William Shakespeare

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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William Shakespeare

The Chandos portrait, artist and authenticity unconfirmed (National Portrait Gallery, London, currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.).
Born: April 1564 (exact date unknown)
Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
Died: 23 April 1616
Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
Occupation: Playwright, poet, actor

William Shakespeare (baptised 26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616)[a] was an English poet and playwright now widely regarded as the greatest writer of the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist.[1] His surviving works include at least 38 plays,[b] two long narrative poems, 154 sonnets, and a few other poems. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon" (or simply "The Bard"). He is the world's most performed playwright, and his works have been translated into every major living language.[2]

Shakespeare was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, and at the age of 18 married Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children: Susanna, and twins Hamnet and Judith. Sometime between 1585 and 1592 Shakespeare moved to London, where he found success as an actor, writer, and part-owner of the playing company the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later known as the King's Men). Shakespeare appears to have retired to Stratford around 1613, and died there three years later. Few records survive concerning Shakespeare's private life, and considerable speculation has been poured into this void,[3] including questions about his sexuality, religious beliefs, and whether the works attributed to him were actually written by others.[4]

Shakespeare produced most of his known work between 1590 and 1612. He is one of the few playwrights of the time considered to have excelled in both tragedy and comedy, and many of his dramas, including Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear, are ranked among the greatest plays of Western literature.[5] Shakespeare greatly influenced subsequent theatre and literature through his innovative use of plot, language, and genre. He ultimately influenced the English language itself, and many of his quotations and neologisms are in everyday use. Among literary and dramatic critics, Shakespeare is probably best known for creating realistic characters, capable of expressing the full range of human experience, in an era when dramatic characters were either flat or merely archetypes. Even villains such as Macbeth and Shylock could elicit understanding—if not sympathy—because they were portrayed as recognizably flawed human beings.


  • 1 Life
    • 1.1 Early life
    • 1.2 London and theatrical career
    • 1.3 Later years
  • 2 Plays
    • 2.1 Performances
    • 2.2 Textual sources
  • 3 Poems
    • 3.1 Sonnets
  • 4 Style
  • 5 Influence
  • 6 Critical reputation
  • 7 Speculation about Shakespeare
    • 7.1 Authorship
    • 7.2 Religion
    • 7.3 Sexuality
  • 8 Bibliography
    • 8.1 Classification of the plays
    • 8.2 Listings
  • 9 Notes and references
    • 9.1 Notes
    • 9.2 References
  • 10 External links


Main article: Shakespeare's life

Early life

John Shakespeare's House in Stratford-Upon-Avon, now the home of the  Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
John Shakespeare's House in Stratford-Upon-Avon, now the home of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

William Shakespeare (also spelled Shaxpere, Shakspere, Shak-speare, and Shake-speare)[c] was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1564,[6] the son of John Shakespeare, a successful glover and alderman originally from Snitterfield, and Mary Arden, the daughter of an affluent landowning farmer.[7] He was the third child of eight and the eldest surviving son.[8] The family house on Henley Street is assumed to be Shakespeare's birthplace, though firm evidence is lacking and scholars have suggested other possibilities.[9] Shakespeare was christened on 26 April. His unknown birthday is traditionally observed on 23 April, St George's Day,[10] a date with an appealing symmetry, since Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616.[11]

Shakespeare probably attended King's New School in Stratford, about a quarter of a mile from the family home on Henley Street.[12] The school was chartered as a free school in 1553,[13] but no attendance records for the period survive.[14] Although Elizabethan-era grammar schools varied in quality, the curriculum had been nationally standardised by royal edict,[15] so the school would have provided an intensive education in Latin grammar and classical literature.[16]

At the age of 18, Shakespeare married the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway.[17] The Diocese of Worcester consistory court issued a marriage licence on 27 November 1582,[18] and two Hathaway neighbours posted bonds on 28 November as surety that no impediments to the marriage existed. The couple may have arranged the ceremony in some haste, because the Worcester chancellor reduced the required number of the preliminary readings of the marriage banns from three to one.[19] A reason for haste may have been Anne's pregnancy: she gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, baptised on 26 May 1583. Twins, son Hamnet and daughter Judith, were born almost two years later and baptised on 2 February 1585. Hamnet died of unknown causes at the age of 11 and was buried on 11 August 1596.[20]

After the birth of the twins, Shakespeare left few historical traces until he was mentioned as part of the London theatrical scene in 1592. As a result, the years between 1585 and 1592 are known as Shakespeare's “lost years”.[21] Biographers attempting to account for this period have reported numerous apocryphal stories. Nicholas Rowe, Shakespeare’s first biographer, recounts a Stratford legend that Shakespeare fled the town for London to escape prosecution for deer poaching.[22] John Aubrey reported that Shakespeare had been a country schoolmaster,[23] a tale augmented in the 20th century with the theory that his employer might have been Alexander Hoghton of Lancashire, a landowner who left money in his will to a certain "Shakeshafte".[24] Another 18th-century story has Shakespeare starting his theatrical career minding the horses of theatre patrons in London.[25] No evidence supports such stories other than hearsay collected after Shakespeare's death.[26]

London and theatrical career

It is not known exactly when Shakespeare began writing, but contemporary allusions and records of performances indicate that several of his plays were on the London stage by 1592.[27] By then Shakespeare was well enough known in London to be attacked in print by a fellow playwright, Robert Greene, who called him "an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Iohannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey."[28] Although scholars differ on the exact interpretation of Greene's words, most agree that he accuses Shakespeare of getting above himself in thinking he can write as well as university-educated playwrights such as Greene himself.[29] The italicised line parodying the phrase "Oh, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 3, along with the pun "Shake-scene", identifies Shakespeare as Greene’s target.[30]

"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..."

— Famous lines from Shakespeare's comedy

As You Like It, Act II Scene 7

Greene’s attack is the first reference to Shakespeare’s career as an actor; and biographers speculate that his career may have begun any time from the mid-1580s until just before Greene’s attack.[31] From 1594, Shakespeare's plays were performed exclusively by the playing company known usually as the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which was owned by a syndicate of players including Shakespeare and became the leading theatrical company in London.[32] After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, the company came under the patronage of the new king, James I, and changed its name to the King's Men.[33] Evidence from both textual and documentary sources indicates that Shakespeare tailored the roles in his plays to the individual members of the troupe.[34]

In 1599, some members of the company formed another partnership that built a theatre across the Thames just outside London, the Globe, and leased it to the playing company. In 1608, the partnership took possession of an indoor theatre, the Blackfriars, also leasing it to the playing company. This interest in both the playing company and the theatre-owning company—not writing plays—made Shakespeare and his fellow actor-sharers wealthy,[35] enabling him to buy and renovate the second-largest house in Stratford, New Place, in 1597, to purchase a share of the parish tithes in Stratford in 1605, and to buy property near the theatre in Blackfriars in 1613.[36]

Some of Shakespeare's plays were published in quarto editions from 1594; but his name did not appear on title pages until 1598,[37] by which time it had become a selling point.[38] Shakespeare continued to act in his own and other plays after he had established himself as a playwright. The 1616 edition of Ben Jonson's Works names Shakespeare on the cast lists for Every Man in His Humour and Sejanus, His Fall, produced in 1598 and 1603;[39] his name is absent, however, from the 1605 cast list for Jonson’s Volpone, which some scholars interpret as evidence that his acting career was winding down.[40] The First Folio of 1623 lists Shakespeare as one of "the Principal Actors in all these Plays"; but we cannot name for certain any of the roles he played.[41]John Davies of Hereford wrote in 1610 that "good Will" played "kingly" roles,[42] and in 1709 Rowe passed down a tradition that he played the ghost of Hamlet's father.[43] Less established traditions have suggested, with little scholarly basis,[44] that Shakespeare played Adam in As You Like It and the Chorus in Henry V.[45]

Shakespeare divided his time between London and Stratford during his career, but he referred to himself as “William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon” in personal legal documents. In 1596, the year before he bought New Place as his family home in Stratford, Shakespeare was living in the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, north of the River Thames.[46] He moved across the river to Southwark by 1599, the year his company constructed the Globe Theatre there.[47] By 1604, he had moved north of the river again, lodging in a middle-class neighbourhood north of St Paul's Cathedral with the French Huguenot family of Christopher Mountjoy, a maker of women’s wigs and ornamental head dresses.[48] In 1612, Shakespeare was called as a witness in a court case concerning the marriage settlement of the daughter of the house, Mary, for whose betrothal to the Mountjoys’ apprentice he appears to have once acted as a go-between.[49] In March 1613, Shakespeare bought a gatehouse in Blackfriars near the theatre, [50] and he was in London for several weeks from November 1614 with his son-in-law, John Hall.[51] In Spring 1615, Shakespeare and six others entered a bill of complaint against Matthew Bacon for withholding the deeds of certain properties in Blackfriars, though there is no evidence that Shakespeare attended to the matter in person.[52]

After 1606–7, Shakespeare wrote fewer plays, and he wrote none after 1613.[53] His last three plays were collaborations, probably with John Fletcher,[54] who succeeded him as the house playwright for the King’s Men.[55]

Shakespeare's funerary monument in Stratford-upon-Avon
Shakespeare's funerary monument in Stratford-upon-Avon

Later years

Rowe was the first biographer to pass down the tradition that Shakespeare retired to Stratford some years before his death, but the practice of retiring did not exist in its modern form at the time.[56] Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616,[57] the day traditionally presumed to be his birthday, survived by his wife and their two daughters, Susanna and Judith. Susanna had married a physician, John Hall, in 1607, and Judith had married Thomas Quiney, a hatter, in 1616, two months before Shakespeare’s death.[58]

In his will Shakespeare left the bulk of his large estate to his daughter, Susanna Hall.[59] Shakespeare sought to hold together the real property of the estate for a male heir, and so he entailed Susanna’s share to be handed down to her eldest male heir upon her death, or to the eldest male heir of her daughter in case Susanna produced no sons, or, failing that, to the eldest male heir of Judith.[60] The Quineys had four children, all of whom died without marrying, and the Halls had one child, Elizabeth, who married twice but died without children in 1670, thus ending Shakespeare’s direct line.[61] Shakespeare may have expected his will to be challenged,[62] and he drafted his will in an unbreakable form, the solemn testament, to forestall any legal challenges.[63]

Shakespeare's 1605 purchase of a half-share in the Stratford tithes qualified him as a lay rector of the Holy Trinity Church and entitled him to be buried inside the sanctuary,[64] and he was buried in the chancel close to the north wall two days after his death.[65] Sometime before 1623, a monument was erected on the north wall with a bust depicting Shakespeare in the act of writing and an epitaph comparing him to Virgil.[66]


Main article: Shakespeare's plays

The first recorded works of Shakespeare are the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, written in the early 1590s during a vogue for historical drama. Shakespeare's plays are difficult to date, however,[67] and studies of the texts suggest that Titus Andronicus, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew and Two Gentlemen of Verona may also belong to Shakespeare’s earliest period.[68] The early histories, which draw heavily on the 1587 edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland,[69] dramatise the evil results of weak or corrupt rule and have been seen as justifying the origins of the Tudor dynasty.[70] Their composition was influenced by the works of other Elizabethan dramatists, especially Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe, by the traditions of medieval drama, and by the plays of Seneca, with their rhetoric and bloodthirstiness.[71] The Comedy of Errors was also based on classical models; but no source for the The Taming of the Shrew has been found, though it is related to a separate play called The Taming of a Shrew and may have derived from a folk story.[72] Like Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which two friends appear to approve of rape,[73] the Shrew's story of the taming of a woman's independent spirit by a man presents difficulties for modern critics and directors.[74]

The Italian and classical style of Shakespeare's early comedies gives way in the mid 1590s to the romantic atmosphere of his greatest comedies.[75] A Midsummer Night's Dream is a witty mixture of romance, fairy magic, and comic low-life scenes;[76] but the next comedy, the equally romantic The Merchant of Venice, contains a racist portrayal of the vengeful Jewish moneylender Shylock that may trouble modern audiences.[77] The wit and wordplay of Much Ado About Nothing,[78] the charming rural setting of As You Like It, and the lively merrymaking of Twelfth Night complete Shakespeare's sequence of great comedies.[79] After the poetic Richard II, Shakespeare introduced comic writing into the mature histories of the late 1590s, Henry IV, parts I and 2, and Henry V. His characters become more complex and tender as he switches deftly between comic and serious scenes, prose and poetry, and achieves the narrative variety of his mature art.[80] This period begins and ends with two tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, the famous romantic tragedy of sexually charged adolescence, love, and death;[81] and Julius Caesar—based on Sir Thomas North's 1579 translation of Plutarch's Parallel Lives—which introduced a new kind of drama.[82]

Shakespeare's tragic period lasted from about 1600 to 1608.[83] In his greatest tragedies, according to most critics, Shakespeare wrote his deepest portrayals of human beings, in his richest poetry. The hero of the first of the great tragedies, Hamlet, has probably been more discussed than any other Shakespearian character, especially for his famous soliloquy "To be or not to be; that is the question."[84] The play’s theme of disillusionment continues through Othello and King Lear; though these title characters are undone by tragic impulses rather than hesitation .[85] The fates of Shakespeare's tragic heroes hinge on a fatal flaw or error through which evil overturns order,[86] until that flaw finally destroys the hero and order is restored.[87] In Othello, the hero’s flaw is sexual jealousy, stoked by the villain Iago to a pitch that results in the butchery of the innocent Desdemona.[88] In King Lear, an old king commits the tragic error of giving up his powers, a decision which destroys order and unleashes scenes of unrelieved cruelty.[89] In Macbeth, the shortest and most popular of Shakespeare's four great tragedies, uncontrollable ambition incites Macbeth and his wife to murder the rightful king and usurp the throne, until their own guilt destroys them in turn, assisted by supernatural forces.[90] Shakespeare's last major tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, contain some of Shakespeare's finest poetry and were considered his most successful tragedies by the poet and critic T.S.Eliot.[91]

In his final period, Shakespeare turned to romance or tragicomedy and completed three more major plays: Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. Less bleak and more artificial than the tragedies, these plays are graver in tone than the comedies of the 1590s, but they end with reconciliation and the forgiveness of tragic errors.[92] Some commentators have seen this change as evidence of a more serene view of life on Shakespeare's part, but it may merely reflect the theatrical fashion of the day.[93] Shakespeare collaborated on two further surviving plays, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, probably with John Fletcher.[94]


It is not clear for whom Shakespeare wrote his early plays; the title page of the 1594 edition of Titus Andronicus reveals that it had been acted by three different companies.[95] After the plagues of 1592–3, Shakespeare's plays were performed by his own company at The Theatre and the Curtain in Shoreditch, north of the Thames.[96] Londoners flocked there to see the first part of Henry IV, Leonard Digges recording, "Let but Falstaff come, Hal, Poins, the rest...and you scarce shall have a room".[97] When the company found themselves in dispute with their landlord, they pulled The Theatre down and used the timbers to construct the Globe Theatre, the first playhouse built by actors for actors, on the south bank of the Thames at Southwark.[98] The Globe opened in autumn 1599, with Julius Caesar one of the first plays staged. Most of Shakespeare's greatest post-1599 plays were written for the Globe, including Hamlet, Othello and King Lear.[99]

After the Lord Chamberlain's Men were renamed the King's Men in 1603, they began a special relationship with the new King James. Performance records are patchy, but we know that the King's Men performed seven of Shakespeare's plays at court between 1 November 1604 and 31 October 1605, including two performances of The Merchant of Venice.[100] After 1608, they performed at the indoor Blackfriars Theatre during the winter and the Globe during the summer.[101] The indoor setting, combined with the Jacobean vogue for lavishly staged masques, created new conditions for performance which enabled Shakepeare to introduce more elaborate stage devices. In Cymbeline, for example, Jupiter descends "in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt. The ghosts fall on their knees."[102]

The actors in Shakespeare's company included Richard Burbage, Will Kempe, Henry Condell and John Heminges. Burbage played the leading role in the first performances of many of Shakespeare's plays, including Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.[103] The popular comic actor Will Kempe played Peter in Romeo and Juliet and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, among other parts. He was replaced around the turn of the sixteenth century by Robert Armin, who played roles such as Touchstone in As You Like It and the fool in King Lear.[104] On 29 June 1613, during one of the first performances of Henry VIII, a cannon set fire to the thatch of the Globe and burned the theatre to the ground, an event which pinpoints the date of a Shakespeare play with rare precision. Sir Henry Wotton recorded that the play "was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and ceremony".[105]

For a history of the performance of Shakespeare's plays, see Performance history.

Textual sources

Image of Shakespeare from the First Folio (1623), the first collected edition of his plays
Image of Shakespeare from the First Folio (1623), the first collected edition of his plays

Many of Shakespeare's plays were printed during his lifetime in quarto versions—flimsy books made from sheets of paper folded twice to make four leaves;[106] but no evidence links Shakespeare with their publication. Scholars, beginning with Alfred Pollard, have labelled some of these as "bad quartos" because of their adapted, paraphrased or garbled texts, which may in places have been reconstructed from memory.[107] The bad quartos were described as "stol'n and surreptitious copies" in the First Folio, a collected edition of Shakespeare's plays published in 1623 by two of Shakespeare's colleagues from the King's Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell.[108] The First Folio contains 36 plays, including eighteen printed for the first time.[109]

Where several texts survive for a play, each differs from the other, sometimes significantly. The differences may stem from Shakespeare's own foul papers, from printers' or scribal errors, theatrical prompt-books, streamlined performing versions, or texts noted by actors and spectators from performances.[110] In some cases, for example Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida and Othello, the differences between a quarto and a folio text may be the result of Shakespeare's own revision; this is particularly likely for King Lear, where the folio version is structurally distinct from that of the 1608 quarto.[111]


In 1593 and 1594, while the theatres were closed because of plague, Shakespeare published two narrative poems on erotic themes, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, both influenced by Ovid's Metamorphoses.[112] The poems work in antithesis to each other: in Venus and Adonis, a chaste Adonis repudiates the sexual advances of Venus; while in The Rape of Lucrece, an innocent Lucrece is raped by the lustful Tarquin.[113] Displaying classical rhetoric, brilliant wordplay and vividly detailed imagery, the poems explore the nature of uncontrolled lust and its consequences: sexual guilt and moral confusion.[114] Of Venus and Adonis, the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of many to regard it as a masterpiece, wrote: "You seem to be told nothing, but to see and hear everything".[115] The Rape of Lucrece, which Shakespeare dedicated, like its predecessor, to Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, is considered the less successful of the two poems, the critic William Empson describing its personifications of Night, Time and Opportunity as "the Bard doing five-finger exercises in rhetoric at the piano".[116] Both works, however, earned popularity and many reprints during Shakespeare's lifetime. A third narrative poem in the Ovidian tradition, A Lover's Complaint, was appended to the first edition of the Sonnets in 1609; and though its authority has been questioned, most scholars now endorse the original attribution to Shakespeare.[117] This text, in which a young woman laments her seduction by a persuasive suitor, is viewed by critics as interesting but marred by leaden effects.[118] Poems by Shakespeare also appeared in two collections: The Phoenix and the Turtle, Shakespeare's contribution to Robert Chester's 1601 compilation Love's Martyr, was an allegorical celebration of ideal love, mourning the deaths of the legendary phoenix and his lover, the faithful turtle dove; and a largely mediocre collection called The Passionate Pilgrim, published in 1599 under Shakespeare's name but without his permission, included five poems confidently attributed to him, including two early drafts of sonnets 138 and 144.[119]

Main article: Shakespeare's sonnets

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate..."

— Famous lines from Shakespeare's Sonnet 18. [120]

Published in 1609, the Sonnets were the last of Shakespeare's non-dramatic works to be printed. Scholars are not certain when each of the 154 sonnets was composed, but evidence suggests that Shakespeare wrote sonnets throughout his career for a private readership.[121] Even before the two unauthorised sonnets appeared in The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599, Francis Meres had referred in 1598 to Shakespeare's "sugred Sonnets among his private friends".[122] Few analysts believe that the published collection follows Shakespeare's intended sequence.[123] He seems to have planned two contrasting series: one about uncontrollable lust for a married woman of dark complexion (the "dark lady"), and one about pure love for a fair young man (the "fair youth"); but, despite many theories, it remains unclear if these figures represent real individuals, or if the authorial "I" who addresses them represents Shakespeare himself, though Wordsworth believed that with the sonnets "Shakespeare unlocked his heart".[124] The 1609 edition was dedicated to a "Mr. W.H.", credited as "the only begetter" of the poems. Whether this was written by Shakespeare himself or by the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, whose initials appear at the foot of the dedication page, is not known; nor is it known who Mr. W.H. was—though theories abound, including that he was the "fair youth" addressed in the text—or whether Shakespeare even authorised the publication.[125] Despite these difficulties, critics praise the Sonnets as a profound meditation on the nature of love, sexual passion, procreation, death, and time.[126]


Main article: Shakespeare's style
Reconstructed Globe theatre, London.
Reconstructed Globe theatre, London.

Shakespeare wrote his first plays in a stylised language that does not always spring naturally from the needs of the characters or the drama.[127] The grand speeches in Titus Andronicus, for example, often hold up the action; and much of the verse in Two Gentleman of Verona is stilted.[128] Soon, however, Shakespeare began to adapt the traditional styles to his own purposes. The opening soliloquy of Richard III has its origins in the self-declaration of the Vice in medieval drama, but Richard’s vivid self-awareness looks forward to the soliloquies of Shakespeare's mature plays.[129] No single play marks a change from the traditional to the freer style; Shakespeare combined the two throughout his career, with Romeo and Juliet perhaps the best example of the mixing of the styles.[130] By the time of Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, and A Midsummer Night's Dream in the mid 1590s, Shakespeare was writing a more natural poetry, the metaphors and images increasingly tuned to the needs of the drama itself.

Shakespeare's standard poetic form was blank verse, composed in iambic pentameter, but the blank verse of his later plays is quite different from that of his early ones. The early blank verse is often beautiful, but its sentences tend to start, pause, and finish at the end of lines, with the risk of monotony.[131] Once Shakespeare mastered traditional blank verse, he began to interrupt and vary its flow; this technique contributes to the increased power and flexibility of the poetry in plays such as Julius Caesar and Hamlet. After Hamlet, Shakespeare varied his poetic style further, particularly in the more emotional passages of the late tragedies. The literary critic A.C.Bradley described this style as "more concentrated, rapid, varied, and, in construction, less regular, not seldom twisted or elliptical".[132] In the last phase of his career, Shakespeare adopted many techniques to achieve these effects, including run-on lines, irregular pauses and stops, and extreme variations in sentence structure and length.[133] In Macbeth, for example, the language darts from one metaphor to another ("was the hope drunk when you dressed yourself"; "pity, like a naked new-born babe"), challenging the listener to complete the sense.[133] The late romances, with their shifts in time and surprising turns of plot, inspired a last poetic style in which, as Charles Lamb wrote, Shakespeare "mingles everything...runs line into line, embarrasses sentences and metaphors".[134]

Shakespeare's poetic genius was allied with a practical sense of the theatre.[135] Like all playwrights of the time, Shakespeare dramatised stories from sources such as Petrarch and Holinshed; but his ability to turn this material into theatre surpassed that of his competitors.[136] He reshaped each plot to create several centres of interest and expose as many aspects of a narrative to the audience as possible. This strength of design ensures that a Shakespeare play can survive translation, cutting and diverse interpretation without loss to its core drama.[137] As Shakespeare’s mastery grew, he gave his characters clearer and more varied motivations and distinctive patterns of speech. He preserved aspects of his earlier style in the later plays, however, and in his late romances deliberately returned to a more artificial style.[138]


See also: Shakespeare's influence and Shakespeare's influence on the English language

Shakespeare created some of the most admired plays in Western literature, with Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear considered among the world's greatest.[139] By expanding the dramatic possibilities of characterisation, plot, language, and genre, Shakespeare exerted a major influence on subsequent theatre and literature.[140] In Romeo and Juliet, for example, he mixed romance and tragedy to create a new form; until then, romance had not been considered a worthy topic for tragedy.[141] Shakespeare extended the range of expression of the soliloquy, using it not only to convey information about characters or events but to explore characters' inner motivations and conflict.[142] His work heavily influenced later poetry; the Romantic poets even attempted to revive Shakespearian verse drama, with little success. Literary critic George Steiner described all English poetic dramas from Coleridge to Tennyson as "feeble variations on Shakespearean themes."[143]

Shakespeare influenced many novelists, including Thomas Hardy,[144] William Faulkner,[145] and Charles Dickens. Dickens quoted Shakespeare liberally, taking 25 of his titles from his works.[146] Herman Melville frequently used Shakespearean devices such as the extended soliloquy, and Moby Dick's protagonist, Captain Ahab, is a classic tragic hero, inspired by King Lear.[147] Scholars have identified 20,000 pieces of music associated with Shakespeare's works, among them two operas by Giuseppe Verdi, Otello and Falstaff, which have earned a critical standing comparable to that of their source plays.[148]

Shakespeare wrote at a time when English grammar and spelling were not fixed, and his use of language helped shape modern English, particularly during his rise to fame in the eighteenth century, when writers of dictionaries illustrated word use by quoting the best authors.[149] Samuel Johnson quoted Shakespeare more often than any other author in his Dictionary of the English Language, the first authoritative work of its type;[150] and other standardization projects helped ensure the absorption of Shakespearean language into English. Many of Shakespeare's coinages and idiomatic expressions, such as "with bated breath" (Merchant of Venice) and "a foregone conclusion" (Othello), have found their way into everyday English speech.[151]

The literary critic Harold Bloom suggests that Shakespeare has influenced not only modern language but the way we think of ourselves, claiming that "all of us were, to a shocking degree, pragmatically reinvented by Shakespeare".[152] He points to Sigmund Freud's use of Shakespearian psychology, in particular that of Hamlet, in devising his influential theories of human nature, and calls Shakespeare "the inventor of psychoanalysis", with Freud its codifier.[153]

Critical reputation

Main articles: Shakespeare's reputation and Timeline of Shakespeare criticism

"He was not of an age, but for all time."

—Ben Jonson, epitaph to Shakespeare.[154]

Shakespeare's contemporaries were usually generous in their response to his work, but he was never revered during his lifetime.[155] In 1598, Francis Meres singled him out from a group of English poets, which he compared to the greats of Greece and Rome, as "the most excellent" among English playwrights in both comedy and tragedy.[156] The authors of the Parnassus plays performed at St John's College, Cambridge, between 1598 and 1601, mentioned Shakespeare alongside Chaucer, Gower and Spenser.[157] Ben Jonson, in his prefatory poem to the First Folio, extolled Shakespeare as "Soul of the age, the applause, delight, the wonder of our stage"; though he had once remarked that "Shakespeare wanted art".[158]

According to the critical consensus of the Restoration period, when literary taste favoured the principles of neoclassicism, Shakespeare was ranked below John Fletcher and Ben Jonson.[159] The neoclassical critic Thomas Rymer condemned Shakespeare's mixture of the comic and tragic and his failure to observe the three unities of classical theory. But critic and poet John Dryden, though often critical of Shakespeare, rated him above Fletcher and Jonson, saying of the latter, "I admire him, but I love Shakespeare".[160] For several decades, Rymer's view held sway; but during the middle years of the eighteenth century, an increasing appreciation of Shakespeare's natural genius began to outweigh the lingering influence of neoclassical criticism; and by the end of the century, Shakespeare was acclaimed as the national poet.[161] The publication of a series of annotated critical editions of his work, most notably those of Samuel Johnson in 1765 and Edmond Malone in 1790, secured his rise to critical pre-eminence.[162] In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Shakespeare's works gradually earned a reputation outside Britain, benefiting from the advocacy of Voltaire, Goethe, Stendhal and Victor Hugo.[163]

"There is no eminent writer. whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his."

—George Bernard Shaw[164]

During the Romantic era, Shakespeare was championed by such influential figures as the poet and literary philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the critic August Wilhelm Schlegel, whose translations of the plays were influenced by the spirit of German Romanticism.[165] In the nineteenth century, the critical admiration of Shakespeare's genius evolved into something approaching adulation:[166] "That King Shakespeare," wrote the essayist Thomas Carlyle in 1840, "does not he shine, in crowned sovereignty, over us all, as the noblest, gentlest, yet strongest of rallying signs; indestructible".[167] The Victorians added to Shakespeare’s deification by producing his plays as lavish, reverential spectacles, conceived on the grand scale.[168] At the end of the Victorian period, the critic and playwright George Bernard Shaw mocked the cult of Shakespeare worship as "bardolatry", declaring that the naturalism of Ibsen had rendered Shakespeare obsolete and disposable.[169]

However, the modernist revolution in the arts during the early twentieth century, far from discarding Shakespeare, eagerly enlisted his work in the service of the avant garde. The Expressionists in Germany and the Futurists in pre-revolutionary Moscow mounted modernist productions of Shakespeare's plays; Marxist playwright and director Bertolt Brecht devised an epic theatre under the influence of Shakespeare; and the poet and critic T.S.Eliot argued decisively against Shaw that Shakespeare's "primitiveness" in effect made him truly modern.[170] Eliot, along with G.Wilson Knight and the school of New Criticism, led a movement towards a closer reading of Shakespeare's imagery; but by the 1950s, modernism itself had become a historical phenomenon, replaced by a more diverse set of critical imperatives that no longer regarded the literary text as a sacrosanct artefact with a comprehensible set of meanings.[171] These analytic processes, by the eighties labelled "postmodern", have opened up Shakespeare scholarship to the insights of movements such as structuralism, feminism, African American studies, and queer studies, which reinterpret Shakespeare in the context of contemporary political and cultural concerns.[172]

Speculation about Shakespeare


Main article: Shakespearean authorship question

Around 150 years after Shakespeare's death, doubts began to emerge about the authorship of Shakespeare's works.[173] Alternative candidates proposed include Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.[174] Although all alternative candidates are rejected in academic circles, popular interest in the subject, particularly the Oxfordian theory, has continued into the 21st century.[175]


Main article: Shakespeare's religion

Some scholars claim that members of Shakespeare's family were recusant Catholics, at a time when many Catholic practices were illegal, most notably the celebration of mass.[176] The strongest evidence is a Catholic testament of faith signed by John Shakespeare, which was discovered in 1757 in the rafters of his former house in Henley Street, though the manuscript has since been lost and scholars are divided on its genuineness.[177] Added to the circumstantial evidence are the following: the reporting of John Shakespeare as not attending church services "for fear of process for debt", a common recusant excuse; the prominent Catholic background of Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden; and the listing of William's daughter Susanna among Stratford residents who "did not appear" at Protestant Easter communion in 1606.[178] However, the conjecture that Shakespeare was a Catholic is not universally accepted among scholars.[179]


Main article: Sexuality of William Shakespeare

There is little direct evidence of Shakespeare's sexuality. At 18, he married Anne Hathaway, then 26 and pregnant with Susanna, first of their three children, who was born six months later on 26 May 1583; but after only three years of marriage, he left his family and moved to London.[180] Scholars have pointed to Shakespeare's sonnets, particularly the twenty-six so-called "Dark Lady" sonnets addressed to a married woman, as evidence of affairs with women.[181] In recent decades, some scholars have detected possible homoerotic allusions in Shakespeare's works, concluding that he may have been bisexual; while others interpret the same passages as the expression of intense friendship rather than sexual love.[182]


Main article: List of Shakespeare's works

Classification of the plays

Shakespeare's works include the 36 plays printed in the First Folio of 1623, listed below according to their folio classification as comedies, histories and tragedies.[183] Shakespeare did not write every word of the plays attributed to him; and several show signs of collaboration, a common practice at the time.[184] Two plays not included in the First Folio, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, are now accepted as part of the canon, scholars accepting Shakespeare's major contribution to their composition.[185] No poems were included in the First Folio.

In the late nineteenth century, Edward Dowden classified four of the late comedies as romances, and though many scholars prefer to call them tragicomedies, his term is now the norm.[186] These plays and the associated Two Noble Kinsmen are marked with an asterisk (*) below. In 1896, F.S.Boas coined the term "problem plays" to describe four plays: All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet.[187] "Dramas as singular in theme and temper cannot be strictly called comedies or tragedies", he wrote. "We may therefore borrow a convenient phrase from the theatre of today and class them together as Shakespeare's problem plays." [188] The term, much debated and sometimes applied to other plays, remains in use, though Hamlet is definitively classed as a tragedy.[189] The other problem plays are marked below with a double dagger (‡).

Plays thought to be only partly written by Shakespeare are marked with a dagger (†) below. Other works occasionally attributed to him are listed as lost plays or apocrypha.


Main article: Shakespearean comedy
  • The Tempest*
  • The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Measure for Measure
  • The Comedy of Errors
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Love's Labour's Lost
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • As You Like It
  • Taming of the Shrew
  • All's Well That Ends Well
  • Twelfth Night, or What You Will
  • The Winter's Tale*
  • Pericles, Prince of Tyre*†[e]
  • The Two Noble Kinsmen*†[f]
  • Cymbeline*
Main article: Shakespearean histories
  • King John
  • Richard II
  • Henry IV, part 1
  • Henry IV, part 2
  • Henry V
  • Henry VI, part 1[g]
  • Henry VI, part 2
  • Henry VI, part 3
  • Richard III
  • Henry VIII[h]
Main article: Shakespearean tragedy
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Coriolanus
  • Titus Andronicus[i]
  • Timon of Athens[j]
  • Julius Caesar
  • Macbeth[k]
  • Hamlet
  • Troilus and Cressida
  • King Lear
  • Othello
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Shakespeare's Sonnets
  • Venus and Adonis
  • The Rape of Lucrece
  • The Passionate Pilgrim[m]
  • The Phoenix and the Turtle
  • A Lover's Complaint
Lost plays
  • Love's Labour's Won
  • Cardenio[l]
Main article: Shakespeare Apocrypha
  • The Birth of Merlin
  • Locrine
  • The London Prodigal
  • The Puritan
  • The Second Maiden's Tragedy
  • Sir John Oldcastle
  • Thomas Lord Cromwell
  • A Yorkshire Tragedy
  • Edward III

Notes and references


  • a. ^  Dates use the Julian Calendar. Under the Gregorian calendar, Shakespeare was baptised on May 6 and died on May 3.[190]
  • b. ^  The exact figures are unknowable. See Shakespeare's collaborations and Shakespeare Apocrypha for further details.

    c. ^  Spelling was not fixed in Elizabethan times, hence the variation.[191]

    d. ^  An essay by Harold Brooks suggests Marlowe's Edward II influenced Shakespeare's Richard III,[192] Other scholars discount this, pointing out that the parallels are commonplace. [193]

    e. ^  Most scholars believe that Pericles was co-written with George Wilkins.[194]

    f. ^  The Two Noble Kinsmen was co-written with John Fletcher. [195]

    g. ^  Henry VI, Part 1 is often thought to be the work of a group of collaborators; but some scholars, for example Michael Hattaway, believe the play was wholly written by Shakespeare.[196]

    h. ^  Henry VIII was co-written with John Fletcher. [197]

    i. ^  Brian Vickers argues that Titus Andronicus was co-written with George Peele, though Jonathan Bate, the play's most recent editor for the Arden Shakespeare, believes it to be wholly the work of Shakespeare.[198]

    j. ^  Brian Vickers and others argue that Timon of Athens was co-written with Thomas Middleton, though some commentators disagree.[199]

    k. ^  The text of Macbeth which survives has plainly been altered by later hands. Most notable is the inclusion of two songs from Thomas Middleton's play The Witch (1615)[200]

    l. ^  Cardenio was apparently co-written with John Fletcher.[201]

    m. ^  The Passionate Pilgrim, published under Shakespeare's name in 1599 without his permission, includes early versions of two of his sonnets, three extracts from Love's Labour's Lost, several poems known to be by other poets, and eleven poems of unknown authorship for which the attribution to Shakespeare has not been disproved.[202]

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  • The Internet Shakespeare Editions at the University of Victoria has old spelling versions of all the texts, with newly edited modern texts for some works; facsimiles, an extensive section on the life and times, a growing database of Shakespeare in performance, and a detailed section of links.
  • Designing Shakespeare provides access to 40 years of Shakespearian performance in London and Stratford, including photographs, cast lists, reviews and interviews.
  • The Royal Shakespeare Company. Latest information on current and future productions, ticket sales, merchandising, and press and educational resources.
  • The complete works of William Shakespeare
    Tragedies Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Hamlet | Julius Caesar | King Lear | Macbeth | Othello | Romeo and Juliet | Timon of Athens | Titus Andronicus | Troilus and Cressida
    Comedies All's Well That Ends Well | As You Like It | The Comedy of Errors | Cymbeline | Love's Labour's Lost | Measure for Measure | The Merchant of Venice | The Merry Wives of Windsor | A Midsummer Night's Dream | Much Ado About Nothing | Pericles, Prince of Tyre | The Taming of the Shrew | The Tempest | Twelfth Night, or What You Will | The Two Gentlemen of Verona | The Two Noble Kinsmen | The Winter's Tale
    Histories King John | Richard II | Henry IV, Part 1 | Henry IV, Part 2 | Henry V | Henry VI, part 1 | Henry VI, part 2 | Henry VI, part 3 | Richard III | Henry VIII
    Poems Sonnets | Venus and Adonis | The Rape of Lucrece | The Passionate Pilgrim | The Phoenix and the Turtle | A Lover's Complaint
    Apocrypha and Lost Plays Edward III | Sir Thomas More | Cardenio (lost) | Love's Labour's Won (lost) | The Birth of Merlin | Locrine | The London Prodigal | The Puritan | The Second Maiden's Tragedy | Richard II, Part I: Thomas of Woodstock | Sir John Oldcastle | Thomas Lord Cromwell | A Yorkshire Tragedy | Fair Em | Mucedorus | The Merry Devil of Edmonton | Arden of Faversham | Edmund Ironside | Vortigern and Rowena
    See also Shakespeare's plays | Shakespeare's life | Shakespeare's religion | Shakespeare's sexuality | Shakespeare on screen | Titles based on Shakespeare | Characters | Problem Plays | Historical characters | Ghost characters | Reputation | New Words | Shakespeare's influence | Shakespearean Authorship Question | Chronology of Shakespeare plays | Oxfordian chronology | BBC Television Shakespeare
    NAME Shakespeare, William
    SHORT DESCRIPTION English poet and playwright
    DATE OF BIRTH April, 1564
    PLACE OF BIRTH Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
    DATE OF DEATH April 23, 1616
    PLACE OF DEATH Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England

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