“Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” The man who penned these words turns 450 years old this April. William Shakespeare was not born great, nor did he have greatness thrust upon him, but he achieved it to a degree that few in his time would have thought possible for a man of his profession. An outstanding playwright and poet, he profoundly influenced not only the English language, but the entire Western culture.
He was born to a semi-wealthy family in Stratford, England. His father was a leader in local politics, but otherwise his family was rather obscure. Consequently, very little is known of his family history or his childhood. It is clear that he had a good education, and that he traveled to London to become an actor. He was fairly successful in this endeavor, but it was not until he began to produce his own plays that he became famous for his work.
It seems unlikely that a man of Shakespeare’s upbringing would ever become involved in the theater, but fortunately Shakespeare had a profoundly positive impact on the industry. When he produced his plays, he required that the actors behave respectably and follow the script. His plays had a very high moral tone, and although the stories are secular in nature, he incorporates Christian themes and philosophy into their plots. His characters were realistic and believably human; even his greatest heroes had weaknesses. The universality of his themes is partly what made his plays such great classics. Playwriting and producing became a high art form through his efforts, and consequently his acting team became the favorite of royalty. He performed regularly for Queen Elizabeth and King James I.
Shakespeare has contributed more to the English language than any other writer. A great many of the idioms we use in speech all the time originated in his writing, such as the phrase "in a pickle," "wearing one's heart on one's sleeve," and "crocodile tears." He also invented many words, such as "bedroom," and "worthless." Whenever he had no word which met his high standards for his writing, he would invent one.
Interestingly, Shakespeare was not careful to preserve his plays, nor did he attempt to take credit for them. His family published thirty-seven of them after his death, but it is not known how many he actually wrote. This difficulty is also the reason that people often question the authenticity of his works. Some contend that the plays were written by some contemporary of his, possibly even Queen Elizabeth, and others say that William Shakespeare may have been a pseudonym. No substantial evidence has been found, however, that the 37 plays were not written by a man whose name was William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was also the author of several poems and quite a few sonnets. Sonnets were considered a higher form of art than theatrics in Shakespeare's day, so it is possible that Shakespeare wrote them as an attempt to improve his own reputation as a writer and become acceptable in higher social circles. He definitely deserved recognition in the highest circles of English poets, and his sonnets are among the most famous ever written. Ironically, as much as the sonnets had helped his career in his lifetime, his plays have far surpassed any of his sonnets in fame.
Perhaps Shakespeare's greatest legacy to the world was neither his plays nor his sonnets, but rather a book that does not display his name—at least, not on the cover. The only book which has had a greater influence on the English language than Shakespeare's works is the King James Bible, which was published in 1611, the year Shakespeare turned 47 years old. There is no list of all the writers who worked on the King James Bible, but the king hired the best writers and translators in England to create it, and by this time Shakespeare had distinguished himself as one of the best. There is also a sliver of internal evidence in the book that may be a hidden signature. Shakespeare was 46 years old between 1610 and 1611, when the King James Bible was created. In Psalm 46, the 46th word from the beginning of the psalm is the word shake. If you ignore the "Selah", the 46th word from the end of the Psalm, reading backwards, is speare. It would be characteristic of the greatest master of words in English history to put such a clue in the King James Bible, if he indeed helped to create it.
William Shakespeare fulfilled his calling in a remarkable way. He demonstrated the value of doing one's work to the best of one's ability, as to the Lord rather than to men (Ephesians 6: 7) No matter what business we engage in, if we are diligent, perseverant, and innovative, our work will be remembered and rewarded by God. Shakespeare's life proves the truth of Proverbs 22: 29, "Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men."