Born: April 23, 1564; Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
Died: April 23, 1616; Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
One of the greatest writers of all time, Shakespeare, the peerless poet of the Sonnets and the creator of such dramatic masterpieces as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and King Lear, is a playwright of paradigmatic originality. In his discussion of the Western literary canon, critic Harold Bloom declared: "Shakespeare and Dante are the center of the Canon because they excel all other Western writer in cognitive acuity, linguistic energy, and power ofRead more invention." However, one could go a step further and suggest that Shakespeare defines the Western canon because he transcends it. If Shakespeare, as Ben Jonson declared, "was not of an age, but for all time," the great dramatist, one could argue, spoke to the ultimate concerns of humankind, regardless of period or cultural tradition. For example, Hamlet, which has been performed all over the world, probes the ultimate mysteries of life and death, describing the protagonist's search for glimpses of higher meaning in his chaotic existence, a struggle every human being deeply understands. What certainly distinguishes Shakespeare from other dramatists, in addition to his boundless linguistic inventiveness and extraordinary descriptive power, is a prodigious imagination, which enabled him to create characters that appear, owing to their tremendous life force, out of place in the world of fiction. While there is always something artificial about literary characters, "Shakespeare's characters," according to Émile Legouis, "whether good or bad, whether moving among the realities of history or among the most romantic happenings, have an unfailing humanity which makes them plausible and keeps them within the orbit of our sympathy."
Shakespeare was born in 1564, in Stratford-on-Avon, attended school, married young, and went to London, around 1585, without his family, to seek his fortune. Already known as an actor and playwright in 1592, he published his Venus and Adonis, a long poem, the following year. In 1594, Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a group which was renamed the King's Men after James I ascended the throne. He became a partner in the recently-founded Globe Theatre a few years later. In 1609, the King's Men leased Blackfriars Theatre, which served a more cultivated audience. A successful businessman, Shakespeare invested in real estate, attaining a level of prosperity which afforded him a comfortable retirement. He died in 1616.
Shakespeare's dramatic oeuvre consists of thirty-eight plays, including several immortal masterpieces, such as Richard III (1593), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595), Romeo and Juliet (1595), Julius Caesar (1599), Hamlet (1601), Othello (1604), King Lear, Macbeth (1606), and The Tempest (1611).
Shakespeare's works have inspired much music: hundreds of operas, including masterpieces such as Verdi's Otello, many songs, and incidental music, exemplified by Mendelssohn's brilliant A Midsummer Night's Dream. Like music, Shakespeare's art is universal; like music, his artistic universe convincingly undermines the tacit assumption that imaginary worlds lack the substantiality we blindly assign to reality. Finally, Shakespeare profoundly understood the heavenly nature of music, as evidenced by this passage from his Merchant of Venice (V. 1):
"How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here we will sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with the patines of bright gold;
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings
Still quiring to the young-ey'd cherubims;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it." Read less
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