William Shakespeare scarcely needs an introduction. Born in 1564, he was an English playwright, poet, actor, favorite dramatist of queens and kings, inventor of words, master of drama, and arguably the most famous writer of all time. In his 36 plays and 154 sonnets, he left behind the evidence of a brilliant mind, a wicked sense of humor, a deep sensitivity to human emotions, and a rich classical education. We know all about his work. But what do we know about the man?
In the 400 or so years since Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday in 1616, there have been plenty of rumors about the Bard and the personal experiences that may have inspired his works. Some of these explanations may well be true; others are pure falsehood. We don't know much about Shakespeare's inner world—he left behind no tell-all confessionals—but we know a lot about his outer world, and that is perhaps even more important to understanding his genius. Shakespeare came of age during the Renaissance, a flourishing of arts, culture, and thought that took place in the middle of the last millennium. All across Western Europe, ideas on everything from God to the nature of the universe were shifting. In England, it was a time of great literary and dramatic achievement, encouraged by Queen Elizabeth I and her successor James I. It was the perfect environment for a gifted dramatist to thrive.
Shakespeare changed the English language, inventing dozens of new words we still use today. His plays have been translated into more than 80 other tongues and performed in dozens of countries, where diverse audiences all still recognize the timeless elements of the human experience as depicted by a young Englishman 400 years ago. And if you are somehow one of the last two people in the literate world who know Shakespeare but still fail to see the Bard's relevance? Well, then, a pox on both your houses.