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The 400-Year-Old Mystery Of William Shakespeare

23/04/2016 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare died on 23 April, 1616, 400 years to the day. The body of work of the most famous English language writer is familiar to millions of readers, whose imagination it has captured steadfastly through four centuries. Shakespeare's plays are always contemporary, finding meaning and relevance in the times they are read or produced. Shakespeare finds application in disciplines ranging from literature to medicine to business. Yet William Shakespeare--the person--has always remained shrouded in enigma.

William Shakespeare who wrote with authority on wide-ranging issues of law, medicine, court life, antiquity and statesmanship in his plays has had very little written about himself. Born, coincidentally on 23 April 1564 (a date that has been agreed upon owing lack of records) to John and Mary, he survived the deadly plague that hit Stratford-upon-Avon three months after his birth. The name 'William Shakespeare' is not spelt as we know it in any of his six signatures that exist, and nor are any of these spelt the same way twice.

The name 'William Shakespeare' is not spelt as we know it in any of his six signatures that exist...

Even the image of Shakespeare has only three possible sources. One is a Droeshout engraving that appears on cover of First Folio (the collection of Shakespeare's plays) but which was made seven years after his death. The second is a life size-bust at Holy Trinity church in Stratford made in 1623 which was repainted by an anonymous person in 1749 and yet again repainted 24 years later. The third source, a 22 X 18 inch portrait, which was in possession of the Duke of Chandos (the origin of the picture is unknown), is likely to be the actual image of Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare, many biographers concur, went to King's New School and was trained in Latin rhetoric and literature. When he was 18 years old, he married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. They had a daughter born six months after their wedding in 1583 and then twins in 1585. The following eight years, famously known as "the lost years", between 1585 and 1592 have been mysterious, for the whereabouts of Shakespeare are absolutely unknown.

London in the meantime, under Elizabeth, who loved theatre and the revenue it generated, had become a hub for staging plays. It was there that Shakespeare performed both as playwright and actor after his son Hamnet died in 1596, leading to his years of fame which lasted till 1603. Following the death of Elizabeth that year, King James granted Shakespeare a royal patent and he lived in London, writing mostly sonnets. He almost stopped writing after the Globe Theatre was burned down in 1613.

About 100 documents, deeds, tax certificates, baptismal records and court records have been found about Shakespeare in 400 years, but at most they offer a few technical details...

Shakespeare returned to his home at Stratford, made a Will in which he infamously left for his widow as a second thought the "second-best bed" and died of unknown causes on 23 April, 1616. His bloodline ended with his granddaughter in 1670 without any biographer having recorded any information either from her or from his younger daughter Judith who died in 1662.

Only a few facts are known for sure about Shakespeare. That he was born in Stratford, produced a family there, went to London, became a famous playwright and actor, returned to Stratford, made a Will and died. Sadly, none of Shakespeare's work exists in original. Not a single manuscript or actor note remains. Had it not been for the effort of two of his close friends who published Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (known ever since as First Folio), a treasure like many others of those times would have been lost.

Shakespeare has been an academic obsession, with a lot of people having devoted their entire lives in analyzing him and his work. His words have been subjected to intense scrutiny and numbers have been eked from them too: we now know that his complete works contain a total of 88,4647 words, 13,8198 commas and 15,785 question marks. Shakespeare has used the word "love" 2259 times and "hate" a mere 183 times. He has apparently invented 2035 words including "countless", "label", "majestic' and "worthless". He has also invented 135 phrases including "good riddance", "fair play" and "all that glitters is not gold."

About 100 documents, deeds, tax certificates, baptismal records and court records have been found about Shakespeare in 400 years, but at most they offer a few technical details about the life of arguably the greatest playwright. Thirty-eight of his plays exist, thanks to Henry Condell and John Heminges who put his works together after his death. The large and diverse body of Shakespeare's work makes it difficult to analyze whether he was cerebral or neurotic, light-hearted or metaphysical, loving or a man of dark passions. He was perhaps all of it and more. But then we barely who he was.

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