"All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players."1
So wrote William Shakespeare, a.k.a. the Bard of Avon, the master of Elizabethan drama, and the world's most famous writer. Between his birth in 1564 and his death exactly 52 years later, Shakespeare wrote 36 plays and 154 sonnets that managed to capture virtually every facet of the human experience: its darkest perversions, its most glorious triumphs, and all the laughs, tears, and dirty jokes in between.
So who was William Shakespeare? We don't know the man nearly as well as we know his works. What we do know about his biography comes mainly from official records. These documents tell us what he did but nothing about who he was, nor what inspired the magnificent quality and diverse content of his plays. Shakespeare didn't leave behind diaries, confessional interviews, or taped appearances on Oprah, so there's no way to understand precisely the relationship between his personal experience and his plays. Of course, this hasn't stopped centuries' worth of crazy rumors from popping up around his life, some of which we'll address here. To understand where his plays come from, we're better off looking more broadly at the era in which he lived.
William Shakespeare's career is the product of a perfect match between a man's talents and his time. Shakespeare was born during the Renaissance, the flowering of art, culture, and thought that swept through Western Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages. It was a time of great expansion for people's horizons and minds. The printing press made it possible for more people than ever before to translate and read classical texts. The sun was just rising on the English empire, with explorers discovering new lands (well, new to them, anyway; not so much to the people already living there.) The Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther and John Calvin was shaking up people's relationship with God and the Church. Galileo Galilei, born the same year as Shakespeare, had finally demonstrated that the Earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa (a radical idea first put forth by Copernicus, for which Galileo took a lot of heat from the Catholic Church). Add the powerful figure of Queen Elizabeth I, a great supporter of the arts, and you have the perfect conditions for a literary genius to thrive. Along comes William Shakespeare, a young man with an unprecedented facility for language and an equally impressive understanding of the breadth of the human experience.
Yes, we've heard the rumors that Shakespeare didn't actually write his own plays, that they're too good and too numerous for one person to have churned out in a lifetime. We don't buy it. There is more than enough evidence to prove that William Shakespeare really did exist, and that he really did write his plays, and that they really are still worth talking about even 400 years later. As far as we can tell, most speculation to the contrary is (as the Bard once said in a different context) little more than "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing."2 But then again, according to Shakespeare, so is everything else.