Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema 1992
illustrated by Diane Stanley
A nice biographical introduction to Shakespeare is this book. It describes life in Elizabethan times, the theater and what is known of Shakespeare by historians. The postscript has a really fascinating look at the evolution of the English language between 1400 and 1600 and all of the common phrases we say that were originated by Shakespeare. “Dead as a doornail”, “led a charmed life”, “set your teeth on edge” , “seen better days” are just a few. I also think it's an interesting tidbit that in his will Shakespeare left his wife only his "second best bed"!
William Shakespeare went to London just at the time when modern theater was taking shape. In 1576, when Shakespeare was still a schoolboy, an actor named James Burbage put up a building near London designed solely for the perfomance of plays. It was the first such building since the days of ancient Greece and Rome. He called it the Theatre, a name now used for all playhouses.
A nobleman would adopt a company of actors and allow them to make use of his name, such as the Admiral's Men or Lord Chamberlain's Men. At one time, even Elizabeth had her own actors, the Queen's Men. In return, the actors would give special performances for their patron, either in the great halls of their estates or at the palace.
Shakespeare wrote three different kinds of plays: tragedies, comedies, and histories. In writing them, he followed many of the customs and fashions of the time.The main characters in the tragedies, for example, were always doomed to death in the end. The comedies were full of mistaken identities, women disguised as men, miscarried letters, and all sorts of silly complications that were all resolved in the end, with everyone planning weddings. The histories told the stories of kings and great noblemen in exciting situations, such as war or rebellion.
Yet, while he followed all these conventions, he wove humor into his tragedies, put serious problems into his comedies, and brought the issues of the common people into his histories. His characters and the words they spoke were amazing and highly original.