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Shakespeare's plays tell stories

Wonderful, passionate stories about real life, that mean just as much now as they did when he was writing over 400 years ago in a whole different world.

Stories that deal with being young and falling in love, with the agonies of courtship and the fulfilment of marriage ... stories about going to war, about suffering and pain. Stories that focus on our concepts of justice and injustice.

Stories about the journey we all take, from birth through to old age and finally death.

William Shakespeare was born within a few days of April 23rd 1564 in the market town of Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire. His father John was the son of a local farmer and rose to become a prosperous glove-maker and leather worker. He married Mary Arden, the daughter of a gentleman farmer, above his social status. They had eight children and could afford to have at least William educated at the Grammar School - after which William is said to have had, according to Ben Jonson, 'small Latin and less Greek'. Whatever the truth of this, he would without doubt have received a thorough grounding in the classics.

John Shakespeare rose in prominence in Stratford, becoming Mayor in 1568, but in the late 1570s his fortunes faltered. No one knows why, but one credible theory is that he and his family were 'recusants' - secret Catholics at a time when adherence to the old Church could lead to disgrace, imprisonment and death.

At the early age of 18, William married Anne Hathaway, aged 26, who was pregnant with their first child, Susannah. Later they had twins - another daughter, Judith, and a son, Hamnet, whose early death aged 11 in 1596 seems to have changed his father, leading to 'Hamlet' and to other, darker plays.

Soon after the birth of the twins, William disappears from record. There are many theories about what happened to him. A long-held legend has him escaping from justice after killing a deer on the nearby Charlecote estate, and other ideas have him travelling abroad with a Catholic family, maybe visiting Italy - although if this is so, his local geography has some notable gaps. Whatever happened, he ended up in London, involved in the theatre, probably working as an actor, but with several of his plays in existence by the early 1590s.

Shakespeare would have seen plays in Stratford as he was growing up. The tradition of mystery and miracle plays that dramatised the Bible and the lives of the Saints for an illiterate population in the Middle Ages developed in the early 16th century into a broader form of entertainment, initially at the Court, and by the 1570s there were permanent theatres in London, acting companies patronised by wealthy aristocrats, plays with non-religious themes, and a wildly enthusiastic audience from every social strata.

From 1594, Shakespeare was a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and becoming a rich man. By the end of the century, the company had built their own theatre, The Globe, and he had bought New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford. The Lord Chamberlain's Men played in the theatre in the summer and at Court or in great houses in the winter, and went on tour during the plague months of late summer.

The earliest and latest of the plays show signs of collaborative work or of being revised by other writers. The first that seem to be entirely his work are the three Henry VI plays and Richard 111 - historical plays were very popular provided they propped up the Tudor regime. The early comedies like The Comedy of Errors are based closely on classical stories with tightly designed plots, but they were followed by romantic and brilliant comedies such as A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It. The later history plays also show this far more sophisticated and mature approach with subtle characterisation and characters from every social background. Early narrative poems were succeeded later by the extraordinary sonnets.

The later plays include the great tragedies, using the Aristotlean concept of the 'fatal flaw' that not only brings down an otherwise great and noble man, but also destroys the society around them, and those late plays such as The Winter's Tale and The Tempest which can be classified as tragi-comedy, coming closer to our modern idea of drama.

There is a tradition that William retired to Stratford some years before he died. he is recorded as still visiting London, but the last known play were performed in 1613, and on 23rd April 1616, aged 52, he died in Stratford.

The first and second editions of the plays were published as Quartos from 1594, but their quality would have been doubtful, based perhaps on an actor' s or even an audience member's memory. The First Folio was published in 1623, long after Shakespeare's death, and is the most definitive form of most of the plays, although scholars and directors argue endlessly about which is the right version of individual lines and sections.

What makes Shakespeare special? Why are his plays endlessly read, analysed and performed? Perhaps these quotations will offer an answer:

'The wonder of our stage'

'He was the man who, of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul'

'The nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God'

'Shakespeare's magic could not be copied'

'He was not of an age, but for all time'

Gill Morrell

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