Who Was William Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright, and actor of the Renaissance era. He was an important member of the King’s Men theatrical company from roughly 1594 onward. Known throughout the world, Shakespeare’s works—at least 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 narrative poems—capture the range of human emotion and conflict and have been celebrated for more than 400 years. Details about his personal life are limited, though some believe he was born and died on the same day, April 23, 52 years apart.
FULL NAME: William Shakespeare
BORN: c. April 23, 1564
DIED: c. April 23, 1616
BIRTHPLACE: Stratford-upon-Avon, England, United Kingdom
SPOUSE: Anne Hathaway (1582-1616)
CHILDREN: Susanna, Judith, and Hamnet
ASTROLOGICAL SIGN: Taurus
The personal life of William Shakespeare is somewhat of a mystery. There are two primary sources that provide historians with an outline of his life. One is his work, and the other is official documentation such as church and court records. However, these provide only brief sketches of specific events in his life and yield little insight into the man himself.
When Was Shakespeare Born?
No birth records exist, but an old church record indicates that William Shakespeare was baptized at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564. From this, it is believed he was born on or near April 23, 1564, and this is the date scholars acknowledge as Shakespeare’s birthday. Located about 100 miles northwest of London, Stratford-upon-Avon was a bustling market town along the River Avon and bisected by a country road during Shakespeare’s time.
Parents and Siblings
Shakespeare was the third child of John Shakespeare, a glove-maker and leather merchant, and Mary Arden, a local heiress to land. John held official positions as alderman and bailiff, an office resembling a mayor. However, records indicate John’s fortunes declined sometime in the late 1570s. Eventually, he recovered somewhat and was granted a coat of arms in 1596, which made him and his sons official gentleman.
John and Mary had eight children together, though three of them did not live past childhood. Their first two children—daughters Joan and Margaret—died in infancy, so William was the oldest surviving offspring. He had three younger brothers and two younger sisters: Gilbert, Joan, Anne, Richard, and Edmund. Anne died at age 7, and Joan was the only sibling to outlive William.
Childhood and Education
Scant records exist of Shakespeare’s childhood and virtually none regarding his education. Scholars have surmised that he most likely attended the King’s New School, in Stratford, which taught reading, writing, and the classics, including Latin. He attended until he was 14 or 15 and did not continue to university. The uncertainty regarding his education has led some people question the authorship of his work.
Wife and Children
Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway on November 28, 1582, in Worcester, in Canterbury Province. Hathaway was from Shottery, a small village a mile west of Stratford. Shakespeare was 18, and Anne was 26 and, as it turns out, pregnant.
Their first child, a daughter they named Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583. Two years later, on February 2, 1585, twins Hamnet and Judith were born. Hamnet died of unknown causes at age 11.
Shakespeare’s Lost Years
There are seven years of Shakespeare’s life where no records exist: after the birth of his twins in 1585 until 1592. Scholars call this period Shakespeare’s lost years, and there is wide speculation about what he was doing during this period.
One theory is that he might have gone into hiding for poaching game from local landlord Sir Thomas Lucy. Another possibility is that he might have been working as an assistant schoolmaster in Lancashire. Some scholars believe he was in London, working as a horse attendant at some of London’s finer theaters before breaking on the scene.
By 1592, there is evidence Shakespeare earned a living as an actor and a playwright in London and possibly had several plays produced. The September 20, 1592, edition of the Stationers’ Register, a guild publication, includes an article by London playwright Robert Greene that takes a few jabs at Shakespeare:
“...There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”
Scholars differ on the interpretation of this criticism, but most agree that it was Greene’s way of saying Shakespeare was reaching above his rank, trying to match better known and educated playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, or Greene himself.
Poetry and Sonnets
Early in his career, Shakespeare was able to attract the attention and patronage of Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his first and second published poems: Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). In fact, these long narrative poems—1,194 and 1,855 lines, respectively—were Shakespeare’s first published works. Wriothesley’s financial support was a helpful source of income at a time when the theaters were shuttered due to a plague outbreak.
Shakespeare’s most well-known poetry are his 154 sonnets, which were first published as a collection in 1609 and likely written as early as the 1590s. Scholars broadly categorize the sonnets in groups based on two unknown subjects that Shakespeare addresses: the Fair Youth sonnets (the first 126) and the Dark Lady sonnets (the last 28). The identities of the aristocratic young man and vexing woman continue to be a source of speculation.
The King’s Men: Life as an Actor and Playwright
In 1594, Shakespeare joined Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the London acting company that he worked with for the duration of his career. Later called the King’s Men, it was considered the most important troupe of its time and was very popular by all accounts. Some sources describe Shakespeare as a founding member of the company, but whatever the case, he became central to its success. Initially, he was an actor and eventually devoted more and more time to writing.
Records show that Shakespeare, who was also a company shareholder, had works published and sold as popular literature. Although The Taming of the Shrew is believed to be the first play that Shakespeare wrote, his first published plays were Titus Andronicus and Henry VI Part 2. They were printed in 1594 in quarto, an eight-page pamphlet-like book. By the end of 1597, Shakespeare had likely written 16 of his 37 plays and amassed some wealth.
At this time, civil records show Shakespeare purchased one of the largest houses in Stratford, called New Place, for his family. It was a four-day ride by horse from Stratford to London, so it’s believed that Shakespeare spent most of his time in the city writing and acting and came home once a year during the 40-day Lenten period, when the theaters were closed. However, Shakespeare expert and professor Sir Stanley Wells posits that the playwright might have spent more time at home in Stratford than previously believed, only commuting to London when he needed to for work.
Although the theater culture in 16th century England was not greatly admired by people of high rank, some of the nobility were good patrons of the performing arts and friends of the actors. Two notable exceptions were Queen Elizabeth I, who was a fan of Lord Chamberlain’s Men by the late 1590s after first watching a performance in 1594, and her successor King James I. Following his crowning in 1603, the company changed its name to the King’s Men.
By 1599, Shakespeare and several fellow actors built their own theater on the south bank of the Thames River, which they called the Globe Theater. Julius Caesar is thought to be the first production at the new open-air theater. Owning the playhouse proved to be a financial boon for Shakespeare and the other investors.
In 1613, the Globe caught fire during a performance of Henry VIII and burned to the ground. The company quickly rebuilt it, and it reopened the next year. In 1642, Puritans outlawed all theaters, including the Globe, which was demolished two years later. Centuries passed until American actor Sam Wanamaker began working to resurrect the theater once more. The third Globe Theater opened in 1997, and today, more than 1.25 million people visit it every year.
William Shakespeare’s Plays
It’s difficult to determine the exact chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, but over the course of two decades, from about 1590 to 1613, he wrote 37 plays revolving around three main themes: history, tragedy, and comedy. Some plays blur these lines, and over time, our interpretation of them has changed, too.
Shakespeare’s early plays were written in the conventional style of the day, with elaborate metaphors and rhetorical phrases that didn’t always align naturally with the story’s plot or characters. However, Shakespeare was very innovative, adapting the traditional style to his own purposes and creating a freer flow of words.
With only small degrees of variation, Shakespeare primarily used a metrical pattern consisting of lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse, to compose his plays. At the same time, there are passages in all the plays that deviate from this and use forms of poetry or simple prose.
Many of Shakespeare’s first plays were histories. All three Henry VI plays, Richard II, and Henry V dramatize the destructive results of weak or corrupt rulers and have been interpreted by drama historians as Shakespeare’s way of justifying the origins of the Tudor Dynasty. Other histories include Richard III, King John, the two Henry IV plays, and Henry VIII. With exception of Henry VIII, which was Shakespeare’s last play, these works were likely written by 1599.
Although Shakespeare wrote three tragedies, including Romeo and Juliet, before 1600, it wasn’t until after the turn of the century that he truly explored the genre. Character in Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth present vivid impressions of human temperament that are timeless and universal.
Possibly the best known of these plays is Hamlet, which explores betrayal, retribution, incest, and moral failure. These moral failures often drive the twists and turns of Shakespeare’s plots, destroying the hero and those he loves.
Julius Caesar, written in circa 1599, portrays upheaval in Roman politics that might have resonated with viewers at a time when England’s aging monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, had no legitimate heir, thus creating the potential for future power struggles.
Titus Andronicus, Anthony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, and Coriolanus are Shakespeare’s other tragic plays.
Shakespeare wrote comedies throughout his career, including his first play The Taming of the Shrew. Some of his other early comedies, written before 1600 or so, are: the whimsical A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the romantic Merchant of Venice, the wit and wordplay of Much Ado About Nothing, and the charming As You Like It.
Some of his comedies might be better described as tragicomedies. Among these are Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. Although graver in tone than the comedies, they are not the dark tragedies of King Lear or Macbeth because they end with reconciliation and forgiveness.
Additional Shakespeare comedies include:
- The Two Gentlemen of Verona,
- The Comedy of Errors,
- Love’s Labour’s Lost,
- The Merry Wives of Windsor,
- Twelfth Night,
- Measure for Measure, and
- All’s Well That Ends Well
Troilus and Cressida is emblematic of the Shakespearean “problem play,” which defies genres. Some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries classified it as a history or a comedy, though the original name of the play was The Tragedie of Troylus and Cressida.
Collaborations and Lost Play
Shakespeare is known to have created plays with other writers, such as John Fletcher. They co-wrote The Two Noble Kinsmen around 1613–14, making it Shakespeare’s last known dramatic work. They also collaborated on Cardenio, a play which was not preserved. Shakespeare’s other jointly written plays are Sir Thomas More and The Raigne of King Edward the Third. When including these works, Shakespeare has 41 plays to his name.
Later Years and Death
Around the turn of the 17th century, Shakespeare became a more extensive property owner in Stratford. When his father, John, died in 1601, he inherited the family home. Then, in 1602, he purchased about 107 acres for 320 pounds.
In 1605, Shakespeare purchased leases of real estate near Stratford for 440 pounds, which doubled in value and earned him 60 pounds a year. This made him an entrepreneur as well as an artist, and scholars believe these investments gave him uninterrupted time to write his plays.
A couple years prior, around 1603, Shakespeare is believed to have stopped acting in the King’s Men productions, instead focusing on his playwriting work. He likely spent the last three years of his life in Stratford.
When Did Shakespeare Die?
Tradition holds that Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday, April 23, 1616, but some scholars believe this is a myth. Church records show he was interred at Holy Trinity Church on April 25, 1616. The exact cause of Shakespeare’s death is unknown, though many people believe he died following a brief illness.
In his will, he left the bulk of his possessions to his eldest daughter, Susanna, who by then was married. Although entitled to a third of his estate, little seems to have gone to his wife, Anne, whom he bequeathed his “second-best bed.” This has drawn speculation that she had fallen out of favor or that the couple was not close.
However, there is very little evidence the two had a difficult marriage. Other scholars note that the term “second-best bed” often refers to the bed belonging to the household’s master and mistress, the marital bed, and the “first-best bed” was reserved for guests.
Legacy and Controversies
The Bard of Avon has gone down in history as the greatest dramatist of all time and is sometimes called England’s national poet. He is credited with inventing or introducing more than 1,700 words to the English language, often as a result of combining words, changing usages, or blending in foreign root words. If you’ve used the words “downstairs,” “egregious,” “kissing,” “zany,” or “skim milk,” you can thank Shakespeare. He is also responsible for many common phrases, such as “love is blind” and “wild goose chase.”
Although some of Shakespeare’s works were printed in his lifetime, not all were. It is because of the First Folio that we know about 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and Julius Caesar. John Heminge and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors in the King’s Men, created the 36-play collection, which celebrates its 400th anniversary this year. It was published with the title Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died.
In addition to its literary importance, the First Folio contains an original portrait of Shakespeare on the title page. Engraved by Martin Droeshout, it’s considered one of the two authentic portraits of the writer. The other is a memorial bust at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.
Today, there are 235 surviving copies of the First Folio that date back to 1623, but experts estimate roughly 750 First Folios were printed. Three subsequent editions of Shakespeare’s Folio, with text updates and additional plays, were published between 1632 and 1685.
Did Shakespeare Write His Own Plays?
About 150 years after his death, questions arose about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Scholars and literary critics began to float names like Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere, and Francis Bacon—men of more known backgrounds, literary accreditation, or inspiration—as the true authors of the plays.
Much of this stemmed from the sketchy details of Shakespeare’s life and the dearth of contemporary primary sources. Official records from the Holy Trinity Church and the Stratford government record the existence of Shakespeare, but none of these attest to him being an actor or playwright.
Skeptics also questioned how anyone of such modest education could write with the intellectual perceptiveness and poetic power that is displayed in Shakespeare’s works. Over the centuries, several groups have emerged that question the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.
The most serious and intense skepticism began in the 19th century when adoration for Shakespeare was at its highest. The detractors believed that the only hard evidence surrounding Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon described a man from modest beginnings who married young and became successful in real estate.
Members of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, founded in 1957, put forth arguments that English aristocrat and poet Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the poems and plays of “William Shakespeare.” The Oxfordians cite de Vere’s extensive knowledge of aristocratic society, his education, and the structural similarities between his poetry and that found in the works attributed to Shakespeare. They contend that Shakespeare had neither the education nor the literary training to write such eloquent prose and create such rich characters.
However, the vast majority of Shakespearean scholars contend that Shakespeare wrote all his own plays. They point out that other playwrights of the time also had sketchy histories and came from modest backgrounds.
They contend that King’s New School in Stratford had a curriculum of Latin and the classics could have provided a good foundation for literary writers. Supporters of Shakespeare’s authorship argue that the lack of evidence about Shakespeare’s life doesn’t mean his life didn’t exist. They point to evidence that displays his name on the title pages of published poems and plays.
Examples exist of authors and critics of the time acknowledging Shakespeare as the author of plays such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, and King John.
Royal records from 1601 show that Shakespeare was recognized as a member of the King’s Men theater company and a Groom of the Chamber by the court of King James I, where the company performed seven of Shakespeare’s plays.
There is also strong circumstantial evidence of personal relationships by contemporaries who interacted with Shakespeare as an actor and a playwright.
What seems to be true is that Shakespeare was a respected man of the dramatic arts who wrote plays and acted in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. But his reputation as a dramatic genius wasn’t recognized until the 19th century.
Beginning with the Romantic period of the early 1800s and continuing through the Victorian period, acclaim and reverence for Shakespeare and his work reached its height. In the 20th century, new movements in scholarship and performance rediscovered and adopted his works.
Today, his plays remain highly popular and are constantly studied and reinterpreted in performances with diverse cultural and political contexts. The genius of Shakespeare’s characters and plots are that they present real human beings in a wide range of emotions and conflicts that transcend their origins in Elizabethan England.
- The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
- This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.
- There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
- Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.
- Lord, what fools these mortals be!
- To weep is to make less the depth of grief.
- In time we hate that which we often fear.
- Men at some time are masters of their fates: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.
- What’s done cannot be undone.
- We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
- Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.
- The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
- All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
- Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
- I say there is no darkness but ignorance.
- I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.
- Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
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