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William Shakespeare Biography

Who was william shakespeare.

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An Introduction

William Shakespeare was a renowned English poet, playwright, and actor born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon . His birthday is most commonly celebrated on 23 April (see  When was Shakespeare born ), which is also believed to be the date he died in 1616.

Shakespeare was a prolific writer during the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages of British theatre (sometimes called the English Renaissance or the Early Modern Period). Shakespeare’s plays are perhaps his most enduring legacy, but they are not all he wrote. Shakespeare’s poems  also remain popular to this day. 

Shakespeare's Family Life

Records survive relating to  William Shakespeare’s family  that offer an understanding of the context of Shakespeare's early life and the lives of his family members. John Shakespeare married Mary Arden , and together they had eight children. John and Mary lost two daughters as infants, so William became their eldest child. John Shakespeare worked as a glove-maker, but he also became an important figure in the town of Stratford by fulfilling civic positions. His elevated status meant that he was even more likely to have sent his children, including William, to the local grammar school . 

William Shakespeare would have lived with his family in their house on Henley Street until he turned eighteen. When he was eighteen,  Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway , who was twenty-six. It was a rushed marriage because Anne was already pregnant at the time of the ceremony. Together they had three children. Their first daughter, Susanna , was born six months after the wedding and was later followed by twins  Hamnet and Judith . Hamnet died when he was just 11 years old.

  • For an overview of William Shakespeare's life, see Shakespeare's Life: A Timeline

Shakespeare in London

Shakespeare's career jump-started in London, but when did he go there? We know Shakespeare's twins were baptised in 1585, and that by 1592 his reputation was established in London, but the intervening years are considered a mystery. Scholars generally refer to these years as ‘ The Lost Years ’.

During his time in London, Shakespeare’s first printed works were published. They were two long poems, 'Venus and Adonis' (1593) and 'The Rape of Lucrece' (1594). He also became a founding member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company of actors. Shakespeare was the company's regular dramatist, producing on average two plays a year, for almost twenty years. 

He remained with the company for the rest of his career, during which time it evolved into The King’s Men under the patronage of King James I (from 1603). During his time in the company Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous tragedies, such as King Lear and Macbeth , as well as great romances, like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest . 

  • For more about Shakespeare's patrons and his work in London see; Shakespeare's Career

Shakespeare's Works

Altogether  Shakespeare's works include 38 plays, 2 narrative poems, 154 sonnets, and a variety of other poems. No original manuscripts of Shakespeare's plays are known to exist today. It is actually thanks to a group of actors from Shakespeare's company that we have about half of the plays at all. They collected them for publication after Shakespeare died, preserving the plays. These writings were brought together in what is known as the First Folio ('Folio' refers to the size of the paper used). It contained 36 of his plays, but none of his poetry. 

Shakespeare’s legacy is as rich and diverse as his work; his plays have spawned countless adaptations across multiple genres and cultures. His plays have had an enduring presence on stage and film. His writings have been compiled in various iterations of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which include all of his plays, sonnets, and other poems. William Shakespeare continues to be one of the most important literary figures of the English language.

New Place; a home in Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare’s success in the London theatres made him considerably wealthy, and by 1597 he was able to purchase  New Place ,   the largest house in the borough of  Stratford-upon-Avon . Although his professional career was spent in London, he maintained close links with his native town. 

Recent archaeological evidence discovered on the site of Shakespeare’s New Place shows that Shakespeare was only ever an intermittent lodger in London. This suggests he divided his time between Stratford and London (a two or three-day commute). In his later years, he may have spent more time in Stratford-upon-Avon than scholars previously thought.

  • Watch our video for more about Shakespeare as a literary commuter:

On his father's death in 1601, William Shakespeare inherited the old family home in Henley Street part of which was then leased to tenants. Further property investments in Stratford followed, including the purchase of 107 acres of land in 1602.

Shakespeare died  in Stratford-upon-Avon on 23 April 1616 at the age of 52. He is buried in the sanctuary of the parish church, Holy Trinity.

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 2 Scene 7

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William Shakespeare

By: History.com Editors

Updated: June 7, 2019 | Original: October 3, 2011

Did Shakespeare Write His Own Plays?

Considered the greatest English-speaking writer in history and known as England’s national poet, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) has had more theatrical works performed than any other playwright. To this day, countless theater festivals around the world honor his work, students memorize his eloquent poems and scholars reinterpret the million words of text he composed. They also hunt for clues about the life of the man who inspires such “bardolatry” (as George Bernard Shaw derisively called it), much of which remains shrouded in mystery. Born into a family of modest means in Elizabethan England, the “Bard of Avon” wrote at least 37 plays and a collection of sonnets, established the legendary Globe theater and helped transform the English language.

Shakespeare’s Childhood and Family Life

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a bustling market town 100 miles northwest of London, and baptized there on April 26, 1564. His birthday is traditionally celebrated on April 23, which was the date of his death in 1616 and is the feast day of St. George, the patron saint of England. Shakespeare’s father, John, dabbled in farming, wood trading, tanning, leatherwork, money lending and other occupations; he also held a series of municipal positions before falling into debt in the late 1580s. The ambitious son of a tenant farmer, John boosted his social status by marrying Mary Arden, the daughter of an aristocratic landowner. Like John, she may have been a practicing Catholic at a time when those who rejected the newly established Church of England faced persecution.

Did you know? Sources from William Shakespeare's lifetime spell his last name in more than 80 different ways, ranging from “Shappere” to “Shaxberd.” In the handful of signatures that have survived, he himself never spelled his name “William Shakespeare,” using variations such as “Willm Shakspere” and “William Shakspeare” instead.

William was the third of eight Shakespeare children, of whom three died in childhood. Though no records of his education survive, it is likely that he attended the well-regarded local grammar school, where he would have studied Latin grammar and classics. It is unknown whether he completed his studies or abandoned them as an adolescent to apprentice with his father.

At 18 Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway (1556-1616), a woman eight years his senior, in a ceremony thought to have been hastily arranged due to her pregnancy. A daughter, Susanna, was born less than seven months later in May 1583. Twins Hamnet and Judith followed in February 1585. Susanna and Judith would live to old age, while Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died at 11. As for William and Anne, it is believed that the couple lived apart for most of the year while the bard pursued his writing and theater career in London. It was not until the end of his life that Shakespeare moved back in with Anne in their Stratford home.

Shakespeare’s Lost Years and Early Career

To the dismay of his biographers, Shakespeare disappears from the historical record between 1585, when his twins’ baptism was recorded, and 1592, when the playwright Robert Greene denounced him in a pamphlet as an “upstart crow” (evidence that he had already made a name for himself on the London stage). What did the newly married father and future literary icon do during those seven “lost” years? Historians have speculated that he worked as a schoolteacher, studied law, traveled across continental Europe or joined an acting troupe that was passing through Stratford. According to one 17th-century account, he fled his hometown after poaching deer from a local politician’s estate.

Whatever the answer, by 1592 Shakespeare had begun working as an actor, penned several plays and spent enough time in London to write about its geography, culture and diverse personalities with great authority. Even his earliest works evince knowledge of European affairs and foreign countries, familiarity with the royal court and general erudition that might seem unattainable to a young man raised in the provinces by parents who were probably illiterate. For this reason, some theorists have suggested that one or several authors wishing to conceal their true identity used the person of William Shakespeare as a front. (Most scholars and literary historians dismiss this hypothesis, although many suspect Shakespeare sometimes collaborated with other playwrights.)

Shakespeare’s Plays and Poems

Shakespeare’s first plays, believed to have been written before or around 1592, encompass all three of the main dramatic genres in the bard’s oeuvre: tragedy (“Titus Andronicus”); comedy (“The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “The Comedy of Errors” and “The Taming of the Shrew”); and history (the “Henry VI” trilogy and “Richard III”). Shakespeare was likely affiliated with several different theater companies when these early works debuted on the London stage. In 1594 he began writing and acting for a troupe known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (renamed the King’s Men when James I appointed himself its patron), ultimately becoming its house playwright and partnering with other members to establish the legendary Globe theater in 1599.

Between the mid-1590s and his retirement around 1612, Shakespeare penned the most famous of his 37-plus plays, including “Romeo and Juliet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and “The Tempest.” As a dramatist, he is known for his frequent use of iambic pentameter, meditative soliloquies (such as Hamlet’s ubiquitous “To be, or not to be” speech) and ingenious wordplay. His works weave together and reinvent theatrical conventions dating back to ancient Greece, featuring assorted casts of characters with complex psyches and profoundly human interpersonal conflicts. Some of his plays—notably “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “Measure for Measure” and “Troilus and Cressida”—are characterized by moral ambiguity and jarring shifts in tone, defying, much like life itself, classification as purely tragic or comic.

Also remembered for his non-dramatic contributions, Shakespeare published his first narrative poem—the erotic “Venus and Adonis,” intriguingly dedicated to his close friend Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton—while London theaters were closed due to a plague outbreak in 1593. The many reprints of this piece and a second poem, “The Rape of Lucrece,” hint that during his lifetime the bard was chiefly renowned for his poetry. Shakespeare’s famed collection of sonnets, which address themes ranging from love and sensuality to truth and beauty, was printed in 1609, possibly without its writer’s consent. (It has been suggested that he intended them for his intimate circle only, not the general public.) Perhaps because of their explicit sexual references or dark emotional character, the sonnets did not enjoy the same success as Shakespeare’s earlier lyrical works.

Shakespeare’s Death and Legacy

Shakespeare died at age 52 of unknown causes on April 23, 1616, leaving the bulk of his estate to his daughter Susanna. (Anne Hathaway, who outlived her husband by seven years, famously received his “second-best bed.”) The slabstone over Shakespeare’s tomb, located inside a Stratford church, bears an epitaph—written, some say, by the bard himself—warding off grave robbers with a curse: “Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” His remains have yet to be disturbed, despite requests by archaeologists keen to reveal what killed him.

In 1623, two of Shakespeare’s former colleagues published a collection of his plays, commonly known as the First Folio. In its preface, the dramatist Ben Jonson wrote of his late contemporary, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” Indeed, Shakespeare’s plays continue to grace stages and resonate with audiences around the world, and have yielded a vast array of film, television and theatrical adaptations. Furthermore, Shakespeare is believed to have influenced the English language more than any other writer in history, coining—or, at the very least, popularizing—terms and phrases that still regularly crop up in everyday conversation. Examples include the words “fashionable” (“Troilus and Cressida”), “sanctimonious” (“Measure for Measure”), “eyeball” (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and “lackluster” (“As You Like It”); and the expressions “foregone conclusion” (“Othello”), “in a pickle” (“The Tempest”), “wild goose chase” (“Romeo and Juliet”) and “one fell swoop” (“Macbeth”).

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Biography of William Shakespeare, History's Most Famous Playwright

His plays and sonnets are still studied and performed to this day

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William Shakespeare (April 23, 1564–April 23, 1616) wrote at least 37 plays and 154 sonnets , which are considered among the most important and enduring ever written. Although the plays have captured the imagination of theatergoers for centuries, some historians claim that Shakespeare didn’t actually write them .

Amazingly, little is known about Shakespeare’s life. Even though he is the world’s most famous and popular playwright , historians have had to fill in the gaps between the handful of surviving records from Elizabethan times .

Fast Facts: William Shakespeare

  • Known For : One of history's most famous playwrights, who wrote at least 37 plays, which are still studied and performed to this day, as well as 154 sonnets, which are also highly regarded
  • Also Known As : The Bard
  • Born : April 23, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England
  • Parents : John Shakespeare, Mary Arden
  • Died : April 23, 1616 in Stratford-upon-Avon
  • Published Works : " Romeo and Juliet" (1594–1595), "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" (1595–1596), " Much Ado About Nothing " (1598–1599), "Henry V" (1598–1599), " Hamlet " 1600–1601, "King Lear" (1605–1606), "Macbeth" ( 1605–1606), "The Tempest" (1611–1612)
  • Awards and Honors : After Shakespeare's death, a funerary monument was erected to honor him at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is buried. It depicts a half-effigy of The Bard in the act of writing. Numerous statues and monuments have been erected around the world to honor the playwright.
  • Spouse : Anne Hathaway (m. Nov. 28, 1582–April 23, 1616)
  • Children : Susanna, Judith and Hamnet (twins)
  • Notable Quote : "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, his acts being seven ages."

Early Years

Shakespeare was probably born on April 23, 1564 , but this date is an educated guess because we only have a record of his baptism three days later. His parents, John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, were successful townsfolk who moved to a large house in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, from the surrounding villages. His father became a wealthy town official and his mother was from an important, respected family.

It is widely assumed that Shakespeare attended the local grammar school where he would have studied Latin, Greek, and classical literature . His early education must have made a huge impact on him because many of his plots draw on the classics.

Shakespeare’s Family

At age 18, on November 28, 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway from Shottery, who was already pregnant with their first daughter. The wedding would have been arranged quickly to avoid the shame of having a child born out of wedlock. Shakespeare fathered three children, Susanna, born in May 1583 but conceived out of wedlock, and Judith and Hamnet, twins who were born in February 1585.

Hamnet died in 1596 at age 11. Shakespeare was devastated by the death of his only son, and it is argued that "Hamlet," written four years later, is evidence of this.

Theater Career

At some point in the late 1580s, Shakespeare made the four-day ride to London, and by 1592 had established himself as a writer. In 1594, an event occurred that changed the course of literary history: Shakespeare joined Richard Burbage’s acting company and became its chief playwright for the next two decades. Here, Shakespeare was able to hone his craft, writing for a regular group of performers.

Shakespeare also worked as an actor in the theater company , although the lead roles were always reserved for Burbage himself. The company became very successful and often performed in front of the Queen of England, Elizabeth I. In 1603, James I ascended the throne and granted his royal patronage to Shakespeare’s company, which became known as The King’s Men.

Shakespeare the Gentleman

Like his father, Shakespeare had excellent business sense. He bought the largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon by 1597, owned shares in the Globe Theater, and profited from some real estate deals near Stratford-upon-Avon in 1605. Before long, Shakespeare officially became a gentleman, partly due to his own wealth and partly due to inheriting a coat of arms from his father who died in 1601.

Later Years and Death

Shakespeare retired to Stratford in 1611 and lived comfortably off his wealth for the rest of his life. In his will, he bequeathed most of his properties to Susanna, his eldest daughter, and some actors from The King’s Men. Famously, he left his wife his “second-best bed” before he died on April 23, 1616 . (This date is an educated guess because we only have a record of his burial two days later).

If you visit Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, you can still view his grave and read his epitaph engraved into the stone:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.

More than 400 years after his death, Shakespeare's plays and sonnets still hold a special place in theaters, libraries, and schools around the world. "His plays and sonnets have been performed in nearly every major language on every continent," notes Greg Timmons writing on Biography.com.

In addition to the legacy of his plays and sonnets, many of the words and phrases Shakespeare created infuse dictionaries today and are embedded in modern English, including these sayings from some of his plays:

  • All that glitters isn't gold (" The Merchant of Venice ")
  • All's well that ends well (" All's Well that Ends Well ")
  • To be-all and the end-all (" Macbeth ")
  • Break the ice (" The Taming of the Shrew )
  • We have seen better days (" As You Like It ")
  • Brave new world (" The Tempest ")
  • Brevity is the soul of wit (" Hamlet ")
  • Cruel to be kind ("Hamlet")
  • It's Greek to me (" Julius Caesar ")
  • Something wicked this way comes ("Macbeth")
  • Star-crossed lovers (" Romeo and Juliet ")
  • Wild-goose chase ("Romeo and Juliet")
  • The world is my oyster (" The Merry Wives of Windsor ")

Few writers, poets, and playwrights—and Shakespeare was all three—have had the influence on culture and learning that Shakespeare has. With luck, his plays and sonnets may still be revered and studied four centuries from now.

  • “ IWonder - William Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of England's Bard. ”  BBC.
  • “ Shakespeare's Words & Phrases. ”  Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  • Timmons, Greg. “ William Shakespeare's 400th Anniversary: The Life & Legacy of The Bard. ”  Biography.com , A&E Networks Television, 2 Nov. 2018.
  • “ Who Was William Shakespeare? Everything You Need to Know. ”  Childhood, Life Achievements & Timeline , thefamouspeople.com.
  • “ William Shakespeare Quotes. ”  BrainyQuote , Xplore.
  • Facts About Shakespeare
  • A Timeline of William Shakespeare's Life
  • Fun and Creative Ways to Celebrate Shakespeare's Birthday
  • How Did William Shakespeare Die?
  • William Shakespeare's School Life, Childhood, and Education
  • Shakespeare's Brothers and Sisters
  • Cervantes and Shakespeare: What They Had in Common (and Didn’t)
  • The Influence of the Renaissance in Shakespeare's Work
  • Was Shakespeare Gay?
  • An Introduction to Shakespearean Sonnets
  • William Shakespeare's Most Famous Plays
  • William Shakespeare's Family
  • Everything You Need to Know About Shakespeare's Plays
  • Study Shakespeare
  • A Complete List of Shakespeare’s Plays
  • List of Phrases Shakespeare Invented

No Sweat Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Biography

This page offers a complete biography of Shakespeare, from birth to death. Read the whole William Shakespeare biography , or skip to the section of Shakespeare’s life you’re most interested in:

Shakespeare’s Birth and Family Shakespeare’s Childhood & Education Shakespeare’s Marriage & Children Shakespeare’s Lost Years Shakespeare’s London Years Shakespeare’s Retirement Shakespeare’s Death

A Very Brief William Shakespeare Biography

  • Parents: John Shakespeare & Mary Shakespeare (nee Arden).
  • Date of Birth: Generally accepted as 23rd April 1564. Shakespeare was baptised on 26th April, 1564.
  • Wife: Anne Hathaway (married 1582).
  • Children : Susanna (born 1583), Hamnet and Judith (twins, born 1585).
  • Resided: Born and raised in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Prime working years spent away from family in London. Returned to family in Stratford-Upon-Avon upon retirement.
  • Career: Writer, actor, theatre owner and producer.
  • Body of Work : 37 plays. 149 sonnets. 2 long narrative poems.
  • Died: 23 April 1616, aged 52. Buried at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon . Read 50 fun facts about Shakespeare

The Chandos portrait of WIlliam Shakespeare biography

The Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Birth and Family

Shakespeare was the third of the eight children born to John and Mary Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon on April 23rd 1564.

John Shakespeare ran his own business as a glove maker and a wool dealer. He held local public positions and was a bailiff (like a mayor) in the town council. After 1567 it is alleged that he was in financial difficulties. In 1557 John married Mary Arden who had no formal education at all.  John and Mary had lost two daughters prior to William’s birth, leaving him as their oldest surviving child. William’s younger siblings were Gilbert (born in 1566), Joan (1569), Anne (1571), Richard (1574) and Edmund (1580). Anne died at the age of eight, but William’s four other younger siblings lived into adulthoods.

Shakespeare’s family lived in a townhouse on Henley Street in the centre of Stratford-Upon-Avon. John used one of his downstairs rooms as a workshop for his glove business, displaying his gloves on his house windowsill for passers-by to peruse and buy. Read more about Shakespeare’s birthplace .

Shakespeare's birthplace

Shakespeare’s family home on Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare’s Childhood and Education

During Shakespeare’s time it was typical for boys to start their education at grammar school at seven and be taught a curriculum with Latin at is centre. Children would be expected to learn long passages of prose and poetry. In addition, children were drilled in grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic and astronomy. Children of public officials received free tuition. Girls did not receive a school education.

It is likely that William lived with his family and was taught according to the above principles at his local grammar school. This was called The King’s New School , and was just a five-minute walk from his home on Henley Street. When William was fourteen his father lost his public position, so it’s  probable that William left school and joined his father in business, making and selling gloves. There is no record of Shakespeare going to university. His contemporary Christopher Marlowe did go to Cambridge, but most playwrights, including Ben Johnson , did not.

To get a feel for Shakespeare’s childhood it’s interesting to note that when Shakespeare was a child water was not clean enough to drink. Attitudes towards hygiene differed hugley to our modern understanding of cleanliness., and tt’s believed that in Tudor times bathing occurred only once a year – probably in May. After the water had been fetched it would be boiled and poured into a large barrel or tub. The father bathed first, followed by any other men who lived in the house, then the women, and finally the children, in order of their age. Talking of such issues, the toilet facilities were quite basic with a simple pewter chamber-pot (a wide jug with a handle) serving as a toilet to be used indoors. Outside, garden privies would consist of a wooden seat with a hole cut in it, sitting over a cess-pit or open sewer.

Read more about Shakespeare’s early childhood >>

Read more about Shakespeare’s teen & school years >>

interior of an Elizabethan classroom with small wooden desk

Shakespeare’s likely classroom at The King’s New School

Shakespeare’s Marriage and Children

Parish records show that when Shakespeare was 18 years old he married Anne Hathaway, a 26 year old, wealthy farmer’s daughter , in Canterbury Province, Worcester.

Anne was three months pregnant when they married, with their first daughter, Susanna, born on the 26th May 1583. William and Anne went on to have twins Hamnet (a boy) and Judith (a girl), born on the 2nd February 1585. Hamnet died of unknown causes at 11 years old, but William’s daughters and wife outlived him. Judith went on to marry Thomas Quinney in 1616 and had three sons: Shakespeare, Richard, and Thomas. Shakespeare died in infancy and Richard and Thomas both died bachelors in 1639 leaving behind no legitimate descendants. There are legitimate descendants stemming from Shakespeare’s sister Joan who married William Hart some time before 1600.

Portrait of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife

Portrait of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife

Shakespeare’s Lost Years

The seven year period after the birth of Hamnet and Judith is known as Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’ as there are no recordings about him, other than one mention of him visiting London in 1616 to see his son-in-law, John Hall.

Speculation about this time is rife. One prominent speculative theory is that Shakespeare fled from Stratford to avoid prosecution as a poacher. This theory could explain why he left his wife and children in Stratford and reappeared 90 miles away in London. Other theories are that Shakespeare toured with an acting troupe possibly in Italy. This latter theory is given weight as 14 plus of his plays include Italian settings, and a 16th Century guest book in Rome signed by pilgrims includes three cryptic signings that some attribute to Shakespeare. This is not a watertight argument though because Italian literature would have been widely read at the time. In addition, there is speculation that Shakespeare met John Florio , an apostle of Italian culture in England and tutor to Shakespeare’s patron; Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton . The possibility that Shakespeare was a soldier has also been debated widely but there is no proof to support this claim.

The truth is though that no one actually knows where Shakespeare lived or worked. What historians are certain of is that during this time Shakespeare left behind the image of a country youth and re-emerged as a playwright and businessman, so at some point during this time he learned his trade as a writer in London.

Shakespeare in London

The late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century is referred to as the golden age of English drama, due to the popularity of theatre, and volume of plays produced at that time. There was fierce competition among the twenty or so theatres in London, keeping scores of writers busy churning out new plays. Shakespeare became one of those writers, though we are not sure exactly how this occurred.

It seems that Shakespeare did not maintain a London household, but lived in several lodgings with landlords and other lodgers during his London years. He was always within walking distance of the theatre zone, so we can imagine him walking to work every day.

By the early 1590s, court records show Shakespeare was living somewhere in Bishopsgate, London. By then he had written Two Gentlemen of Verona , Love’s Labours Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream , Romeo and Julie t, Richard II , and The Merchant of Venice . He seems to have been interested in writing poems: in addition to his day job of writing plays – he also wrote his two long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece . Not only that, but this is the period when he started work on his sonnets .

In 1595 documents show that Shakespeare was a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men , along with William Kempe and Richard Burbage . Shakespeare was involved with this company of actors in London for most of his career, as actor, producer, theatre owner and, of course, a very popular playwright.

It’s evident that Shakespeare was earning good money from his theatre business, as civil records show that in 1597 he bought New Place, one of Stratford’s biggest houses, and moved his family into it. In this same year, his son Hamnet died of unknown causes, aged eleven.

By 1599 Shakespeare was living in Bankside, on the south side of The Thames near the infamous Clink Prison. It was in this area Shakespeare and his business partners Kempe and Burbage built their own theater on the south bank of The Thames river, which they called the Globe Theater . and tt’s likely Shakespeare moved to Bankside to be near to the building site. Shakespeare’s playwriting would have been a necessity to provide material to fill his company’s new theatre every day. Between 1599 and 1604 he wrote at least seven plays, including Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 , The Merry Wives of Windsor , As You Like It , Much Ado About Nothing , Henry V and Julius Caesar .

Records show that in 1604 Shakespeare moved back to the City of London and rented a room in the house in Cripplegate, near St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1605, Shakespeare purchased leases of real estate near Stratford for 440 pounds, which doubled in value and earned him an income of 60 pounds a year. This made him an entrepreneur as well as an artist, and scholars believe these investments gave him the time to write his plays uninterrupted.

Shakespeare lived in Cripplegate for about eight years writing many plays, including Twelfth Night , Hamlet , Troilus and Cressida , Alls Well That Ends Well , Measure for Measure , Othello , King Lear , Macbeth , Antony and Cleopatra , Coriolanus , Timon of Athens , Pericles , Cymbeline , The Winter’s Tale , and The Tempest .

In 1607 his older daughter, Susanna, married and his mother died the following year. His sonnets were published in 1609.

It was a four-day ride by horse from Stratford to London, so it’s believed that Shakespeare spent all of his time in London writing and acting except for the 40-day Lenten period when theatres were closed when he travelled back to stay in Stratford-upon-Avon.

map-of-medieval-london

A map of London in Shakespeare’s time

Shakespeare’s Retirement

After a glittering career as an actor, playwright, and theatre proprietor in London, Shakespeare ‘retired’ to Stratford sometime after 1611 whilst in his late 40s. He rejoined his wife and two surviving children. By this time he also had a granddaughter, Elizabeth, daughter of Judith.

Retirement for Shakespeare was not a matter of sitting around in slippers and letting the world pass him by. He had a portfolio of properties and many business interests, including some in the corn and malt trades. He also continued to make the occasional long journey to London. Before leaving London Shakespeare had built up a selection of plays that hadn’t yet been performed. These included The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, The Tempest, and Cymbeline. It is likely that he visited London for some of these first performances, most probably those of The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, which were performed to King James.

On June 29th, 1613 Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was burnt down. It is likely that this event meant more time spent in London for Shakespeare. Shakespeare was definitely in Westminster on 11th May 1612 where he appeared as a witness in the case of Bellot v. Mountjoy . At one time Shakespeare had been a lodger in Christopher Mountjoy’s house in Cripplegate, and now Mountjoy was being sued by his son-in-law, Stephen Bellott for defaulting on a promised marriage settlement. Shakespeare had been involved in the dowry negotiations and so was called to give evidence in the case.

Shakespeare enjoyed visits from his many friends in the world of theatre, arts, and letters to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He continued to collaborate with younger playwrights , participating in the writing of Henry VIII , Two Noble Kinsmen , and also the lost play, Cardenio , with his friend John Webster .

Shakespeare’s Death

We aren’t sure of the exact date of his death but it is assumed, from a record of his burial two days later at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-Upon-Avon that he died on his 52nd birthday on 23rd April 1616. His gravestone remains there and bears the following engraving:

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare To digg the dust enclosed heare; Blese be ye man yt spares these stones And curst be he yt moves my bones

It is believed that Shakespeare’s death occurred in New House, where he would have been attended by his son-in-law, Dr John Hall, the local physician.

Most historians agree that in the 17th Century Stratford-Upon-Avon had a reputation for scandalous stories and rumours with no basis in fact. This means that we must be cautious in believing for certain the commonly held theory about the cause of Shakespeare’s death:

in 1661, many years after Shakespeare’s death John Ward, the vicar of Holy Trinity Church noted in his diary : “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and it seems drank too hard; for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” It is therefore often stated that Shakespeare died from a fever after a drinking binge with fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton . There are other reports that Michael Drayton and Ben Johnson visited Shakespeare a week before he died and spent the evening eating and drinking together.

This may be true, but there is a further theory that Shakespeare was sick for over a month before he died. The evidence comes from the fact that on 25th March 1616 (just 4 weeks before his death) Shakespeare dictated his will – in keeping with the 17th Century tradition of drawing up wills on one’s deathbed. This points to the fact that Shakespeare was aware his life was coming to an end. Some scholars also point to his signature on his will being somewhat shaky, suggesting his frailty at the time. As an aside, there is lots of historical discussion and exploration about whether bequeathing his second-best bed to his wife Anne Hathaway was a slight against her or not. It probably wasn’t but we don’t know for sure.

Despite all of the theories, the cause of Shakespeare’s death at the age of just 52 will likely remain a mystery. Shakespeare died a grandfather after living a relatively long and healthy life where the average life expectancy was just 35.

Shakespeare was buried on 25th April, 1616, in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.

Shakespeare's grave in Holy Trinity Church, complete with curse and flowers

William Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church, complete with curse and flowers

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Buy Peter Ackroyd’s “Shakespeare The Biography” on Amazon

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Read Our Favourite Shakespeare Biographies in Print

There are so many books out there about Shakespeare and his life, but these four below are our all-time favourites. Each one is readable, informative and well worth relaxing with for a few hours to get a deeper understanding about the man himself:

Author’s Notes

Despite William Shakespeare’s fame as a historical figure, there are very few hard facts known about him. Historians use the following primary sources to piece together his life:

  • Shakespeare’s works — the plays, poems and sonnets.
  • Official records such as church and court records ( available here ).
  • Written commentary about Shakespeare and his work from contemporaries such as Robert Green and Ben Johnson.

Biographers over the years have amassed an immense amount of knowledge and information Some fact, some opinion. A key purpose of this biography of William Shakespeare has been to make clear what is supposition or assumption rather than fact. We acknowledge here our reference to the following established secondary sources:

Bill Bryson. Shakespeare. London. Wilkie Collins. 2016 Peter Ackroyd. Shakespeare the biography. London. Vintage 2006. https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/ https://www.rsc.org.uk/ https://www.folger.edu/ https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Shakespeare/ http://theshakespeareblog.com/http://www.william-shakespeare.info/ https://www.gutenberg.org/files/ http://www.literarygenius.info/education-of-william-shakespeare.htm http://www.william-shakespeare.info/ http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/shakespeareeducation.html

As an Amazon Associate, we may earn a commission from qualifying purchases, at no additional cost to you.

Read More About Shakespeare’s Life

Shakespeare’s life | Shakespeare timeline | Shakespeare biography | Shakespeare’s early childhood | Shakespeare’s teenage years | Shakespeare’s lost years | Shakespeare’s London years | Shakespeare’s final years | Shakespeare’s death

Read More About Shakespeare’s Family

Shakespeare’s family |  Shakespeare’s family tree | Shakespeare’s grandparents | Shakespeare’s parents | Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother | John Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father | Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare wife | Shakespeare’s children | Judith Quiney | Hamnet Shakespeare |  Shakespeare’s grandchildren

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William

thanks this biography helped me with a school project!

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Same Here!! lol :D

zaiba

this will help me with my school project for history and i have probably gone beyond what we have learent in school

Mary

WoW! Thanks alot!! I actually had to do reasearch on william shakesphere for school!!! :)

you spelled a lot wrong.

you spelled it wrong

Bruce Stark

More process information and knowledge in terms of facts and his plays is needed otherwise, this is one of the few websites helping me to do my presentation on Shakey! Thanks for the help!

Vidushi Agarwal

You guys can add some more stuff to it. Although this proved to be helpful for me yet I’d say that more points about Shakespeare’s life can be added.

dakota

can’t find quiz

Myreen Moore Nicholson

I have very recently discovered that my Great+ grandfather, Thomas Ffoxe, Jr. lived on Silver Street, which was only a block long, and on which Shakespeare lived 1602-1612. Thomas was baptized at St. Olave’s Church, which was Hugenot, or Scandinavian, in 1618. I am still researching to see if Thomas’ father of the same name lived there before him. This church was catecorner to the Mountjoy House, a headdress maker and shop, where Shakespeare lived as a lodger during this period.

Pamela Mathis-Yon

Enjoyed reading this and thank you .

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William Shakespeare

read more about his influence

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon. The son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, he was probably educated at the King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford, where he learned Latin and a little Greek and read the Roman dramatists. At eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, a woman seven or eight years his senior. Together, they raised two daughters: Susanna, who was born in 1583, and Judith (whose twin brother died in boyhood), born in 1585.

Little is known about Shakespeare’s activities between 1585 and 1592. Robert Greene’s A Groatsworth of Wit alludes to him as an actor and playwright. Shakespeare may have taught at school during this period, but it seems more probable that shortly after 1585 he went to London to begin his apprenticeship as an actor. Due to the plague, the London theaters were often closed between June 1592 and April 1594. During that period, Shakespeare probably had some income from his patron, Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his first two poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). The former was a long narrative poem depicting the rejection of Venus by Adonis, his death, and the consequent disappearance of beauty from the world. Despite conservative objections to the poem’s glorification of sensuality, it was immensely popular and was reprinted six times during the nine years following its publication.

In 1594, Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain’s company of actors, the most popular of the companies acting at Court. In 1599, Shakespeare joined a group of Chamberlain’s Men that would form a syndicate to build and operate a new playhouse: the Globe, which became the most famous theater of its time. With his share of the income from the Globe, Shakespeare was able to purchase New Place, his home in Stratford.

While Shakespeare was regarded as the foremost dramatist of his time, evidence indicates that both he and his contemporaries looked to poetry, not playwriting, for enduring fame. Shakespeare’s sonnets were composed between 1593 and 1601, though not published until 1609. That edition, The Sonnets of Shakespeare , consists of 154 sonnets, all written in the form of three quatrains and a couplet that is now recognized as Shakespearean . The sonnets fall into two groups: sonnets 1–126, addressed to a beloved friend, a handsome and noble young man, and sonnets 127–152, to a malignant but fascinating “Dark Lady,” who the poet loves in spite of himself. Nearly all of Shakespeare’s sonnets examine the inevitable decay of time, and the immortalization of beauty and love in poetry.

In his poems and plays, Shakespeare invented thousands of words, often combining or contorting Latin, French, and native roots. His impressive expansion of the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary , includes such words as: arch-villain, birthplace, bloodsucking, courtship, dewdrop, downstairs, fanged, heartsore, hunchbacked, leapfrog, misquote, pageantry, radiance, schoolboy, stillborn, watchdog, and zany.

Shakespeare wrote more than thirty plays. These are usually divided into four categories: histories, comedies, tragedies, and romances. His earliest plays were primarily comedies and histories such as Henry VI and The Comedy of Errors , but in 1596, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet , his second tragedy, and over the next dozen years he would return to the form, writing the plays for which he is now best known: Julius Caesar , Hamlet , Othello , King Lear , Macbeth , and Antony and Cleopatra . In his final years, Shakespeare turned to the romantic with Cymbeline , A Winter’s Tale , and The Tempest .

Only eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays were published separately in quarto editions during his lifetime; a complete collection of his works did not appear until the publication of the First Folio in 1623, several years after his death. Nonetheless, his contemporaries recognized Shakespeare's achievements. Francis Meres cited “honey-tongued” Shakespeare for his plays and poems in 1598, and the Chamberlain’s Men rose to become the leading dramatic company in London, installed as members of the royal household in 1603.

Sometime after 1612, Shakespeare retired from the stage and returned to his home in Stratford. He drew up his will in January of 1616, which included his famous bequest to his wife of his “second best bed.” He died on April 23, 1616, and was buried two days later at Stratford Church.

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William Shakespeare Biography

what is shakespeare's biography

William Shakespeare was indisputably among the top English-language poets and playwrights of all time. He was born in the village of Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1564 and died there in April 1616. His surviving body of work includes 38 plays, 154 sonnets and two narrative poems, the majority of which he penned between 1589 and 1613. While much of Shakespeare's biography is unknown, murky or subject to dispute, historians have managed to verify factual data through his own writings, the works of his contemporaries and historical documents.

Early Years: 1564 to 1585

The Bard of Avon, as William Shakespeare is also known, was the child of a leather merchant and glover, John Shakespeare. His mother was from a family of landed gentry. In the absence of records detailing Shakespeare's early education, historians guess he attended a nearby school where he learned to read and write English as well as Latin. In 1582, when he was just 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior. They would have three children, a daughter in 1583 and a set of twins in 1585. They lost their only son, Hamnet, when the boy was 11 years old. Daughters Susanna and Judith would live to be 66 and 77, respectively.

Middle Years: 1586 to 1599

Later years: 1600-1613.

Early in the new century, the bard continued to produce great literature, penning such masterworks as "Troilus and Cressida," "Measure for Measure," "All's Well That Ends Well," and some of his most renowned tragedies, including "Hamlet," "Othello" and "King Lear." In 1603, The Lord Chamberlain's Men delivered a command performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Queen Elizabeth's Hampton court. When the Queen died later that year, the acting troupe changed its name to The King's Men in honor of the newly crowned King James I. Their first performance for the monarch was "As You Like It." The bard was growing artistically during this era, customizing his mastery of blank verse with wit and intention to enrich his characters' dialogue and enliven the action. He employed such techniques as run-on lines and inflected phrasing to breathe life into a poetic form that tended to the monotone if used within strict parameters of ten syllables per line and alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. The dialogue of his play "Hamlet," for example, seems animated in comparison to the more strictly patterned lines of earlier works such as "Henry V." Shakespeare also provided moments of variation in his plays by inserting bits of rhymed verse in the dialogue, for example in Puck's epilogue in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." During the first decade of the 17th century, Shakespeare published his "Sonnets," a collection of 154 14-line works that employed the same blank verse format as his plays but with the specific rhyme scheme of three quatrains and a concluding couplet. Released as a printed collection in 1609, Shakespeare's sonnets had likely been written individually over time, and those within his circle of friends were probably already familiar with some of them. The form the bard employed for his verses became known as the Shakespearean sonnet, as opposed to the traditional Petrarchan sonnet, which consists of an octet and a sestet. In his last plays, "Cymbeline," "A Winter's Tale," and "The Tempest," the bard test-drove a hybrid genre, the tragicomedy, also known as the romance. While they take a more somber, serious tone than such comedies as "Twelfth Night," these tragicomedies end on a positive note, unlike such tragedies as "King Lear." The bard also completed two last works for theater, "Henry VIII" and "The Two Noble Kinsmen," with a collaborator, likely John Fletcher, a contemporary playwright. Just after the completion of "Henry VIII" in 1613, The King's Men lost the Globe playhouse to a fire. By the time they reopened in 1614, Shakespeare had already retired to his family home in Stratford where he died in 1616 at the age of 52. While no verified version of the manner of his death exists today, one account, written by the vicar of Stratford 50 years later, attributes his untimely demise to drinking too hard with his friends John Drayton and Ben Johnson, and catching a fatal fever as a result.

The Controversy

Due in part to the great gaps in knowledge regarding Shakespeare's early education and the lost years, the bard has always been shrouded in mystery. In addition, not a single manuscript he wrote in his own hand survived the centuries. One scholarly explanation for this lack of historical verification is that "William Shakespeare" was the pen name of some more illustrious, well-educated figure of the Elizabethan era. The controversy did not see the light of day until more than two centuries after the bard's death. Among the first to question the authorship of such all-time great works as "Macbeth" was a Pennsylvanian Lutheran named Samuel Schmucker, and he was merely drawing an analogy. He likened the scholarly trend of his time in using historic data to raise doubts about the existence of Christ was akin to speculating that Shakespeare never existed. An offhand remark, but that is all it took to sow the seed of controversy.

Some of the fuel for the fire included: 1. The lack of documentation for Shakespeare's existence. 2. The disputed authorship of particular works. 3. The unlikelihood that someone with the bard's background would rise to greatness. Among the most famous doubters were Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud and Orson Wells. Among the candidates people have mentioned as the "real" William Shakespeare are Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Earl of Oxford Edward DeVere. The controversy has even found its way into the U.S. Supreme Court as the subject of a moot debate.

The Influence of William Shakespeare Through the Centuries

One of the bard's most enduring influences is on the English language. Not only are many quotes from his plays, such as Polonius' advice to Hamlet, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," a part of the English lexicon, but the way in which Shakespeare shaped the language to suit his own artistic purposes would influence future writers and poets throughout subsequent history, from Charles Dickens to Maya Angelou. Charles Dickens drew upon the bard's writings for many of his titles as well as numerous quotations he used within his novels. Shakespeare also enriched the language with the addition of approximately 2,000 new words and numerous new usages of existing vocabulary. Some of the words attributed to the bard include "auspicious," "dwindle" and "sanctimonious." Phrases he originated that are still in the popular lexicon include, "break the ice" from "The Taming of the Shrew" and "in a pickle" from "The Tempest." The bard's masterful characterizations have become archetypes for social standards. Such larger-than-life characters as Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia and a host of others inform contemporary social standards in ways that are inextricably woven into the fabric of modern society. They not only appear as standard icons in the theater, movies, literature and visual arts, but also have established themselves as cultural norms, particularly in English-speaking societies. It is not even necessary to have read the works of Shakespeare to be familiar with his well-known quotations and characters. Even the controversy surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets serves to keep the bard very much a vital figure in contemporary lore. The probability that the mystery will probably never be resolved, given the lack of hard evidence, means that Shakespearean scholars, school teachers and their students will be reading and discussing the 16th-century master far into the future.

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Shakespeare's Biography

William Shakespeare (also spelled Shakspere, Shaksper, and Shake-speare, because spelling in Elizabethan times was not yet fixed and absolute) was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England in April 1564. William was the son of John Shakespeare, a successful tradesman and alderman, and of Mary Arden, a daughter of the gentry. They lived on Henley Street . His baptismal record is dated April 26 of that year. Due to the fact that birth certificates were not issued during Elizabethan times, the first official record we have of Shakespeare is his baptismal record. Baptisms were normally performed within a few days of birth, thus a tradition arose that he was born on Sunday, April 23, but this has no historical basis. It is factual, however, that Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616. Legend has it that Shakespeare died of a fever, and although an outbreak of typhoid hit Stratford in 1616, the facts behind Shakespeare’s death remain a mystery.

The house in Stratford is known as “Shakespeare’s Birthplace,” although this status is uncertain. It is claimed that the poet was born in the room with the lattice windows. Shakespeare’s father was a prosperous glove maker and held many titles during his lifetime, including ale taster, chamberlain, alderman, bailiff (equivalent to mayor), and chief alderman. He was later prosecuted for participating in the black market in wool, and lost his position as an alderman. Some evidence points to possible Roman Catholic sympathies on both sides of the family—a danger under Elizabeth’s protestant rule.

William Shakespeare probably attended the Stratford Grammar School in central Stratford, which likely provided an intensive education in Latin grammar, and translating such authors as Cicero, Virgil, and Shakespeare’s beloved Ovid. It is presumed that the young Shakespeare attended this school because John Shakespeare’s position as alderman allowed his children a free education at the school. Unfortunately there are no surviving school records to corroborate. There is no evidence that his formal education extended beyond grammar school.

Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway (who was 26) at the age of 18, on November 28, 1582 at Temple Grafton , near Stratford. Two neighbors of Anne, Fulk Sandalls and John Richardson, posted bond that there were no impediments to the marriage. There appears to have been some haste in arranging the ceremony, as Anne was three months pregnant. After his marriage, William Shakespeare left few traces in the historical record until he appeared on the London literary scene. On May 26, 1583 Shakespeare’s first child, Susanna, was baptized at Stratford. A son, Hamnet, and a daughter, Judith, were baptized soon after on February 2, 1585. Hamnet died in 1596 at the age of eleven of unknown causes. Some suspect that his death was part of the inspiration behind The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c.1601), a reworking of an older, lost play. Susanna and Judith lived to ripe ages of sixty-six and sixty-one, respectively.

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. One legend, long since thoroughly discredited, pronounces that he was caught poaching deer on the park of Sir Thomas Lucy, the local Justice of the Peace, and had to flee. Another theory is that Shakespeare could have joined Leicester’s or Queen’s Men as they traveled through Stratford while on tour. 17 th century biographer John Aubrey recorded the testimony of the son of one of Shakespeare’s fellow players, placing Shakespeare as “a schoolmaster in the country.”

London and Theatrical Career

By the end of 1592, Shakespeare was an established playwright in London, receiving acclaim for such plays as Henry VI , The Comedy of Errors , and Titus Andronicus . 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. 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, 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 after which it became known as the King’s Men.

In 1604, Shakespeare acted as a matchmaker for his landlord’s daughter. Legal documents from 1612, when the case was brought to trial, show that in 1604, Shakespeare was a tenant of Christopher Mountjoy, a Huguenot tire-maker (a maker of ornamental headdresses) in the northwest of London. Mountjoy’s apprentice Stephen Belott wanted to marry Mountjoy’s daughter. Shakespeare was enlisted as a go-between, to help negotiate the details of the dowry. On Shakespeare’s assurances, the couple married. Eight years later, Belott sued his father-in-law for delivering only part of the dowry. Shakespeare was called to testify, but remembered little of the circumstances. Various documents recording legal affairs and commercial transactions show that Shakespeare grew rich enough during his stay in London to purchase a property in both Blackfriars and London. In 1597, Shakespeare also purchased the second largest house in Stratford (called New Place). It is here that Shakespeare would eventually spend the last years of his life.

Later Years

Shakespeare “retired” to Stratford in about 1610-11, although he still spent much time in London and attending to his company’s affairs. His retirement was not entirely without controversy; he was drawn into a legal quarrel regarding the enclosure of common lands. (Enclosure enabled land to be converted to pasture for sheep, but removed it as a resource for the poor.) Shakespeare had a financial interest in the land, and to the chagrin of some, he took a neutral position, making sure only that his own income from the land was protected. In the last few weeks of Shakespeare’s life, the man who was to marry his younger daughter Judith—a tavern-keeper named Thomas Quiney—was charged in the local church court with “fornication.” A woman named Margaret Wheeler had given birth to a child and claimed it was Quiney’s; she and the child both died soon after. Quiney was thereafter disgraced, and Shakespeare revised his will to ensure that Judith’s interest in his estate was protected from possible malfeasance on Quiney’s part.

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 at the age of 52. He remained married to Anne until his death and was survived by his two daughters, Susannah and Judith. Susannah married Dr. John Hall. Neither Susannah’s nor Judith’s children had any offspring, and as such, there are no known direct descendants of the poet and playwright alive today. It was rumored, however, that Shakespeare was the real father of his godson, William Davenant.

Shakespeare is buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was granted the honor 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). Shakespeare’s funeral monument rests on the wall nearest his grave, and shows him posed with quill and paper in hand. Each year on his claimed birthday, a new quill pen is placed in the writing hand of the bust. It was common in his time for graves in the chancel of the church to be emptied as more room was needed, with the contents removed to a nearby charnel house. Possibly fearing that his body would be removed, he is considered to have written the following epitaph on his tombstone:

Good frend for Jesvs sake forbeare, To digg the dvst encloased heare. Bleste be ye man ӳt spares thes stones, And cvrst be he ӳt moves my bones.

Popular legend claims that unpublished works by Shakespeare may lie inside his tomb, but no one has ever verified these claims, perhaps for fear of the curse included in the quoted epitaph. Perhaps out of respect for the greatest playwright of all time.

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The Folger Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Life: From the Folger Shakespeare Editions

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

Listen to this essay:

Surviving documents that give us glimpses into the life of William Shakespeare show us a playwright, poet, and actor who grew up in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, spent his professional life in London, and returned to Stratford a wealthy landowner. He was born in April 1564, died in April 1616, and is buried inside the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.

We wish we could know more about the life of the world’s greatest dramatist. His plays and poems are testaments to his wide reading—especially to his knowledge of Virgil, Ovid, Plutarch, Holinshed’s  Chronicles , and the Bible—and to his mastery of the English language, but we can only speculate about his education. We know that the King’s New School in Stratford-upon-Avon was considered excellent. The school was one of the English “grammar schools” established to educate young men, primarily in Latin grammar and literature. As in other schools of the time, students began their studies at the age of four or five in the attached “petty school,” and there learned to read and write in English, studying primarily the catechism from the Book of Common Prayer. After two years in the petty school, students entered the lower form (grade) of the grammar school, where they began the serious study of Latin grammar and Latin texts that would occupy most of the remainder of their school days. (Several Latin texts that Shakespeare used repeatedly in writing his plays and poems were texts that schoolboys memorized and recited.) Latin comedies were introduced early in the lower form; in the upper form, which the boys entered at age ten or eleven, students wrote their own Latin orations and declamations, studied Latin historians and rhetoricians, and began the study of Greek using the Greek New Testament.

Title page of a 1573 Latin and Greek catechism for children. From Alexander Nowell, Catechismus paruus pueris primum Latine  . . . (1573).

Since the records of the Stratford “grammar school” do not survive, we cannot prove that William Shakespeare attended the school; however, every indication (his father’s position as an alderman and bailiff of Stratford, the playwright’s own knowledge of the Latin classics, scenes in the plays that recall grammar-school experiences—for example,  The Merry Wives of Windsor , 4.1 ) suggests that he did. We also lack generally accepted documentation about Shakespeare’s life after his schooling ended and his professional life in London began. His marriage in 1582 (at age eighteen) to Anne Hathaway and the subsequent births of his daughter Susanna (1583) and the twins Judith and Hamnet (1585) are recorded, but how he supported himself and where he lived are not known. Nor do we know when and why he left Stratford for the London theatrical world, nor how he rose to be the important figure in that world that he had become by the early 1590s.

We do know that by 1592 he had achieved some prominence in London as both an actor and a playwright. In that year was published a book by the playwright Robert Greene attacking an actor who had the audacity to write blank-verse drama and who was “in his own conceit [i.e., opinion] the only Shake-scene in a country.” Since Greene’s attack includes a parody of a line from one of Shakespeare’s early plays, there is little doubt that it is Shakespeare to whom he refers, a “Shake-scene” who had aroused Greene’s fury by successfully competing with university-educated dramatists like Greene himself. It was in 1593 that Shakespeare became a published poet. In that year he published his long narrative poem  Venus and Adonis ; in 1594, he followed it with  The Rape of Lucrece.  Both poems were dedicated to the young earl of Southampton (Henry Wriothesley), who may have become Shakespeare’s patron.

It seems no coincidence that Shakespeare wrote these narrative poems at a time when the theaters were closed because of the plague, a contagious epidemic disease that devastated the population of London. When the theaters reopened in 1594, Shakespeare apparently resumed his double career of actor and playwright and began his long (and seemingly profitable) service as an acting-company shareholder. Records for December of 1594 show him to be a leading member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was this company of actors, later named the King’s Men, for whom he would be a principal actor, dramatist, and shareholder for the rest of his career.

So far as we can tell, that career spanned about twenty years. In the 1590s, he wrote his plays on English history as well as several comedies and at least two tragedies ( Titus Andronicus  and  Romeo and Juliet ). These histories, comedies, and tragedies are the plays credited to him in 1598 in a work,  Palladis Tamia , that in one chapter compares English writers with “Greek, Latin, and Italian Poets.” There the author, Francis Meres, claims that Shakespeare is comparable to the Latin dramatists Seneca for tragedy and Plautus for comedy, and calls him “the most excellent in both kinds for the stage.” He also names him “Mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare”: “I say,” writes Meres, “that the Muses would speak with Shakespeare’s fine filed phrase, if they would speak English.” Since Meres also mentions Shakespeare’s “sugared sonnets among his private friends,” it is assumed that many of Shakespeare’s sonnets (not published until 1609) were also written in the 1590s.

In 1599, Shakespeare’s company built a theater for themselves across the river from London, naming it the Globe. The plays that are considered by many to be Shakespeare’s major tragedies ( Hamlet , Othello , King Lear , and  Macbeth ) were written while the company was resident in this theater, as were such comedies as  Twelfth Night  and  Measure for Measure .  Many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed at court (both for Queen Elizabeth I and, after her death in 1603, for King James I), some were presented at the Inns of Court (the residences of London’s legal societies), and some were doubtless performed in other towns, at the universities, and at great houses when the King’s Men went on tour; otherwise, his plays from 1599 to 1608 were, so far as we know, performed only at the Globe. Between 1608 and 1612, Shakespeare wrote several plays—among them  The Winter’s Tale  and  The Tempest —presumably for the company’s new indoor Blackfriars theater, though the plays were performed also at the Globe and at court. Surviving documents describe a performance of  The Winter’s Tale  in 1611 at the Globe, for example, and performances of  The Tempest  in 1611 and 1613 at the royal palace of Whitehall.

Shakespeare seems to have written very little after 1612, the year in which he probably wrote  King Henry VIII .  (It was at a performance of  Henry VIII  in 1613 that the Globe caught fire and burned to the ground.) Sometime between 1610 and 1613, according to many biographers, he returned to live in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he owned a large house and considerable property, and where his wife and his two daughters lived. (His son Hamnet had died in 1596.) However, other biographers suggest that Shakespeare did not leave London for good until much closer to the time of his death. During his professional years in London, Shakespeare had presumably derived income from the acting company’s profits as well as from his own career as an actor, from the sale of his play manuscripts to the acting company, and, after 1599, from his shares as an owner of the Globe. It was presumably that income, carefully invested in land and other property, that made him the wealthy man that surviving documents show him to have become. It is also assumed that William Shakespeare’s growing wealth and reputation played some part in inclining the Crown, in 1596, to grant John Shakespeare, William’s father, the coat of arms that he had so long sought. William Shakespeare died in Stratford on April 23, 1616 (according to the epitaph carved under his bust in Holy Trinity Church) and was buried on April 25. Seven years after his death, his collected plays were published as  Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies  (the work now known as the First Folio).

Ptolemaic universe. From Marcus Manilius, The sphere of . . . (1675).

The years in which Shakespeare wrote were among the most exciting in English history. Intellectually, the discovery, translation, and printing of Greek and Roman classics were making available a set of works and worldviews that interacted complexly with Christian texts and beliefs. The result was a questioning, a vital intellectual ferment, that provided energy for the period’s amazing dramatic and literary output and that fed directly into Shakespeare’s plays. The Ghost in  Hamlet , for example, is wonderfully complicated in part because he is a figure from Roman tragedy—the spirit of the dead returning to seek revenge—who at the same time inhabits a Christian hell (or purgatory); Hamlet’s description of humankind reflects at one moment the Neoplatonic wonderment at mankind (“ What a piece of work is a man! ”) and, at the next, the Christian attitude toward sinful humanity (“ And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? ”).

As intellectual horizons expanded, so also did geographical and cosmological horizons. New worlds—both North and South America—were explored, and in them were found human beings who lived and worshiped in ways radically different from those of Renaissance Europeans and Englishmen. The universe during these years also seemed to shift and expand. Copernicus had earlier theorized that the earth was not the center of the cosmos but revolved as a planet around the sun. Galileo’s telescope, created in 1609, allowed scientists to see that Copernicus had been correct: the universe was not organized with the earth at the center, nor was it so nicely circumscribed as people had, until that time, thought. In terms of expanding horizons, the impact of these discoveries on people’s beliefs—religious, scientific, and philosophical—cannot be overstated.

London, too, rapidly expanded and changed during the years (from the early 1590s to around 1610) that Shakespeare lived there. London—the center of England’s government, its economy, its royal court, its overseas trade—was, during these years, becoming an exciting metropolis, drawing to it thousands of new citizens every year. Troubled by overcrowding, by poverty, by recurring epidemics of the plague, London was also a mecca for the wealthy and the aristocratic, and for those who sought advancement at court, or power in government or finance or trade. One hears in Shakespeare’s plays the voices of London—the struggles for power, the fear of venereal disease, the language of buying and selling. One hears as well the voices of Stratford-upon-Avon—references to the nearby Forest of Arden, to sheepherding, to small-town gossip, to village fairs and markets. Part of the richness of Shakespeare’s work is the influence felt there of the various worlds in which he lived: the world of metropolitan London, the world of small-town and rural England, the world of the theater, and the worlds of craftsmen and shepherds.

That Shakespeare inhabited such worlds we know from surviving London and Stratford documents, as well as from the evidence of the plays and poems themselves. From such records we can sketch the dramatist’s life. We know from his works that he was a voracious reader. We know from legal and business documents that he was a multifaceted theater man who became a wealthy landowner. We know a bit about his family life and a fair amount about his legal and financial dealings. Most scholars today depend upon such evidence as they draw their picture of the world’s greatest playwright. Such, however, has not always been the case. Until the late eighteenth century, the William Shakespeare who lived in most biographies was the creation of legend and tradition. This was the Shakespeare who was supposedly caught poaching deer at Charlecote, the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy close by Stratford; this was the Shakespeare who fled from Sir Thomas’s vengeance and made his way in London by taking care of horses outside a playhouse; this was the Shakespeare who reportedly could barely read, but whose natural gifts were extraordinary, whose father was a butcher who allowed his gifted son sometimes to help in the butcher shop, where William supposedly killed calves “in a high style,” making a speech for the occasion. It was this legendary William Shakespeare whose Falstaff (in  1  and  2 Henry IV ) so pleased Queen Elizabeth that she demanded a play about Falstaff in love, and demanded that it be written in fourteen days (hence the existence of  The Merry Wives of Windsor ). It was this legendary Shakespeare who reached the top of his acting career in the roles of the Ghost in  Hamlet  and old Adam in  As You Like It —and who died of a fever contracted by drinking too hard at “a merry meeting” with the poets Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson. This legendary Shakespeare is a rambunctious, undisciplined man, as attractively “wild” as his plays were seen by earlier generations to be. Unfortunately, there is no trace of evidence to support these wonderful stories.

Perhaps in response to the disreputable Shakespeare of legend—or perhaps in response to the fragmentary and, for some, all-too-ordinary Shakespeare documented by surviving records—some people since the mid-nineteenth century have argued that William Shakespeare could not have written the plays that bear his name. These persons have put forward some dozen names as more likely authors, among them Queen Elizabeth, Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere (earl of Oxford), and Christopher Marlowe. Such attempts to find what for these people is a more believable author of the plays is a tribute to the regard in which the plays are held. Unfortunately for their claims, the documents that exist that provide evidence for the facts of Shakespeare’s life tie him inextricably to the body of plays and poems that bear his name. Unlikely as it seems to those who want the works to have been written by an aristocrat, a university graduate, or an “important” person, the plays and poems seem clearly to have been produced by a man from Stratford-upon-Avon with a very good “grammar-school” education and a life of experience in London and in the world of the London theater. How this particular man produced the works that dominate the cultures of much of the world four centuries after his death is one of life’s mysteries—and one that will continue to tease our imaginations as we continue to delight in his plays and poems.

Further Reading

Baldwin, T. W.  William Shakspere’s Petty School.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1943.

Baldwin here investigates the theory and practice of the petty school, the first level of education in Elizabethan England. He focuses on that educational system primarily as it is reflected in Shakespeare’s art.

Baldwin, T. W.  William Shakspere’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke.  2 vols. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1944.

Baldwin attacks the view that Shakespeare was an uneducated genius—a view that had been dominant among Shakespeareans since the eighteenth century. Instead, Baldwin shows, the educational system of Shakespeare’s time would have given the playwright a strong background in the classics, and there is much in the plays that shows how Shakespeare benefited from such an education.

Beier, A. L., and Roger Finlay, eds.  London 1500–1700: The Making of the Metropolis.  New York: Longman, 1986.

Focusing on the economic and social history of early modern London, these collected essays probe aspects of metropolitan life, including “Population and Disease,” “Commerce and Manufacture,” and “Society and Change.”

Chambers, E. K.  William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems.  2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930.

Analyzing in great detail the scant historical data, Chambers’s complex, scholarly study considers the nature of the texts in which Shakespeare’s work is preserved.

Cressy, David.  Education in Tudor and Stuart England.  London: Edward Arnold, 1975.

This volume collects sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and early eighteenth-century documents detailing aspects of formal education in England, such as the curriculum, the control and organization of education, and the education of women.

Duncan-Jones, Katherine.  Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life.  London: Arden Shakespeare, 2010.

This biography, first published in 2001 under the title  Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from His Life,  sets out to look into the documents from Shakespeare’s personal life—especially legal and financial records—and it finds there a man very different from the one portrayed in more traditional biographies. He is “ungentle” in being born to a lower social class and in being a bit ruthless and more than a bit stingy. As the author notes, “three topics were formerly taboo both in polite society and in Shakespearean biography: social class, sex and money. I have been indelicate enough to give a good deal of attention to all three.” She examines “Shakespeare’s uphill struggle to achieve, or purchase, ‘gentle’ status.” She finds that “Shakespeare was strongly interested in intense relationships with well-born young men.” And she shows that he was “reluctant to divert much, if any, of his considerable wealth towards charitable, neighbourly, or altruistic ends.” She insists that his plays and poems are “great, and enduring,” and that it is in them “that the best of him is to be found.”

Dutton, Richard.  William Shakespeare: A Literary Life.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Not a biography in the traditional sense, Dutton’s very readable work nevertheless “follows the contours of Shakespeare’s life” as it examines Shakespeare’s career as playwright and poet, with consideration of his patrons, theatrical associations, and audience.

Honan, Park.  Shakespeare: A Life.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Honan’s accessible biography focuses on the various contexts of Shakespeare’s life—physical, social, political, and cultural—to place the dramatist within a lucidly described world. The biography includes detailed examinations of, for example, Stratford schooling, theatrical politics of 1590s London, and the careers of Shakespeare’s associates. The author draws on a wealth of established knowledge and on interesting new research into local records and documents; he also engages in speculation about, for example, the possibilities that Shakespeare was a tutor in a Catholic household in the north of England in the 1580s and that he acted particular roles in his own plays, areas that reflect new, but unproven and debatable, data—though Honan is usually careful to note where a particular narrative “has not been capable of proof or disproof.”

Potter, Lois.  The Life of William Shakespeare: A Critical Biography.  Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

This critical biography of Shakespeare takes the playwright from cradle to grave, paying primary attention to his literary and theatrical milieu. The chapters “follow a chronological sequence,” each focusing on a handful of years in the playwright’s life. In the chapters that cover his playwriting years (5–17), each chapter focuses on events in Stratford-upon-Avon and in London (especially in the commercial theaters) while giving equal space to discussions of the plays and/or poems Shakespeare wrote during those years. Filled with information from Shakespeare’s literary and theatrical worlds, the biography also shares frequent insights into how modern productions of a given play can shed light on the play, especially in scenes that Shakespeare’s text presents ambiguously.

Schoenbaum, S.  William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Schoenbaum’s evidence-based biography of Shakespeare is a compact version of his magisterial folio-size  Shakespeare: A Documentary Life  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975). Schoenbaum structures his readable “compact” narrative around the documents that still exist which chronicle Shakespeare’s familial, theatrical, legal, and financial existence. These documents, along with those discovered since the 1970s, form the basis of almost all Shakespeare biographies written since Schoenbaum’s books appeared.

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Timeline of Shakespeare's Life

1564:   William Shakespeare born in Stratford-upon-Avon

1582:   Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway

1583:   Shakespeare’s first child, Susanna, is born

1585:   Shakespeare’s twins, Judith and Hamnet, are born

1592:   Shakespeare is first alluded to as a playwright, in Greene’s Groates-worth of Wit

1593:   Shakespeare’s first printed poem, Venus and Adonis , appears

1594:   Shakespeare’s first printed play, Titus Andronicus , appears

1596:  Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, is granted a coat of arms ; Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, dies

1597:   Shakespeare purchases New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon

1598:   Shakespeare is first mentioned as a sonneteer and author of 12 plays in Palladis Tamia

1599:   Shakespeare’s father is granted a confirmation of arms ; Shakespeare’s acting company takes down its old theater and uses the timber to build the Globe

1600:   Extracts from Shakespeare’s plays and poetry appear in Bel-vedere , the first printed literary commonplace book to include plays

1601:  Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, dies

1602:   The heralds dispute the legitimacy of a group of coat of arms, including Shakespeare’s ; Shakespeare ratifies his purchase of New Place

1603:   Shakespeare’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, becomes the King’s Men at the accession of James I ; Hamlet appears in print

1607:   Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna marries John Hall

1608:   Shakespeare’s mother, Mary (Arden) Shakespeare, dies ; his granddaughter Elizabeth is born

1609:   Shakespeare’s Sonnets appears in print

1613:   Shakespeare purchases the Blackfriars gatehouse in London ; the Globe burns down during a performance of Henry VIII and is rebuilt within a year

1616:   Shakespeare writes his will ; his daughter Judith marries Thomas Quiney ; Shakespeare dies

1623:   The First Folio is published ; Shakespeare’s widow Anne dies

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William Shakespeare – A Biography of William Shakespeare

Avatar for Jaycene-Fay Ravenscroft

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) once wrote, “Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears, moist it again, and frame some feeling line, that may discover such integrity.” William Shakespeare is undoubtedly the most famous name in English literature, having contributed plays, poems, and other writings which have stood the test of time, not to mention having filtered into our everyday phrases. In the following article, we will dive into discovering who this man was by discussing the biography of William Shakespeare, and what made him great.

Table of Contents

  • 1 Some Quick Facts About William Shakespeare
  • 2 Who Was William Shakespeare?
  • 3 Early Life of William Shakespeare
  • 4.1.1 Comedies
  • 4.1.2 Tragedies
  • 4.1.3 History
  • 4.2.1 Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1589 – 1599)
  • 4.2.2 Romeo and Juliet (1597)
  • 4.2.3 Julius Caesar (1599)
  • 4.2.4 Hamlet (1599 – 1601)
  • 4.2.5 Othello (1604)
  • 4.2.6 Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605)
  • 4.2.7 Macbeth (1605)
  • 4.2.8 King Lear (1605 – 1606)
  • 5 Shakespeare’s Influence on Literature and Language
  • 6.1 Shakespeare’s Authorship Controversy
  • 6.2 Criticisms Against Shakespeare
  • 7.1 Shakespeare in Popular Culture
  • 7.2 The Globe Theatre and Its Significance
  • 8.1 Who Was William Shakespeare?
  • 8.2 When Was William Shakespeare Born?
  • 8.3 What Was Shakespeare’s Real Name?
  • 8.4 Do We Know What Shakespeare Looked Like?

Some Quick Facts About William Shakespeare

Before we dive into the details about this iconic writer in history, let us take a look at a few popular facts.

  • When was William Shakespeare born? He was born on the 26th of April.
  • Where was William Shakespeare born? The town of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire was his birthplace.
  • When did William Shakespeare die? He passed away in April 1616 in the same town where he was born.

Portrait of William Shakespeare

  • How many works did William Shakespeare write? His works include 154 sonnets, two narrative poems (as well as other poems), and 38 plays.
  • What was Shakespeare’s real name? Gulielmus Shakespeare was the name recorded at Shakespeare’s baptism in 1564. Gulielmus is Latin and means William in English, and he was referred to as William Shakespeare by most of his contemporaries. In addition, ‘Will’ was what he called himself in his poems.

Who Was William Shakespeare?

An English poet, actor, and playwright during the Jacobean and Elizabethan periods of British theater, Shakespeare’s writings are his lasting legacy and millions of people around the world still enjoy his poems and plays as many of the themes are still relevant today and resonate with people. He shows a deep understanding of human nature through each of his characters and because the stories that he produced are so timeless, they have formed the basis for many movies and novels. 

Unfortunately, there is no surviving written record of William Shakespeare’s physical appearance, and there does not seem to be any evidence suggesting that a portrait was ever commissioned by him.

However, there is the Droeshout engraving (1623), which is the frontispiece for the page of the First Folio collection of plays. This engraving is a portrait of him that was produced by Martin Droeshout, and is one of two works that definitively depicts Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare Portrait

Early Life of William Shakespeare

When was William Shakespeare born? He was baptized in England in 1564 on the 26th of April. And where was William Shakespeare born? The town of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire was his birthplace, and he passed away there in April 1616. There are surviving records that can tell us about Shakespeare’s family background. His father, John Shakespeare married his mother, Mary Arden and they had eight children together, two of whom died as infants, leaving William as the eldest. John Shakespeare had a job as a glove-maker and fulfilled civic positions in the town of Stratford, becoming an important figure in the community. Because of his position, he would have been able to send his children to the local grammar school where William studied.

When William Shakespeare turned eighteen years old, he married the 26-year old Anne Hathaway and together they had three children, the first of which, Susanna was in Anne’s belly at the wedding ceremony. The two children that came after were Hamnet and Judith, with Hamnet passing away at the age of eleven.

London is where Shakespeare’s career lifted off, however, scholars are unsure of when he went there. In 1585, his two children were baptized, and his reputation had been established in London by 1592. The years in between are a mystery.  Two of Shakespeare’s first printed works were published in there, The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and Venus and Adonis (1593), which remain two of his most famous poems today. He was also a founding member of a company of actors called, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men , for which he became their regular playwright and for almost 20 years produced about two plays each year. For the rest of his career, Shakespeare remained with the company, and with the support of their patron, King James I (b. 1566-1625), it grew to become The King’s Men . Many of Shakespeare’s most well-known romances were written while working with the company, such as The Tempest (1611), and The Winter’s Tale (1611), as well as tragedies like Macbeth (1606) and King Lear (1606).

Shakespeare’s Career as a Playwright

Shakespeare’s works include 154 sonnets, two narrative poems (as well as other poems), and 38 plays, for which no original manuscripts are known to exist. The fact that we have any works of Shakespeare at all is owed to a group of actors at the company that he worked with who collected them for publication after his death. 36 of these plays were brought together in what is called the First Folio , which did not include his poetry.

Facts About William Shakespeare

Types of Plays

Comedies, tragedies, and histories were the types of plays that Shakespeare wrote. They were all written in the style that was conventional during his time and included rhetorical phrases and detailed metaphors, but he gave an innovative flavor and was freer with his flow of words. Shakespeare mainly used a metrical pattern to write his plays, consisting of lines with iambic pentameter that did not rhyme, or blank verse. 

However, in all the plays there are sections where he strayed from this and used simple prose or other forms of poetry.

The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1589) was a comedy and also one of Shakespeare’s first plays. Other comedies that he wrote are A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605) , Merchant of Venice (1605), Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1599) , as well as As You Like It (1600) . Comedies are a genre of drama that depict amusing events and have a humorous tone, and the characters usually triumph over misfortune or bad luck.  Shakespearean comedies are full of irony and fun, puns and witty wordplay, with complicated plots that have multiple plot lines that always straighten out at the end.

Taming of the Shrew William Shakespeare

Tragedies are a genre that is centered on human suffering and the sad and dreadful events that a main character finds themselves in. Some of the best-known tragedies by Shakespeare are Romeo and Juliet (1597), Othello (1604), King Lear (1606), and Macbeth (1606). 

These plays present dramatic and realistic impressions of human nature and disposition that are universal and timeless.

Many of the first plays that Shakespeare wrote were histories, such as Richard II (1595) , Henry V (1599), as well as Henry VI (1589-1592) which all dramatize the devastating consequences of corrupt or weak rulers. Drama historians have interpreted these plays above as Shakespeare’s way of explaining the beginnings of the Tudor Dynasty. History plays are therefore written about historical events with characters set in the past, and may or may not be historically accurate as they are dramas meant to entertain.

When Was William Shakespeare Born

Most Famous Plays and Their Themes

As we know by now, Shakespeare wrote many plays, however, there are some that have especially struck the human heart and have remained the most famous. Below, we will list some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, as well as unpack their themes.

Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1589 – 1599)

This comedy follows the story of a woman who has been falsely accused of being unchaste, featuring themes of deception, love, the ways in which we could be conflicted in relationships, and the place of women in society and the necessity for them to marry. Count Claudio and Hero are the two characters around whom the plot is based, involving misunderstandings along the way. Hero is Claudio’s host’s daughter, and he falls in love with her. Beatrice, Hero’s cousin, is tricked into believing that the bachelor, Benedict, is in love with her, and vice versa. 

A malicious plot is set to deceive Claudio into thinking that Hero is unfaithful, and he, therefore, denounces her before they wed.  

As quoted by Balthasar in act two, scene three:

“Cry no more, ladies, cry no more,

Men have always been deceivers,

With one foot on a ship and one on the shore,

Never faithful to anything.

So don’t cry like that, but let them go,

And be carefree and happy,

Changing all your sad songs Into “Hey, nonny nonny.”

Sing no more laments, sing no more

Mournful tunes so sad and heavy.

Men have always been frauds

Since trees had leaves in summer.

Changing all your sad songs

Into “Hey, nonny nonny.”

Much Ado William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet (1597)

The ultimate love story, the play Romeo and Juliet set the stage for many subsequent tales of doomed romances. It was written early in Shakespeare’s career and is about the romance between two Italian youngsters whose families are in a feud with one another. Therefore, the themes of violence, death, and passion flow throughout the story. This situation between the two families, unfortunately, leads Romeo and Juliet to take drastic measures, which ultimately leads to sorrow and both of them taking their own lives. 

Not only is this tragedy a popular favorite today, but it was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays while he was alive.

As quoted by Friar Lawrence in act two, scene six:

“These violent delights have violent ends

And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,

Which as they kiss consume. The sweetest honey

Is loathsome in his own deliciousness

And in the taste confounds the appetite.

Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;

Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.”

Where Was William Shakespeare Born

Julius Caesar (1599)

This historical play may have resonated with the audience at the time that it was produced when the Queen of England, Elizabeth I did not have a legitimate heir to the throne, which created the possibility for power struggles later down the line. The play depicts the upset in Roman politics at the time of Julies Caesar. In the play, conspirators persuade Brutus, Caesar’s friend to join in on their plot to assassinate him. 

They kill Caesar on the Ides of March and are then driven out of Rome by Mark Antony who then goes to battle against them.  

As quoted by Cassius in act one, scene two:

“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.”

Biography of William Shakespeare

Hamlet (1599 – 1601)

Most of us are familiar with this play which explores themes of incest, betrayal, retribution, and immorality. The twists and turns of the plot are pushed by these moral failures which tear down the hero of the story and the people he cares about. In summary, the story of Hamlet is propelled by a conversation between Hamlet and his late father, the King of Denmark’s ghost, who tells him to kill Hamlet’s uncle, the new king, to avenge his murder. 

Hamlet pretends to go mad and seeks revenge, while his scared uncle also curates plots to kill Hamlet.  

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t,” as quoted by Polonius in act two, scene two.

Hamlet William Shakespeare

Othello (1604)

Othello is a powerful play centered around racism in Venice during the 16th-century and how destructive jealousy can be. Othello, the character who the play is titled after, is a Moor and he is judged by many characters in the play because of the color of his skin. The tragedy is centered around Othello and Iago, the latter of the two being angry about not being promoted by Othello, who is his General. Iago then plots revenge against Othello and manipulates him into thinking that Desdemona, his wife, is unfaithful. 

The jealousy this causes leads Othello to kill his wife and then himself.  

As quoted by Iago in act three, scene three:

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy:

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock

The meat it feeds on.”

Othello William Shakespeare

Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605)

This exuberant comedy is a magical play about fairies that try to solve the romantic problems of four humans from Athens that run away to the forest. The fairy, Puck, makes one of the girls the focus of the two boys’ love and affection. The humans pursue each other as they run around the forest. In the meanwhile, the fairy queen is having a trick played on her by Puck to help his master. 

At the end of the play, Puck reverses the enchantment set on the two Athenian couples, and they reconcile and wed.   

As quoted by Hippolyta in act five, scene one:

“But all the story of the night told over,

And all their minds transfigured so together,

More witnesseth than fancy’s images

And grows to something of great constancy,

But, howsoever, strange and admirable.”

Midsummer Nights Dream William Shakespeare

Macbeth (1605)

This play with supernatural elements and brutal murder is a thrilling tragedy about the extremes of the lust for power and guilt. Macbeth is told by three witches that he is destined to be king of Scotland. His wife encourages this upon hearing the idea, and he kills the king and replaces him. Macbeth becomes paranoid and kills more people, causing an uprising and resulting in a civil war to overthrow him.

This only results in more death.

As quoted by Angus in act five, scene two:

“Now does he feel his title

Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe

Upon a dwarfish thief.”

Macbeth William Shakespeare

King Lear (1605 – 1606)

This brutal play is filled with disasters, cruelty, nihilism, and reconciliation. The story begins with King Lear dividing his kingdom between his two daughters, Goneril and Regan, while he disinherits the third daughter, Cordelia who truly loves him but will not flatter him insincerely. The kingdom is taken over by the deceitful Goneril and Regan, who then turn on their father and cast him out. Lear slips into madness but eventually mends his relationship with Cordelia. She is hanged before Lear’s eyes before he himself dies. 

This play is one of Shakespeare’s most negative works but, despite all the injustice, hope is found in Cordelia’s moral strength.  

As quoted by France in act one, scene one:

“Love’s not love

When it is mingled with regards that stand

Aloof from th’ entire point.”

King Lear William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Influence on Literature and Language

The standardization of written English, such as spelling, grammar, and vocabulary was greatly impacted by Shakespeare’s works. Many new words were introduced into the English language by Shakespeare – 1,700 words to be exact. We continue to use many of these words today, like “frugal,” “lonely,” and “dwindle” to list a few. Not only did Shakespeare invent words, but many of the phrases we use today were originally written by him. These phrases include “good riddance,” “be all and end-all,” and “for goodness’ sake,” and many more.

For centuries, Shakespeare’s profound influence on poetry and literature has endured. The poetic blank verse was a specialty of his and it became standard. Many writers and poets have been influenced by Shakespeare, some of whom are Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Herman Melville, and William Faulkner.

Controversies and Criticisms

Shakespeare was praised for his work during his lifetime, but he was not revered. Classical ideas were in fashion from the 1660s to the end of the 17th century, which resulted in him being rated below Ben Johnson and John Fletcher by critics at the time. However, during the 18th-century, Shakespeare received a different response from critics who praised his natural genius. By 1800, Shakespeare was revered as the national poet, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, his reputation spread overseas. His works have thrived since, even being engaged in the service of avant-garde movements. Despite the positive impact that Shakespeare’s writings have had on the world, there are a number of controversies and criticisms surrounding Shakespeare and his work. Some revolved around his authorship, and others around issues relating to discrimination towards certain cultures, religions, and sexes. We will discuss these below.

As You Like It William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Authorship Controversy

Doubts crept in regarding his authorship during the nineteenth century, with some speculating that perhaps Shakespeare was acting as a front for another author who could not take credit for his writings publicly. The “Anti-Stratfordians” as they are called (because of the town, Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born and bred), doubted that someone with a humble background education and a son of a tradesman, could have written such rich, complex works. The gaps in his biographical record and the lack of original papers and manuscripts fueled their skepticism. Despite the debate, there remains no evidence of who the “real” writer could have been. A few possibilities were put forward, such as Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon, and Edward de Vere.

Most modern scholars reject the notions put forward by the Anti-Stratfordians, citing that documentary and historical evidence is proof enough that Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems and is the real author.

In addition, no evidence has been found that shows skepticism among other writers, playwrights, and poets that lived during his time. However, although scholars accept Shakespeare as the real author of his works, recognition is increasing regarding other writers that may have contributed to the plays. During the Elizabethan era in England, writers would often collaborate to hasten the production of new plays. For example, the writing style for part one of Henry VI suggests that a group of collaborators may have written the play together, including Shakespeare and Thomas Nashe, a political satirist. At the end of Shakespeare’s career, he also adopted an apprentice named John Fletcher who helped him co-write The Two Noble Kingsmen and Henry VIII . However, this is not enough to undermine Shakespeare’s credibility.

William Shakespeare Controversy

Criticisms Against Shakespeare

There has been some criticism over the years regarding the subjects of sexism and race, amongst others when it comes to Shakespeare. For example, there have been accusations of sexism against Romeo and Juliet , as well as Hamlet , where both lead female characters are pushed to desperate measures because of men. However, in general, Shakespeare’s female characters are depicted as strong, determined, intelligent, and compassionate women. The Merchant of Venice is another play that has received criticism, but for being antisemitic, and was even banned from the curriculum in an Orthodox Jewish school. What can make Shakespeare’s plays difficult to understand is that they were written 400 years ago into poetry, with language that has layered meanings. 

Othello, a play that highlights race, arouses sentiments in us that are based in the 20th and 21st centuries. Some words that were once used in Shakespeare’s day to refer to people of Black African origin have become inappropriate or prohibited.

We need to remember that Shakespeare lived in a very different time to our own, with different societal rules, and Elizabethan society was his audience. It is also interesting to note that it is Shakespeare’s characters that speak to the audience, a character built from his observation of human behavior, not him. We do not know what he thinks. Therefore, these characters have various attitudes towards different subjects, which makes them all the more relatable and timeless.

Legacy of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s enduring popularity is due to how relevant his work is to the modern reader, the great contributions he has made to the English language, and the way in which his work influences the way people think and act even today. Seen as the most extraordinary dramatist in history, the powerful themes that run through each of his works – fate, death, love, jealousy, power, ambition, and so on – still connect with audiences and readers as they are very human themes that stretch across time and cultures. His characters are relatable and people can identify with the emotions they experience. In addition, Shakespeare’s writing is masterful as it is filled with poetry, painting each scene in a vivid, atmospheric way that brings the characters and stories to life. His significant contribution to theater and literature is lasting, as he broadened the dramatic potential of genre, plot, characterization, and language. Romance would not have been considered a worthy topic for a tragedy were it not for Romeo and Juliet , for example.

Shakespeare in Popular Culture

Shakespeare is so famous today that his works have been included in popular culture. His plays have been made into movies, such as the romantic Romeo and Juliet (1996) with actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, and Macbeth (2015) with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, to name a few. Some television series have also been based on Shakespeare’s works. Star-Crossed (2014) for example, was a science fiction adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and Succession (2018) gave us a comedic approach to the tragedy, King Lear, while the famous Game of Thrones (2011 – 2019) is overflowing with Shakespearean themes. Another, and very surprising, television series and popular culture phenomenon that made use of Shakespeare’s works and even quoted from them is Star Trek (c. 1960s – present). 

For example, Dagger Of The Mind is an episode title that was borrowed from Shakespeare for the original series, and also The Conscience Of The King.

What is evident in popular culture is how Shakespeare impacted cultural stereotypes. Many stereotypes that we see featured in books, movies, television series, and even music, are based on the most famous characters from his plays. Lady Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, and Juliet have each given us character templates and represent certain kinds of people. Hamlet is indecisive and caught between morals, Lady Macbeth is unrelenting and ambitious, while Romeo’s romantic passionate love is true until death. Many romantic comedies feature an enamored and persistent lover who would do anything for the one they love. The movie Titanic (1997) is probably a very good example of Shakespeare’s legacy of the fated lovers doomed to be derailed by bad luck.

The Globe Theatre and Its Significance

The Globe Theatre was founded by Shakespeare and some other actors, and was built in 1599 on the Thames River, on the south bank. The first production to be shown at the Globe Theatre is thought to be Julius Caesar . The open-air theater made a good profit and was a beneficial investment. Unfortunately, during a performance of Henry VIII in the year of 1613, the theater caught a light and burned down. All theaters were banned by Puritans in 1642 and this included the Globe Theater. Two years later, it was demolished. Sam Wanamaker, an American actor, sought to bring the theater to life once more, and it was reopened in 1997. The Globe Theater has attracted more than 1.25 million visitors every year since.

Who Was William Shakespeare

That concludes our article on the biography of William Shakespeare.  We hope that you enjoyed learning about his life and contributions to the world as much as we did. We hope that this encourages you to learn more facts about William Shakespeare, and piques your interest in his plays and poetry, if it has not been piqued already!

Frequently Asked Questions

William Shakespeare was an English poet, actor, and playwright during the Jacobean and Elizabethan periods of British theater, and his poems and plays are his lasting legacy with millions of people around the world still enjoying his writings today.

When Was William Shakespeare Born?

He was born on the 26th of April and was baptized in England that same day in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, and passed away there in April 1616. His father, John Shakespeare, married his mother, Mary Arden, and they had eight children together, two of whom died as infants, leaving William as the eldest.

What Was Shakespeare’s Real Name?

Gulielmus Shakespeare was the name recorded at Shakespeare’s baptism in 1564. Gulielmus is Latin and means William in English, and he was referred to as William Shakespeare by most of his contemporaries. In addition, Will was what he called himself in his poems.

Do We Know What Shakespeare Looked Like?

There is no surviving written record of William Shakespeare’s physical appearance, and there does not seem to be any evidence suggesting that a portrait was ever commissioned by him. There is the Droeshout engraving (1623), which is the frontispiece for the page of the First Folio , a collection of 36 plays written by Shakespeare. This engraving is a portrait of him that was produced by Martin Droeshout, and is one of two works that definitively depicts Shakespeare.

jaycene fay ravenscroft

Jaycene-Fay Ravenscroft is a writer, poet, and creative living in South Africa with over 6 years of experience working in a contemporary art gallery. She completed her Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Art History and Ancient History at the University of South Africa, with additional subjects in Archaeology and Anthropology.

With a passion for learning, Jaycene-Fay is very much inspired by symbology and the connection between everything in this world. Trained to analyze and ‘critique’ art, she is passionate about exploring the meaning behind each artwork she encounters and understanding how it connects to the artist’s cultural, historical, and social background. Writing is Jaycene-Fay’s way of having a finger in every pie: to research, share knowledge, and express herself creatively.

Learn more about Jaycene-Fay Ravenscroft and the Art in Context Team .

Cite this Article

Jaycene-Fay, Ravenscroft, “William Shakespeare – A Biography of William Shakespeare.” Art in Context. July 20, 2023. URL: https://artincontext.org/william-shakespeare/

Ravenscroft, J. (2023, 20 July). William Shakespeare – A Biography of William Shakespeare. Art in Context. https://artincontext.org/william-shakespeare/

Ravenscroft, Jaycene-Fay. “William Shakespeare – A Biography of William Shakespeare.” Art in Context , July 20, 2023. https://artincontext.org/william-shakespeare/ .

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Why Is William Shakespeare’s Life Considered a Mystery?

William Shakespeare

Since Shakespeare’s time, some critics and scholars have been unable to believe that a country boy from Stratford-Upon-Avon, who never went to University, could be the same man who used 37,000 words in his plays and added around 300 words to our vocabulary. Operating under what John Walsh called in The Independent the “snob logic theory,” for centuries scholars have attempted to find more learned men who better fit their noble vision of Shakespeare.

However, numerous allusions and slights to Shakespeare’s humble origins can be found in contemporary references. According to Shakespeare biographer Peter Ackroyd, pamphleteer Robert Green derided Shakespeare as a “country-author.” Shakespeare’s number one frenemy, playwright Ben Jonson, was forever mocking what he saw as Shakespeare’s pretensions to grandeur and playwright Francis Beaumont dissed his parentage :

Another payre you shall see, that were heire apparent legges to a Glover, these legges hope shortly to bee honourable.

Even Jonson’s eulogy of Shakespeare in the First Folio of his plays, published in 1623, made reference to his relatively poor education:

And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine, Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe's mighty line. And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, From thence to honour thee, I would not seek.

READ MORE: Was Shakespeare the Real Author of His Plays?

Shakespeare's beginnings are often reported incorrectly

These slights have been fueled by basic misconceptions about Shakespeare’s childhood and life. Born in 1564, his father was not an illiterate butcher as is often reported, but a successful glover, landowner and moneylender who held local government offices.

When critics ask how a man who never went to college could know so much about things like the law, court life and medicine, Ackroyd notes that Shakespeare learned as he went. For example, after his daughter Susanna married a doctor, we find many more references to medical practices. Most of his plays were also based on existing stories, which any working actor like Shakespeare would have learned over the years.

READ MORE: Shakespeare Wrote Three of His Famous Tragedies During Turbulent Times

He kept his professional and home life separate

It also seems that Shakespeare offered little information about himself to his contemporaries. He appears to have kept his professional life in London and his home life as a prosperous landowner in Stratford radically separate. This secretive attitude may have been because much of his family were known Catholic sympathizers and chose to live quietly in Protestant Elizabethan England. In fact, some believe Shakespeare himself received Catholic communion on his death bed.

"He was, indeed, honest and of an open and free nature,” Jonson wrote of Shakespeare. As Ackroyd notes, Shakespeare was probably affable and vague, not a rabble-rouser or trouble-maker like many of his contemporaries. He seems to have seen himself as a company man — a member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and with them, a part owner of The Globe Theater. A few years before his death, he retired to Stratford where he died in 1616. As Mark Twain noted :

When Shakespeare died in Stratford, IT WAS NOT AN EVENT. It made no more stir in England than the death of any other forgotten theatre-actor would have made. Nobody came down from London, there were no lamenting poems, no eulogies, no national tears – there was merely silence and nothing more. A striking contrast with what happened when Ben Jonson and Francis Bacon, and Spenser and Raleigh, and the other distinguished literary folk of Shakespeare’s time passed from life!

All this has led many to believe the “Stratford man” was not the author of Shakespeare’s plays. “The first man explicitly to believe that Shakespeare's works were written by someone else was the Reverend James Wilmot (1726-1808), a Warwickshire clergyman who lived near Stratford,” William Rubinstein writes in History Today . “Wilmot's doubts were aroused by his inability to find a single book belonging to Shakespeare despite searching in every old private library within a fifty-mile radius of Stratford. He was also unable to locate any authentic anecdotes about Shakespeare in or around Stratford.”

Indeed, it is true that no books were listed in Shakespeare’s will. It is also curious that the First Folio, compiled by his theatrical colleagues, makes no mention of his Stratford family.

READ MORE: Did William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I Ever Meet?

Decades after Shakespeare's death, other candidates were hypothesized as the "real" author

The first candidate as the “real” author of Shakespeare’s work was the statesman and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Subsequent candidates have included Edward De Vere, 17 Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), a Cambridge trained lawyer and successful poet who had his own theater company. Some point to Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), the rapscallion rebel playwright who the historical Shakespeare no doubt knew. Another choice is Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, a 17-century poetess and literary grand dame.

However, these choices fall apart upon closer inspection and were all made decades after Shakespeare’s death. “No one in Shakespeare's lifetime or for the next 200 years questioned that he wrote the plays (although this has been disputed by unorthodox biographers),” Rubinstein concedes in History Today , “and several of his contemporaries, most clearly Ben Jonson, appear to have regarded the Stratford man as having written them.”

READ MORE: What are Shakespeare’s Most Famous Quotes?

However, the playwright did leave some subtle clues

Shakespeare’s funerary monument, erected shortly after his death in Stratford, offers us some clues that the “Stratford man” and Shakespeare were one and the same. Not only does his likeness look like the etched portrait in the First Folio, but the epitaph is classic Shakespeare wit :

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.

“Perhaps it’s time to shift our attention from debating who wrote Shakespeare’s works,” historian James Shapiro writes , “to whether it’s possible to discover the author’s emotional, sexual and religious life through them.”

And what would the real Shakespeare think of the mystery that now surrounds his life? He’d probably be amused, and glad he is an enigma. After all, “the play’s the thing.”

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A Scholarly Analysis of Shakespeare’s Life That Reads Like a Detective Story

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By James Shapiro

  • Nov. 23, 2021

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE By Lena Cowen Orlin

Much of the evidence documenting Shakespeare ’s life wasn’t discovered until the late 18th or early 19th century, and comes packaged in the assumptions of those who made these finds. We have been told that his marriage to an older woman was an unhappy one, that Shakespeare’s bequest to his wife of a “second-best bed” confirms how “little he esteemed her,” and that the “Birthplace,” his house on Henley Street, a mecca for literary pilgrims, has remained virtually unchanged since Shakespeare’s infancy. Over the past 200 years these and similar claims have hardened into fact and have become enshrined in popular biographies.

In “The Private Life of William Shakespeare,” Lena Cowen Orlin has re-examined all of the documentary evidence. She reads it afresh, along with thousands of contemporary wills and local records that provide context for those in which Shakespeare is mentioned. Anyone who has ever struggled to decipher Elizabethan “secretary hand” will know how daunting this task has been. The great and lasting result of her labors is how punishingly she demolishes shoddy claims and biased inferences that have distorted our understanding of Shakespeare’s life.

Shakespeare was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he married Anne Hathaway at the age of 18, had three children with her and left town — only returning for good late in life. He spent the intervening years, roughly half his lifetime, in London, where he acted and wrote plays. He didn’t travel back and forth much, reportedly once a year, and was unlikely, Orlin writes, to have attended the funeral in Stratford of his son, Hamnet, or of either of his parents.

Biographers confronted with the mystery of “How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?” split into two groups: those who see his early years in his hometown as formative, and those (myself included) who place greater weight on his experiences in London. Orlin, whose Shakespeare had a “persistent allegiance to his hometown,” and whose choices there, she argues, determined the trajectory of his life, belongs to the Stratford camp. Her title is somewhat misleading: “By ‘private life,’” she writes, “I mean Shakespeare’s family life in Stratford.” Readers eager for revelations about who were Shakespeare’s friends and lovers, or what were his religious and political convictions (what we ordinarily mean when we speak of someone’s private life), will not find answers here.

“Neither a literary biography nor a full biography,” this book looks more narrowly at what surviving documents tell us, and, when their trail runs dry, what documents about his neighbors might reveal about events that defined Shakespeare’s Stratford life: his father’s financial collapse, his marriage, his homes (including the “Birthplace,” likely damaged by fire in the 1590s, then rebuilt), his will and his memorial. Though most of it consists of dense scholarly analysis, it reads like a detective story in which a skilled investigator returns to a cold case.

It amounts to a revisionist portrait of the artist. The transgressive image of Shakespeare circulating in recent years — cosmopolitan, perhaps secretly Catholic, most likely gay or bisexual, eager to flee Stratford — is replaced here by a Shakespeare who is “a family man” in a close economic partnership with his wife. He is especially devoted to his father, whose fall from the height of Stratford’s leadership to a man who was afraid to leave his house for fear of arrest for debt was, for Orlin, “the defining event” of Shakespeare’s private life, from which “all else followed.” She interprets Shakespeare’s marriage at a young age (which would have brought to an end any apprenticeship and precluded as well a university education) as an act that helped restore his family’s fortunes. Most scholars have read Shakespeare’s last will and testament as at best chilly, especially when it came to his family. But Orlin sees it otherwise. While it was not, like many Jacobean wills, an “expressive” one, she shows how each gift that Shakespeare specifies, including apparel, sword, bowl and that notorious bed, shares “the imprint of an unnamed grief.”

She also shows that much of what we take as fact about Shakespeare’s life hangs by the slenderest of archival threads. Anne Hathaway’s baptismal record does not survive, and the only reason for believing she was eight years older than Shakespeare is the number that appears on her memorial brass — often enough, Orlin shows, imprecisely remembered or rendered. In her assiduous research Orlin came upon a baptismal record from 1566 for a Johanna Hathaway, daughter (as Shakespeare’s wife was) to a Richard Hathaway of Shottery. Orlin doesn’t push this possibility too hard, but if this was the woman Shakespeare married — her first name inaccurately transcribed — Anne might have been two years younger than her husband.

Three contemporary images of Shakespeare are widely accepted as authoritative. One is the awkwardly executed woodcut that appears in the 1623 First Folio. Another is the romantic Chandos portrait now in the National Portrait Gallery. These two are endlessly reproduced. Not the third, an effigy in painted limestone in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, in which Shakespeare looks like — as the scholar John Dover Wilson put it — a “self-satisfied pork butcher.” Orlin’s account of this monument is definitive. She sends packing the “authorship skeptics” for whom a conspiratorial cover-up accounts for the differences between 17th-century sketches of this memorial and the frequently repaired and looted effigy (from which the actor David Garrick reputedly stole the “right forefinger”). She goes on to suggest that Shakespeare likely commissioned the effigy and had met Nicholas Johnson, the artist who made it. If so, like it or not, this is how Shakespeare wanted to be remembered. Her account, detailed and dazzling, also left me melancholy, for all too soon, given cutbacks in funding and training, this kind of scholarship may no longer be possible.

Shakespeare biography is often marked by overreach, and Orlin is not immune. An academic herself, she can’t help recasting Shakespeare as one, urging us to “picture Shakespeare participating in the intellectual culture of Oxford” and asserting that “Shakespeare is nearly certain to have taken in lectures and sermons in college chapels.” There is no hard evidence given for these claims. And having argued that Shakespeare had a study in New Place, the large house he purchased in Stratford, she can’t resist fantasizing that this is where he wrote his late plays: “How many of his characters and episodes developed out of the scenes that unfolded on the streets below him as he wrote in the western light of the study window?” Her source? The gossip-hunting vicar of Stratford from the early 1660s, John Ward. Orlin’s meticulous handling of archival material fails her here, as her eagerness to encroach upon the London Shakespeare upends her usual accuracy. Ward never wrote that Shakespeare “in his elder days lived at Stratford, and supplied the stage with two plays every year.” He in fact jotted down two separate anecdotes, which Orlin then combines, linking them with a comma (those who are curious can consult a facsimile at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s site, “Shakespeare Documented” ). Orlin knows that late in his career Shakespeare collaborated with other dramatists, working with John Fletcher on his last three: “Henry VIII,” “The Two Noble Kinsmen” and the lost “Cardenio.” You don’t write plays with co-authors who live a three days’ ride away. These are unfortunate missteps in an otherwise impressive and valuable book, a biography that will lead many to revise their classroom lectures.

James Shapiro teaches at Columbia. His book “Shakespeare in a Divided America” was one of the Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2020.

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE By Lena Cowen Orlin Illustrated. 430 pp. Oxford University Press. $40.

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Shakespeare's Biography

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what is shakespeare's biography

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, allegedly on April 23, 1564. Church records from Holy Trinity Church indicate that he was baptized there on April 26, 1564. Young William was born of John Shakespeare, a glover and leather merchant, and Mary Arden, a landed local heiress. William, according to the church register, was the third of eight children in the Shakespeare household—three of whom died in childhood. John Shakespeare had a remarkable run of success as a merchant, alderman, and high bailiff of Stratford, during William's early childhood. His fortunes declined, however, in the late 1570s.

There is great conjecture about Shakespeare's childhood years, especially regarding his education. Scholars surmise that Shakespeare attended the grammar school in Stratford. While there are no records extant to prove this claim, Shakespeare's knowledge of Latin and Classical Greek would tend to support this theory. In addition, Shakespeare's first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, wrote that John Shakespeare had placed William "for some time in a free school." John Shakespeare, as a Stratford official, would have been granted a waiver of tuition for his son. As the records do not exist, we do not know how long William may have attended the school, but the literary quality of his works suggests a solid educational foundation. What is certain is that William Shakespeare never proceeded to university schooling, which has contributed to the debate about the authorship of his works.

The next documented event in Shakespeare's life is his marriage to Anne Hathaway on November 28, 1582. William was 18 at the time, and Anne was 26—and pregnant. Their first daughter, Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583. The couple later had twins, Hamnet and Judith, born February 2, 1585 and christened at Holy Trinity. Hamnet died in childhood at the age of 11, on August 11, 1596.

For the seven years following the birth of his twins, William Shakespeare disappears from all records, finally turning up again in London some time in 1592. This period, known as the " Lost Years ," has sparked as much controversy about Shakespeare's life as any period. Rowe notes that young Shakespeare was quite fond of poaching, and may have had to flee Stratford after an incident with Sir Thomas Lucy, whose deer and rabbits he allegedly poached. There is also rumor of Shakespeare working as an assistant schoolmaster in Lancashire for a time, though this is circumstantial at best.

It is estimated that Shakespeare arrived in London around 1588 and began to establish himself as an actor and playwright. Evidently Shakespeare garnered some envy early on, as related by the critical attack of Robert Greene, a London playwright, in 1592: "...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 fac totum , is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country."

Greene's bombast notwithstanding, Shakespeare must have shown considerable promise. By 1594, he was not only acting and writing for the Lord Chamberlain's Men (called the King's Men after the ascension of James I in 1603), but was a managing partner in the operation as well. With Will Kempe, a master comedian, and Richard Burbage, a leading tragic actor of the day, the Lord Chamberlain's Men became a favorite London troupe, patronized by royalty and made popular by the theatre-going public.

Shakespeare's accomplishments are apparent when studied against other playwrights of this age. His company was the most successful in London in his day. He had plays published and sold in octavo editions, or "penny-copies" to the more literate of his audiences. Never before had a playwright enjoyed sufficient acclaim to see his works published and sold as popular literature in the midst of his career. In addition, Shakespeare's ownership share in both the theatrical company and the Globe itself made him as much an entrepeneur as artist. While Shakespeare might not be accounted wealthy by London standards, his success allowed him to purchase New House and retire in comfort to Stratford in 1611.

William Shakespeare wrote his will in 1611 , bequeathing his properties to his daughter Susanna (married in 1607 to Dr. John Hall). To his surviving daughter Judith, he left £300, and to his wife Anne left "my second best bed." William Shakespeare allegedly died on his birthday, April 23, 1616. This is probably more of a romantic myth than reality, but Shakespeare was interred at Holy Trinity in Stratford on April 25. In 1623, two working companions of Shakespeare from the Lord Chamberlain's Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell, printed the First Folio edition of his collected plays, of which half were previously unpublished.

William Shakespeare's legacy is a body of work that will never again be equaled in Western civilization. His words have endured for 400 years, and still reach across the centuries as powerfully as ever. Even in death, he leaves a final piece of verse as his epitaph:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.

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  1. William Shakespeare: Biography, Playwright, Poet

    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.

  2. William Shakespeare

    Shakspere Byname: Bard of Avon or Swan of Avon Baptized: April 26, 1564, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England Died: April 23, 1616, Stratford-upon-Avon

  3. William Shakespeare

    He is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. [3] [4] [5] He is often called England's national poet and the " Bard of Avon" (or simply "the Bard").

  4. William Shakespeare Biography

    An Introduction William Shakespeare was a renowned English poet, playwright, and actor born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. His birthday is most commonly celebrated on 23 April (see When was Shakespeare born ), which is also believed to be the date he died in 1616.

  5. William Shakespeare

    William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a bustling market town 100 miles northwest of London, and baptized there on April 26, 1564. His birthday is traditionally celebrated on April...

  6. Shakespeare's life

    Early life: 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.

  7. Biography of William Shakespeare, Famous Playwright

    William Shakespeare (April 23, 1564-April 23, 1616) wrote at least 37 plays and 154 sonnets, which are considered among the most important and enduring ever written. Although the plays have captured the imagination of theatergoers for centuries, some historians claim that Shakespeare didn't actually write them .

  8. The life and plays of William Shakespeare

    William Shakespeare, (baptized April 26, 1564, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, Eng.—died April 23, 1616, Stratford-upon-Avon), English poet and playwright, often considered the greatest writer in world literature.

  9. William Shakespeare

    William Shakespeare - Poet, Playwright, Bard: Shakespeare lived at a time when ideas and social structures established in the Middle Ages still informed human thought and behaviour. Queen Elizabeth I was God's deputy on earth, and lords and commoners had their due places in society under her, with responsibilities up through her to God and down to those of more humble rank.

  10. BBC History

    William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire and was baptised a few days later on 26 April 1564. His father, John Shakespeare, was a glove maker and wool merchant and his ...

  11. William Shakespeare Biography: The Life Of The Bard

    Blog Shop William Shakespeare Biography Home 1 / William Shakespeare Resources 2 / William Shakespeare Biography This page offers a complete biography of Shakespeare, from birth to death. Read the whole William Shakespeare biography, or skip to the section of Shakespeare's life you're most interested in: Shakespeare's Birth and Family

  12. About William Shakespeare

    William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon. The son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, he was probably educated at the King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford, where he learned Latin and a little Greek and read the Roman dramatists. At eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, a woman seven or eight years his senior.

  13. William Shakespeare biography

    Early Years: 1564 to 1585 The Bard of Avon, as William Shakespeare is also known, was the child of a leather merchant and glover, John Shakespeare. His mother was from a family of landed gentry.

  14. Shakespeare's Biography

    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, the Lord Chamberlain.

  15. William Shakespeare's Life & Times

    1564-1616 In his 52 years of life William Shakespeare transformed himself from the son of a small-town glovemaker to a favorite playwright of Queen Elizabeth and King James. Today he is celebrated as the most popular writer in the English language.

  16. Shakespeare's Life: From the Folger Shakespeare Editions

    Not a biography in the traditional sense, Dutton's very readable work nevertheless "follows the contours of Shakespeare's life" as it examines Shakespeare's career as playwright and poet, with consideration of his patrons, theatrical associations, and audience. Honan, Park. Shakespeare: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

  17. Timeline of Shakespeare's Life

    Playwright, actor & shareholder Shakespeare the poet Family, legal & property records Shakespeare Documented features all primary sources that document the life and career of William Shakespeare. It has images, descriptions, and transcriptions of 500 manuscripts and printed works.

  18. William Shakespeare

    William Shakespeare - Poet, Playwright, Dramatist: Readers and playgoers in Shakespeare's own lifetime, and indeed until the late 18th century, never questioned Shakespeare's authorship of his plays. He was a well-known actor from Stratford who performed in London's premier acting company, among the great actors of his day. He was widely known by the leading writers of his time as well ...

  19. William Shakespeare

    1564-1616 Circa 1600, English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616). (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images) While William Shakespeare's reputation is based primarily on his plays, he became famous first as a poet.

  20. William Shakespeare

    William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) once wrote, "Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears, moist it again, and frame some feeling line, that may discover such integrity.". William Shakespeare is undoubtedly the most famous name in English literature, having contributed plays, poems, and other writings which have stood the test of ...

  21. Why Is William Shakespeare's Life Considered a Mystery?

    In the words of Charles Dickens: "The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery, and I tremble every day lest something should turn up.". Since Shakespeare's time, some critics and scholars have ...

  22. A Scholarly Analysis of Shakespeare's Life That Reads Like a Detective

    Shakespeare was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he married Anne Hathaway at the age of 18, had three children with her and left town — only returning for good late in life. He ...

  23. Shakespeare Resource Center

    Shakespeare Biography From Absolute Shakespeare; describes all that is known about Shakespeare's life from available documentation including court and church records, marriage certificates and criticisms by Shakespeare's rivals. Shakespeare's Biography (Shakespeare Online) An in-depth and accurate biography of William Shakespeare.