Who was William Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language. He was born on or around 23 April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, the eldest son of John Shakespeare, a prosperous glover and local dignitary, and Mary Arden, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. There are no records of William’s education, but he probably went to King’s New School – a reputable Stratford grammar school where he would have learned Latin, Greek, theology and rhetoric – and may have had a Catholic upbringing. He may also have seen plays by the travelling theatre groups touring Stratford in the 1560s and 70s. At 18, William married Anne Hathaway, and the couple had three children over the next few years.
What are Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’?
No-one knows what Shakespeare did between 1587 – the last documentary record of his youth in Stratford – and 1592 when he is first mentioned in London. There is much speculation about these ‘lost years’, including stories that Shakespeare was exiled from Warwickshire for deer-stealing and that he worked at the London playhouses holding horses for theatre-goers.
What did Shakespeare write?
Between about 1590 and 1613, Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays and collaborated on several more. His 17 comedies include The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing. Among his 10 history plays are Henry V and Richard III. The most famous among his tragedies are Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. Shakespeare also wrote 4 poems, and a famous collection of Sonnets which was first published in 1609.
Was Shakespeare successful in his lifetime?
By 1592, Shakespeare was well-known enough as a writer and actor to be criticised by jealous rival Robert Greene as an ‘upstart crow’ and ‘Johannes Factotum’ (a ‘Johnny do-it-all’) in his pamphlet Groats-worth of Wit (a groat being a small coin). Although it is difficult to determine the chronology of Shakespeare’s works, it is likely that by 1592 he had authored 11 plays, including Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His plays were successful: the box office takings from the first performance of Henry VI, Part 1 at the Rose in 1592 were £3 16s. 8d., the highest recorded for the season.
For much of the period from September 1592 to June 1594, the London playhouses were shut because of the plague. Shakespeare published two epic poems during this time, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
Shakespeare’s success grew through the 1590s. He joined and became a shareholder of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men who performed before Queen Elizabeth on numerous occasions, and as well as writing more plays, he published several poems and circulated his sonnet sequence in manuscript. His successes enabled him in 1597 to buy New Place, the second largest house in Stratford. This success was not untainted by tragedy however: in 1596 his 11 year old son Hamnet, died.
Where were Shakespeare’s plays performed?
In 1599, Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men took up residence in the newly built Globe. Julius Caesar was one of the first plays performed there. Performances at the Globe were divided into three seasons with breaks around Christmas when the players performed at court; Lent, when playing was intermittent; and summer when the players toured the provinces escaping the infection and infestation of the city.
When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, her successor, King James I, announced that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men would now be the King’s Men. This patronage was a huge coup for the troupe, but Shakespeare was by no means a puppet playwright and he continued to write plays that posed difficult questions about kingship. The Jacobean works of 1604–08 were darker and include the mature tragedies Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.
In 1608 the King’s Men took on a second theatre, a candlelit indoor venue at Blackfriars, whose expensive seats catered to a more elite audience and whose lighting may have influenced the atmosphere of late plays such as The Tempest.
What are the quartos?
Shakespeare’s plays began to be printed in 1594, probably with his tragedy Titus Andronicus. This appeared as a small, cheap pamphlet called a quarto because of the way it was printed. 18 of Shakespeare’s plays had appeared in quarto editions by the time of his death in 1616. Another three plays were printed in quarto before 1642.
As only one literary manuscript fragment in Shakespeare’s hand survives, the earliest printed editions are our only source for what he actually wrote. The quarto editions are the texts closest to Shakespeare’s time. Some are thought to preserve either his working drafts (his foul papers) or his fair copies. Others are thought to record versions remembered by actors who performed the plays, providing information about staging practices in Shakespeare’s day.
When did Shakespeare die?
In 1613 the Globe burned down and the same year Shakespeare retired from the London theatre world and returned to Stratford. He died on 23 April 1616 and was buried in Holy Trinity Church, where he had been baptised 52 years earlier.
What is the First Folio?
The first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays, the First Folio, was collated and published in 1623, seven years after the playwright’s death. Of the 36 plays in the First Folio, 18 had not yet been printed at all. It is this fact that makes the First Folio so important; without it, many of Shakespeare’s plays, including Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest, might never have survived.
The text was collated by two of Shakespeare's fellow actors and friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell, who edited it and supervised the printing. They divided the plays into comedies, tragedies and histories, an editorial decision that has come to shape our idea of the Shakespearean canon.
Further information about the life of William Shakespeare can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Article by:
- Inua Ellams
Inua Ellams describes his personal journey to discover the power of Shakespeare through film, translation and writing. He recounts his first, off-putting encounters with the plays at school as a young Nigerian in London, the inspirational experience of seeing Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and his own rewriting of Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.
- Article by:
- Emma Smith
- Tragedies, Power, politics and religion
Emma Smith reads Hamlet as a play obsessed with retrospection, repetition and the theatre of the past.
- Article by:
- Gillian Woods
- Tragedies, Deception, drama and misunderstanding
From The Murder of Gonzago to Hamlet's pretence of madness, Hamlet is a work obsessed with acting and deception. Gillian Woods explores how the play unsettles distinctions between performance and reality and how it thus exposes the mechanisms of theatre.
Related collection items
Related teachers' notes
Explore the theme of dreams and doubling in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the context of Elizabethan debates about dreams.
PDF Download Available
Compare how Hamlet and Ophelia have been used to reflect changing views of mental illness.
PDF Download Available
Explore how Hamlet uses, adapts and subverts ideas of revenge tragedy.
PDF Download Available
Before the action of The Tempest begins, Antonio usurps his brother Prospero as Duke of Milan, with the help of ...
Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is an innovative, digressive, ...
Robinson Crusoe overview Robinson Crusoe tells the ‘true story’, narrated retrospectively in the first ...
King Lear is a tragedy based on the chronicle history of a pre-Roman, Celtic king of Britain. In Shakespeare’s ...