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William Shakespeare Biography

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Twelfth Night Author/Context

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford, England in late April of 1564. He had several years of education, though the exact number is unknown. He was taught in Latin, and his teachers were constrained by the moral and political climate of the time, which was mainly dictated by the beliefs of the current ruler, Queen Elizabeth. The time between Shakespeare's departure from school and his adult life is murky, but we know that in the late 1580's he emerged as a respected actor. The troupe he most often worked with, Pembroke's Men, regularly performed for the Queen and Shakespeare was a success. His acting ability was praised in books and newspapers at the time, and his plays were performed fairly consistently in the troupe. In 1582 the eighteen-year-old Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was twenty-six and several months pregnant. There has been much speculation about why the marriage occurred, and some historians have suggested that Shakespeare was in love with someone else but was obliged to provide a father for Hathaway's baby. The details of the situation are probably unknowable.

In the early 1590's, most theatres closed because of an outbreak of the plague. Shakespeare used the time to work on his poetry, including some of his most famous sonnets. These must have appealed to the wealthy Earl of Southhampton, because in 1593 the Earl offered to be a patron to Shakespeare, supporting him financially so he could write. Though this time in Shakespeare's life was mainly marked by success (in 1597 he bought the second-largest house in Stratford) he was not free from tragedy. In 1596, his son Hamnet died at the age of eleven.

Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare's most famous comedies, is generally considered to be relatively free of the editorial errors that often occurred in the printing Shakespeare's works. Like many of his plays, Twelfth Night was inspired by another play. Shakespeare was both an actor and an avid theatergoer, and he apparently looked to an Italian play called Gl'Ingannati (The Deceived Ones) for parts of the plot of Twelfth Night. He combined this play with a more sentimental Italian play to get the mixture of comedy and romance the reader finds in Twelfth Night. This practice of "borrowing", particularly in reference to Italian plays, was not uncommon for several centuries of English theatre.

The songs in the play, which keep the action light-hearted and boisterous, were also most likely either inspired by or directly taken from popular songs of the day. Though many of Shakespeare's themes, especially in the tragedies, are universal, often specific jokes or comments are so tied to Shakespeare's cultural moment that they are difficult for today's critic to decipher. The content of the play, and especially the jokes, also assumed a certain level of education for the audience. For example, Maria describes Malvolio's smiling face as like a map of the recently discovered Indies. It is unclear whether all of Shakespeare's audience would get these jokes, though usually his cultural references were well-known, at least for a short time.

It is unclear just how much of Shakespeare's fiction is derived from the facts of his life. His plays range in subject from royal scandal (Macbeth, Richard III) to simplistic tragic love stories (Romeo and Juliet) to studies of individual psychology (Hamlet, King Lear) to social and political issues (The Merchant of Venice) to witty pranks (Twelfth Night). The striking variety of his plays is part of what makes him one of the most important English playwrights.


King, Walter N., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Twelfth Night. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1968.

Pearson, Hesketh. A Life of Shakespeare. New York: Walker and Company, 1961.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Great Britain: Richard Clay Limited, 1975.

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