William Shakespeare Biography

Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, 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); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.

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 paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else–Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates–but the evidence for this claim is highly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.

In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 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.

Background on Timon of Athens

Timon of Athens was probably written between 1605 and 1608. Apparently the play was never produced during Shakespeare's lifetime, probably because, as many scholars argue, it was never finished. Alternately it may not have been produced because it focused on too controversial a topic for the years directly after James I's accession to the English throne. Timon of Athens contains a veiled but particularly sharp criticism of money management in James's England, which would have been obvious to Shakespeare's contemporaries and taken as criticism by his aristocratic supporters.

In this play, Timon is a wealthy man who takes great pleasure in giving gifts to his friends. But his downfall comes through his inability to support his spending; he takes out loans from his friends to pay for the very gifts he gives them. Eventually he is forced to mortgage all his holdings and becomes bankrupt, and his friends abandon him.

In the early part of the seventeenth century, criticism grew for the traditional aristocratic behavior of extravagant generosity and careless expense when nobles' holdings were increasingly unable to support their spending. With England on the rise as an international power, nobles found themselves competing to impress each other with their great expenditures, but lacked the cash to back up their behavior. Hence a new credit market rose up. James I himself was known for his enormous debt, accrued in the process of providing his friends with expensive gifts. James's behavior brought about huge deficits in the royal bank. James was in good company with much of the aristocracy, who were all trying to manage great debts. Thus this play draws attention to the irresponsible behavior of the upper classes, a criticism which alone could have kept this play from being sponsored or performed.

Shakespeare's play bears witness to a transformation in modes of financial exchange. In an earlier age, informal arrangements between friends were sufficient means for the exchange of money; it is this system that Timon functions under at the beginning of the play. In James's England, the increasingly strained finances of the nobles increasingly meant "friendly understandings" were insufficient basis for borrowing or lending money. Usury, a practice still scorned and sometimes even illegal, became a more widespread means of dealing with debt. Similarly Timon finds that he cannot assume the ties of friendship will suffice to generate cash when he needs it; rather, his friends declare friendship is not security enough for a loan.

Like Shakespeare's earlier work, The Merchant of Venice, Timon of Athens concerns itself with the connection between ties of affection and monetary bonds. Timon must discover how much friendship has to do with self-interest, how material goods compare to intangible feelings, and how much people are esteemed for their personal characteristics versus their possessions. The play has also been compared to King Lear because of the similarity of the hero's fall from power and authority to destitution, and his fierce misanthropic reaction to his demise.

Some scholars suggest that this play was co-written with another dramatist named Thomas Middleton, with certain sections attributed to Middleton instead of Shakespeare or vice versa. Nevertheless some Shakespearean characteristics are unmistakable, such as the story's derivation from Plutarch's Lives, one of Shakespeare's favorite inspirational sources.

Some scholars think the play was never completed, which might seem a satisfactory explanation for various inconsistencies throughout the play. Perhaps it was merely abandoned before the final stages of revision. No evidence exists proving the play was performed in Shakespeare's day, a process which would certainly have smoothed over any rough edges in the play, particularly the Alcibiades subplot. However an absence of evidence for the play's performance does not conclusively mean it was never performed, as the record on several other of Shakespeare's more well-known plays is similarly thin.