William Shakespeare Biography

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Merchant of Venice Author/Context

William Shakespeare, the world's best-known playwright, was born in Stratford-on-Avon in 1564, a hundred miles from London. No record exists of his birthdate, although he was baptized on April 26th, suggesting that he was born no more than a week earlier. His birthday is celebrated on the 23rd of April, mostly due to the fact that April 23rd is the day of the patron saint of England, St. George. Aged 18 in November 1582, he married the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway, who was, at the time, pregnant with their first child, Susanna, who would be born in May of 1583. Two years later they had twins, Hamnet and Judeth. It is believed that Shakespeare moved to London in 1586, finding work with a troupe of actors known as the 'King's Men'. At the time, it had recently become the fashion to build structures with no use other than playhouse. James Burbage built the first dedicated playhouse, dubbing it the 'Theatre'. It proved so popular that theatres began popping up around London in the ensuing years. By the time Shakespeare arrived, there was a large market for plays and playwrights in London.

After learning the trade performing and altering anonymous plays, Shakespeare separated from the 'King's Men', and began writing plays of his own, both freelancing and on commission for a company known as 'Lord Chamberlain's Men'. He wrote The Merchant of Venice somewhere between 1595-6. The exact date is unclear, but scholars agree that it was written after Romeo and Juliet, but before Henry IV: Part II. The first recorded performance of the play was Sunday February 10th, 1605, at court for King James I. Apparently the performance went so well that the King ordered another performance two days later.

The Merchant of Venice is significant as the first play Shakespeare wrote as a Dramatist first and poet second. The pre-Venice plays are notable for their long florid speeches, in which Shakespeare allows himself to wax poetical on every subject, drawing out very beautiful words and phrases. In Venice and the plays that followed, he had become a more restrained writer. He continued to indulge in his penchant for long speeches, but now those speeches were strictly in service of the plot. The most famous aspect of the play is the character of Shylock, and his famous speech. It is interesting to note that at the time Shylock was thought of as more of a villain than he is today: "When the play was first acted, there was little sympathy for him, and some surprise that he was let off so lightly." (Harrison, 582). Modern analysts have questioned how Shakespeare actually felt towards Jews. Sadly, the play offers no definitive answers.

Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice relatively early in his career, and it is thought of as a fairly minor work - a light comedy, and little more, without the weight and depth of his later tragedies such as Hamlet, King Lear, or Othello. He would write 23 more plays before his death in 1616. With the exception of court documents and his plays, few records exist of his life, so biographies of him are often incomplete.


Harrison, G.B., ed. Shakespeare, The Complete Works. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1968.

Holden, Anthony. William Shakespeare: His Life and Work. Little, Brown, and Company, London, 1999.

Shakespeare, William. "The Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare, The Complete Works. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1968.

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