Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright. He wrote about thirty-eight
plays, a collection of sonnets, and a variety of other poems. Already
a popular writer in his own lifetime, his work became increasingly
celebrated after his death and has been adulated by numerous prominent
cultural figures through the centuries. Shakespeare now has a reputation
as the greatest writer in the English language, as well as one of
the greatest in Western literature, and the world's pre-eminent
addition, Shakespeare is the most quoted writer in the literature
and history of the English-speaking world, according to the Oxford
English Dictionary. He is often considered the English or British
national poet, and is sometimes referred to as the "Bard
of Avon" (or simply "The Bard") or the "Swan
is believed to have produced most of his work between 1586 and
1616, although the exact dates and chronology of the plays attributed
to him are often uncertain. He is counted among the very few playwrights
who have excelled in both tragedy and comedy, and his plays combine
popular appeal with complex characterisation, poetic grandeur
and philosophical depth.
works have been translated into every major living language, and
his plays are continually performed all around the world. In addition,
many quotations and neologisms from his plays have passed into
everyday usage in English and other languages. Over the years,
many people have speculated about Shakespeare's life, raising
questions about his sexuality, whether he was secretly Catholic,
and debating whether someone else wrote some or all of his plays
William Shakespeare (also spelled Shakspere, Shaksper, and Shake-speare,
due to the fact that spelling in Elizabethan times was not fixed
and absolute) was born in Henley Street, in Stratford-upon-Avon,
Warwickshire, England, in April 1564, the son of John Shakespeare,
a successful tradesman and alderman, and of Mary Arden, a daughter
of the gentry.
baptismal record dates to April 26 of that year. Because baptisms
were performed within a few days of birth, tradition has settled
on April 23 (May 3 on the Gregorian calendar) as his birthday.
This date provides a convenient symmetry because Shakespeare died
on the same day in 1616.
probably attended King Edward VI Grammar School in central Stratford.
While the quality of Elizabethan-era grammar schools was uneven,
the school probably would have provided an intensive education
in Latin grammar and literature. It is presumed that the young
Shakespeare attended this school, since as the son of a prominent
town official he was entitled to do so (although this cannot be
confirmed because the school's records have not survived).
the age of eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, who was twenty-six,
on November 28, 1582 at Temple Grafton, near Stratford. Two neighbours
of Anne posted bond that there were no impediments to the marriage.
There appears to have been some haste in arranging the ceremony,
presumably due to the fact that Anne was three months pregnant.
his marriage, Shakespeare left few traces in the historical record
until he appeared on the London theatrical scene. Indeed, the
late 1580s are known as Shakespeare's "lost years" because
no evidence has survived to show exactly where he was or why he
left Stratford for London. On May 26, 1583, Shakespeare's first
child, Susannah, was baptised at Stratford. Twin children, a son,
Hamnet, and a daughter, Judith, were baptised on February 2, 1585.
Hamnet died in 1596.
and theatrical career
By 1592 Shakespeare was a playwright in London and had enough
of a reputation for Robert Greene to denounce him as "an
upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers
hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast
out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute
Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene
in a countrey." (The italicised line parodies the phrase,
"Oh, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" which
Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, part 3.) By 1598 Shakespeare had
moved to the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, and appeared
at the top of a list of actors in Every Man in His Humour written
by Ben Jonson.
after this Shakespeare became an actor, writer and finally part-owner
of a playing company, known as The Lord Chamberlain's Men —
the company took its name, like others of the period, from its
aristocratic sponsor, in this case the Lord Chamberlain. The group
became popular enough that after the death of Elizabeth I and
the coronation of James I (1603), the new monarch adopted the
company and it became known as the King's Men.
documents recording legal affairs and commercial transactions
show that Shakespeare grew rich enough during his stay in London
to buy a property in Blackfriars, London and own the second-largest
house in Stratford, New Place.
Shakespeare's last two plays were written in 1613, after which
he appears to have retired to Stratford. He died on April 23,
1616, at the age of fifty-two. He remained married to Anne until
his death and was survived by his two daughters, Susannah and
Judith. Susannah married Dr John Hall, but there are no direct
descendants of the poet and playwright alive today.
is buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.
He was granted the honour of burial in the chancel not on account
of his fame as a playwright but for purchasing a share of the
tithe of the church for £440 (a considerable sum of money
at the time). A monument placed by his family on the wall nearest
his grave features a bust of him posed in the act of writing.
Each year on his claimed birthday, a new quill pen is placed in
the writing hand of the bust.
is believed to have written the epitaph on his tombstone:
friend, for Jesus' sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
But cursed be he that moves my bones.
A number of Shakespeare's plays have the reputation of being among
the greatest in the English language and in Western literature.
His plays cover tragedy, history, and comedy and have been translated
into every major living language, in addition to being continually
performed around the world.
was normal in the period, Shakespeare based many of his plays
on the work of other playwrights and recycled older stories and
historical material. For example, Hamlet (c. 1601) is probably
a reworking of an older, lost play (the so-called Ur-Hamlet),
and King Lear is an adaptation of an older play, King Leir. For
plays on historical subjects, Shakespeare relied heavily on two
principal texts. Most of the Roman and Greek plays are based on
Plutarch's Parallel Lives (from the 1579 English translation by
Sir Thomas North), and the English history plays are indebted
to Raphael Holinshed's 1587 Chronicles.
plays tend to be placed into three main stylistic groups: his
early comedies and histories (such as A Midsummer Night's Dream
and Henry IV, Part 1), his middle period (which includes his most
famous tragedies, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear), and
his later romances (such as The Winter's Tale and The Tempest).
The earlier plays tend to be more light-hearted, while the middle-period
plays tend to be darker, addressing such issues as betrayal, murder,
lust, power, and egotism. By contrast, his late romances feature
a redemptive plotline with a happy ending and the use of magic
and other fantastical elements. However, the borders between these
groups are never clear.
of Shakespeare's plays first appeared in print as a series of
quartos, but most remained unpublished until 1623 when the posthumous
First Folio was published by two actors who had been in Shakespeare's
company: John Hemings and William Condell. The traditional division
of his plays into tragedies, comedies, and histories follows the
logic of the First Folio. However, modern criticism has labelled
some of these plays "problem plays" as they elude easy
categorisation, or perhaps purposefully break generic conventions,
and has introduced the term "romances" for the later
are many controversies about the exact chronology of Shakespeare's
plays. In addition, the fact that Shakespeare did not produce
an authoritative print version of his plays during his life accounts
for part of the textual problem often noted with his plays, which
means that for several of the plays there are different textual
versions. As a result, the problem of identifying what Shakespeare
actually wrote became a major concern for most modern editions.
corruptions also stem from printers' errors, compositors' misreadings
or wrongly scanned lines from the source material. Additionally,
in an age before standardised spelling, Shakespeare often wrote
a word several times in a different spelling, contributing further
to the transcribers' confusions. Modern scholars also believe
Shakespeare revised his plays throughout the years, sometimes
leading to two existing versions of one play.
Shakespeare's sonnets are a collection of 154 poems that deal
with such themes as love, beauty, politics, and mortality. All
but two first appeared in the 1609 publication entitled Shakespeare's
Sonnets; numbers 138 ("When my love swears that she is made
of truth") and 144 ("Two loves have I, of comfort and
despair") had previously been published in a 1599 miscellany
entitled The Passionate Pilgrim.
conditions under which the sonnets were published is unclear.
The 1609 text is dedicated to one "Mr. W. H.", who is
described as "the only begetter" of the poems by the
publisher Thomas Thorpe. It is not known who this man was although
there are many theories. In addition, it is not known whether
the publication of the sonnets was authorised by Shakespeare.
The poems were probably written over a period of several years.
In addition to his sonnets, Shakespeare also wrote several longer
narrative poems, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and A Lover's
Complaint. These poems appear to have been written either in an
attempt to win the patronage of a rich benefactor (as was common
at the time) or as the result of such patronage. For example,
The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis were both dedicated to
Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.
addition, Shakespeare wrote the short poem The Phoenix and the
Turtle. The anthology The Passionate Pilgrim was attributed to
him upon its first publication in 1599, but in fact only five
of its poems are by Shakespeare and the attribution was withdrawn
in the second edition.
Shakespeare's works have been a major influence on subsequent
theatre. Not only did Shakespeare create some of the most admired
plays in Western literature, he also transformed English theatre
by expanding expectations about what could be accomplished through
characterisation, plot, action, language, and genre. His poetic
artistry helped raise the status of popular theatre, permitting
it to be admired by intellectuals as well as by those seeking
was changing when Shakespeare first arrived in London in the late
1580s or early 1590s. Previously, the most common forms of popular
English theatre were the Tudor morality plays. These plays, which
blend piety with farce and slapstick, were allegories in which
the characters are personified moral attributes who validate the
virtues of Godly life by prompting the protagonist to choose such
a life over evil.
characters and plot situations are symbolic rather than realistic.
As a child, Shakespeare would likely have been exposed to this
type of play (along with mystery plays and miracle plays). Meanwhile,
at the universities, academic plays were being staged based on
Roman closet dramas. These plays, often performed in Latin, used
a more exact and academically respectable poetic style than the
morality plays, but they were also more static, valuing lengthy
speeches over physical action.
the late 1500s the popularity of morality and academic plays waned
as the English Renaissance took hold, and playwrights like Thomas
Kyd and Christopher Marlowe began to revolutionise theatre. Their
plays blended the old morality drama with academic theatre to
produce a new secular form. The new drama had the poetic grandeur
and philosophical depth of the academic play and the bawdy populism
of the moralities.
it was more ambiguous and complex in its meanings, and less concerned
with simple moral allegories. Inspired by this new style, Shakespeare
took these changes to a new level, creating plays that not only
resonated on an emotional level with audiences but also explored
and debated the basic elements of what it meant to be human.
Shakespeare's reputation has grown considerably since his own
time. During his lifetime and shortly after his death, Shakespeare
was well-regarded but not considered the supreme poet of his age.
He was included in some contemporary lists of leading poets, but
he lacked the stature of Edmund Spenser or Philip Sidney. After
the Interregnum stage ban of 1642–1660, the new Restoration
theatre companies had the previous generation of playwrights as
the mainstay of their repertory, most of all the phenomenally
popular Beaumont and Fletcher team, but also Ben Jonson and Shakespeare.
As with other older playwrights, Shakespeare's plays were mercilessly
adapted by later dramatists for the Restoration stage with little
of the reverence that would later develop.
in the late 17th century, Shakespeare began to be considered the
supreme English-language playwright (and, to a lesser extent,
poet). Initially this reputation focused on Shakespeare as a dramatic
poet, to be studied on the printed page rather than in the theatre.
By the early 19th century, though, Shakespeare began hitting peaks
of fame and popularity. During this time, theatrical productions
of Shakespeare provided spectacle and melodrama for the masses
and were extremely popular.
critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge then raised admiration
for Shakespeare to adulation or bardolatry (from bard + idolatry),
in line with the Romantic reverence for the poet as prophet and
genius. In the middle to late 19th century, Shakespeare also became
an emblem of English pride and a "rallying-sign", as
Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1841, for the whole British Empire.
reverence has provoked a negative reaction. In the 21st century
most inhabitants of the English-speaking world encounter Shakespeare
at school at a young age, and there is a common association of
his work with boredom and incomprehension and of "high art"
not easily appreciated by popular culture, an ironic fate considering
Shakespeare's target audiences. At the same time, Shakespeare's
plays remain more frequently staged than the works of any other
playwright and are frequently adapted into film.
Over the years such figures as Walt Whitman, Mark
James, and Sigmund
Freud have expressed disbelief that the man
from Stratford-upon-Avon actually produced the works attributed
to him. These claims necessarily rely on conspiracy theories to
explain the lack of direct historical evidence for them, although
their advocates also point to evidentiary gaps in the orthodox
history. Most professional scholars consider the argument baseless,
and attribute the debate to the scarcity and ambiguity of many
of the historical records of Shakespeare's life.
de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, an English nobleman and intimate
of Queen Elizabeth, became the most prominent alternative candidate
for authorship of the Shakespeare canon, after having been identified
in the 1920s. Oxford partisans note the similarities between the
Earl's life, and events and sentiments depicted in the plays and
principal hurdle for the Oxfordian theory is the evidence that
many of the Shakespeare plays were written after their candidate's
death, but well within the lifespan of William Shakespeare. Christopher
Marlowe is considered by some to be the most highly qualified
to have written the works of Shakespeare. It has been speculated
that Marlowe's recorded death in 1593 was faked for various reasons
and that Marlowe went into hiding, subsequently writing under
the name of William Shakespeare.
related question in mainstream academia addresses whether Shakespeare
himself wrote every word of his commonly accepted plays, given
that collaboration between dramatists routinely occurred in the
Elizabethan theatre. Serious academic work continues to attempt
to ascertain the authorship of plays and poems of the time, both
those attributed to Shakespeare and others.
Several decades before Shakespeare's birth, the English Crown
severed the country's church from the Roman Catholic Church. In
the following years, extreme pressure was placed on England's
Catholics to convert to the Protestant Church of England, with
recusancy laws used to help enforce this conversion.
evidence suggests that Shakespeare may have been secretly Catholic.
There is no question that Shakespeare had many family members,
patrons and friends who were Catholic and that he grew up in a
hotbed of recusancy, with nearly conclusive evidence that both
Shakespeare’s father John Shakespeare and his daughter Susannah
were recusant Catholics.
mother, Mary Arden, was a member of a conspicuous and determinedly
Catholic family in Warwickshire. Archdeacon Richard Davies, an
Anglican cleric, allegedly wrote of Shakespeare: "He dyed
a Papyst". Four of the six schoolmasters at the grammar school
during Shakespeare's youth were Catholic sympathisers and may
have been hired by his father. Simon Hunt, likely one of Shakespeare’s
teachers, later became a Jesuit.
number of scholarly works maintain that Shakespeare was Catholic,
such as Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William
Shakespeare by Clare Asquith. Asquith maintains that Shakespeare
lived in a society where there was substantial and widespread,
yet quiet, resistance to the newly imposed faith and that Shakespeare
was part of this resistance--his own works being the best evidence
of his faith.
states the Bard would use terms such as "high" to refer
to Catholic characters and "low" to refer to the Protestant--referring
to their altars--and "light" or "fair" to
refer to Catholic and "dark" to refer to Protestant,
a reference to certain clerical garb. Asquith detected in Shakespeare's
work the use of a simple code used by the Jesuit underground in
England which took the form of a mercantile terminology wherein
priests were merchants and souls were jewels, the people pursuing
them were creditors, and the Tyburn scaffold where the members
of the underground died was called the place of much trading.
The Jesuit underground used this code so their correspondences
looked like innocuous commercial letters. Asquith says Shakespeare
also used this code.
to say, Shakespeare’s Catholicism is by no means universally
accepted, though some consider it a growing consensus (despite
the lack of direct evidence). The Catholic Encyclopedia questioned
not only that he might be Catholic, but whether "Shakespeare
was not infected with the atheism, which ... was rampant in the
more cultured society of the Elizabethan age." Stephen Greenblatt,
of Harvard, suspects Catholic sympathies of some kind or another
in Shakespeare and his family but considers the writer to be a
less than pious person with essentially worldly motives.
increasing number of scholars do look to matters biographical
and evidence from Shakespeare’s work such as the placement
of young Hamlet as a student at Wittenberg while old Hamlet’s
ghost is in purgatory, the sympathetic view of religious life
("thrice blessed"), scholastic theology in "The
Phoenix and Turtle", sympathetic allusions to martyred English
Jesuit Edmund Campion in "Twelfth Night" and many other
matters as suggestive of a Catholic worldview.
The content of Shakespeare's works has raised the question of
whether he may have been bisexual. It should be noted that the
question of whether an Elizabethan was "gay" in a modern
sense is anachronistic, as the concepts of homosexuality and bisexuality
as identities did not emerge until the 19th century; while sodomy
was a crime in the period, there was no word for an exclusively
homosexual identity (see History of homosexuality). Elizabethans
also frequently wrote about friendship in more intense language
than is common today.
twenty-six of the sonnets are love poems addressed to a married
woman (the "Dark Lady"), one hundred and twenty-six
are addressed to a young man (known as the "Fair Lord").
The amorous tone of the latter group, which focus on the young
man's beauty, has been interpreted as evidence for Shakespeare's
bisexuality, although others interpret them as referring to intense
friendship, not sexual love.
explanation is that the poems are not autobiographical, but mere
fiction, so that the "speaker" of the Sonnets should
not be simplistically identified with Shakespeare himself. Despite
these alternative interpretations, many readers have suspected
otherwise. For example, in 1954, C.S. Lewis wrote that the sonnets
are "too lover-like for ordinary male friendship" (although
he added that they are not the poetry of "full-blown pederasty")
and that he "found no real parallel to such language between
friends in the sixteenth-century literature".
readers have found similar evidence in the plays. The most commonly
cited example is a number of comedies such as Twelfth Night and
As You Like It, which contain comic situations in which a woman
poses as a man, a device that exploits the fact that in Shakespeare's
day women's roles were played by boys. While the situations thus
presented are heterosexual in terms of the story, the stage image
of men wooing and kissing may well have been titillating to those
of a homosexual orientation, and while other dramatists occasionally
used the same device, Shakespeare seems to have had an exceptional
preference for it, using it in five of his plays.