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)
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
Check out these additional resources to learn more about the themes Shakespeare incorporated into his plays:
Check out these additional resources to learn more about Shakespeare’s tragedies:
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.