William Shakespeare Biography

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King Lear Author/Context

It would be understandable if William Shakespeare had written King Lear in his older years, since the play itself spotlights such topics as retirement and the disintegration of family. Yet the playwright from Stratford was just 41 and at the height of his abilities when King Lear was first performed and recorded as an official play.

Despite his relative youth, Shakespeare had already led a very noteworthy life by the time King Lear emerged. During the leadership of Elizabeth I, England was enmeshed in a period of political stability, making way for the growth of cultural expressions, not the least of which was drama. As the arts exploded and England reaped the benefits, William Shakespeare came to London all the way from Stratford and put forward the 37 plays that have since established him as the preeminent playwright in the history of the English language.

Shakespeare was born in 1564 and raised in Stratford-on-Avon, located roughly 100 miles outside of London. His father was a successful trader, and at one point held a public office of sorts. William attended the town school, where he received a decent education. When he was 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior. Together, the couple had three girls--Susanna, and twins, Judith and Hamnet.

While it is unclear how Shakespeare provided for his family--there are no records of his employment--he left them and Stratford in his mid-20s for London. Shortly after his arrival in London, his name first entered the limelight for two long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lecrece. From there, his reputation soared.

Shakespeare shifted his focus toward the theater. Most of his early plays were the well-known comedies of today: The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, etc. They were all well received in London and helped cement his career. Unlike his tragedies, the comedies didn't explore hotwire political issues or major internal crises; rather, they stayed up at the surface level and explored casual relationships between friends, lovers and families.

Once the comedies were solidified as surefire attention-grabbers, Shakespeare at the end of the 16th century wrote his famous historical pieces that today are some of his most famous plays: Richard II; Henry IV, Park I; Henry IV, Part II; and Henry V.

As the playwright matured, and as the new century got underway, he began to delve into deeper topics, giving birth to his famous tragedies: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello, all of which in some way explored the greatest depths of the human element. This period is largely considered the zenith of his career.

Some consider King Lear Shakespeare's best tragedy. In it, Shakespeare tells a somber story that weaves together themes of vision/blindness, folly, nature, aging and nothingness. The themes plunge deeper than those in most of Shakespeare's other pieces. The characters in King Lear are so intense, their speeches so impassioned, that many consider the play a must read over other classics.

After the batch of preeminent tragedies, Shakespeare lightened up, producing such works as The Tempest and The Winter's Tale, which have since become known as the romantic tragi-comedies. By this point, his writing abilities had effectively spanned the spectrum of genres.

Many specific details of Shakespeare's personal life, as aforementioned, remain either unknown or shrouded in mystery. The most blatant centerpiece of the playwright's life was his frequent participation in London's theater life, not only writing plays but also acting and starring in them. He was involved with a company called the King's Men until 1613, when the Globe Theater, where the company performed, burned down. At this point, Shakespeare returned to Stratford, enormously accomplished at the age of 50. He died April 23, 1616, at the age of 52.


Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983.

Meagher, John C. Shakespeare's Shakespeare. Continuum Intl. Publishing, 1987.

Rackin, Phyllis. Shakespeare's Tragedies. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1984.

Whalen, Richard F. Shakespeare: Who Was He? Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996.

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