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William Shakespeare

The most celebrated and widely produced of the world’s great playwrights, Shakespeare was born and raised in the small country town of Stratford-upon-Avon, where his parents were prominent citizens, though his father, a tanner and glovemaker, seems to have suffered financial reverses around the time young William’s formal education apparently ceased in 1577. He married a local girl, Anne Hathaway, in 1582, and over the next decade the marriage produced three children, including a twin son and daughter. Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet (alternately spelled Hamlet), died at age 11 in 1596 and he wrote Twelfth Night shortly after. His daughters Judith and Susanna survived him.

How and why Shakespeare entered the theatrical profession is unclear. He seems to have come to London in the late 1580s and quickly made himself indispensable as a reviser of old plays and a supplier of new ones. By 1594, he had become a shareholder, along with the prominent actor Richard Burbage and the latter’s business-manager brother Cuthbert in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of the dominant theatre companies of its day, popular with the public and frequently in demand for performances at Queen Elizabeth’s court. In the reign of her successor, King James I, the troupe was officially taken under royal protection and became the King’s Men.

While he appeared regularly in works by others, Shakespeare’s principal function seems to have been turning out new plays for his companies. Working in all the standard genres of the time—tragedy, comedy, romance, and episodes from British history—he rapidly developed both remarkable expertise and a startlingly individual, innovative style. Twelfth Night is one of the great romantic comedies, alongside Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While scholars still debate the title's origin, the play may have been commissioned to be performed on Twelfth Night (twelve days after Christmas) of 1601, when Queen Elizabeth I's court was hosting the Duke of Bracciano, whose last name was Orsini.

Shakespeare retired from the King’s Men around 1612, spending the last years of his life with his family in Stratford, where he died in 1616. His plays have never been off the stage. To this day, Shakespeare is still the most performed, translated, adapted, quoted, analyzed and discussed author in the entire history of dramatic literature.