Wednesday

Apr. 23, 2014

Sonnet 106: When in the chronicle of wasted time

by William Shakespeare

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then in the blazon of sweet beauty's best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their ántique pen would have expressed
Ev'n such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring,
And for they looked but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing.
     For we which now behold these present days,
     Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

"Sonnet 106" by William Shakespeare. Public Domain. (buy now)

It's the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare (books by this author), who is traditionally believed to have been born on this date in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. He left behind no personal papers, so our knowledge of his life comes to us from public and court documents. His father, John, was a glove-maker and alderman, and his mother, Mary Arden, was a landed heiress. The baptismal register of the Church of the Holy Trinity in the Shakespeares' parish shows an entry on Wednesday, April 26, that reads, "Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare." Babies were traditionally baptized on the first Sunday or holy feast day after their birth. The Feast of St. Mark was on April 25, and although normally that would have been Shakespeare's baptismal day, it was also considered an unlucky day, and that may be why the child was baptized the following day instead.

Shakespeare studied at the well-respected local grammar school, and married the older — and pregnant — Anne Hathaway when he was 18 and she was 26. She gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, six months later. Twins Hamnet and Judith followed two years after that. Shakespeare was no doubt deeply affected by the death of son Hamnet at age 11; he began to write his tragedy Hamlet soon afterward.

He moved to London around 1588 and began a career as an actor and a playwright. By 1594, he was also managing partner of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a popular London theater troupe. The 1590s saw the production of his plays Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice, to name but a few. His greatest tragedies — like Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear — were all written after 1600. He wrote his last few plays back in Stratford, where he retired after an outbreak of the bubonic plague caused the London theaters to be closed for long stretches. He was popular during his lifetime, but it wasn't until after his death that his collected works were published in print form. That volume has come to be known as the First Folio, and it was published in 1623.

In 1611, he made out his will, leaving most of his estate to his daughter Susanna, and bequeathing to his wife, Anne, his "second-best bed." He died on or around his birthday in 1616 and was buried in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford, leaving a last verse behind as his epitaph: "Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare / to dig the dust encloséd here. / Blessed be the man who spares these stones, / and cursed by he who moves my bones."

Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and a couple of epic narrative poems. He created some of the most unforgettable characters ever written for the stage, and was a master of the language of various social classes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, he coined 3,000 new words, and he has contributed more phrases and sayings to the English language than any other individual. Shakespeare gave us such commonly used phrases as "a fool's paradise," "dead as a doornail," "Greek to me," "come what may," "eaten out of house and home," "forever and a day," "heart's content," "love is blind," "night owl," "wild goose chase," and "into thin air."

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