William Shakespeare

Shakespeare, William, dramatist and poet, was born at Stratford-on-Avon, in England, in April, 1564. Of his early life almost nothing is known. It is believed that he was a student in the Free School of Stratford, and that in his youth he assisted his father in the latter's business, but even of this we are not certain. Neither of his parents could read or write. At the age of eighteen he married Ann Hathaway, who was eight years his senior. Of this marriage only a vague report that it proved uncongenial has come down to us. At about 1587 Shakespeare seems to have gone to London, and two years later he appears as one of the proprietors of the Blackfriars Theatre. In the few years next following he became known as a playwright, and in 1593 he published his first poem. The dates of the publication of his plays are not settled beyond doubt, but the best authorities say that Henry the Sixth, was the first and The Tempest the last, all produced between the years 1589 and 1611. Shakespeare was an actor as well as a writer of plays, and was on the stage until 1603. Two years later, he bought a handsome house at Stratford, where he settled down, enjoying the friendship and respect of his neighbours until his death in 1616. This is practically all that the world knows of the most colossal genius that ever lived. A mist seems to have settled over him almost wholly obscuring his personality from posterity. We know a great deal of all the illustrious contemporaries that surrounded him, for he lived at a time of great men. Yet of Shakespeare nothing is known beyond the foregoing facts. In his works, however, he lives, and will continue to live while written records survive. The name of Shakespeare is so pre-eminently famous, standing out in the firmament of literature like the moon among the lesser stars, that no attempt to convey an idea of his greatness seems either wise or necessary. Volumes have been written about his immortal plays. Lord Macaulay pronounced him the greatest poet that ever lived, and esteemed Othello as the greatest literary work in the world. The following selections from Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice have been taken as coming within the scope of our editorial purpose, and the reader is advised to read in connection with them the stories of the plays from which they are taken, by Charles and Mary Lamb, which are to be found in a preceding volume of this set.