The most influential writer in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a successful middle-class glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582 he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and James I (ruled 1603–1625), and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact and from Shakespeare’s modest education that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but support for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
Shakespeare authored King Lear around 1605, between Othello and Macbeth, and it is usually ranked with Hamlet as one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. The setting of King Lear is as far removed from Shakespeare’s time as the setting of any of his other plays, dramatizing events from the eighth century b.c. But the parallel stories of Lear’s and Gloucester’s sufferings at the hands of their own children reflect anxieties that would have been close to home for Shakespeare’s audience. One possible event that may have influenced this play is a lawsuit that occurred not long before King Lear was written, in which the eldest of three sisters tried to have her elderly father, Sir Brian Annesley, declared insane so that she could take control of his property. Annesley’s youngest daughter, Cordell, successfully defended her father against her sister. Another event that Shakespeare and his audience would have been familiar with is the case of William Allen, a mayor of London who was treated very poorly by his three daughters after dividing his wealth among them. Not least among relevant developments was the then recent transfer of power from Elizabeth I to James I, which occurred in 1603. Elizabeth had produced no male heir, and the anxiety about who her successor would be was fueled by fears that a dynastic struggle along the lines of the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses might ensue.
Elizabethan England was an extremely hierarchical society, demanding that absolute deference be paid and respect be shown not only to the wealthy and powerful but also to parents and the elderly. King Lear demonstrates how vulnerable parents and noblemen are to the depredations of unscrupulous children and thus how fragile the fabric of Elizabethan society actually was.