"If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."
- Maria, Twelfth Night, Act 3; Scene 4
William Shakespeare was baptized in the great church of Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, on April 26, 1564. Probably he was born no more than two or three days previously; April 23, St. George's Day, traditionally celebrated as the date of his birth, is as likely to be correct as any. At the time, his father was an up-and-coming gentleman who took a major part in administering the town's affairs. He had married Mary Arden, who came from a family of higher social standing, about 1552, the year in which he was fined 12d. for failing to remove a dunghill from outside his house. For years after this, as his children were born and as some of them grew up, his position among his fellow townsmen improved. He was a member of the glovers' guild, and also dealt in wool and probably other commodities. In 1556 he was appointed an ale taster, with responsibility for the price and quality of the bread and ale offered to the town's two thousand or so inhabitants. He moved upward in the hierarchy: as constable (1558), principal burgess (about 1559), chamberlain (1561), alderman (1565), and, in 1568, bailiff, or mayor, and justice of the peace.
At this high point, he was the father of two sons, William and Gilbert (1566-1612). Two daughters, Joan and Margaret, had died in infancy. Another Joan was born in 1569; a Richard (born in 1574 lived, apparently in Stratford and as a bachelor, until 1613. A late child, Edmund, came in 1580; he became an actor in London and died early, aged twenty-seven.
When young William was four years old, he would have had the excitement of seeing his father, dressed in furred scarlet robes and wearing the aldermanic thumb ring, regularly attended by two mace-bearing sergeants in buff, presiding at fairs and markets. Perhaps a little later, he would have begun to attend a "petty school" (these were schools often set up and run in a teacher’s home). There he would acquire the rudiments of an education — reading, writing and arithmetic, subjects that would be furthered at the King's New School. His father's position would have qualified him to attend, and the education offered was such as lies behind the plays and poems.
At the age of about eight Shakespeare would have begun a regime that might well have sent him "unwillingly" on the quarter-of-a-mile walk from his father's Henley Street house to the schoolroom above the Guildhall and next to the Guild Chapel. Classes began in the early morning, and the hours were long. From grammar the pupils progressed to rhetoric and logic, and to works of classical literature. They might have read Aesop's Fables and the plays of Terence and Plautus, on one of which Shakespeare was to base an early comedy. They might even act scenes from them. They would go on to Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Horace and Ovid, who was clearly a favorite with Shakespeare. The education at the “grammar school was far beyond what is taught today.
But there was a life beyond school. Shakespeare lived in a beautiful and fertile part of the country; the river and fields were at hand; he could enjoy country pursuits. He had younger brothers and sisters to play with. Each Sunday the family would go to church, where his father as bailiff and sat in the front pew as his rank required. There he would hear the sonorous phrases of the Bible, in either the Bishops' or the Geneva version, the Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer, all of which made a lasting impression on him. Sometimes groups of traveling players came to Stratford. Shakespeare's father would have the duty of licensing them to perform, and probably the boy saw his first plays in the Guildhall immediately below his schoolroom.
As he grew into adolescence, his father's fortunes waned. John Shakespeare fell into debt, and after 1576 stopped attending council meetings. His colleagues treated him leniently, but in 1586 felt obliged to replace him as alderman. In 1592 he was listed among those persistently failing to go to church, perhaps for fear of arrest for debt.
But by this time William was in London, already displaying the genius that would enable him to recoup the family fortune. How he kept himself after leaving school we do not know. In 1582, at the age of eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway. The marriage was hasty, the bride, eight years older than her husband, was pregnant. A daughter, Susanna, was baptized in Holy Trinity on 26 May 1583, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, on 2 February 1585.
We know basically nothing about the next seven years. Shakespeare may have become a schoolmaster. He may have followed one or more of the innumerable other avocations: lawyer, soldier, sailor, actor, printer. He may have traveled overseas. All we know is that at some point he left Stratford, joined a theatrical company, went to London, and began to write (not necessarily in that order). The first certain printed allusion to him shows that, as actor turned playwright, he had aroused the envy of the dying Robert Greene who, in 1592, wrote scornfully of an "upstart crow" who thought himself "the only Shakescene in a country."
Evidently, he was well established in London by this time. But apparently, he lived always in lodgings there, setting up no household. He seems to have felt that his roots were in Stratford. His family stayed there. How often he visited them we cannot tell. He had no more children. Perhaps he was gradually able to help his father who, in 1596, applied successfully for a grant of arms, and so became a real gentleman. In August of the same year, William's son, Hamnet, died. In October, William was lodging in Bishopsgate, London, but in the next year he showed that he looked on Stratford as his permanent home by buying a large house, New Place, next to the Guild Chapel and the grammar school.
Over the following years, his growing success can be followed in both Stratford and London records.
About 1610, Shakespeare's increasing involvement with Stratford suggests that he was withdrawing from his London responsibilities and retiring to New Place. He was only forty-six years old, an age at which a healthy man was no more likely to retire then than now. Possibly he had a physical breakdown. If so, it was not totally disabling. In February 1616 his second daughter, Judith, married Thomas Quiney, causing William to make alterations to the draft of his will, which was signed on 25 March. By now, surely, he knew that he was mortally ill. He died, according to his monument, on April 23, and was buried in a prominent position in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church.
For a poetic dramatist, Shakespeare was born at the right time. He grew up during a period of increasing stability and prosperity in England. Queen Elizabeth was unifying the nation. Patriotic sentiment was increasing. Continental influences were helping in the transmission of classical knowledge which we call the Renaissance. The arts in general were flourishing; those of literature and drama bounded forward far more rapidly than in the earlier part of the century. It’s important to understand that William Shakespeare was a very educated man. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that almost all Shakespeare's major sources are in books written or first translated into English during the first thirty years of his life, though of course he would have read the Latin works, and, probably, those in French and Italian, even if they had not been translated.
We do not know when Shakespeare joined a company of players. In 1587 one of the actors of the Queen’s Men was murdered in Oxfordshire. They visited Stratford soon afterward. That they there enlisted Shakespeare is no more than an intriguing speculation. Certainly he was one of the Lord Chamberlain's Men shortly after they were founded, in 1594, and remained with them throughout his career. Rapidly this became London's leading company. With the Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare became a complete man of the theater: actor, businessman, and dramatic poet. He is the only leading playwright of his time to have had so stable a relationship with a single company. He wrote with their actors specifically in mind, and the conditions in which they performed helped also to shape his plays. They flourished; built the Globe as their London base from 1599; survived the competition of the successful children's companies in the early years of the new century; acquired King James I as their patron in 1603, soon after his accession; increased in size while remaining relatively stable in membership; and by 1609 were using the Blackfriars as a winter house · a "private" theater, enclosed, smaller, more exclusive in its patronage than the Globe. Perhaps it affected Shakespeare's playwriting style; yet his plays continued to be performed at the Globe and elsewhere.
After his wide-ranging earlier experiments, Shakespeare narrowed his scope and, during several prolific years after about 1594, wrote only comedies and history plays, of which Richard II alone is in tragic form. Here Shakespeare steps backward in his dramatization of history to begin a tetralogy, which, by carrying the story up to the reign of Henry V, will complete an eight-play sequence.
Shakespeare wrote his later histories over the same period as his greatest comedies.
In Twelfth Night, written about 1600 but not published until 1623, Shakespeare returns to a tighter structure. Part of the plot is based on a story from Barnaby Rich's Farewell to Military Profession (1581), but Shakespeare idealizes its characters and heightens its romantic tone. The romance framework of separation, search, and reunion that he had already used in The Comedy of Errors is here more closely integrated into the action, and there is only one pair of twins to cause comic complications.
Love is a unifying motif, but it is often a wistful, frustrated, and sometimes both nonsexual and sexual emotion. The play opens with Orsino's richly romantic expression of thwarted passion.
Death overhangs the early scenes: the death of Olivia's brother, to whose memory she is dedicated, and the supposed death of Viola's brother, Sebastian. Olivia is jested out of her mourning, and Viola is more resilient, but passion continues to be thwarted, sometimes because those who declare it are lost in the fantasies of self-love.
Olivia, wooed by Orsino, Sir Andrew, and Malvolio, responds to none of them. She also is thwarted, loving Viola in the belief that she is a man. Viola in her disguise can express her love for Orsino only obliquely. The lovers' folly generates comedy, of which Olivia's fool, Feste, takes a starring role.
From their first appearance together, an opposition is set up between Malvolio, the professed wise man, and Feste, the professional fool, who in truth, was not a “fool” but a wise and crafty man. The exposure of Malvolio is engineered by Maria and Sir Toby Belch, the upholder of the festive virtues of cakes and ale. Feste joins in, and the comedy deepens disturbingly as Malvolio remains incapable of seeing the truth.
The play's most positive values are embodied in the enchanting Viola, and it is her reunion with her brother. Now there are no obstacles to the union of Viola and Orsino, Olivia and Sebastian. For them, the shadows are dispelled; but Malvolio remains unable to change his ways. And there is some real sadness in the immediate and later imagined fates of some of the characters.
Malvolio is tormented and in Olivia’s words, “He hath been most notoriously abused.” Sir Andrew Aguecheek is left to return home many ducats lighter; and dear Antonio, despite his great love and loyalty for Sebastian, remains alone.
A happy, but somewhat bittersweet ending. After the lovers' happiness, we are left with the wise but lonely Feste's song of the wind and the rain.
A Very Tricky Letter
Write the letter that Malvolio finds in your own words. How would you need to change the language if it were taking place in today’s world?
You’re the Designer
Create costume designs that show the difference between Viola and the rest of the court. You can design multiple costumes that she would wear as herself (a woman) and when she is playing Cesario (a man.) Pay attention to the meaning or feelings behind the colors you pick. Consider what era you want to set the play in and what impact that will have on the play.
You’re the Actor
Find a copy of the play. Pick a speech of at least ten lines. Repeat the speech using several different techniques. Try it dramatically, angrily, humorously, sarcastically. Try emphasizing different words to change the meaning of the words.
If Music Be the Food of Love
Music plays a huge role in Twelfth Night, between Orsino’s famous line at the beginning of the play to all the musical interludes throughout, it’s easy to see Shakespeare had a theme in mind. Our wonderful music director and composer, Isabella Dawis created songs and underscoring that captured every theme and emotion. Try your hand at creating a soundtrack from the show using whatever songs you want.
You’re the Fool: Fun with Feste
Remember that the word has a different meaning and context that we think of it today — The fool, the clown, the trickster, the jester: all are versions of a comic type found in cultures across the world and throughout history. In sixteenth-century England, the fool took on a readily recognizable form— The fool was the quintessential medieval entertainer, whether on the street or at court. His slippery character allowed him to move between worlds, defying the strict social order of sixteenth-century English society.
Identify the wittiest text that Feste delivers. Which is your favorite? Why?