In 1604, at the age of forty, William Shakespeare was a well-known and wealthy man, owning property in Stratford and London, and performing before the Royal Court. By this age he had already written some of his most famous works including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice. This rise to success had irked others along the way, including the playwright Robert Greene, who had named him an ‘upstart crow’. Greene appears bitter when he stated that:
“[Shakespeare] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you”. Robert Greene, Groats-worth of Wit, 1592
Greene compared Shakespeare unfavourably to university educated contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe. Given the titles that Shakespeare was yet to write, he obviously did not take such taunts too closely to heart.
In 1603, on the death of Queen Elizabeth I, James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, uniting the two countries for the first time. The acting group co-founded by Shakespeare some 9 years earlier, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, received Royal Patronage from James I on his accession to the throne, and renamed itself as The King’s Men. Shakespeare was an original member, actor, playwright and shareholder, and his group performed at the Royal Court more than any other. As he reached forty, his group would be entering its tenth year.
“I bear a charmed life” Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 8
It is often difficult to precisely date Shakespeare’s work, but popular theory suggests that in the three years leading up to his fortieth birthday, he wrote the plays Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well that Ends Well, and quite possibly poems, such as The Phoenix and the Turtle.
So Shakespeare in his late thirties had been productive, and his fortieth year was no different; it is believed that 1604 was when he wrote Othello and Measure for Measure. Othello was performed for the first time on St Stephen’s day before King James I and his court. Interestingly, the play would be adjusted in the coming years, as the Act of Parliament in 1606 against the abuse of God’s name in plays meant that original curses, such as ‘by the mass’ and ‘S’Blood’ (God’s blood) were omitted from the first folio of 1623, but are found in the earlier quarto.
Shakespeare’s early forties would be characterised as his tragic phase, in the following years, Shakespeare would go on to write his great tragedies such as Macbeth and King Lear. Both these plays focus on the monarchy, but the former would have been particularly topical for the Jacobean audience as it highlighted the Scottish King’s heritage, and made fun of the failed gun powder plot of 1605; Shakespeare remained a writer intrinsically connected to popular and political concerns of the time.
“I am a man more sinned against than sinning” King Lear, Act 3, Scene 2
For all his literary success, life for Shakespeare was not without trouble. For all he had gained, by age forty Shakespeare had also buried his only son, the 11 year old Hamnet. Hamnet had a twin sister, Judith, and it is suggested that it is no coincidence that Shakespeare includes twins on the stage, and the title hero Hamlet (1600), bears a remarkably similar name to his departed son.
“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions” Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5
Living in London, it is likely that Shakespeare divided his time between the city and his rural roots in Stratford-upon-Avon. Having paid £320 for it, by age forty Shakespeare owned a cottage, farm house and 107 acres of land around Stratford, as well as properties in London which he rented out for a neat profit. His wife Anne and their daughters continued to live in Stratford whilst their husband and father worked in London. By 1604, Shakespeare had established himself as a gentleman and acquired a family coat of arms.
“He that wants money, means and content is without three good friends” As you like it, Act 3, Scene 2
The theatres, which had been closed intermittently in the 1590s due to plague, operated more consistently from 1604, despite pockets of outbreak. This enabled The King’s Men to continue their performances. At forty, Shakespeare was still a decade away from his retirement in Stratford. But in this time he would write at least ten more plays, developing towards more conciliatory dramas such as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, and leave his lasting legacy on the literary world.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” As You like It, Act 2, Scene 7
Shakespeare at Buckingham: This week’s post has been written by Tracey Miller, who is currently undertaking a Masters by Research on the topic of the witches in Macbeth and their representation on the stage. Shakespeare features heavily in our degree, first as past of the Plays in Performance introductory module, and then in the Shakespearean Drama module in students’ final year.
- BBC, (2016), Shakespeare [online], http://www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/z8k2p39 (Accessed 8th February 2016)
- Greene, Robert, Groats-worth of wit (1592), [online] http://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/greene1.html (Accessed 8th February 2016)
- Royal Shakespeare Company, (2016), Shakespeare’s Life and Times, [online], https://www.rsc.org.uk/shakespeares-life-and-times (Accessed 9th February 2016)
- Rolf, William, A Life of William Shakespeare, [online], https://archive.org/details/lifeofwilliamsha00rolfuoft (Accessed 9th February 2016)
- The Guardian, (2016), Shakespeare’s life, [online], http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/feb/01/shakespeare-timeline-playwrights-life (Accessed 9th February 2016)
- Folger Shakespeare Library (2016), [online], http://www.folger.edu/ (Accessed 12th February 2016)