A Man for All Time: William Shakespeare's Command of Language and Acute Insight into Human Nature Created an Enduring Literary Legacy

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Despite William Shakespeare's lack of extended formal education, he demonstrated a remarkable gift for language, transmitting through his plays and poems the tragedy and comedy of the human condition. He grew to fame, even in his own time, for his keen understanding of human nature and his prolific body of work. Today, his work continues to entertain and instruct. His characters live on as standards in English literature, and Shakespeare has earned a place as an icon in literary history.

"Action is eloquence."

Born in 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, a market village about 75 miles northwest of London, William Shakespeare was the son of an alderman and, as far as anyone knows, experienced a conventional boyhood. He probably attended the local grammar school, where he studied Latin and classical Greek, but he never aspired to further education at Oxford or Cambridge, like many of his literary contemporaries.

At age 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, and the two had three children together. By the early 1590s, the family was living in London, and despite his lack of formal education, the young actor, playwright and poet was already achieving fame, with his plays performed regularly on London stages.

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Shakespeare was a member of London's leading theater company, the Kings Men. In addition to acting for the company, he also became a major shareholder and the group's primary playwright. The theater company enjoyed the patronage of the royal family, as well as popularity with the general public, and the King's Men grew into the most popular theater company in London.

"Everyone ought to bear patiently the results of his own conduct."

His most famous plays, many of them his celebrated tragedies like King Lear and Macbeth, were first staged at the Globe Theatre, built in 1599. As he had been with the King's Men, Shakespeare was both a shareholder and actor in the new theater, which seated about 3,000 people around an open-air stage. Packed houses and standing room only were the norm.

As an owner in both the King's Men and the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare enjoyed fame and financial success, due in large part to his efforts to be both an artist and an entrepreneur. More popular than any of his predecessors, Shakespeare was the first playwright to have his works published in his lifetime and sold in "penny copies" to the literate public.

"Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven."

Early on he wrote comedies like The Taming of the Shrew, using conventional ploys to get a laugh, but also giving great attention to the personality of his characters. He developed this knack for characterization in dramas like Richard II, where he depicted well-known historical figures in conflict with themselves and the state.

He was also quick to relate his dramas to the times, alluding in his plays to prominent political and social concerns. Julius Caesar, for example, likely reflects the concern over Elizabeth I's lack of a clear successor and to the potential for civil war.

"Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving."

The times were advantageous for his rise. Shakespeare's life straddled the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. The rare period of peace allowed the English the opportunity to grow prosperous and experience greater leisure time. …