Learning About Shakespeare

Background Info and Resource Guide for Students and Teachers


Some four centuries after his death, William Shakespeare’s legacy endures. A playwright and poet, Shakespeare is thought by many to be the foremost writer of the English language. Even if you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play, you have, no doubt, encountered Shakespeare. He is credited with inventing many words and phrases we use today, and his works have inspired modern movies and books. To help make connecting with Shakespeare more convenient, we created the following Shakespeare Background Info and Resource Guide. Read on to learn about the life, times,and works of Shakespeare; you’ll also find links to even more great information about the Bard of Avon.

Shakespeare at a Glance

Birth: April 1564 (exact day unknown)

Death: April 23, 1616 (age 52)

Hometown: Stratford-upon-Avon

Spouse: Anne Hathaway

Children: Susannah, Judith and Hamnet

Number of Plays: at least 38

Theater Company: Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later changed to the King’s Men)

Nickname: Bard of Avon

Shaping Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s England

William Shakespeare lived in England during a period of relative calm. Many historians describe it as a golden age for the country, especially when comparing it to the preceding decades of often-violent political and religious turmoil.

Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558, six years before Shakespeare was born at Stratford-upon-Avon. During her 45-year reign, England emerged as a leading military and commercial power. It was a time of exploration and expansion: Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe, and expeditions to the Americas brought new sources of wealth to England.

The arts, both dramatic and literary, flourished under Elizabeth. For the first time, true theaters were built in England, and London, where thousands of people attended the theater each week, was the center of the country’s arts scene.

However, Elizabethan England was by no means a utopia. Protestants and Catholics still clashed, as did England and Spain. It was easy to run afoul of the law, described by some as a paranoid police state that bred suspicion. Poverty was widespread, and the population suffered malnourishment, parasites, and bouts of the plague.

Nonetheless, the period remains a high point by many measures. And it proved to be the right time and place to produce the man who would become, at least in the estimation of many, the greatest English-language writer.

Check out these additional resources to learn more about England during Shakespeare’s life:

Shakespeare’s Influences

Shakespeare was a product of the Renaissance, a period between the 14th and 17th centuries that saw Europe emerge from the Middle Ages with advancements in art, technology, and intellectualism. His writing was inspired and influenced by the work of others. A common practice of the day, Shakespeare borrowed extensively from contemporary writers — Romeo and Juliet, for instance, can be traced to an Italian writer of the same period — and he often recycled older works, such as an old Scandinavian story that served as a likely basis for Hamlet. Shakespeare found inspiration in the work of earlier English writers, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, as well as Greek and Latin writers. Parallel Lives by Greek historian Plutarch served as source material for many of Shakespeare’s plays, among them Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.

Check out these additional resources to learn more about the sources of Shakespeare's inspiration:

Shakespeare’s Work

Over the course of about 25 years, Shakespeare wrote at least 38 plays (though some say 39). His plays typically fall into one of three categories: tragedy, comedy, or history. It is important to note that not all Shakespeare scholars agree on which plays are attributed to him or how they should be classified. Keep reading for more information and resources about Shakespeare’s work.

Shakespeare's Themes

The themes Shakespeare employed in his work span the entirety of the human experience, from love and hate to madness and salvation. There are, however, a few themes that are common to most of Shakespeare’s plays. Among them are:


Whether its root is a family quarrel or a war between nations, conflict of one kind or another is the foundation for all of Shakespeare’s drama.

Appearance Versus Reality

In many of Shakespeare’s plays, people are not what they appear to be. Some profess friendship while plotting betrayal. Men pretend to be women, while myriad others attempt to obscure their true motives and identities.

Appearance vs. Reality

In many of Shakespeare’s plays, people are not what they appear to be. Some profess friendship while plotting betrayal. Men pretend to be women, while myriad others attempt to obscure their true motives and identities.

Order and Disorder

Shakespeare often used the theme of order deteriorating into disorder. In King Lear, for instance, the protagonist goes insane. In other plays, it is society that falls into disorder through war.


Shakespeare is known for using recurring images or repeating a particular word to establish a theme. In Macbeth, the word blood (which can have a multitude of meanings, from family relationships to violence) makes many appearances, as does the word nothing in King Lear. In Romeo and Juliet, young love that is ultimately doomed is portrayed through the contrast of light and darkness.

Check out these additional resources to learn more about the themes Shakespeare incorporated into his plays:

Shakespeare’s Styles


Shakespeare’s comedies generally have happy endings, although arriving to them is not always easy for the characters — at times a comedy will feature elements of a tragedy. Characteristic of the 18 Shakespeare plays classified as comedies are clever wordplay, love, and mistaken identity. They often feature complex plots with many twists and turns.

Here are Shakespeare’s comedies:


  • All’s Well That Ends Well
  • As You Like It
  • The Comedy of Errors
  • Cymbeline
  • Love’s Labor’s Lost
  • Measure for Measure
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Pericles, Prince of Tyre
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • The Tempest
  • Troilus and Cressida
  • Twelfth Night
  • Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • The Two Noble Kinsmen
  • The Winter’s Tale

Check out these additional resources to learn more about Shakespeare’s comedies:


Shakespeare’s 10 tragedy plays focus on flawed protagonists. These often are noblemen who succumb to external pressures, such fate or manipulation, which leads to their fatal downfall.

Here are Shakespeare’s tragedies:


  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Coriolanus
  • Hamlet
  • Julius Caesar
  • King Lear
  • Macbeth
  • Othello
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Timon of Athens
  • Titus Andronicus


Shakespeare gave many of his plays a historical setting. But a historical setting alone does not qualify a play as a history. Among the 10 Shakespearean histories, these are the common features: They depict medieval English history. They are vehicles for entertainment and social commentary of Shakespeare’s time, rather than attempts to accurately render historic events. Exploration of the contemporary social hierarchy is a recurring theme.

Here are Shakespeare’s histories:


  • Henry IV, Part I
  • Henry IV, Part II
  • Henry V
  • Henry VI, Part I
  • Henry VI, Part II
  • Henry VI, Part III
  • Henry VIII
  • King John
  • Richard II
  • Richard III

Check out these additional resources to learn more about Shakespeare’s history plays:


In addition to plays, Shakespeare is credited with writing 154 sonnets. A sonnet is a poem consisting of 14 lines, each of which is 10 syllables per line, written in a particular rhyme pattern. The bulk of Shakespeare’s sonnets address an unidentified young man and are called his Fair Youth sonnets. The others, called Dark Lady sonnets, are written about a woman.

Check out these additional resources to learn more about Shakespeare’s sonnets:

Shakespeare’s Theater

Built on the south bank of the Thames River by Shakespeare’s playing company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the Globe Theatre was home to productions of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as plays by others. The Globe, an open-air amphitheater constructed of timber recycled from another theater, opened in 1599 with a production of As You Like It. The structure burned down in 1613 when a spark from a cannon used during a production of Henry VIII set the Globe’s thatch roof aflame. The theater was rebuilt in 1614, only to be torn down by the Puritans in 1644 to make way for tenement housing. A new incarnation of the Globe Theatre opened in 1997.

Check out these additional resources to learn more about the Globe Theatre:

More Shakespeare Resources

Shakespeare’s Work

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Read the comedies, tragedies, and histories of William Shakespeare courtesy of MIT.

Folger Shakespeare Library

Located in Washington, DC, the Folger Shakespeare Library holds the largest collection of Shakespeare items, including 82 out of 233 surviving copies of the First Folio. The library’s website offers a wealth of information about the Bard of Avon.

How to Study Shakespeare

Comprehensive Shakespeare resource Shakespeare Online provides this guide for getting the most out of reading Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare Research

The Shakespeare Resource Center

From a handy tool for locating Shakespeare monologues to the text of Shakespeare’s will, this site is a one-stop shop for all things Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare Institute

Since 1951 the Shakespeare Institute has pushed the boundaries of Shakespeare study. Come here for articles and other resources.

NYU Libraries: Shakespeare Studies

This site is a gateway into the life, times and works of Shakespeare. Come here for articles, scholarly papers, and many more resources.

Shakespeare Trivia

Words Shakespeare Invented

Shakespeare is credited with inventing more than 1,700 English words — assassination, eyeball, and swagger, to name a few. Shakespeare also came up with many common phrases and expressions.

Movies Inspired by Shakespeare's Works

Shakespeare’s plays have been reproduced countless times and have influenced myriad films, from the Lion King to 10 Things I Hate About You. Shakespeare also has inspired novelists.

Shakespeare Authorship Debate

For some two centuries, a debate has raged about Shakespeare’s identity. Several theories contend that Shakespeare never existed or that he was not the true author of the plays attributed to him.

10 Things You Didn't Know About William Shakespeare

The History Channel digs deep to provide some relatively obscure Shakespeare facts. Want more? Here are 50 little-known facts about Shakespeare.