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In about 1612, William Shakespeare handed over the role of in-house scriptwriter for the King's Men to John Fletcher and retired to his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, where he died four years later. Seven years after that his fellow actors -- whom he had remembered with generosity in his will -- put together the full First Folio of his collected "Comedies, Histories and Tragedies." His friend Ben Jonson contributed a prefatory poem, "To the memory of my beloved, the author Mr William Shakespeare," in which the "Sweet Swan of Avon" was praised as a poet who outdid the classical authors of Greece and Rome in spite of his own limited familiarity with their works.

By the time of the Romantic movement in the 19th century, Shakespeare had become synonymous with creative genius. But Romanticism brought a new definition to the artist's life: to be a true genius you had to live on the edge, which led to a group of Victorian and Edwardian eccentrics reinventing Shakespeare in the image of the Romantic artist. The one enduring of these reinventions has been the attempt to dress him up as a cross between Byron and the Scarlet Pimpernel.