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William Shakespeare: Death

Sometime between 1610 and 1613, Shakespeare left London and moved back to Stratford, where his wife and married daughters had been living all the while. By this time, Shakespeare was a wealthy and well-known man. Thanks to shrewd investments with the returns from his shares in the Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare had become rich. He owned the second-largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon. He moved in lofty circles among prominent people he met through his associations with the royal court and with wealthy patrons like Southampton. He had made his name and a successful career, and settled into a retirement that turned out to be rather short. By the spring of 1616, Shakespeare fell ill with some kind of illness; his precise ailment has been lost to history. On 23 April 1616, his 52nd birthday, William Shakespeare died. He was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, the same place he was baptized. As one final testament to his famous wit, he had his tombstone inscribed with a rather hilarious curse: "Good friend for Jesus sake forbear / To dig the dust enclosed here! / Blest be the man that spares these stones, / And curst be he that moves my bones." It was somehow a fitting way to draw the curtain on Shakespeare's life.

In his memorial bust in Stratford (said to be one of only two accurate representations of the way he actually looked), Shakespeare holds a quill above an inscription that refers to "all that he hath writ."17 Shakespeare was known to his contemporaries as a great playwright, but there was no way of knowing if future generations would remember him as such. Most of his plays were never published, and printed only on flimsy sheets used by the actors who performed them. In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, King's Men actors John Heminge and Henry Condell collected his 36 plays and published them together as Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, a collection now known as the First Folio. Without this volume, many of Shakespeare's best-known plays, including Macbeth and Julius Caesar, would have been lost for good.

Thus began the Cult of Shakespeare. In the 400 years since his death, Shakespeare has been read, performed, translated and studied more than any other writer. You could fill the reconstructed Globe in London with the books and articles—some of them good, some of them crap—that have been written about Shakespeare's life and work. As in a game of Telephone, our understanding of the Bard's life story has undergone some changes over the years. Once all of the people who knew Shakespeare personally had died, a version of his life story circulated that was more myth than fact. Until the late eighteenth century, Shakespeare was rumored to have been a barely-literate genius son of a poor farmer who made his way to London and somehow produced his matchless body of work. Thanks to this unlikely (and untrue) biography, some scholars began to question whether William Shakespeare even wrote "Shakespeare's" plays in the first place. Several candidates have been put forth as possible "real" authors of Shakespeare's works, including Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford, and even Queen Elizabeth herself.

Serious scholars are nearly unanimous in finding such claims bogus, however. The rather boring truth is that William Shakespeare was a real person, that he received the type of education a person would need to write the things he did, that he went to London and enjoyed fame and fortune as a playwright. What gave him his unique genius? How did Shakespeare's plays transcend time and become Shakespeare's Plays? "How this particular man produced the works that dominate the cultures of much of the world almost four hundred years after his death is one of life's mysteries,"18 says the Folger Library, a far more definitive source on Shakespeare than we are. So, friends, perhaps we must accept his genius as it is. As Will would say, all's well that ends well.19

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