likely of the bubonic plague. It was this great tragedy in Shakespeare’s life that likely paved the way for his own written tragedies. In King John, Shakespeare writes “Grief fills the room up of my absent child/ Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,” perhaps alluding to the recent death of his son (act 3, scene 4, lines 93-94).
For much of Shakespeare’s early life, England’s monarch was Queen Elizabeth- a patron of the arts herself. Under her reign, England became a country rich in learning and literature. The queen often enjoyed when plays were performed for her and even created her own acting troupe, the Queen’s Men. On top of this, Queen Elizabeth was the first ruler who permitted the building of professional theatres in England, and when the puritans claimed theatres were an evil place, distracting citizens from prayer and spreading plague, the queen stood against them. It was this atmosphere that led Shakespeare to become the legendary playwright he is considered to be now.
Not only was Queen Elizabeth a substantial influence on the theatre community, but also Shakespeare himself, even back in his school years. Because of her position as monarch and hatred to the Catholic faith, the queen was the cause of multiple Catholic headmasters giving up their position in Shakespeare’s own school. In addition to this, Shakespeare grew up in a world where it was common for Catholics to experience severe prejudice, leading to the incorporation of this seemingly universal idea in his works. Italy was a common setting, perhaps because it was just far away enough to be considered a place of fantasy. The majorly Catholic country and the home of the Pope was often found as being a laughingstock in Shakespeare’s writings.
Shakespeare’s plays, specifically his English history plays, are filled with multiple aspects of war, such as the salient battle in Richard III or the profound invasion in King Lear. As the case may be, Queen Elizabeth played a large part in this aspect of Shakespeare’s musings as well. Military activity in England was high up until the queen’s death. The first Desmond Rebellion began when Shakespeare was just five years old, and the second began later in his life. Because of this, one can assume Shakespeare was surrounded by war veterans growing up. From them, he picked up on the details of war with his keen ear. However, Shakespeare was likely more greatly affected by the two wars that occured in his adult life- the Elizabethan War and the Rising of the North. His home at the time was London, the heart of England, where certain writers had taken to that comparable of the modern day newspaper- news pamphlets! These writings were filled with anything from travel tales to witch trials, but most important to Shakespeare’s story were the accounts of war. Publishers could describe brutal war stories, informing the average citizen of the goings-on of England’s army while putting a patriotic spin on things. In addition to this, London’s growing community allowed for more play production, a number of which were filled military themes. Playhouses were filled with actors dressed as captains and soldiers, wielding somewhat-accurate military weapons and marching to the beat of drums. Rather than a secret military career as some suspect of Shakespeare, it is much more probable these sources are where he found his inspiration.
As King James VI of Scotland gained the additional title of King James I of England, Shakespeare realized he would have to adapt to the new monarch’s tastes. The first plays Shakespeare wrote explicitly to please King James catered to his desire for England and Scotland to be a unified country. King Lear and Cymbeline both depict the separate countries as one, named Britain. In King Lear, the citizens of Britain attempt to divide themselves into three separate countries, only to be met with devastating consequences and ultimately supporting King James’ vision. What is more, King Lear makes a nod to two books the king published that try to define monarchy.
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