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Shakespeare, William (1564-1616), English poet and playwright, recognized in much of the world as the greatest of all dramatists.
A complete, authoritative account of Shakespeare’s life is lacking; much supposition surrounds relatively few facts. His day of birth is traditionally held to be April 23; it is known he was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. The third of eight children, he was the eldest son of John Shakespeare, a locally prominent merchant, and Mary Arden, daughter of a Roman Catholic member of the landed gentry. He was probably educated at the local grammar school.
As the eldest son, Shakespeare ordinarily would have been apprenticed to his father’s shop so that he could learn and eventually take over the business, but according to one apocryphal account he was apprenticed to a butcher because of reverses in his father’s financial situation. In recent years, it has more convincingly been argued that he was caught up in the secretive network of Catholic believers and priests who strove to cultivate their faith in the inhospitable conditions of Elizabethan England.
At the turn of the 1580s, it is claimed, he served as tutor in the household of Alexander Houghton, a prominent Lancashire Catholic and friend of the Stratford schoolmaster John Cottom. While others in this network went on to suffer and die for their beliefs, Shakespeare must somehow have extricated himself, for there is little evidence to suggest any subsequent involvement in their circles. In 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a farmer. He is supposed to have left Stratford after he was caught poaching in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy, a local justice of the peace. Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway produced a daughter, Susanna, in 1583 and twins-a boy and a girl-in 1585. The boy died 11 years later.
Shakespeare apparently arrived in London in about 1588, and by 1592 had attained success as an actor and a playwright. Shortly thereafter, he secured the patronage of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. The publication of Shakespeare’s two fashionably erotic narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and of his Sonnets (published 1609, but circulated previously in manuscript) established his reputation as a gifted and popular Renaissance poet. The Sonnets describe the devotion of a character, often identified as the poet himself, to a young man whose beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless dark lady with whom the poet is infatuated.
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