“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” — William Shakespeare
Today is William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday.
William Shakespeare, England’s national poet, is known throughout the world as an English poet, playwright and actor. He is widely regarded as the world’s preeminent dramatist and as the greatest English writer. He is often called the “Bard of Avon,” “Swan of Avon” or plainly “The Bard“.
Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into almost every language around the world, and his plays have been performed for more than 400 years in countless metropolises, cities, towns, villages, and hamlets in almost every country.
The bard’s works have outlived him. Significant number of English phrases coined by William Shakespeare are still in vogue and are in use every day. Here are some:
“Made of sterner stuff” in Julius Caesar.
“To the manner born” in Hamlet.
“To your heart’s content” in The Merchant of Venice.
“Green-eyed monster” in Othello.
“The milk of human kindness” in Macbeth.
“Salad days” in Antony and Cleopatra.
“Sea change” in The Tempest.
However, the personal life of William Shakespeare somewhat remains a mystery.Two sources provide historians with a basic outline of his life. The primary source is his work — the plays, poems and sonnets. The other source is the official documentation such as church and court records. These sources give only brief sketches of specific events in Shakespeare’s life, but nothing much about the person he was.
William Shakespeare’s birth record does not exist. A church record mentions that on April 26, 1564, a William Shakespeare was baptized at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, a market town, located 103 miles west of London, bisected by a country road and the River Avon. From this, scholars have deduced and acknowledged that William Shakespeare was born on or around April 23, 1564.
William was the third child of John Shakespeare, a leather merchant, and Mary Arden, a local landed heiress. William had two older sisters, Joan and Judith, and three younger brothers, Gilbert, Richard and Edmund.
Before William’s birth, his father, John Shakespeare, a successful leather merchant, held the office of alderman and bailiff, somewhat akin to a mayor. William was the third child of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, a local landed heiress. William had two older sisters, Joan and Judith, and three younger brothers, Gilbert, Richard and Edmund. After William was born, John Shakespeare’s fortunes declined in the late 1570s.
Childhood records of William are sparse and nothing about his education. Scholars believe that he most likely learned to read, write, and studied the classics at the King’s New School, in Stratford, and would have undoubtedly qualified for free tuition since he was a child of a public official.
The uncertainty about his education has led some to raise questions about the authorship of his work. Some allude his works to several writers and nobles of his time that includes Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, and Christopher Marlowe.
The Baconian hypothesis of Shakespearean authorship, first proposed in the mid 19th century, contends that Francis Bacon wrote some or all the plays conventionally attributed to William Shakespeare.
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was an English peer and courtier of the Elizabethan era. He was a court favourite for a time. He was a patron of the arts, a lyric poet, and a playwright. Since the 1920s he has been the most popular alternative candidate proposed for the authorship of Shakespeare’s works.
Christopher Marlowe was an English dramatist, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. He was born in the same year as William Shakespeare. Marlowe was the foremost Elizabethan tragedian of his day. After Marlowe’s mysterious early death on May 30, 1593, Shakespeare rose to become the pre-eminent Elizabethan playwright.
Various accounts of Marlowe’s death were current over the next few years. Francis Meres, in his Palladis Tamia, published in 1598, says Marlowe was “stabbed to death by a bawdy serving-man, a rival of his in his lewd love” as punishment for his “epicurism and atheism.” In 1917, Sir Sidney Lee wrote in the Dictionary of National Biography, that Marlowe was killed in a drunken fight, and this is still often stated as fact today.
Given the inconsistencies concerning the account of Marlowe’s death, a theory has arisen centered on the notion that Marlowe may have faked his death and then continued to write under the assumed name of William Shakespeare.
In August 1819 an anonymous writer turned the table by asking in The Monthly Review: “Can Christopher Marlowe be a nom de guerre assumed for a time by Shakespeare?“
Above all, doubts have been raised about whether or not a person named William Shakespeare ever existed.
“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that–as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time.” – Charles Dickens
Here is the preface written by Charles Dickens for the memorable Christmas story of all time, “A Christmas Carol” published on December 17, 1843:
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it. Their faithful Friend and Servant, C. D.
Through this novella, Charles Dickens was the first person to introduce the phrase “Merry Christmas” to English. This masterpiece also added the name “Scrooge” and the exclamation “Bah! Humbug!” to the English vernacular.
Charles Dickens (born Charles John Huffam Dickens, February 7, 1812 – June 9, 1870), an English writer and social critic rose from a downtrodden family background. His early experience of a life of poverty and deprivation helped him create some of the most memorable characters of all time.
During his later life, Charles Dickens enjoyed unprecedented fame through his works, and by the twentieth century, he was broadly acknowledged by critics and scholars as a literary genius. Even now, readers consider Dickens as one of the greatest writers of the Victorian Period. His novels and short stories are still widely popular. His works include A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Hard Times, and many more.
Charles Dickens concerned about poor children wanted to publish a pamphlet titled “An Appeal to the People of England, on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child,” to draw the attention of workers and employers to the plight of poor children. Instead, he wrote A Christmas Carol, for he thought that an irresistible Christmas story with a plot that highlighted the struggles of the poor would have a better and broader appeal.
Dickens started writing A Christmas Carol in October 1843 and finished it by the end of November, in time to be published for Christmas. The book was illustrated by John Leech.
It was published in early Victorian Era Britain, a period when people longed for the old nostalgic Christmas traditions. It was at this time that new customs, such as Christmas trees and greeting cards were introduced.
Dickens’ sources for the powerful, impressive, and enduring tale appear to be many and varied. He leaned on Washington Irving’s essays on Christmas published in his Sketch Book in 1820, describing the traditional old English Christmas; various Christmas stories, fairy tales and nursery stories; as well as satirical essays and religious tracts. However, the humiliating experiences of his childhood, the plight of the poor and their children during the boom decades of the 1830s and 1840s, impelled him to write the book.
The book’s first run of 6,000 copies sold out before Christmas Eve, and by the following May seven editions sold out. However, it did not produce a windfall for Dickens, who paid the original production costs due to a dispute with his publisher.
A Christmas Carol tells the story of the bitter old miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his transformation resulting from supernatural visits by Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Past, Present, and Yet to Come Christmases. The novella was an instant success and received wide critical acclaim. It became the most popular Christmas tale ever to be written. Dickens never anticipated that his characterization of Tiny Tim, the embodiment of England’s poor children, and the personification of Scrooge modeled after his estranged father, would receive such an accolade from his readers.
Many have credited A Christmas Carol with reviving the spirit of Christmas celebration, after a period of sobriety and sombreness, as one of merriment and festivity in Britain and America.
A Christmas Carol has been adapted in numerous plays, operas, ballets and films. It is in its 24th edition. It is estimated that about five billion copies have been sold to date.
I can still remember the day I first heard the recitation of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven“. It was way back in 1952 when I was 11 years old studying at St. Mary’s College, Chilaw, Sri Lanka. One evening, our boarding-master, Reverend Brother Andrew Michael, a Christian Brother of the order of Saint De La Salle, recited for us that soul searching haunting poem.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
These words still linger in my mind.
Eugene O’Neill, the Irish American playwright and Nobel laureate in Literature could recite this poem from memory.
J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and other tales admired it.
G.K. Chesterton, known as the “prince of paradox“, hailed Thompson as a great English poet and described him as a “shy volcano“.
The Hound of Heaven considered by many as one of the great Catholic poems, gushed out from the soul, of a deeply troubled a person who throughout his adult life battled addiction, poverty and depression.
Even though it is Victorian poetry, many, including me, still seek comfort in Thompson’s view of a loving God who constantly pursues the wayward soul.
Francis Thompson born December 16, 1859, was an English poet who later turned into an ascetic. He was the eldest son of a provincial doctor in northern England. He grew up as a shy introverted boy who loved the classics, Shakespeare, in particular. He attended Ushaw College, a Catholic institution near Durham.
If not for his frail health, he would have entered the seminary to pursue the priesthood. He then studied medicine at Owens College in Manchester complying to his father’s wish. His heart was not in medicine rather it was literature that beckoned him. He “made a pretense of study” for six years. After finishing his medical course, he never practiced medicine. He went to London aspiring to become a writer.
Francis Thompson began his career as a bookseller but was not successful. Then he found work in a shoemaker’s store; he sold matches; called cabs. Eventually, he got addicted to opium after consuming it as medicine for ill health. He became a destitute. As a vagrant, he begged for his sustenance. Soon Thompson started living on the streets of Charing Cross and slept by the River Thames along with the homeless and other addicts.
He found solace in the public libraries, but some banned him because of his ragged appearance.
A peer of Thompson wrote:
A stranger figure than Thompson’s was not to be seen in London. Gentle in looks, half-wild in externals, his face worn by pain and the fierce reactions of laudanum, his hair and straggling beard neglected, he had yet a distinction and aloofness of bearing that marked him in the crowd; and when he opened his lips he spoke as a gentleman and a scholar. It was impossible and unnecessary to think always of the tragic side of his life.
At one point of time when Thompson tried to commit suicide, a prostitute offered him a place to stay and looked after him for a while. Thompson never revealed her true identity not even her name, but later referred to her as one who saved him.
Around 1887-88, Thompson sent some poems to Wilfrid Meynell, editor of a Catholic literary magazine giving a post-office address. He added a note apologizing “for the soiled state of the manuscript. It is due, not to slovenliness, but to the strange places and circumstances under which it has been written.” After some time when Meynell read the pigeonholed manuscripts, he immediately wrote a welcoming letter to Thompson, but the post office returned it.
Wilfrid Meynell published Thompson’s poems in Merrie England so that the author might see them and disclose himself. Thompson saw his published poems and wrote to Meynell. This time he gave the address of a chemist’s shop. When Meynell reached the address, he found that Thompson owed money to the chemist for the opium he had purchased. Meynell left a note requesting Thompson to call upon him.
Wilfrid Meynell and his wife Alice Meynell (née Thompson) whose father was a friend of Charles Dickens rescued Francis Thompson from the verge of starvation and self-destruction. The first step was to restore him to better health and to wean him from the opium habit. A doctor’s care for some months at Storrington, Sussex, where he lived as a boarder at the Premonstratensian monastery, gave him a new hold upon life.
Recognizing the genius in him the Meynell couple arranged for the publication of his first book, “Poems” in 1893. The book received the attention of sympathetic critics in the St James’s Gazette and other newspapers. The English poet and critic Coventry Patmore wrote a eulogistic paragraph in the Fortnightly Review of January 1894.
In the years from 1889 to 1896, Thompson wrote the poems contained in the three volumes, “Poems,” “Sister Songs,” and “New Poems” and other works and essays.
Francis Thompson died from tuberculosis on November 13, 1907, aged forty-eight after receiving all the sacraments, in the excellent care of the Sisters of St. John and St. Elizabeth. He is buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in London.
Shortly after Francis Thompson’s death G. K. Chesterton said: “with Francis Thompson we lost the greatest poetic energy since Browning.“
THE HOUND OF HEAVEN
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter. Up vistaed hopes, I sped; And shot, precipitated, Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears. From those strong Feet that followed, followed after. But with unhurrying chase, And unperturbèd pace, Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, They beat—and a Voice beat More instant than the Feet— “All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
I pleaded, out law-wise, By many a hearted casement, curtained red, Trellised with intertwining charities (For, though I knew His love Who followèd, Yet was I sore adread Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside); But, if one little casement parted wide, The gust of His approach would clash it to. Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue. Across the margent of the world I fled, And troubled the gold gateways of the stars, Smiting for shelter on their clangèd bars; Fretted to dulcet jars And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.
I said to dawn: Be sudden; to eve: Be soon— With thy young skyey blossoms heap me over From this tremendous Lover! Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see! I tempted all His servitors, but to find My own betrayal in their constancy, In faith to Him their fickleness to me, Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit. To all swift things for swiftness did I sue; Clung to the whistling mane of every wind. But whether they swept, smoothly fleet, The long savannahs of the blue; Or whether, Thunder-driven, They clanged His chariot ‘thwart a heaven Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their feet:— Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue. Still with unhurrying chase, And unperturbèd pace, Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, Came on the following Feet, And a Voice above their beat— “Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.”
I sought no more that after which I strayed In face of man or maid; But still within the little children’s eyes Seems something, something that replies, They at least are for me, surely for me! I turned me to them very wistfully; But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair With dawning answers there, Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.
Come then, ye other children, Nature’s—share With me” (said I) “your delicate fellowship; Let me greet you lip to lip, Let me twine with you caresses, Wantoning With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses, Banqueting With her in her wind-walled palace, Underneath her azured daïs, Quaffing, as your taintless way is, From a chalice Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.” So it was done; I in their delicate fellowship was one— Drew the bolt of Nature’s secrecies. I knew all the swift importings, On the wilful face of skies; I knew how the clouds arise, Spumèd of the wild sea-snortings; All that’s born or dies Rose and drooped with; made them shapers Of mine own moods, or wailful or divine— With them joyed and was bereaven. I was heavy with the even, When she lit her glimmering tapers Round the day’s dead sanctities. I laughed in the morning’s eyes. I triumphed and I saddened with all weather, Heaven and I wept together, And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine; Against the red throb of its sunset-heart I laid my own to beat, And share commingling heat; But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart. In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek. For ah! we know not what each other says, These things and I; in sound I speak— Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences. Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake by drouth; Let her, if she would owe me, Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me The breasts o’ her tenderness: Never did any milk of hers once bless My thirsting mouth.
Nigh and nigh draws the chase, With unperturbèd pace, Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, And past those noisèd Feet A Voice comes yet more fleet— “Lo! naught contents thee, who content’st not Me.”
Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke! My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me, And smitten me to my knee; I am defenceless utterly. I slept, methinks, and woke, And, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep. In the rash lustihead of my young powers, I shook the pillaring hours And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears, I stand amid the dust o’ the mounded years— My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap. My days have crackled and gone up in smoke, Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream. Yea, faileth now even dream The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist; Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist, Are yielding; cords of all too weak account For earth, with heavy griefs so overplussed. Ah! is Thy love indeed A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed, Suffering no flowers except its own to mount? Ah! must— Designer infinite!— Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it? My freshness spent its wavering shower i‘ the dust; And now my heart is as a broken fount, Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever From the dank thoughts that shiver Upon the sighful branches of my mind. Such is; what is to be? The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind? I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds; Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds From the hid battlements of Eternity: Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then Round the half-glimpsèd turrets slowly wash again; But not ere Him who summoneth I first have seen, enwound And now my heart is as a broken fount, Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever From the dank thoughts that shiver With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned; His name I know, and what his trumpet saith. Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields Thee harvest, must Thy harvest fields Be dunged with rotten death?
Now of that long pursuit Comes on at hand the bruit; That Voice is round me like a bursting sea: “And is thy earth so marred, Shattered in shard on shard? Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me! Strange, piteous, futile thing, Wherefore should any set thee love apart? Seeing none but I makes much of naught” (He said), “And human love needs human meriting: How hast thou merited— Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot? Alack, thou knowest not How little worthy of any love thou art! Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee, Save Me, save only Me? All which I took from thee I did but take, Not for thy harms, But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms. All which thy child’s mistake Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home: Rise, clasp My hand, and come.” Halts by me that footfall: Is my gloom, after all, Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly? “Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, I am He Whom thou seekest! Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”