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.
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. Nevertheless, there is evidence of Shakespeare in theatres as he received a variety of criticism from people such as Ben Johnson and Robert Greene. 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:”
– Sonnet CXVI
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
- King Lear
“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…”
—As You Like It, Act II,
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.
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
– More interesting facts on Shakespeare
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.”
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817)
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of William Shakespeare”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 18th May 2006. Last updated 1 March 2018.
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 Tempest (Prospero)
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,
– Macbeth (on learning of the death of Queen)
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
— Hamlet in Hamlet
“Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin, as self-neglecting.”
—Dauphin in Henry V
“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
The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd Edition at Amazon
Shakespeare: The Biography
Shakespeare: The Biography at Amazon
Biography of William Shakespeare
Famous 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.
Other Biographies and Resources on Shakespeare
William Shakespeare Biography
Born: April 23, 1564
Died: April 23, 1616
English dramatist and poet
The English playwright, poet, and actor William Shakespeare was a popular dramatist. He was born six years after Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) ascended the throne, in the height of the English Renaissance. He found in the theater of London a medium just coming into its own and an audience eager to reward talents of the sort he possessed. He is generally acknowledged to be the greatest of English writers and one of the most extraordinary creators in human history.
William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a wealthy landowner from a neighboring village. His father, John, was a maker of gloves and a trader in farm produce. John also held a number of responsible positions in Stratford's government and served as mayor in 1569.
Though no personal documents survive from Shakespeare's school years, he probably attended the Stratford grammar school and studied the classics, Latin grammar and literature. It is believed that he had to discontinue his education at about thirteen in order to financially help his father. At eighteen he married Ann Hathaway. They had three children, Susanna, Hamnet, and Judith.
There are no records of Shakespeare's activities between 1585 and 1592. Some have speculated (guessed) that he was a traveling actor or a country schoolmaster. The earliest surviving mention of his career in London, England, is a jealous attack by Robert Greene, a playwright, which indicates that Shakespeare had already established himself in the capital. It is hard to believe that even Shakespeare could have shown the mastery evident in his plays without several years of apprenticeship (the period of time a person works to learn a skill).
Three early comedies demonstrate that Shakespeare had learned to fuse conventional characters with convincing representations of the human life he knew. Shakespeare's first play is probably The Comedy of Errors (1590). Most acknowledge it as a brilliant and intricate farce (a humorous piece of work with a story unlikely to happen in real life) involving two sets of identical twins. The plot of his next comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1591) revolves around a faithful girl who educates her fickle (inconsistent) lover. It has romantic woods, a girl dressed as a boy, sudden changes, music, and happy marriages at the end. The last of the first comedies, Love's Labour's Lost (1593), deals with three young men who attempt to withdraw from the world and women for three years to study in their king's school. They quickly surrender to a group of young ladies who come to live nearby.
Early history plays and first tragedy
Though little read and performed today, Shakespeare's first plays in the popular history genre (particular style) are equally ambitious and impressive. Henry VI (1592), which is performed in three parts, and Richard III (1594) form an epic (story of heroic figures). They deal with the tumultuous (disorderly, agitating) events of English history between the death of Henry V (1387–1422) in 1422 and Henry VII (1457–1509) assuming the
Reproduced by permission of
AP/Wide World Photos.
Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus (1593), reveals similar ambition. It is recognized as a brilliant and successful piece in the tradition of the revenge play where someone tries to punish someone for a wrong that was done.
The theaters were closed because of plague (a bacteria-caused disease that spreads quickly and can cause death) during much of 1593 and 1594. At this time Shakespeare wrote two narrative poems for the Earl of Southampton. Both the seriocomic (both happy and sad) Venus and Adonis and the tragic Rape of Lucrece are based on the Renaissance traditions of myth and symbolism.
Shakespeare's most famous poems are the 154 sonnets. They were probably composed in this period but were not published until 1609. Sonnets are fourteen-line poems with a fixed rhyme scheme. Though they often suggest autobiographical revelation (the discovery or realization in oneself), the sonnets cannot be proved to be any less fictional than the plays.
The Lord Chamberlain's Men
In 1594 Shakespeare became principal writer for the successful Lord Chamberlain's Men in London. This was one of the two leading companies of actors. He also became a regular actor in the company and a partner in the group of artist-managers who ran it. The company performed regularly in unroofed but elaborate theaters that seated up to three thousand people. The actors performed on a huge platform stage equipped with additional levels for performances. The audience sat on three sides or stood on the ground in front of the stage. In 1599 this group had the Globe Theater built on the south bank of the Thames River.
Shakespeare produced many plays for the company. They include the comedies The Taming of the Shrew (1594) about the taming of an ill-tempered, scolding woman and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595), in which fairies and magic potions in moonlit woods become entangled with young lovers who escape from a cruel society. These were followed by The Merchant of Venice (1596), Much Ado about Nothing (1598), The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599), and As You Like It (1600).
Shakespeare's tragedies of the period are among his most familiar plays: Romeo and Juliet (1596), Julius Caesar (1599), and Hamlet (1601). Although very different from each other, they share the setting of intense personal tragedy in a large world vividly populated by what seems like the whole range of humanity. Like most of his contemporaries in the theater, Shakespeare used the same techniques in writing comedies as tragedies. Politics are constantly present, and what is best in the protagonist (hero) is what does him in when he finds himself in conflict with the world.
Shakespeare, continuing his interest in the historical play, wrote King John (1596). Despite its one strong character it is a relatively weak play. His other epics range from Richard II (1595), through the two parts of Henry IV (1597), to Henry V (1599). These four plays pose disturbing questions about politics, particularly the difference between the man capable of ruling and the man worthy of doing so. They are not optimistic about man as a political animal.
The "problem plays"
Several plays produced at the end of Elizabeth's reign are often grouped as Shakespeare's "problem plays." They are not easily categorized as either tragedies or comedies. All's Well That Ends Well (1602) is a romantic comedy with qualities that seem bitter to many critics because it presents romantic relations between men and women in a harsh light. Troilus and Cressida (1602), is a brilliant, sardonic (skeptically humorous), and disillusioned piece on the Trojan War. Measure for Measure (1604) focuses on the link between political power and romantic desire.
King's Men and the late tragedies
Upon ascending to the throne in 1603, King James I (1566–1625) bestowed his patronage upon the Lord Chamberlain's Men, so that the flag of the King's Men now flew over the Globe. During his last decade in the theater Shakespeare was to write fewer but perhaps even finer plays. Almost all the greatest tragedies belong to this period, and they share several qualities. The heroes are dominated by passions that make their moral (having to do with right and wrong) status increasingly ambiguous (not clearly one thing or another) and their freedom increasingly constricted. In the end, what destroys the hero is what is best about him. Like the histories, the late tragedies continue to be felt as intensely relevant to the concerns of modern men.
Othello (1604) is concerned with trust and betrayal. In King Lear (1605) an aged king foolishly deprives his only loving daughter of her heritage in order to leave everything to her hypocritical (only pretending to have morals) and vicious sisters. Macbeth (1606) concentrates on the problems of evil and freedom. It mingles the supernatural with history, and makes a sympathetic hero of a murderer who sins against family and state.
Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus (both written in 1607 and 1608) embody Shakespeare's bitterest images of political life. Antony and Cleopatra sets the temptation of romantic desire against the call to Roman duty. Coriolanus pits a protagonist (hero) who cannot live with hypocrisy (pretending to believe in something) against a society built on it. Both of these tragedies present ancient history with a vividness (intensity) that makes it seem contemporary.
A final group of plays takes a turn in a new direction. Pericles (1607), Cymbeline (1609), The Winter's Tale (1611), and The Tempest (1611) have a unique power to move and are in the realm of the highest art. The Tempest is the most popular and perhaps the finest of the group. In it Prospero and his daughter are shipwrecked on an island inhabited by supernatural creatures. Prospero rules the island with magic, but renounces (gives up) magic at the end. After the composition of The Tempest Shakespeare retired to Stratford. He returned to London to compose Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1613. Neither seems to have fired his imagination. He died in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 23, 1616, at the age of fifty-two.
Shakespeare's work has continued to seem to each generation like its own most precious discovery. His value to his own age is suggested by the fact that two fellow actors performed the virtually unprecedented (never done before) act in 1623 of gathering his plays together and publishing them in the Folio edition. Without their efforts, since Shakespeare was apparently not interested in publication, many of the plays would not have survived.
For More Information
Bentley, Gerald E. Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Chambers, Sir Edmund K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1930. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
De Grazia, Margreta, and Stanley Wells, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Gollob, Herman. Me and Shakespeare: Adventure with the Bard. New York: Doubleday, 2002.
Schoenbaum, S. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Southworth, John. Shakespeare, The Player: A Life in the Theatre. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2000.