The world’s most beloved and successful playwright and poet, William Shakespeare, was born in April 1564 and died in 1616 – and that’s were certainty about his life begins and ends. The life of William Shakespeare is as mysterious as it gets, frustrating the efforts of generations of literature critics to understand and interpret the playwright’s works in autobiographical terms.
Even William’s portrait was painted long after his death, so there is no clear picture of what the man looked like. Can his work therefore be interpreted in autobiographical terms?
Although we cannot pinpoint many significant events of Shakespeare’s actual life, the lives of actors and playwrights in Elizabethan England are to some extent known to us and we do know of some important events that occurred in William’s life.
By drawing on the available information from court and church documents applicable to William himself and documents, reports and comments made by contemporary writers of the Elizabethan age about the world William inhabited, it is possible to interpret at least some aspects of Shakespeare’s works in autobiographical terms.
Remarkably, Shakespeare captures the complete range of human conflict and emotion over the course of a 20-year career. Even if some of the plays and sonnets were written in collaboration with other writers, this is still a remarkable achievement that tells us much about the man himself. This is a writer who observes the world around him in minute detail, a man who takes an interest in everything going on in his surroundings.
This is a writer unlikely to shrink from using personal connections, family problems and personal tragedy in his work. His whole life and that of family and friends is likely to have been presented in Shakespeare’s plays.
Documented events in his life, such as the birth of his twin children Hamnet and Judith on February 2, 1585 and Hamnet’s subsequent death some 11 years later serve to explain Shakespeare’s veritable obsession with the theme of “twins”.
The death of 11-year-old Hamnet must have been a traumatic event to which the playwright’s mind returned again and again. “Twins” are in peril in many of his plays – and even where young people are not actual twins, they pretend to be in Shakespeare’s plays.
Shakespeare was 18 and his wife Anne was 26, when they married. Seen in terms of a much older, more experienced woman having great influence and power over a younger, less experienced man, the play “Macbeth” suddenly becomes far more accessible to a modern audience.
Few dates and facts pertaining to Shakespeare’s life are available. There are his early years, such as his education, and seven years after the birth of his twins for example, which are a total mystery. However, those events that are known have clearly had a profound impact on Shakespeare and cannot be disregarded when interpreting his works.
In the absence of autobiographical notes from the author himself any literary assessment of his work must draw on the few facts available through secondary sources. By concentrating on the big events in his life – births, marriages, deaths, change of location and profession – it is possible to draw conclusions, based on psychology, that assist to explain Shakespeare’s works.