William Shakespeare - History

William Shakespeare - History


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Peerless playwright and poet, Shakespeare occupies a singularplace in the history of English literature. Born in Stratford-on Avon, he lived there and in London, where he pursued his career inthe theatre. He not only wrote, he performed and directed, aswell. Though all of Shakespeare's known works are held in highregard, some of his most popular plays are "The Taming of theShrew", "Romeo and Juliet", "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "JuliusCaesar", "Hamlet", "Macbeth", "Othello", "King Lear", and "TheTempest", among many others. It is generally believed thatShakespeare composed much of his poems during the period whenplague closed the theatres of London (1592-1594) and for severalyears thereafter. His sonnets are viewed as among the finest poemsin any language. After 400 years, Shakespeare's work continues tomesmerize actors and theatre-goers alike and it is unlikely that this popularity will ever diminish.

Short Biography William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (1564-1616). English poet and playwright – Shakespeare is widely considered to be the greatest writer in the English language. He wrote 38 plays and 154 sonnets.

Short bio of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon on 23rd April 1564.

His father William was a successful local businessman, and his mother Mary was the daughter of a landowner. Relatively prosperous, it is likely the family paid for Williams education, although there is no evidence he attended university.

In 1582 William, aged only 18, married an older woman named Anne Hathaway. They had three children, Susanna, Hamnet and Juliet. Their only son Hamnet died aged just 11.

After his marriage, information about the life of Shakespeare is sketchy, but it seems he spent most of his time in London – writing and acting in his plays.

Due to some well-timed investments, Shakespeare was able to secure a firm financial background, leaving time for writing and acting. The best of these investments was buying some real estate near Stratford in 1605, which soon doubled in value.

It seemed Shakespeare didn’t mind being absent from his family – he only returned home during Lent when all the theatres were closed. It is thought that during the 1590s he wrote the majority of his sonnets. This was a time of prolific writing and his plays developed a good deal of interest and controversy. His early plays were mainly comedies (e.g. Much Ado about Nothing, A Midsummer’s Night Dream) and histories (e.g. Henry V)

By the early Seventeenth Century, Shakespeare had begun to write plays in the genre of tragedy. These plays, such as Hamlet, Othello and King Lear, often hinge on some fatal error or flaw in the lead character and provide fascinating insights into the darker aspects of human nature. These later plays are considered Shakespeare’s finest achievements.

When writing an introduction to Shakespeare’s First Folio of published plays in 1623, Johnson wrote of Shakespeare:

“not of an age, but for all time”

Shakespeare the Poet

William Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets mostly in the 1590s. These short poems, deal with issues such as lost love. His sonnets have an enduring appeal due to his formidable skill with language and words.

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:”

The Plays of Shakespeare

The plays of Shakespeare have been studied more than any other writing in the English language and have been translated into numerous languages. He was rare as a play-write for excelling in tragedies, comedies and histories. He deftly combined popular entertainment with an extraordinary poetic capacity for expression which is almost mantric in quality.

“This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!”

– Lord Polonius, Hamlet Act I, Scene 3

During his lifetime, Shakespeare was not without controversy, but he also received lavish praise for his plays which were very popular and commercially successful.

His plays have retained an enduring appeal throughout history and the world. Some of his most popular plays include:

  • Twelfth Night
  • Henry V
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Macbeth
  • Hamlet
  • King Lear
  • Othello

“All the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players:
they have their exits and their entrances
and one man in his time plays many parts…”

Death of Shakespeare

Shakespeare died in 1616 it is not clear how he died, and numerous suggestions have been put forward. John Ward, the local vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford (where Shakespeare is buried), writes in a diary account that:

“Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.”

In 1616, there was an outbreak of typhus (“The new fever”) which may have been the cause. The average life expectancy of someone born in London, England in the Sixteenth Century was about 35 years old, Shakespeare died age 52.

Was Shakespeare really Shakespeare?

Some academics, known as the “Oxfords,” claim that Shakespeare never actually wrote any plays. They contend Shakespeare was actually just a successful businessman, and for authorship suggest names such as Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford . Arguments have also been made for Francis Bacon. The argument that Shakespeare was actually the Earl of Oxford relies on circumstantial evidence and similarities in his writing style and relationships between his life and the play of Shakespeare.

However, there is no hard evidence tying the Earl of Oxford to the theatre or writing the scripts. By contrast, there is evidence of William Shakespeare working in theatres and he received a variety of criticism from people such as Ben Johnson and Robert Greene. Also, the Earl of Oxford died in 1604, and it is generally agreed there were 12 plays published after this date. (Oxfords contend these plays were finished by other writers.)

It is also hard to believe the vain Earl of Oxford (who killed one of his own servants) would write such amazing scripts and then be happy with anonymity. Also, to maintain anonymity, it would also require the co-operation of numerous family members and other figures in the theatre world. The theory of other writers to Shakespeare only emerged centuries after the publishing of the First Folio.

Shakespeare’s Epitaph

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare
To digg the dust encloased heare
Blessed by y man y spares hes stones
And curst be he y moves my bones

Quotes on Shakespeare

“Shakespeare, no mere child of nature no automaton of genius no passive vehicle of inspiration possessed by the spirit, not possessing it first studied patiently, meditated deeply, understood minutely, till knowledge became habitual and intuitive, wedded itself to his habitual feelings, and at length gave birth to that stupendous power by which he stands alone, with no equal or second in his own class to that power which seated him on one of the two glorysmitten summits of the poetic mountain, with Milton’s his compeer, not rival.”

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of William Shakespeare”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net , 18th May 2006. Last updated 1 March 2019.

Popular quotes of Shakespeare

“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.”

– Polonius, giving Laertes a pep talk. (Hamlet)

“To be, or not to be: that is the question
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die: to sleep”

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”

– Hamlet (to Horatio on seeing a ghost)

“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Julius Caesar (Cassius to Brutus)

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

– Macbeth (on learning of the death of Queen)

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

“Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin, as self-neglecting.”

“Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win,
By fearing to attempt.”

—Lucio in Measure for Measure

The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd Edition

Shakespeare: The Biography

Related pages

English people – Famous English men and women. From Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth I to Henry VIII and Winston Churchill. Includes the great poets – William Shakespeare, William Blake and William Wordsworth.

Great Briton list – Top 100 famous Britons as voted by a BBC poll. Including Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare, Thomas Cromwell and Queen Elizabeth I.

Writers and authors – Famous authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, William Shakespeare, J.K. Rowling, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.


Birth and childhood

William Shakespeare was probably born on about April 23, 1564, the date that is traditionally given for his birth. He was John and Mary Shakespeare's oldest surviving child their first two children, both girls, did not live beyond infancy. Growing up as the big brother of the family, William had three younger brothers, Gilbert, Richard, and Edmund, and two younger sisters: Anne, who died at seven, and Joan.

Their father, John Shakespeare, was a leatherworker who specialized in the soft white leather used for gloves and similar items. A prosperous businessman, he married Mary Arden, of the prominent Arden family. John rose through local offices in Stratford, becoming an alderman and eventually, when William was five, the town bailiff—much like a mayor. Not long after that, however, John Shakespeare stepped back from public life we don't know why.

Shakespeare, as the son of a leading Stratford citizen, almost certainly attended Stratford's grammar school. Like all such schools, its curriculum consisted of an intense emphasis on the Latin classics, including memorization, writing, and acting classic Latin plays. Shakespeare most likely attended until about age 15.


William Shakespeare’s Legacy

William Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, 154 sonnets and 2 narrative poems. For his plays he used conventional topic like love. He also used themes like tragedy and comedy in his plays. Of the several plays written by him Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Macbeth had become extremely popular.

He coined many words that are used by us today. His plays helped standardize English language. Shakespeare’s works have influenced several of the popular writers like Charles Dickens. It is evident from the fact that he mentions Shakespeare in his books. Even today his sonnets and plays are admired by people across the world.


Did Shakespeare Really Write His Own Plays?

Most scholars accept that William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, and spent time acting in London before returning to Stratford, where he lived until his death in 1616. But actual documentation of his life is pitifully scarce: little more than several signatures, records of his marriage to Anne Hathaway and the birth of their children, a three-page will and some business papers unrelated to writing. Above all, nothing has been found documenting the composition of the more than 36 plays and 154 sonnets attributed to him, collectively considered the greatest body of work in the history of the English language. 

In the absence of such “proof” of authorship, some skeptics have posed the question: How could a man of such humble origins and education come by such wealth of insight, wide-ranging understanding of complex legal and political matters and intimate knowledge of life in the English court?

Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty images

Since the 19th century, a roster of famous people–Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Charlie Chaplin and many others—have voiced their doubts about the man from Stratford. Thousands of books and articles have been devoted to the subject, many of which propose their own candidates for the true author of the Shakespeare canon. 

Essayist Francis Bacon and playwright Christopher Marlowe may have their supporters, but for the last 90 years the favored candidate has been Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. First proposed in 1920 by J.T. Looney in his book ‘Shakespeare’ Identified, Oxford was highly educated, trained as a lawyer and was known to have traveled to many of the exact places featured in Shakespeare’s plays. Oxfordians𠅊s those who believe in de Vere’s authorship of the Bard’s works are known𠅊rgue that he concealed his identity because his works were so politically provocative, and he wished to avoid being outed as a lowly playwright.

But until hard evidence surfaces linking his plays to someone else, the man with the strongest claim to the plays of William Shakespeare appears to be…William Shakespeare. For one thing, Oxford died in 1604, and some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays (including “King Lear,” “The Tempest” and “Macbeth”) were published after that date. 

Shakespeare’s supporters—known as Stratfordians𠅎mphasize the fact that the body of evidence that does exist points to Shakespeare, and no one else, as the author of his works. This includes the printed copies of his plays and sonnets with his name on them, theater company records and comments by contemporaries like Ben Jonson and John Webster. 

Doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship and attempts to identify a more educated, worldly and high-born candidate, Stratfordians contend, reveal not only misguided snobbery but a striking disregard for one of the most outstanding qualities of the Bard’s extraordinary work—his imagination.


There are seven years of Shakespeare&aposs life where no records exist after the birth of his twins in 1585. Scholars call this period the "lost years," and there is wide speculation on what he was doing during this period. 

One theory is that he might have gone into hiding for poaching game from the local landlord, Sir Thomas Lucy. Another possibility is that he might have been working as an assistant schoolmaster in Lancashire. 

It&aposs generally believed he arrived in London in the mid- to late 1580s and may have found work as a horse attendant at some of London&aposs finer theaters, a scenario updated centuries later by the countless aspiring actors and playwrights in Hollywood and Broadway.


William Shakespeare - History


William Shakespeare attributed to John Taylor

Very little is known about William Shakespeare's childhood. He was born in the English city of Stratford-upon-Avon about 100 miles northwest of London in 1564. William's father was a successful leather merchant who once held the public position of alderman. He was the third of six children including two older sisters and three younger brothers.

Growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon William lived in a house with his big family on Henley Street. He went to the local grammar school where he learned about poetry, history, Greek, and Latin.

When William turned eighteen he married Anne Hathaway. Anne was eight years older than William. They soon had a family including a daughter named Susanna and twins named Hamnet and Judith.

London and the Lost Years

After William and Anne had the twins, there are no records of the next several years of his life. Historians often refer to these years as the "lost years." There are lots of theories and stories about what William was doing during this time. In any event, he and his family eventually ended up in London where William was working at the theatre.

Lord Chamberlain's Men

William was part of an acting company called Lord Chamberlain's Men. An acting company in England at this time worked together to put on plays. There were typically around ten actors in a company including a lead actor, character actors, and some comedians. Young boys typically played women's roles as women were not allowed to act.

Shakespeare wrote plays for the Lord Chamberlain's Men. He worked as an actor as well. His plays became very popular in London and soon the Lord Chamberlain's Men were one of the most popular acting companies in the city. Some of Shakespeare's early plays include The Taming of the Shrew, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The Theater Shuts Down

These early plays were put on at a theater called the "Theatre". While Lord Chamberlain's Men owned the Theatre, the land was owned by Giles Allen. In 1597 Allen decided he wanted to tear the Theatre down. He locked it up and refused to let the actors perform. They tried to renegotiate the lease on the land, but Allen again refused.

One night, several members of the company dismantled the Theatre and moved the timber across the Thames River to another spot. There they built a new theatre called the Globe Theatre.

The Globe Theatre became the place to be in London. It could house up to 3,000 spectators and had a uniquely designed stage with a painted ceiling, columns, and stage wall. They had specially trained musicians who made special effects noises during the plays. They even had a cannon that fired blanks.

Many of Shakespeare's greatest plays were written in the last half of his career. These included Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. His success in the theatre, as well as his investments in land and the Globe, made Shakespeare a wealthy man. He purchased a large home in Stratford for his family called New Place.

Shakespeare also became famous for his poetry. His most famous poem of the time was Venus and Adonis. He also wrote poems called sonnets. A book of 154 of Shakespeare's sonnets was published in 1609.

William retired to his home in Stratford and died on his fifty-second birthday.

Shakespeare is considered by many to be the greatest writer of the English language. He is also one of the most influential. Through his works, he is credited with introducing nearly 3,000 words to the English language. In addition, his works are the second most often quoted after the Bible.


1600: 'Hamlet'

"Hamlet" is often described as “the greatest play ever written” -- remarkable when you think it’s first public production was in 1600! "Hamlet" may have been written while Shakespeare was coming to terms with the devastating news that his only son, Hamnet, had died at the young age of 11.


Plays of the middle and late years

In the second half of the 1590s, Shakespeare brought to perfection the genre of romantic comedy that he had helped to invent. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595–96), one of the most successful of all his plays, displays the kind of multiple plotting he had practiced in The Taming of the Shrew and other earlier comedies. The overarching plot is of Duke Theseus of Athens and his impending marriage to an Amazonian warrior, Hippolyta, whom Theseus has recently conquered and brought back to Athens to be his bride. Their marriage ends the play. They share this concluding ceremony with the four young lovers Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, who have fled into the forest nearby to escape the Athenian law and to pursue one another, whereupon they are subjected to a complicated series of mix-ups. Eventually all is righted by fairy magic, though the fairies are no less at strife. Oberon, king of the fairies, quarrels with his Queen Titania over a changeling boy and punishes her by causing her to fall in love with an Athenian artisan who wears an ass’s head. The artisans are in the forest to rehearse a play for the forthcoming marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Thus four separate strands or plots interact with one another. Despite the play’s brevity, it is a masterpiece of artful construction.

The use of multiple plots encourages a varied treatment of the experiencing of love. For the two young human couples, falling in love is quite hazardous the long-standing friendship between the two young women is threatened and almost destroyed by the rivalries of heterosexual encounter. The eventual transition to heterosexual marriage seems to them to have been a process of dreaming, indeed of nightmare, from which they emerge miraculously restored to their best selves. Meantime the marital strife of Oberon and Titania is, more disturbingly, one in which the female is humiliated until she submits to the will of her husband. Similarly, Hippolyta is an Amazon warrior queen who has had to submit to the authority of a husband. Fathers and daughters are no less at strife until, as in a dream, all is resolved by the magic of Puck and Oberon. Love is ambivalently both an enduring ideal relationship and a struggle for mastery in which the male has the upper hand.

The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596–97) uses a double plot structure to contrast a tale of romantic wooing with one that comes close to tragedy. Portia is a fine example of a romantic heroine in Shakespeare’s mature comedies: she is witty, rich, exacting in what she expects of men, and adept at putting herself in a male disguise to make her presence felt. She is loyally obedient to her father’s will and yet determined that she shall have Bassanio. She triumphantly resolves the murky legal affairs of Venice when the men have all failed. Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, is at the point of exacting a pound of flesh from Bassanio’s friend Antonio as payment for a forfeited loan. Portia foils him in his attempt in a way that is both clever and shystering. Sympathy is uneasily balanced in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock, who is both persecuted by his Christian opponents and all too ready to demand an eye for an eye according to ancient law. Ultimately Portia triumphs, not only with Shylock in the court of law but in her marriage with Bassanio.

Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598–99) revisits the issue of power struggles in courtship, again in a revealingly double plot. The young heroine of the more conventional story, derived from Italianate fiction, is wooed by a respectable young aristocrat named Claudio who has won his spurs and now considers it his pleasant duty to take a wife. He knows so little about Hero (as she is named) that he gullibly credits the contrived evidence of the play’s villain, Don John, that she has had many lovers, including one on the evening before the intended wedding. Other men as well, including Claudio’s senior officer, Don Pedro, and Hero’s father, Leonato, are all too ready to believe the slanderous accusation. Only comic circumstances rescue Hero from her accusers and reveal to the men that they have been fools. Meantime, Hero’s cousin, Beatrice, finds it hard to overcome her skepticism about men, even when she is wooed by Benedick, who is also a skeptic about marriage. Here the barriers to romantic understanding are inner and psychological and must be defeated by the good-natured plotting of their friends, who see that Beatrice and Benedick are truly made for one another in their wit and candour if they can only overcome their fear of being outwitted by each other. In what could be regarded as a brilliant rewriting of The Taming of the Shrew, the witty battle of the sexes is no less amusing and complicated, but the eventual accommodation finds something much closer to mutual respect and equality between men and women.

Rosalind, in As You Like It (c. 1598–1600), makes use of the by-now familiar device of disguise as a young man in order to pursue the ends of promoting a rich and substantial relationship between the sexes. As in other of these plays, Rosalind is more emotionally stable and mature than her young man, Orlando. He lacks formal education and is all rough edges, though fundamentally decent and attractive. She is the daughter of the banished Duke who finds herself obliged, in turn, to go into banishment with her dear cousin Celia and the court fool, Touchstone. Although Rosalind’s male disguise is at first a means of survival in a seemingly inhospitable forest, it soon serves a more interesting function. As “Ganymede,” Rosalind befriends Orlando, offering him counseling in the affairs of love. Orlando, much in need of such advice, readily accepts and proceeds to woo his “Rosalind” (“Ganymede” playing her own self) as though she were indeed a woman. Her wryly amusing perspectives on the follies of young love helpfully puncture Orlando’s inflated and unrealistic “Petrarchan” stance as the young lover who writes poems to his mistress and sticks them up on trees. Once he has learned that love is not a fantasy of invented attitudes, Orlando is ready to be the husband of the real young woman (actually a boy actor, of course) who is presented to him as the transformed Ganymede-Rosalind. Other figures in the play further an understanding of love’s glorious foolishness by their various attitudes: Silvius, the pale-faced wooer out of pastoral romance Phoebe, the disdainful mistress whom he worships William, the country bumpkin, and Audrey, the country wench and, surveying and commenting on every imaginable kind of human folly, the clown Touchstone and the malcontent traveler Jaques.

Twelfth Night (c. 1600–02) pursues a similar motif of female disguise. Viola, cast ashore in Illyria by a shipwreck and obliged to disguise herself as a young man in order to gain a place in the court of Duke Orsino, falls in love with the duke and uses her disguise as a cover for an educational process not unlike that given by Rosalind to Orlando. Orsino is as unrealistic a lover as one could hope to imagine he pays fruitless court to the Countess Olivia and seems content with the unproductive love melancholy in which he wallows. Only Viola, as “Cesario,” is able to awaken in him a genuine feeling for friendship and love. They become inseparable companions and then seeming rivals for the hand of Olivia until the presto change of Shakespeare’s stage magic is able to restore “Cesario” to her woman’s garments and thus present to Orsino the flesh-and-blood woman whom he has only distantly imagined. The transition from same-sex friendship to heterosexual union is a constant in Shakespearean comedy. The woman is the self-knowing, constant, loyal one the man needs to learn a lot from the woman. As in the other plays as well, Twelfth Night neatly plays off this courtship theme with a second plot, of Malvolio’s self-deception that he is desired by Olivia—an illusion that can be addressed only by the satirical devices of exposure and humiliation.

The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597–1601) is an interesting deviation from the usual Shakespearean romantic comedy in that it is set not in some imagined far-off place like Illyria or Belmont or the forest of Athens but in Windsor, a solidly bourgeois village near Windsor Castle in the heart of England. Uncertain tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth wanted to see Falstaff in love. There is little, however, in the way of romantic wooing (the story of Anne Page and her suitor Fenton is rather buried in the midst of so many other goings-on), but the play’s portrayal of women, and especially of the two “merry wives,” Mistress Alice Ford and Mistress Margaret Page, reaffirms what is so often true of women in these early plays, that they are good-hearted, chastely loyal, and wittily self-possessed. Falstaff, a suitable butt for their cleverness, is a scapegoat figure who must be publicly humiliated as a way of transferring onto him the human frailties that Windsor society wishes to expunge.


Generic humanism is simply a moral doctrine. Christian humanism, otherwise known as humanistic Christianity, is thus a religion (or a kind of religion). Secular humanism combines the humanist ethic with the metaphysical doctrine that God does not exist (or the epistemological doctrine that knowledge of God is moot).

Secular humanism posits that human beings are capable of being ethical and moral without religion or belief in a deity. It does not, however, assume that humans are either inherently good or evil, nor does it present humans as being superior to nature.


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