Closer Readings Commentary

National Poetry Month: William Shakespeare


"But be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon'em.–"

--- Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene II

Leave it to William Shakespeare to divvy up the paths to "greatness" so neatly. As for his own path to greatness, Shakespeare certainly took the second path. He "achieved greatness" by his astonishing skill with the English language. The world's most performed playwright had an incomparable ability to capture the verities of human existence in a few well-chosen words, and these words are his legacy.

There is scant documentary evidence of Shakespeare's life in general, and the details of his youth and young adulthood are largely unknown. Born to middle-class parents in the agricultural town of Stratford-upon-Avon in April, 1564, Shakespeare could not claim to have been born great. His father, John Shakespeare, was a maker of leather goods who eventually became the equivalent of town mayor in Stratford, but he was no aristocrat. His son William received a typical education for a man of his class and may have worked in his father's business before going to London to work in the theater. To learn more about what scholars do know of Stratford's most famous resident, visit the EDSITEment-reviewed website, Mr. William Shakespeare. Here you will find a wealth of primary resources on all aspects of Shakespeare's biography, literary works, and historical era. This site also contains a useful timeline that provides details of Shakespeare's life.

This timeline indicates that in 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior and probably best known as the person to whom he willed his "second best bed." Scholars know little about Shakespeare's relationship with his wife, but some of his best known plays explore the highs and lows of being in love. To help your students see how Shakespeare used poetry to express the joys and sorrows of love, visit the EDSITEment lesson plan, "You Kiss by the Book": Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In this lesson, high school students focus on Shakespeare's use of different poetic forms throughout the play, particularly the use of love sonnet conventions, and then perform a scene from the drama that helps them identify how these different forms influence the impact of the action on stage.

But Shakespeare need not be the domain of high school English classes only. Lesson plans for elementary and middle school students are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Folger Shakespeare Library. Each month this site features new lesson plans on teaching Shakespeare, plus it provides a lesson-plan archive that teachers can browse to discover innovative ways of making Shakespeare accessible to all students.

Shakespeare's greatness was not "thrust upon" him. His achievement came through his labors on the stage and with his pen. The first reliable evidence scholars have that testifies to Shakepeare's growing fame as a playwright is the 1592 critique penned by Robert Greene, a fellow writer and rival of Shakespeare's. Greene calls Shakespeare an "upstart crow" who can "bombast out a blanke verse." Both comments point to Shakespeare's rising fame and his skill as a poet. The rest, as they say, is history.

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