April 23 rd is Shakespeare's birthday. Happy Birthday William! It is also the day he passed away – 52 years, 37 plays and 154 sonnets later. Shakespeare is not to be feared. Far from being an intellectual that spouted esoteric jargon that no one understood - Shakespeare spoke in the language of his day. And in his day - he was a popular actor and playwright. Why do so many people STILL love his works? Because he really was GREAT and extremely talented as a writer. Even now, over 453 years later, his portrayal of human relationships and behaviors, illuminate the joys and sorrows of the human condition. He reminds us that, from King to Beggar, we all share the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Shakespeare worked hard at his craft of the written word. His personal life seemed to have been less than idyllic. Some believe this is reflected in the way he portrays marriage in his plays. Shakespeare was married at the age of 18 years, when Ann Hathaway, who was eight years older than he, became pregnant. They had a daughter, Susanna, and then a set of twins, Hamnet and Judith. Ten years after getting married, Shakespeare moved to London. He lived there until he retired, only returning home to Stratford on Avon, for short visits. He appears to have had other love interest while in London. One, perhaps a younger man to whom he wrote sonnets, and the mysterious "dark lady" also mentioned in sonnets.
One must remember that in Shakespeare's day (1564 to 1616) there was no movies, telephones or newspapers. There were few books - and they were accessible to only select people. The majority of the population could not read. Troops of actors provided entertainment and portrayed history. Shakespeare often wrote about Kings and Queens that had lived throughout Europe. Of course, he flattered the ones that were related to Queen Elizabeth I, who was on the throne at the time. He also re-worked stories that had been told for centuries, with his own inimitable style and prose. The more a playgoer learns about this man and his times, the more fascinating his plays become.
It helps make his plays even more entertaining if the viewer appreciates the references that his audiences would have found extremely funny or political. Knowing some history of the period and its political climate enhances the enjoyment, much the same as knowing today's news, helps the modern viewer understand Saturday Night Live's references. But even without the historical knowledge, his plays are entertaining. The death of his son, at the age of eleven, was devastating to Shakespeare. He was left without a male heir to carry on his name and to inherit the wealth he had so diligently saved. His plays seem to have turned somewhat darker after the loss of Hamnet, and with the obvious name similarity and the father son dynamics in the play - many think his son's death was the inspiration for Hamlet.
Luckily, we in the Bay Area have many opportunities to view Shakespeare's plays. THE TEMPEST was the last play wholly written by Shakespeare alone. It tells of a magician, Prospero, living on an island where he performs his magic. The analogy has been drawn that perhaps, London had been Shakespeare's island where he performed his writing magic. Prospero speaks of going home and never using his talents again – much the same as Shakespeare was planning to return to Stratford on Avon. He died five years after his return.. THE TEMPEST is believed to be his most autobiographical work. The play also tells of a father and a daughter and their close bond. A bond Shakespeare's seems to have had with his oldest daughter. In his Will when he died, he left almost everything to this oldest daughter, Susanna and little to his other daughter Judith. To his wife Ann, he left only his, "second best bed." That's got to hurt after thirty- four years of marriage.