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William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

The English playwright, poet, and actor William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is generally acknowledged to be the greatest of English writers and one of the most extraordinary creators in human history.

The most crucial fact about William Shakespeare's career is that he was a popular dramatist. Born 6 years after Queen Elizabeth I had ascended the throne, contemporary with the high period of the English Renaissance, Shakespeare had the good luck to find in the theater of London a medium just coming into its own and an audience, drawn from a wide range of social classes, eager to reward talents of the sort he possessed. His entire life was committed to the public theater, and he seems to have written nondramatic poetry only when enforced closings of the theater made writing plays impractical. It is equally remarkable that his days in the theater were almost exactly contemporary with the theater's other outstanding achievements—the work, for example, of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and John Webster.

Shakespeare was born on or just before April 23, 1564, in the small but then important Warwickshire town of Stratford. His mother, born Mary Arden, was the daughter of a landowner from a neighboring village. His father, John, son of a farmer, was a glove maker and trader in farm produce; he had achieved a position of some eminence in the prosperous market town by the time of his son's birth, holding a number of responsible positions in Stratford's government and serving as mayor in 1569. By 1576, however, John Shakespeare had begun to encounter the financial difficulties which were to plague him until his death in 1601.

Though no personal documents survive from Shakespeare's school years, his literary work shows the mark of the excellent if grueling education offered at the Stratford grammar school (some reminiscences of Stratford school days may have lent amusing touches to scenes in The Merry Wives of Windsor). Like other Elizabethan schoolboys, Shakespeare studied Latin grammar during the early years, then progressed to the study of logic, rhetoric, composition, oration, versification, and the monuments of Roman literature. The work was conducted in Latin and relied heavily on rote memorization and the master's rod. A plausible tradition holds that William had to discontinue his education when about 13 in order to help his father. At 18 he married Ann Hathaway, a Stratford girl. They had three children (Susanna, 1583-1649; Hamnet, 1585-1596; and his twin, Judith, 1585-1662) and who was to survive him by 7 years. Shakespeare remained actively involved in Stratford affairs throughout his life, even when living in London, and retired there at the end of his career.

The years between 1585 and 1592, having left no evidence as to Shakespeare's activities, have been the focus of considerable speculation; among other things, conjecture would have him a traveling actor or a country schoolmaster. The earliest surviving notice of his career in London is a jealous attack on the "upstart crow" by Robert Greene, a playwright, professional man of letters, and profligate whose career was at an end in 1592 though he was only 6 years older than Shakespeare. Greene's outcry testifies, both in its passion and in the work it implies Shakespeare had been doing for some time, that the young poet had already established himself in the capital. So does the quality of Shakespeare's first plays: it is hard to believe that even Shakespeare could have shown such mastery without several years of apprenticeship.

Early Career

Shakespeare's first extant play is probably The Comedy of Errors (1590; like most dates for the plays, this is conjectural and may be a year or two off), a brilliant and intricate farce involving two sets of identical twins and based on two already-complicated comedies by the Roman Plautus. Though less fully achieved, his next comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1591), is more prophetic of Shakespeare's later comedy, for its plot depends on such devices as a faithful girl who educates her fickle lover, romantic woods, a girl dressed as a boy, sudden reformations, music, and happy marriages at the end. The last of the first comedies, Love's Labour's Lost (1593), is romantic again, dealing with the attempt of three young men to withdraw from the world and women for 3 years to study in their king's "little Academe," and their quick surrender to a group of young ladies who come to lodge nearby. If the first of the comedies is most notable for its plotting and the second for its romantic elements, the third is distinguished by its dazzling language and its gallery of comic types. Already Shakespeare had learned to fuse conventional characters with convincing representations of the human life he knew.

Though little read and performed now, Shakespeare's first plays in the popular "chronicle," or history, genre are equally ambitious and impressive. Dealing with the tumultuous events of English history between the death of Henry V in 1422 and the accession of Henry VII in 1485 (which began the period of Tudor stability maintained by Shakespeare's own queen), the three "parts" of Henry VI (1592) and Richard III (1594) are no tentative experiments in the form: rather they constitute a gigantic tetralogy, in which each part is a superb play individually and an integral part of an epic sequence. Nothing so ambitious had ever been attempted in England in a form hitherto marked by slapdash formlessness.

Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus (1593), reveals similar ambition. Though its chamber of horrors— including mutilations and ingenious murders—strikes the modern reader as belonging to a theatrical tradition no longer viable, the play is in fact a brilliant and successful attempt to outdo the efforts of Shakespeare's predecessors in the lurid tradition of the revenge play.

When the theaters were closed because of plague during much of 1593-1594, Shakespeare looked to nondramatic poetry for his support and wrote two narrative masterpieces, the seriocomic Venus and Adonis and the tragic Rape of Lucrece, for a wealthy patron, the Earl of Southampton. Both poems carry the sophisticated techniques of Elizabethan narrative verse to their highest point, drawing on the resources of Renaissance mythological and symbolic traditions.

Shakespeare's most famous poems, probably composed in this period but not published until 1609, and then not by the author, are the 154 sonnets, the supreme English examples of the form. Writing at the end of a brief, frenzied vogue for sequences of sonnets, Shakespeare found in the conventional 14-line lyric with its fixed rhyme scheme a vehicle for inexhaustible technical innovations—for Shakespeare even more than for other poets, the restrictive nature of the sonnet generates a paradoxical freedom of invention that is the life of the form—and for the expression of emotions and ideas ranging from the frivolous to the tragic. Though often suggestive of autobiographical revelation, the sonnets cannot be proved to be any the less fictions than the plays. The identity of their dedicatee, "Mr. W. H.," remains a mystery, as does the question of whether there were real-life counterparts to the famous "dark lady" and the unfaithful friend who are the subject of a number of the poems. But the chief value of these poems is intrinsic: the sonnets alone would have established Shakespeare's preeminence among English poets.

Lord Chamberlain's Men

By 1594 Shakespeare was fully engaged in his career. In that year he became principal writer for the successful Lord Chamberlain's Men—one of the two leading companies of actors; a regular actor in the company; and a "sharer," or partner, in the group of artist-managers who ran the entire operation and were in 1599 to have the Globe Theater built on the south bank of the Thames. The company performed regularly in unroofed but elaborate theaters. Required by law to be set outside the city limits, these theaters were the pride of London, among the first places shown to visiting foreigners, and seated up to 3,000 people. The actors played on a huge platform stage equipped with additional playing levels and surrounded on three sides by the audience; the absence of scenery made possible a flow of scenes comparable to that of the movies, and music, costumes, and ingenious stage machinery created successful illusions under the afternoon sun.

For this company Shakespeare produced a steady outpouring of plays. The comedies include The Taming of the Shrew (1594), fascinating in light of the first comedies since it combines with an Italian-style plot, in which all the action occurs in one day, a more characteristically English and Shakespearean plot, the taming of Kate, in which much more time passes; A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595), in which "rude mechanicals," artisans without imagination, become entangled with fairies and magic potions in the moonlit woods to which young lovers have fled from a tyrannical adult society; The Merchant of Venice (1596), which contributed Shylock and Portia to the English literary tradition; Much Ado about Nothing (1598), with a melodramatic main plot whose heroine is maligned and almost driven to death by a conniving villain and a comic subplot whose Beatrice and Benedick remain the archetypical sparring lovers; The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599), held by tradition to have been written in response to the Queen's request that Shakespeare write another play about Falstaff (who had appeared in Henry IV), this time in love; and in 1600 the pastoral As You Like It, a mature return to the woods and conventions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Twelfth Night, perhaps the most perfect of the comedies, a romance of identical twins separated at sea, young love, and the antics of Malvolio and Sir Toby Belch.

Shakespeare's only tragedies of the period are among his most familiar plays: Romeo and Juliet (1596), Julius Caesar (1599), and Hamlet (1601). Different from one another as they are, these three plays share some notable features: the setting of intense personal tragedy in a large world vividly populated by what seems like the whole range of humanity; a refusal, shared by most of Shakespeare's contemporaries in the theater, to separate comic situations and techniques from tragic; the constant presence of politics; and—a personal rather than a conventional phenomenon—a tragic structure in which what is best in the protagonist is what does him in when he finds himself in conflict with the world.

Continuing his interest in the chronicle, Shakespeare wrote King John (1596), despite its one strong character a relatively weak play; and the second and greater tetralogy, ranging from Richard II (1595), in which the forceful Bolingbroke, with an ambiguous justice on his side, deposes the weak but poetic king, through the two parts of Henry IV (1597), in which the wonderfully amoral, fat knight Falstaff accompanies Prince Hal, Bolingbroke's son, to Henry V (1599), in which Hal, become king, leads a newly unified England, its civil wars temporarily at an end but sadly deprived of Falstaff and the dissident lowlife who provided so much joy in the earlier plays, to triumph over France. More impressively than the first tetralogy, the second turns history into art. Spanning the poles of comedy and tragedy, alive with a magnificent variety of unforgettable characters, linked to one another as one great play while each is a complete and independent success in its own right—the four plays pose disturbing and unanswerable questions about politics, making one ponder the frequent difference between the man capable of ruling and the man worthy of doing so, the meaning of legitimacy in office, the value of order and stability as against the value of revolutionary change, and the relation of private to public life. The plays are exuberant works of art, but they are not optimistic about man as a political animal, and their unblinkered recognition of the dynamics of history has made them increasingly popular and relevant in our own tormented era.

Three plays of the end of Elizabeth's reign are often grouped as Shakespeare's "problem plays," though no definition of that term is able successfully to differentiate them as an exclusive group. All's Well That Ends Well (1602) is a romantic comedy with qualities that seem bitter to many critics; like other plays of the period, by Shakespeare and by his contemporaries, it presents sexual relations between men and women in a harsh light. Troilus and Cressida (1602), hardest of the plays to classify generically, is a brilliant, sardonic, and disillusioned piece on the Trojan War, unusually philosophical in its language and reminiscent in some ways of Hamlet. The tragicomic Measure for Measure (1604) focuses more on sexual problems than any other play in the canon; Angelo, the puritanical and repressed man of ice who succumbs to violent sexual urges the moment he is put in temporary authority over Vienna during the duke's absence, and Isabella, the victim of his lust, are two of the most interesting characters in Shakespeare, and the bawdy city in which the action occurs suggests a London on which a new mood of modern urban hopelessness is settling.

King's Men

Promptly upon his accession in 1603, King James I, more ardently attracted to theatrical art than his predecessor, bestowed his patronage upon the Lord Chamberlain's Men, so that the flag of the King's Men now flew over the Globe. During his last decade in the theater Shakespeare was to write fewer but perhaps even finer plays. Almost all the greatest tragedies belong to this period. Though they share the qualities of the earlier tragedies, taken as a group they manifest new tendencies. The heroes are dominated by passions that make their moral status increasingly ambiguous, their freedom increasingly circumscribed; similarly the society, even the cosmos, against which they strive suggests less than ever that all can ever be right in the world. As before, what destroys the hero is what is best about him, yet the best in Macbeth or Othello cannot so simply be commended as Romeo's impetuous ardor or Brutus's political idealism (fatuous though it is). The late tragedies are each in its own way dramas of alienation, and their focus, like that of the histories, continues to be felt as intensely relevant to the concerns of modern men.

Othello (1604) is concerned, like other plays of the period, with sexual impurity, with the difference that that impurity is the fantasy of the protagonist about his faithful wife. Iago, the villain who drives Othello to doubt and murder, is the culmination of two distinct traditions, the "Machiavellian" conniver who uses deceit in order to subvert the order of the polity, and the Vice, a schizophrenically tragicomic devil figure from the morality plays going out of fashion as Shakespeare grew up. King Lear (1605), to many Shakespeare's masterpiece, is an agonizing tragic version of a comic play (itself based on mythical early English history), in which an aged king who foolishly deprives his only loving daughter of her heritage in order to leave all to her hypocritical and vicious sisters is hounded to death by a malevolent alliance which at times seems to include nature itself. Transformed from its fairy-tale-like origins, the play involves its characters and audience alike in metaphysical questions that are felt rather than thought.

Macbeth (1606), similarly based on English chronicle material, concentrates on the problems of evil and freedom, convincingly mingles the supernatural with a representation of history, and makes a paradoxically sympathetic hero of a murderer who sins against family and state—a man in some respects worse than the villain of Hamlet.

Dramatizing stories from Plutarch's Parallel Lives, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus (both written in 1607-1608) embody Shakespeare's bitterest images of political life, the former by setting against the call to Roman duty the temptation to liberating sexual passion, the latter by pitting a protagonist who cannot live with hypocrisy against a society built on it. Both of these tragedies present ancient history with a vividness that makes it seem contemporary, though the sensuousness of Antony and Cleopatra, the richness of its detail, the ebullience of its language, and the seductive character of its heroine have made it far more popular than the harsh and austere Coriolanus. One more tragedy, Timon of Athens, similarly based on Plutarch, was written during this period, though its date is obscure. Despite its abundant brilliance, few find it a fully satisfactory play, and some critics have speculated that what we have may be an incomplete draft. The handful of tragedies that Shakespeare wrote between 1604 and 1608 comprises an astonishing series of worlds different from one another, created of language that exceeds anything Shakespeare had done before, some of the most complex and vivid characters in all the plays, and a variety of new structural techniques.

A final group of plays takes a turn in a new direction. Commonly called the "romances," Pericles (1607), Cymbeline (1609), The Winter's Tale (1611), and The Tempest (1611) share their conventions with the tragicomedy that had been growing popular since the early years of the century. Particularly they resemble in some respects plays written by Beaumont and Fletcher for the private theatrical company whose operation the King's Men took over in 1608. While such work in the hands of others, however, tended to reflect the socially and intellectually narrow interests of an elite audience, Shakespeare turned the fashionable mode into a new kind of personal art form. Though less searing than the great tragedies, these plays have a unique power to move and are in the realm of the highest art. Pericles and Cymbeline seem somewhat tentative and experimental, though both are superb plays. The Winter's Tale, however, is one of Shakespeare's best plays. Like a rewriting of Othello in its first acts, it turns miraculously into pastoral comedy in its last. The Tempest is the most popular and perhaps the finest of the group. Prospero, shipwrecked on an island and dominating it with magic which he renounces at the end, may well be intended as an image of Shakespeare himself; in any event, the play is like a retrospective glance over the plays of the 2 previous decades.

After the composition of The Tempest, which many regard as an explicit farewell to art, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, returning to London to compose Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1613; neither of these plays seems to have fired his imagination. In 1616, at the age of 52, he was dead. His reputation grew quickly, and his work has continued to seem to each generation like its own most precious discovery. His value to his own age is suggested by the fact that two fellow actors performed the virtually unprecedented act in 1623 of gathering his plays together and publishing them in the Folio edition. Without their efforts, since Shakespeare was apparently not interested in publication, many of the plays would not have survived.

Further Reading

Alfred Harbage, ed., The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (1969), is a sound one-volume text with useful introductions and bibliographies. For editions of individual plays the New Arden Shakespeare, in progress, is the best series. The authoritative source for biographical information is Sir Edmund K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (2 vols., 1930). Reliable briefer accounts are Marchette G. Chute's highly readable Shakespeare of London (1949) and Gerald E. Bentley, Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook (1961).

The body of Shakespeare criticism is so large that selection must be arbitrary. Augustus Ralli, A History of Shakespeare Criticism (2 vols., 1932), is a guide through the thickets of the past. Ronald Berman, A Reader's Guide to Shakespeare's Plays (1965), provides helpfully annotated bibliographies. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, edited by Terence Hawkes (1959), offers invaluable and influential criticism by a great romantic poet, and A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth (1904), remains one of the indispensable books. Twentieth-century criticism can be sampled in Leonard F. Dean, Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism (1957; rev. ed. 1967), and Norman Rabkin, Approaches to Shakespeare (1964). Other noteworthy studies include G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespeare's Tragedy (1930; 5th rev. ed. 1957); Derek A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare (1938; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1968); Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (1939); Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (1946-1947), edited by M. St. Clare Byrne (4 vols., 1954); John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies (1957; 2d ed. 1962); C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (1959); L.C. Knights, Some Shakespearean Themes (1959); Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (1967); and Stephen Booth, An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets (1969).

Studies of the theaters are in C. Walter Hodges, The Globe Restored: A Study of the Elizabethan Theatre (1953), and A.M. Nagler, Shakespeare's Stage (1958); and of the staging, in Bernard Beckerman, Shakespeare at the Globe, 1599-1609 (1962). The standard account of the audience is Alfred Harbage, Shakespeare's Audience (1941). The best account of early Renaissance drama is in Frank P. Wilson and Bonamy Dobrée, eds., Oxford History of English Literature, vol. 4 (1969). Oscar J. Campbell and Edward G. Quinn, eds., The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966), is a compendious handbook. □

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Shakespeare, William

William Shakespeare, 1564–1616, English dramatist and poet, b. Stratford-upon-Avon. He is widely considered the greatest playwright who ever lived.


His father, John Shakespeare, was successful in the leather business during Shakespeare's early childhood but later met with financial difficulties. During his prosperous years his father was also involved in municipal affairs, holding the offices of alderman and bailiff during the 1560s. While little is known of Shakespeare's boyhood, he probably attended the grammar school in Stratford, where he would have been educated in the classics, particularly Latin grammar and literature. Whatever the veracity of Ben Jonson's famous comment that Shakespeare had "small Latine, and less Greeke," much of his work clearly depends on a knowledge of Roman comedy, ancient history, and classical mythology.

In 1582 Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior and pregnant at the time of the marriage. They had three children: Susanna, born in 1583, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, born in 1585. Nothing is known of the period between the birth of the twins and Shakespeare's emergence as a playwright in London (c.1592). However, various suggestions have been made regarding this time, including those that he fled Stratford to avoid prosecution for stealing deer, that he joined a group of traveling players, and that he was a country schoolteacher. The last suggestion is given some credence by the academic style of his early plays; The Comedy of Errors, for example, is an adaptation of two plays by Plautus.

In 1594 Shakespeare became an actor and playwright for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the company that later became the King's Men under James I. Until the end of his London career Shakespeare remained with the company; it is thought that as an actor he played old men's roles, such as the ghost in Hamlet and Old Adam in As You Like It. In 1596 he obtained a coat of arms, and by 1597 he was prosperous enough to buy New Place in Stratford, which later was the home of his retirement years. In 1599 he became a partner in the ownership of the Globe theatre, and in 1608 he was part owner of the Blackfriars theatre. Shakespeare retired and returned to Stratford c.1613. He undoubtedly enjoyed a comfortable living throughout his career and in retirement, although he was never a wealthy man.

The Plays

Chronology of Composition

The chronology of Shakespeare's plays is uncertain, but a reasonable approximation of their order can be inferred from dates of publication, references in contemporary writings, allusions in the plays to contemporary events, thematic relationships, and metrical and stylistic comparisons. His first plays are believed to be the three parts of Henry VI; it is uncertain whether Part I was written before or after Parts II and III. Richard III is related to these plays and is usually grouped with them as the final part of a first tetralogy of historical plays.

After these come The Comedy of Errors,Titus Andronicus (almost a third of which may have been written by George Peele), The Taming of the Shrew,The Two Gentlemen of Verona,Love's Labour's Lost, and Romeo and Juliet. Some of the comedies of this early period are classical imitations with a strong element of farce. The two tragedies, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, were both popular in Shakespeare's own lifetime. In Romeo and Juliet the main plot, in which the new love between Romeo and Juliet comes into conflict with the longstanding hatred between their families, is skillfully advanced, while the substantial development of minor characters supports and enriches it.

After these early plays, and before his great tragedies, Shakespeare wrote Richard II, A Midsummer Night's Dream, King John, The Merchant of Venice, Parts I and II of Henry IV, Much Ado about Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. The comedies of this period partake less of farce and more of idyllic romance, while the history plays successfully integrate political elements with individual characterization. Taken together, Richard II, each part of Henry IV, and Henry V form a second tetralogy of historical plays, although each can stand alone, and they are usually performed separately. The two parts of Henry IV feature Falstaff, a vividly depicted character who from the beginning has enjoyed immense popularity.

The period of Shakespeare's great tragedies and the "problem plays" begins in 1600 with Hamlet. Following this are The Merry Wives of Windsor (written to meet Queen Elizabeth's request for another play including Falstaff, it is not thematically typical of the period), Troilus and Cressida,All's Well That Ends Well,Measure for Measure,Othello,King Lear,Macbeth,Antony and Cleopatra,Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens (the last may have been partially written by Thomas Middleton).

On familial, state, and cosmic levels, Othello, Lear, and Macbeth present clear oppositions of order and chaos, good and evil, and spirituality and animality. Stylistically the plays of this period become increasingly compressed and symbolic. Through the portrayal of political leaders as tragic heroes, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra involve the study of politics and social history as well as the psychology of individuals.

The last two plays in the Shakespearean corpus, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, may be collaborations with John Fletcher. Shakespeare also may have had a small part in writing the play Double Falsehood, first published in 1727 and thought to be mainly the work of Fletcher. The remaining four plays—Pericles (two acts of which may have been written by George Wilkins), Cymbeline,The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest—are tragicomedies. They feature characters of tragic potential, but resemble comedy in that their conclusions are marked by a harmonious resolution achieved through magic, with all its divine, humanistic, and artistic implications.

Appeal and Influence

Since his death Shakespeare's plays have been almost continually performed, in non-English-speaking nations as well as those where English is the native tongue; they are quoted more than the works of any other single author. The plays have been subject to ongoing examination and evaluation by critics attempting to explain their perennial appeal, which does not appear to derive from any set of profound or explicitly formulated ideas. Indeed, Shakespeare has sometimes been criticized for not consistently holding to any particular philosophy, religion, or ideology; for example, the subplot of A Midsummer Night's Dream includes a burlesque of the kind of tragic love that he idealizes in Romeo and Juliet.

The strength of Shakespeare's plays lies in the absorbing stories they tell, in their wealth of complex characters, and in the eloquent speech—vivid, forceful, and at the same time lyric—that the playwright puts on his characters' lips. It has often been noted that Shakespeare's characters are neither wholly good nor wholly evil, and that it is their flawed, inconsistent nature that makes them memorable. Hamlet fascinates audiences with his ambivalence about revenge and the uncertainty over how much of his madness is feigned and how much genuine. Falstaff would not be beloved if, in addition to being genial, openhearted, and witty, he were not also boisterous, cowardly, and, ultimately, poignant. Finally, the plays are distinguished by an unparalleled use of language. Shakespeare had a tremendous vocabulary and a corresponding sensitivity to nuance, as well as a singular aptitude for coining neologisms and punning.

Editions and Sources

The first collected edition of Shakespeare is the First Folio, published in 1623 and including all the plays except Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen (the latter play also generally not appearing in modern editions). Eighteen of the plays exist in earlier quarto editions, eight of which are extremely corrupt, possibly having been reconstructed from an actor's memory. The first edition of Shakespeare to divide the plays into acts and scenes and to mark exits and entrances is that of Nicholas Rowe in 1709. Other important early editions include those of Alexander Pope (1725), Lewis Theobald (1733), and Samuel Johnson (1765).

Among Shakespeare's most important sources, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) is significant for the English history plays, although Shakespeare did not hesitate to transform a character when it suited his dramatic purposes. For his Roman tragedies he used Sir Thomas North's translation (1579) of Plutarch's Lives. Many times he rewrote old plays, and twice he turned English prose romances into drama (As You Like It and The Winter's Tale). He also used the works of contemporary European authors. For further information on Shakespeare's sources, see the table entitled Shakespeare's Play.

The Poetry

Shakespeare's first published works were two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). In 1599 a volume of poetry entitled The Passionate Pilgrim was published and attributed entirely to Shakespeare. However, only five of the poems are definitely considered his, two appearing in other versions in the Sonnets and three in Love's Labour's Lost. A love elegy, The Phoenix and the Turtle, was published in 1601.

Shakespeare's sonnets are by far his most important nondramatic poetry. They were first published in 1609, although many of them had certainly been circulated privately before this, and it is generally agreed that the poems were written sometime in the 1590s. Scholars have long debated the order of the poems and the degree of autobiographical content.

The first 126 of the 154 sonnets are addressed to a young man whose identity has long intrigued scholars. The publisher, Thomas Thorpe, wrote a dedication to the first edition in which he claimed that a person with the initials W. H. had inspired the sonnets. Some have thought these letters to be the transposed initials of Henry Wriothesley, 3d earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece; or they are possibly the initials of William Herbert, 3d earl of Pembroke, whose connection with Shakespeare is more tenuous. The identity of the dark lady addressed in sonnets 127–152 has also been the object of much conjecture but no proof. The sonnets are marked by the recurring themes of beauty, youthful beauty ravaged by time, and the ability of love and art to transcend time and even death.

Critical Opinion

There has been a great variety of critical approach to Shakespeare's work since his death. During the 17th and 18th cent., Shakespeare was both admired and condemned. Since then, much of the adverse criticism has not been considered relevant, although certain issues have continued to interest critics throughout the years. For instance, charges against his moral propriety were made by Samuel Johnson in the 18th cent. and by George Bernard Shaw in the 20th.

Early criticism was directed primarily at questions of form. Shakespeare was criticized for mixing comedy and tragedy and failing to observe the unities of time and place prescribed by the rules of classical drama. Dryden and Johnson were among the critics claiming that he had corrupted the language with false wit, puns, and ambiguity. While some of his early plays might justly be charged with a frivolous use of such devices, 20th-century criticism has tended to praise their use in later plays as adding depth and resonance of meaning.

Generally critics of the 17th and 18th cent. accused Shakespeare of a want of artistic restraint while praising him for a fecund imagination. Samuel Johnson, while agreeing with many earlier criticisms, defended Shakespeare on the question of classical rules. On the issue of unity of time and place he argued that no one considers the stage play to be real life anyway. Johnson inaugurated the criticism of Shakespeare's characters that reached its culmination in the late 19th cent. with the work of A. C. Bradley. The German critics Gotthold Lessing and Augustus Wilhelm von Schlegel saw Shakespeare as a romantic, different in type from the classical poets, but on equal footing. Schlegel first elucidated the structural unity of Shakespeare's plays, a concept of unity that is developed much more completely by the English poet and critic Samuel Coleridge.

While Schlegel and Coleridge were establishing Shakespeare's plays as artistic, organic unities, such 19th-century critics as the German Georg Gervinus and the Irishman Edward Dowden were trying to see positive moral tendencies in the plays. The 19th-century English critic William Hazlitt, who continued the development of character analysis begun by Johnson, considered each Shakespearean character to be unique, but found a unity through analogy and gradation of characterization. While A. C. Bradley marks the culmination of romantic 19th-century character study, he also suggested that the plays had unifying imagistic atmospheres, an idea that was further developed in the 20th cent.

The tendency in 20th-century criticism was to abandon both the study of character as independent personality and the assumption that moral considerations can be separated from their dramatic and aesthetic context. The plays were increasingly viewed in terms of the unity of image, metaphor, and tone. Caroline Spurgeon began the careful classification of Shakespeare's imagery, and although her attempts were later felt to be somewhat naive and morally biased, her work is a landmark in Shakespearean criticism. Other important trends in 20th-century criticism included the Freudian approach, such as Ernest Jones's Oedipal interpretation of Hamlet; the study of Shakespeare in terms of the Elizabethan world view and Elizabethan stage conventions; and the study of the plays in mythic terms.


For about 150 years after his death no one seemed to doubt that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. However, in the latter part of the 18th cent. questions began to arise as to whether or not the historical William Shakespeare was indeed the author. Since then the issue has continued to be a subject of often heated debate, albeit mainly in academic circles. Those who doubt that Shakespeare wrote the works (sometimes called "anti-Stratfordians" ) generally assert that the actor from Stratford had a limited education; some have even claimed that he was illiterate. Many of the questioners maintain that such a provincial upstart could not have had the wide-ranging worldly and scholarly knowledge, linguistic skills, and fine sensibilities evinced by the author of the Shakespearean canon. Such qualities, they assert, could only have been possessed by a university-educated gentleman, multilingual, well-traveled, and quite possibly titled. Critics further contend that playwriting was a lowly profession at the time and that the "real" author protected his reputation by using Shakespeare's name as a pseudonym. Over the years, many other arguments, some involving secret codes, some even more abstruse, have been offered to cast doubt on Shakespeare's authorship.

On the other hand, traditionalists ( "Stratfordians" ) who believe that William Shakespeare was indeed the author of the plays and poems, point out that his probable education at the Stratford grammar school would have provided the required knowledge of the classics and classical civilization as well as of Latin and at least some Greek. They also maintain that what can be assumed to be his broad reading of historical sources along with his daily involvement in the lively worlds of Elizabethan London—artistic and intellectual, ordinary and aristocratic—would, when transmuted by his genius, have provided Shakespeare with the necessary background to create his dramatic and poetic works. Moreover, they say, Shakespeare was known to his contemporaries, as attested to by a number of extant references to him as a writer by other notable men of his time.

Anti-Stratfordians have suggested a number of Elizabethans as candidates for the "real" author of the works. From the late 18th through the 19th cent. the individual most often cited was Francis Bacon, who had the requisite aristocratic background, education, courtly experience, and literary talent. Others claimed that Bacon was one of a group that collectively wrote the Shakespearean oeuvre. In the 20th cent. a new candidate emerged as the authorial front runner—Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. His proponents, the Oxfordians, cited correspondences between events in his life and those in some of the plays, apparent similarities in the two men's language, and Oxford's proven skills as a dramatist and poet. Prominent among the many reasons to doubt de Vere's authorship is the fact that he died in 1604 and that some of Shakespeare's greatest works were written well after that date.

More than 50 other names have been put forward as the "real" Shakespeare, ranging from the implausible, e.g., Queen Elizabeth I, to the somewhat more possible, e.g., Christopher Marlowe; William Stanley, 6th earl of Derby; and Roger Manners, 5th earl of Rutland. Still others have suggested that the works were the result of a collaboration by two or more Elizabethan writers. In 2005 a new candidate, Sir Henry Neville, a courtier, diplomat, and distant relative of Shakespeare, was proposed. Even as studies and biographies of Shakespeare proliferate, the authorship controversy shows few signs of subsiding, and books, scholarly essays, and, more recently, websites continue to be devoted to the question.


See also biographies by E. K. Chambers (2 vol., 1930), G. E. Bentley (1961), S. Schoenbaum (1970 and 1975), S. Wells (1974), R. Fraser (2 vol., 1988), P. Levi (1988, repr. 1995), E. Sams (1995), P. Honan (1998), A. Holden (1999), I. L. Matus (1999), and P. Ackroyd (2005); A. Nicoll et al., ed., Shakespeare Survey (1948–) and, as author, Shakespeare: An Introduction (1952); G. Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare (1989); J. Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare (1997); H. Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1997); H. Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998); D. S. Kastan, ed., A Companion to Shakespeare (1999); S. Orgel, Imagining Shakespeare: A History of Texts and Visions (2003); B. Vickers, Shakespeare, Co-Author (2003); S. Wells, Shakespeare for All Time (2003) and Shakespeare, Sex & Love (2010); S. Greenblatt, Will in the World (2004) and Shakespeare's Freedom (2010); J. Shapiro, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005) and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010); M. Garber, Shakespeare and Modern Culture (2008); J. Knapp, Shakespeare Only (2009); J. Bate, Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare (2009); C. Beauclerk, Shakespeare's Lost Kingdom (2010); T. Tanner, Prefaces to Shakespeare (2010); G. Wills, Verdi's Shakespeare (2011); G. Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (8 vol., 1957–75); O. J. Campbell and E. G. Quinn, ed., The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966); M. R. Martin and R. C. Harrier, The Concise Encyclopedic Guide to Shakespeare (1972); M. Spevack, A Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare (6 vol., 1970) and The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare (1973); bibliographies ed. by G. R. Smith (1963), E. Quinn et al. (1973), and L. S. Champion (1986).

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SHAKESPEARE, William [1564–1616]. English poet and playwright, the foremost figure in ENGLISH LITERATURE and a primary influence on the development of especially the literary language. Knowledge of his life comes chiefly from documents unrelated to his career: records of his property transactions, his taxes, his occasional involvement in lawsuits. Other ‘knowledge’ derives from anecdotes, many set down long after his death, and biographical inferences from his writing. No record of his education survives. The tradition, first set down in the early 18c, that says he attended the Stratford ‘free school’ appears to be borne out by the knowledge of LATIN language and literature evident in his plays and poems. The same tradition says that his father's declining fortunes forced Shakespeare to quit school before he finished. He received special permission to marry Anne Hathaway in November 1582, when he was 18 and she was 26. Their daughter Susanna was born in May 1583; twins Hamnet and Judith were born in 1585.


In 1592, the playwright Robert Greene alluded to another writer who ‘with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hide … is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey’. The allusion to 3 Henry VI (1. 4. 137) and the PUN on his name make it clear that Shakespeare was already in 1592 a prominent, if controversial, figure on the London theatrical scene. Within a few years, his pre-eminence was beyond controversy: in 1598, Francis Meres gave Shakespeare pride of place among the English dramatists he listed in Palladis Tamia, praising the ‘sugred’ sonnets and naming twelve plays composed in ‘Shakespeares fine filed phrase’.

The plague forced the closing of London theatres from 1592 to 1594, years in which Shakespeare's non-dramatic Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece appeared. When the theatres reopened, Shakespeare wrote new plays, acted in some of Ben Jonson's, and, according to some traditions, in several of his own. He also became a partowner of his theatrical troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's company. In the five years or so following, according to the conventional chronology, Shakespeare wrote eleven plays, the early sonnets, and The Lover's Complaint. His increasing success enabled him to buy Stratford's second-largest house in 1597, when he was 33, and he continued to buy property in the town and in London as well until at least 1613.

Shakespeare's company opened the Globe theatre in 1599. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, and her successor James I pronounced Shakespeare's troupe his servants under the name the King's Men. The company often performed at court and, in 1608, took over the Blackfriars, a private indoor theatre. Shakespeare had written fewer plays since 1601, and seems to have stopped acting after 1607, perhaps because he was spending more time in Stratford. In 1613, he wrote his last play, probably in collaboration with Fletcher; in the same year, the Globe theatre burned down.


Shakespeare's works do not survive in manuscript, and the copies that printers used were apparently not always his: some came from actors' reconstructions, some from the theatre company's prompt-books. Both scribes and printing-house compositors made occasional further alterations in the course of transmitting Shakespeare's text, including linguistic details such as punctuation, spelling, and grammatical inflections. Many of his works appeared in small separate editions known as ‘quartos’ during his lifetime; dates on the title page, or in the Stationers' Register, along with lists like Meres's, outline the chronology of Shakespeare's career. Some at least of the sonnets were already in circulation when Meres mentioned them over a decade before their 1609 publication, and some of the plays may likewise have been written and presented earlier than their publication. Several of the plays did not appear until the posthumous collected Folio edition of 1623, so the following chronology, though it reflects the preponderance of modern opinion, remains uncertain:

(1) Early works written before Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain's company in 1594: 1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece.(2) Works written between 1594 and the opening of the Globe in 1599: Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, Midsummer Night's Dream, King John, Merchant of Venice, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, the early sonnets, and The Lover's Complaint.(3) Works written between 1599 and the acquisition of Blackfriars in 1608: As You like It, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That End's Well, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, the later sonnets, and The Phoenix and the Turtle.(4) The last plays, written between 1608 and the burning of the Globe in 1613: Pericles, Cymbeline, A Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Henry VIII.


The phrase ‘Shakespeare's language’ has come to mean both the state of English around 1600 and Shakespeare's use of it. Both are topics in the following discussion of orthography, pronunciation and rhyme, syntactic structure, vocabulary and word-formation, linguistic variety, rhetoric, and pragmatics. In it, all the citations are from Richard II in the Quarto first edition (Q) of 1597, and comparisons with the Folio (F) of 1623. This concentration of examples from one play makes it easier to follow the passages cited, and gives an idea of the frequency of the features. Though no play embodies the full range of Shakespeare's linguistic ideas and practices, Richard II is notably concerned with the powers, limits, and dangers of language.


The original editions of Shakespeare's works look very different from present-day orthography. They used no apostrophe for possessives; the occasional capitals on common nouns were more frequent in F than Q (for example, violl Q, Vyall F); and the letters v and u varied according to position rather than sound: v stood for both the v- and u-sounds when initial, and u stood for both when medial. Similarly, i stood for both i and j initially (Iohn). Other non-substantive variants included silent final -e (robbes 1. 3. 173 Q, robs F); this -e remains in conservative spellings like the surname Clarke.

Pronunciation and rhyme

The printed page best preserves features of vocabulary and structure; it preserves features of sound worst. Early editions of Shakespeare spelled the vowel in band and bond (5. 2. 65, 67) indifferently, and made no distinction between the consonants in words like Murders (1. 2. 21) and Murthers (3. 2. 40). Presumably, the spellings represented indistinguishable pronounciations. Q has my owne (1. 1. 133) but thine owne (1. 2. 35); where Q has my honour (1. 1. 191) and thy oth (1. 3. 14), F has mine honour and thine oth. The changes show that the matter of this historical -n before a vowel received editorial attention, but variations within Q indicate that the attention was not uniform. However, sit (1: 2. 47) in F differs from set in Q because the two words were commonly confused in the late 16c.

A rhyme such as John of Gaunt's when/againe (1. 1. 162–3) contrasts with the Duchess of York's againe/twaine (5. 3. 131–2), perhaps opportunistically making use of two current pronunciations, both still heard today. But the rhymes teare (verb)/feare (1. 1. 192–3) and beare/heere (5. 5. 117–18) reflect consistent pronunciation in both cases, as does pierce/rehearse (5. 3. 125–6) in Q, where F has the spelling pearce (from Old French percer) and the -ea- in rehearse looks back to a time when it was pronounced like the -ea- in bear. So too happie hauens (1. 3. 276) is a pun depending on a pronunciation of heavens implied by the -ea- spelling as in bear. Much of the variation in spelling concerns the long vowels, which the Great Vowel Shift had left uncertain: for yeeres (1. 3. 159) in Q, F has yeares; but both have yeeres in line 171.

Syntactic structure

The structure of Shakespeare's EARLY MODERN ENGLISH is unlike present-day English. It seems familiar, however, because it is often studied, so its older features are overlooked, at least until they begin to cause difficulty. These features are, notably: word order; the polarity of adjectives and verbs; transitivity; subject–verb concord; negation and the use of do; relative pronouns and conjunctions; verb inflection; personal pronouns; and strong and weak verbs.

Word order.

The sentence My natiue English now I must forgo (1. 3. 159–60) inverts typical English subject–verb–object word order from SVO to OSV, but is not ambiguous, because I is clearly the subject. However, there is structural ambiguity in The last leaue of thee takes my weeping eie (1. 2. 74): is leaue or eie the subject of takes? Shakespeare sometimes used the VS(O) order with the subjunctive verb for conditional clauses: Holde out my horse (2. 1. 300) means If my horse holds out, and Put we our quarrell (1. 2. 6) is a hortative order equivalent to Let us put our quarrel to the will of heauen…


It bootes thee not to be compassionate (1. 3. 174) seems odd in part because compassionate now means showing compassion; for Shakespeare, it meant seeking compassion, and so the sentence translates as ‘It won't help you to seek pity’. Similar instances of change in syntactic polarity are pittiful = showing pity (5. 2. 103), fall = let fall (3. 4. 104), remember (1. 3. 269) = remind, and learne (4. 1. 120) = teach.


A related feature is change in transitivity: inhabit (4. 1. 143) and frequent (5. 3. 6) are intransitive, while Staies for ‘awaits’ (1. 3. 3) and part for ‘part from’ (3. 1. 3) are transitive. The construction Me thinkes is impersonal, but Shakespeare could also write I bethinke me and I had thought.


His management of subject–verb agreement sometimes varied because the subject might be construed as either singular or plural: this newes, these newes (3. 4. 82, 100). Hence, Reproch and dissolution hangeth ouer him (2. 1. 258) is a singular verb following a double subject conceived of as a single entity.

Negation and the use of ‘do’.

Negatives like I slewe him not (1. 1. 133) avoid do, while we do not vnderstand (5. 3. 122) employs it; both are common in Shakespeare. The same is true of negative imperatives: Call it not patience (1. 2. 29), but doe not so quickly go (1. 2. 64). Multiple negations that retain negative sense are also common, though the Folio ‘corrects’ some of these: Nor neuer looke vpon each others face, / Nor neuer write, regreete, nor reconcile (1. 3. 185–6) Q becomes Nor euer lookeNor euer writeor reconcile in F. Like negatives, questions can be formed with or without do: Why dost thou say (3. 4. 77), what saist thou (1. 1. 110).

Do also has an abundance of other uses: manage (How shal we do for money: 2. 2. 104); verb substitute (let vs share thy thoughts as thou dost ours: 2. 1. 273); idiomatically with right or wrong (to do him right: 2. 3. 137); idiomatically with have (I haue to do with death: 1. 3. 65); finish (my life is done: 1. 1. 183); with emphatic stress (YesIt doth containe a King: 3. 3. 24–5).

Relative pronouns.

Shakespeare will omit a relative pronoun for the subject of the clause where modern English omits it only for the object: neare the hate of those loue not the King (2. 2. 127), or use intricate subordination: Hath causd his death, the which if wrongfully, / Let heauen reuenge (1. 2. 39–40). He was no stickler for the use of that and which in restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, respectively: the hollow crowne / That roundes but this flesh which wals about (3. 2. 160–1, 167). He also used a variety of subordinating conjunctions: for (1. 1. 132) meaning ‘as for’, for that meaning ‘because’ (1. 1. 129) and ‘in order that’ (1. 3. 125), for-because (5. 5. 3) and for why (5. 1. 46), both meaning ‘because’.

The endings -s and -th.

The third-person singular indicative ending in Shakespeare's verbs could be either -s, as now, or the older -th. No meaning attached to the choice, so one line might include both: Greefe boundeth where it falls (1. 2. 58) F. But the forms of do and have were almost invariably doth and hath. The subjunctive mood, marked in the third-person singular present by the absence of a -s or -th ending, is often used in place of an auxiliary like may or let, and sometimes in combination with them: O set my husbands wronges on Herefords speare, / That it may enter butcher Mowbraies breast: / Or if misfortune misse the first carier, / Be Mowbraies sinnes so heauy in his bosome / That they may breake his foming coursers backe (1. 2. 47–51).


Shakespeare's English included the second-person pronouns you or ye and thou. Historically, they were plural and singular respectively, but you had come to be used as a formal or honorific alternative for the singular. In Richard II, some usages conform to this pattern: the Queen calls the gardener thou in 3. 4 and he calls her you in her presence; after she leaves he changes to a compassionately familiar thou. Likewise, the King regularly calls the disputants, his subjects, thou in the singular and you in the plural. Generally, they call him the respectful you, as Mowbray does at the beginning of his ‘protest’ speech (1. 3. 154–73); but by the end of the speech he has switched to thou. The change could arise from Mowbray's growing anguish, but other alternations between the two forms occur: in 1. 2, John of Gaunt usually calls the Duchess of Gloucester you (but thee: 1. 2. 57), while she consistently calls him thou; in 5. 5, the Groom calls the King thou, but the Keeper uses you.

Shakespeare's English lacked the possessive its; he sometimes used the uninflected it, sometimes the historical neuter possessive his: what a Face I haue, / Since it is Bankrupt of his Maiestie (4. 1. 266–7) F.

Strong and weak verbs.

Among Shakespeare's weak verbs, the spelling often shows that the suffix -ed is not syllabic: learnt 1. 3. 159, casde 1. 3. 163. The suffix after t or d is, however, regularly syllabic: blotted. Both pronunciations accord with modern practice; unlike it, however, are words like fostered, which had three syllables. His strong verbs occasionally take unfamiliar forms in the past: for example, spake (5. 2. 12). Some forms of strong past participles are identical with the simple past: broke (5. 5. 43–8) F (broken 2. 2. 59 Q is extra-metrical, and F has broke), shooke (4. 1. 163) F, spoke (1. 1. 77) Q (spoken F). Others are archaic: holp (5. 5. 62), eate (5. 5. 85), writ (4. 1. 275) F.

Vocabulary and word-formation

Shakespeare's vocabulary is sometimes estimated at c.20,000 words. For it, he drew on Renaissance technical terms, derivations, compounds, archaisms, polysemy, etymological meanings, and idioms. Richard II abounds in technical terms, often words with specialized meanings distinct from their everyday use: in That knowes no touch to tune the harmonie (1. 3. 165) touch means ‘fingering’ and to tune means ‘to play’. Suitably to the subject of the play, many technical terms are from the law or chivalry.


Shakespeare is noted for verbal conversion such as grace me no grace, nor vnckle me no vnckle (2. 3. 86). Other examples include the verbs converted from nouns refuge (5. 5. 26), twaine (5. 3. 132), priuiledge (1. 1. 120), and dog them at the heeles (5. 3. 137).


Shakespeare was also fecund with derviations, words created by the addition of a suffix, often in a new part of speech: the verb ‘partialize’ (1. 1. 120), from the adjective ‘partial’, a Shakespeare original as a transitive verb. In addition, every Shakespeare play makes concentrated use of some lexical field. Whereas in Coriolanus it is a lexical set centring on ‘breath’, ‘voice’, and ‘vote’, in Richard II it is a morphological set centring on privatives beginning with un-, like vnfurnisht wals, / Vnpeopled offices, vntrodden stones (1. 2. 68–9). Some of these appear nowhere else in Shakespeare, like vndeafe, vnhappied, and vnkingd.


Lines like My oile-dried lampe, and time bewasted light (1. 3. 221) show Shakespeare's fondness for compounds: here, compounds formed on past participles. They are most often nouns, like beggarfeare (1. 1. 189), or adjectives, like the cluster Egle-winged pride / Of skie-aspiring and ambitious thoughts, / With riuall-hating enuy (1. 3. 129–31).


Shakespeare was familiar with paradox and other figures of traditional rhetoric, for example chiasmus in Banisht this fraile sepulchre of our flesh, / As now our flesh is banisht (1. 3. 196–7); the last taste of sweetes is sweetest last (2. 1. 13); Deposing thee before thou wert possest, / Which art possest now to depose thy self (2. 1. 107–8). The last example also contains paronomasia; here, the pun is on possessed meaning both having come into possession and unreasonably determined. Richard comments on Gaunt's onomastic word-play, Can sicke men play so nicely with their names? (2. 1. 84), but Gaunt has already juggled inspire and expire (2. 1. 31–2), and urged his son to Call it a trauaile that thou takst for pleasure (1. 3. 262), playing on travel and travail. Even in prison, Richard replies to the salutation Haile roiall Prince with Thankes noble peare: / The cheapest of vs is ten grotes too deare (5. 5. 67–8), the royal being a coin worth ten groats more than a noble.


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Shakespeare, William

Shakespeare, William

For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, death which modern society has sanitized and rendered largely invisiblewas a brutally conspicuous presence. Early modern London, whose gates were decorated with the boiled heads of traitors and criminals, was a place in which public executions formed a regular staple of entertainment, where the corpses of condemned persons were available for public dissection, and where the fragility of life was repeatedly brought home by devastating epidemics of plague that swept away tens of thousands of citizens at a stroke. Magnificent pageantry might adorn the funeral processions of royalty and nobles; but every church in the kingdom contained a charnel house whose stench of putrefaction acted as a constant reminder of the grim facts of mortality. Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the drama of the period should be much possessed by death and preoccupied by the struggle to tame its apocalyptic menace.

"Death," Hamlet declares in the most famous of all his soliloquies, "is a consummation / Devoutly to be wished" (Hamlet, 3.1.62). He seeks to persuade himself that dying is no mere ending, but marks the fulfilment and perfection of mortal life. Behind his words lie centuries of consolatory writing, from the classical philosophy of the Stoics, for whom the encounter with death was the ultimate proving ground of wisdom and virtuous living, to the Christian ars moriendi, with its merciful translation to a better state. The prospect of mortality is seldom so reassuring for Shakespeare's characters, however; more typical than the calm resolve of Hamlet's final moments is the panorama of decay in the graveyard, with its parade of identically grinning skulls and the parables of levelling indifference they excite in the Prince's imagination: "Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till 'a find it stopping a bunghole?" (5.1.2023).

In Measure for Measure it is the gross material realities of death, as much as its metaphysical uncertainties, that inspire Claudio's terror as he awaits execution:

Aye, but to die, and go we know not where; 
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod. . . .
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling 'tis too horrible!
( Measure for Measure, 3.1.11727)

This is what it means to be, like Cordelia in Lear's despairing phrase, "dead as earth" (King Lear, 5.6.262). Claudio's apparent imperviousness to the salvific promises of religion, and his existential vertigo at the prospect of annihilation, give his speech a distinctly modern feel; but underlying his horror, as it underlies the sardonic humor of Hamlet and the gravediggers, is a historically specific anxiety about the social menace of death, its arbitrary cancellation of the entire system of differences on which the profoundly hierarchical order of Renaissance society depended; for the dead in Claudio's vision are consigned to an utterly chaotic condition, as "lawless and incertain" as the restless imaginings it inspires.

Such anxieties are traceable everywhere in early modern culture. They are especially apparent in iconic representations of universal mortality, like the Dance of Death, whose grinning cadavers sweep off representatives of every rank to their common end; or the Triumph of Death, in which the corpses of monarch and peasant, merchant and pauper lie promiscuously heaped together beneath the chariot wheels of King Death. But they also motivated the lavish pomp of heraldic obsequies and the increasingly worldly extravagance of the memorials crowding the aisles of parish churches and cathedrals. "Never," marveled Francis Bacon, "was the like number of beautiful and costly tombs and monuments erected in sundry churches in honourable memory of the dead" (Bacon 1861, p. 158).

If this fantastic elaboration of funeral art can be explained as a defiant reaction to the leveling assaults of deathespecially in the recurrent epidemics of plague whose cartloads of corpses were stripped of all individual dignityit also offered a secular answer to a crisis in the management of mourning created by the Protestant denial of Purgatory. The consequent abolition of the vast medieval industry of intercession deprived the living of any power to assist the dead. Haunted like Hamlet by the Ghost's importunate "Remember me!" (Hamlet, 1.5.91), the bereaved had now to rely on the ambiguous consolations of memory and arthence Hamlet's distress at the scanted mourning rituals allowed his father, or Laertes' rage at Ophelia's "maimed rites," and his bitter resentment of the "obscure funeral" and "hugger mugger" burial of Polonius, "No trophy, sword, or hatchment o'er his bones" (5.1.219; 4.5.84, 214215); hence, too, Hamlet's dying insistence on the need for Horatio to remain behind, as a kind of "living monument" to "tell my story" (5.1.297; 5.2.349). The ending of Hamlet, with its self-conscious wordplay on "stage" and "audience" (5.2.378, 387, 396), itself constitutes an elaborate demonstration of the power of dramatic story and theatrical art to overcome the power of death.

The rivalry of art and death is, of course, a recurrent theme in the literature of the periodnever more powerfully treated than in Shakespeare's Sonnets. At the heart of the sequence is a group of powerful lyrics in which the poet, performing his superb variations on a well-known trope from the Roman poet Horace ("exegi monumentum aere perennius, " Carmina, 3.30), sets the monumental claims of poetry against the ravages of Death and his thieving ally, Time. Death is a leveling "churl" (Sonnet 32) or "wretch" (Sonnet 74) who renders his victims "base" (Sonnet 74) by consigning them to anonymous "dust" (Sonnet 32) and the degrading ministrations of "vilest worms" (Sonnet 71); while his "mortal rage" (Sonnet 64) reduces even the loftiest memorials to "unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time" (Sonnet 55). Yet Shakespeare insists that his own "powerful rhyme," by its capacity to outlast death, can confer the immortality to which "the gilded monuments / Of princes" vainly aspire (Sonnet 55). It is this that enables the poet, despite his humble status, to assert a kind of parity with the beloved patron to whom his lyrics are addressed. The poet's mortal remains, consigned to the indifference of a common grave, may be "too base" to be remembered by his aristocratic "friend"; yet he can claim both immortality and a kind of equality by virtue of the "gentle verse" that memorializes his beloved's fame (Sonnets 74, 81).

The Sonnets create a kind of stage on which "the eyes of all posterity" can witness the spectacle of the patron's fame: "'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity / Shall you pace forth" (55); and the touch of swagger in "pace" recalls the postures of heroic self-assertion with which so many protagonists of Renaissance tragedy confront their deaths. So Macbeth, defying the chaotic "wrack" of the apocalyptic storm that he himself has invoked, prepares to die "with harness on [his] back" (Macbeth, 5.5.5051); or Othello reasserts his martial Venetian identity by transforming his suicide into a re-enacted triumph over the Turkish enemy; or Coriolanus calls on the Volscian mob to "cut me to pieces" with an insolent reminder of his conquest of Corioles ("Alone I did it. 'Boy'!" (Coriolanus, 5.6.115).

But even in the bleak world of King Lear, where the force of undifferentiation is so overwhelmingly felt as to allow no room for such egotistic self-assertion ("Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?" 5.3.307308), theatrical convention nevertheless contrives to impose a consolatory show of order upon the final panorama of desolation: The concluding stage direction, "Exeunt with a dead march," is a reminder of the extent to which Renaissance tragedy with its "industrious scenes and acts of death" (King John, 2.1.376) self-consciously mimicked the arts of funeral. The dressing of the tragic stage in black hangings, like those that adorned both churches and great houses in time of funeral; the use of black costumes; the display of hearses, tombs, and monuments as stage properties; and the convention of ending the play with a funeral processionall these served as reminders that tragedy was conceived above all as the drama of death. But because the obsequies of the great, organized with lavish attention to the prerogatives of rank by the College of Heralds, were imagined (like coronations and royal progresses) as a species of "triumph," the incorporation of funeral pomps in tragedy also symbolized the power of art to challenge the universal monarchy of death.

The tragic catastrophe enacted the human confrontation with death's arbitrary cancellation of meaning; and through its displays of agony, despair, and ferocious self-assertion, early modern audiences were encouraged to rehearse vicariously their own encounter with death. Thus tragedy served, in a fashion that was inseparable alike from its didactic pretensions and its entertaining practice, both as an instrument for probing the painful mystery of ending and as a vehicle of resistance to the leveling assaults of death; for even as it paraded the emblems of undifferentiation, tragedy offered to contain the fear of mortality by staging fantasies of ending in which the moment of dying was transformed by the arts of performance into a supreme demonstration of distinction. That is why Cleopatra carefully stages her death in a royal monument. Claiming her suicide as that which "shackles accidents and bolts up change" (Antony and Cleopatra, 5.2.6) through her double metamorphosis into spiritualized "fire and air" and eternizing "marble" (Antony and Cleopatra, 5.2.240, 289), the queen's language makes an exceptionally powerful connection between the bravura of her own performance and the dramatist's triumphant art.

Almost every tragedy of the period ends in a funeral procession of some kind, and this conventional expectation allowed playwrights to create striking theatrical effects by displacing the pageantry of death into other parts of the dramatic structure. Thus the national discord, which is the subject of Henry VI, is signaled as much by the disconcertingly abrupt obsequies of Henry V that open its action, as by the unpromising royal betrothal (a parody of comic ending) with which it concludes; while in Titus Andronicus the process of political and social disintegration is measured by the gap between the pompous interment of Titus's sons in the first act and the grotesque mock funeral of Tamora's sons, their heads encased in pastry "coffins," in Act 5.

Even more striking disruptions of convention could be achieved by transposing episodes of death and funeral into comedylike the soberfaced travesty of burial rites which the repentant Claudio must perform at Hero's family monument in Much Ado About Nothing, or the mock deaths on which the plots of late romances like Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale depend. While the menace of death is always restrained by the expectation of a happy ending, such details are sufficient to remind the audience that the domains of folly and mortality are never quite as far apart as the symmetrically opposed masks of tragedy and comedy might at first suggest.

At one level, indeed, comedyas the critic Marjorie Garber and others have shownis deeply preoccupied with mortality, its action involving a symbolic expulsion of death from the stage world. But this comic victory is a fragile one, always vulnerable to some crack in the veneer of comic artifice. The concluding nuptials of Love's Labours Lost (a play that begins with a meditation on "brazen tombs" and the "disgrace of death") are suddenly arrested by the entrance of Marcade, like a blackclad summoner from the Dance of Death; Falstaff's parade of comic immortality never recovers from the moment when his mistress, Doll, "speaks like a death's head" (Henry the Fourth, Part 2, 2.4.31); and even A Midsummer Night's Dream follows the ludicrous mock deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe with the sinister frisson of Puck's chanting"[Now] the screech-owl, screeching loud / Puts the wretch that lies in woe / In remembrance of a shroud" (5.1.376378)before Oberon and Titania reappear to summon the fairy dance of exorcism and blessing in which the play ends.

The latest of all Shakespeare's comic performances, the tragicomic Two Noble Kinsmen, written with John Fletcher, seems to concede the ultimate impotence of the comic triumph over death, ending as it does with a melancholy prospect of wedding overhung by funeral: "Journey's end in lovers meeting," Feste the clown had sung in Twelfth Night (2.3.43); but the lovers' reunion that resolves the accidents of plot in this final play only fulfills the prophecy of the mourning Queens in the "funeral solemnity" that concluded Act I: "This world's a city full of straying streets, / And death's the market-place where each one meets" (2.1.1516).

See also: Greek Tragedy; Operatic Death; Theater and Drama


Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death, translated by Helen Weaver. London: Allen Lane, 1981.

Bacon, Francis. "Certain Observations Made upon a Libel Published This Present Year 1592." In James Spedding ed., The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon, Vol. 1. London: Longman, 1861.

Calderwood, James L. Shakespeare and the Denial of Death. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Garber, Marjorie. " 'Wild Laughter in the Throat of Death': Darker Purposes in Shakespearean Comedy." New York Literary Forum nos. 56 (1980):121126.

Gittings, Clare. Death, Burial and the Individual in Early Modern England. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Neill, Michael. Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Neill, Michael. " 'Feasts Put Down Funerals': Death andRitual in Renaissance Comedy." In Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry eds., True Rites and Maimed Rites. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Spinrad, Phoebe. The Summons of Death on the Renaissance Stage. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986.

Watson, Robert. The Rest Is Silence: Death As Annihilation in the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.


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Shakespeare, William (1564–1616)


SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM (15641616), English playwright, poet, and actor. Shakespeare is universally recognized as the foremost writer in the English language to date. The thirty-seven plays associated with his name, including the major tragedies Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, and his romances and comedies, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream among them, have been translated into many languages and have crossed all kinds of cultural divide. His poetry, in particular his intricately woven and fiercely passionate love sonnets, have stirred the senses of reader and critic alike for generations past and will do so for generations to come.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England, and he was probably educated in the 1570s at the free grammar school there known as the King's New School. His father, John Shakespeare, has been described as a glover or whittawer, which means someone who works with animal skins. Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, was from a noted local family, the daughter of Robert Arden, John Shakespeare's landlord. At some point, perhaps in 1568 when his father was high bailiff (mayor) of the town and responsible for Stratford's entertainment, Shakespeare must have first seen actors perform as traveling players visiting on tour.

In about 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a rich yeoman's daughter. The marriage was undertaken during a notable downturn in the affairs of Shakespeare's father. Having been a respected and confident town official during Shakespeare's earliest yearsinitiating an application for gentry status in 1576, for exampleduring 1586 John Shakespeare's alderman status was withdrawn. Although controversy surrounds the possible reasons for Shakespeare's marriage to a woman who was eight years his senior, three children were produced from the marriage. Susanna was the first-born in 1583 with a pair of twins produced in 1585a son, Hamnet, who died in childhood, and a daughter, Judith.


Whether Shakespeare had to leave Stratford for some reason, or whether he joined a visiting touring company such as the Queen's Men, we first hear of him as a London playhouse personality seven years after the birth of the twins. This is when he is mentioned in a pamphlet called A Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance (1592) written by a writer and playwright named Robert Greene. This text was written while the writer knew that he was dying, and in it he urged his fellow well-educated peers, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, and George Peele, to forsake the stage. "For there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers," Greene wrote, "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 [ . . . ] is in his own conceit the only Shakescene in a country." We know this allusion is directed toward Shakespeare, not only because of the play on his name and profession as a "Shake-scene," but also because of the misquotation from one of his Henry VI plays: "O Tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide!" (Part III, act 1, scene 4, line 138).

By this time, scholars believe that the player Shakespeare had not only embarked on his English history cycle with the three Henry VI plays, but had also presented the highly successful if violent Titus Andronicus as well. In this play a woman is raped, has both her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and a queen unknowingly eats her own children, baked in a pie. However, in a matter of a few years Shakespeare was also provably capable of writing the extraordinarily poised and tragic Romeo and Juliet. Here two young lovers, divided by their families' antagonism to one another, meet, marry, and die while speaking the most beautiful words of love written for the English stage.

By 1595, Shakespeare, as a sharer member of the acting company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men, was entitled to a portion of the company's takings. This status was acquired through his investment in things for the company like costumes, playbooks, and props. However, there is some evidence to show that Shakespeare wanted to be perceived more as a serious poet than as either an actor or a playwright. In 1593 and 1594 he published his two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, both dedicated to his supposed patron Henry Wroithesley, 3rd earl of Southampton. This period also marks the time when it is believed he had begun his 154 sonnets, published as a collection in 1609, with Southampton a candidate for the "Fair Youth" to whom the first 126 possibly allude. The fourteen-line sonnet, quietly evolving in form since its first emergence in fourteenth-century Italy, had reached England through poet-courtiers such as Sir Thomas Wyatt and the earl of Surrey earlier in the sixteenth century. In the hands of Shakespeare, many sonnet conventions were challenged, questioning the poetic expectation of comparing one's lover to nature, for example. "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" is the bold opening of Number 130, for example. Thus Shakespeare chose to use the sonnet to engage, not only with the passions and intellect of the person to whom the sonnet is addressed, but even with poetry itself. It is interesting that Greene chose to mark out Shakespeare's verse as his primary objection to him as an "upstart." Shakespeare indeed wrote much of his drama in blank verse, the flexible iambic pentameter form of unrhymed poetry, again used by Henry Howard, the earl of Surrey, and taken on by dramatists such as Christopher Marlowe. However, Shakespeare's energy when approaching his plays did not hold back on inventiveness and variety. The blank verse form reached its apotheosis with Shakespeare, but a few of his early plays contain sonnet moments too. The Prologue to Romeo and Juliet, given by the Chorus, is a sonnet, and later in this lovers' play, one is interwoven through the dialogue when the protagonists first speak together (act 1, scene 5, lines 90113).

By the turn of the seventeenth century, the Lord Chamberlain's Men had rebuilt their Shoreditch amphitheater (called the "Theater") as the Globe on London's Bankside (the south bank of the Thames). They were now the most well established of the city's playing companies. By this time Shakespeare had begun to write his heavyweight tragedies for them, beginning with Hamlet published in 1603. If Titus Andronicus was violent, and Romeo and Juliet tragically romantic, Hamlet was Shakespeare's play concerned with the human mind. The eponymous prince of Denmark, whose father's ghost tells him how he was murdered by Hamlet's uncle, sets out on a course of revenge, while at the same time, as the philosopher prince studying at Wittenburg University, he questions life and death and any decision involving them. Shakespeare is creative with the revenge tragedy form, using the vengeful mindset of the main character to explore highly philosophical questions. 'What a piece of work is man!' (act 2, scene 2, lines 293300) and 'To be, or not to be, that is the question' (act 3, scene 1, lines 5890) are two lines from speeches of profound mental depth. Hamlet is the most widely quoted and most investigated of Shakespeare's plays, attracting a phenomenal amount of scholarly study, just as much because of the questions it poses as because of the answers it fails to give.


In 1603, after the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of James I, the company were renamed the King's Men, acquiring royal patronage status. In 1608 they also acquired a new, small, more select playhouse known as the Blackfriars that was to be used alongside the Globe, the public playhouse. Shares in this venture, which company members were given, were very lucrative acquirements for the actorsincluding Shakespeare. This period marked the writing of plays such as Othello, first performed 16031604 and published in the 1620s, King Lear of 1606, published in 1608, and Macbeth, again c. 1606 but first published in the collected First Folio of Shakespeare's works of 1623. The plot lines and characters of these tragedies continued to demonstrate the extraordinary range of Shakespeare's mind as he dealt with, for example, jealousy and deception in Othello ; madness, mercy, and true filial love in King Lear ; and the dangers of encouraged ambition in Macbeth. In about 1613, however, at the peak of his writing powers, Shakespeare was to give up his career on London's stage.


By 1616, Shakespeare had returned to Stratford and the substantial home called New Place that he had bought for his family. It was there that he was to die in 1616 of a fever, reputedly after a rowdy visit from his friend and colleague Ben Jonson. He died where he began, therefore, not in London where he made his name, but in the Stratford of his birth. Back in 1596, gentry status had finally been achieved for his family, and the payee for this was likely to have been William. He died, therefore, not only rich, but respected and esteemed in his community, to become later in the minds of many the man most associated with the finest use of poetic English.

In the historical context of his day-to-day existence as an actor and a companyman, Shakespeare's significant output as a dramatic writer can be interpreted as simple good business sense that resulted in his family's bettered status at home. By writing good plays he drew audiences to playhouses in which he had financial interests. Shakespeare's plays did not, in fact, belong to him, but were the property of his company. Despite evidence that Shakespeare was involved in the printing of his poetry, there is no proof of authorial concern with the printed publication of his plays. His dramas were only collected as serious "works" seven years after his death in 1623 for what we now know as Shakespeare's "First Folio," put together by his fellow actors. A man of extraordinary talent, however, at a time when there were no rulebooks for the English language or its lexicon, his contribution to what we now perceive as beauty through dramatic story and words is inestimable.

See also Beaumont and Fletcher ; Drama: English ; English Literature and Language ; Jonson, Ben ; Marlowe, Christopher .


Primary Sources

Shakespeare, William. The First Folio of Shakespeare. Norton facsimile, prepared by Charlton Hinman. 2nd ed. New York and London, 1996.

. The Norton Shakespeare. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York and London, 1997. Based on the Oxford Edition.

. Shakespeare's Sonnets. Edited by Stephen Booth. New Haven, 1997.

Secondary Sources

Dobson, Michael, and Stanley Wells, eds. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford, 2001.

Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage, 15741642. 3rd ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Jones, Peter, ed. Shakespeare, the Sonnets: A Casebook. London, 1977.

Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare's Language. New York, 2001.

Schoenbaum, S. Shakespeare's Lives. Rev. ed. Oxford and New York, 1991.

Eva Griffith

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Shakespeare, William

William Shakespeare

Born: April 23, 1564
Stratford-upon-Avon, England
Died: April 23, 1616
Stratford-upon-Avon, England

English dramatist and poet

The English playwright, poet, and actor William Shakespeare was a popular dramatist. He was born six years after Queen Elizabeth I (15331603) ascended the throne, in the height of the English Renaissance. He found in the theater of London a medium just coming into its own and an audience eager to reward talents of the sort he possessed. He is generally acknowledged to be the greatest of English writers and one of the most extraordinary creators in human history.

Early life

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a wealthy landowner from a neighboring village. His father, John, was a maker of gloves and a trader in farm produce. John also held a number of responsible positions in Stratford's government and served as mayor in 1569.

Though no personal documents survive from Shakespeare's school years, he probably attended the Stratford grammar school and studied the classics, Latin grammar and literature. It is believed that he had to discontinue his education at about thirteen in order to financially help his father. At eighteen he married Ann Hathaway. They had three children, Susanna, Hamnet, and Judith.

There are no records of Shakespeare's activities between 1585 and 1592. Some have speculated (guessed) that he was a traveling actor or a country schoolmaster. The earliest surviving mention of his career in London, England, is a jealous attack by Robert Greene, a playwright, which indicates that Shakespeare had already established himself in the capital. It is hard to believe that even Shakespeare could have shown the mastery evident in his plays without several years of apprenticeship (the period of time a person works to learn a skill).

Early comedies

Three early comedies demonstrate that Shakespeare had learned to fuse conventional characters with convincing representations of the human life he knew. Shakespeare's first play is probably The Comedy of Errors (1590). Most acknowledge it as a brilliant and intricate farce (a humorous piece of work with a story unlikely to happen in real life) involving two sets of identical twins. The plot of his next comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1591) revolves around a faithful girl who educates her fickle (inconsistent) lover. It has romantic woods, a girl dressed as a boy, sudden changes, music, and happy marriages at the end. The last of the first comedies, Love's Labour's Lost (1593), deals with three young men who attempt to withdraw from the world and women for three years to study in their king's school. They quickly surrender to a group of young ladies who come to live nearby.

Early history plays and first tragedy

Though little read and performed today, Shakespeare's first plays in the popular history genre (particular style) are equally ambitious and impressive. Henry VI (1592), which is performed in three parts, and Richard III (1594) form an epic (story of heroic figures). They deal with the tumultuous (disorderly, agitating) events of English history between the death of Henry V (13871422) in 1422 and Henry VII (14571509) assuming the throne in 1485, which began the period of stability maintained by Queen Elizabeth I (15331603). Nothing so ambitious as this monumental sequence had ever before been attempted in an English play.

Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus (1593), reveals similar ambition. It is recognized as a brilliant and successful piece in the tradition of the revenge play where someone tries to punish someone for a wrong that was done.

Nondramatic works

The theaters were closed because of plague (a bacteria-caused disease that spreads quickly and can cause death) during much of 1593 and 1594. At this time Shakespeare wrote two narrative poems for the Earl of Southampton. Both the seriocomic (both happy and sad) Venus and Adonis and the tragic Rape of Lucrece are based on the Renaissance traditions of myth and symbolism.

Shakespeare's most famous poems are the 154 sonnets. They were probably composed in this period but were not published until 1609. Sonnets are fourteen-line poems with a fixed rhyme scheme. Though they often suggest autobiographical revelation (the discovery or realization in oneself), the sonnets cannot be proved to be any less fictional than the plays.

The Lord Chamberlain's Men

In 1594 Shakespeare became principal writer for the successful Lord Chamberlain's Men in London. This was one of the two leading companies of actors. He also became a regular actor in the company and a partner in the group of artist-managers who ran it. The company performed regularly in unroofed but elaborate theaters that seated up to three thousand people. The actors performed on a huge platform stage equipped with additional levels for performances. The audience sat on three sides or stood on the ground in front of the stage. In 1599 this group had the Globe Theater built on the south bank of the Thames River.

Shakespeare produced many plays for the company. They include the comedies The Taming of the Shrew (1594) about the taming of an ill-tempered, scolding woman and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595), in which fairies and magic potions in moonlit woods become entangled with young lovers who escape from a cruel society. These were followed by The Merchant of Venice (1596), Much Ado about Nothing (1598), The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599), and As You Like It (1600).

Shakespeare's tragedies of the period are among his most familiar plays: Romeo and Juliet (1596), Julius Caesar (1599), and Hamlet (1601). Although very different from each other, they share the setting of intense personal tragedy in a large world vividly populated by what seems like the whole range of humanity. Like most of his contemporaries in the theater, Shakespeare used the same techniques in writing comedies as tragedies. Politics are constantly present, and what is best in the protagonist (hero) is what does him in when he finds himself in conflict with the world.

Shakespeare, continuing his interest in the historical play, wrote King John (1596). Despite its one strong character it is a relatively weak play. His other epics range from Richard II (1595), through the two parts of Henry IV (1597), to Henry V (1599). These four plays pose disturbing questions about politics, particularly the difference between the man capable of ruling and the man worthy of doing so. They are not optimistic about man as a political animal.

The "problem plays"

Several plays produced at the end of Elizabeth's reign are often grouped as Shakespeare's "problem plays." They are not easily categorized as either tragedies or comedies. All's Well That Ends Well (1602) is a romantic comedy with qualities that seem bitter to many critics because it presents romantic relations between men and women in a harsh light. Troilus and Cressida (1602), is a brilliant, sardonic (skeptically humorous), and disillusioned piece on the Trojan War. Measure for Measure (1604) focuses on the link between political power and romantic desire.

King's Men and the late tragedies

Upon ascending to the throne in 1603, King James I (15661625) bestowed his patronage upon the Lord Chamberlain's Men, so that the flag of the King's Men now flew over the Globe. During his last decade in the theater Shakespeare was to write fewer but perhaps even finer plays. Almost all the greatest tragedies belong to this period, and they share several qualities. The heroes are dominated by passions that make their moral (having to do with right and wrong) status increasingly ambiguous (not clearly one thing or another) and their freedom increasingly constricted. In the end, what destroys the hero is what is best about him. Like the histories, the late tragedies continue to be felt as intensely relevant to the concerns of modern men.

Othello (1604) is concerned with trust and betrayal. In King Lear (1605) an aged king foolishly deprives his only loving daughter of her heritage in order to leave everything to her hypocritical (only pretending to have morals) and vicious sisters. Macbeth (1606) concentrates on the problems of evil and freedom. It mingles the supernatural with history, and makes a sympathetic hero of a murderer who sins against family and state.

Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus (both written in 1607 and 1608) embody Shakespeare's bitterest images of political life. Antony and Cleopatra sets the temptation of romantic desire against the call to Roman duty. Coriolanus pits a protagonist (hero) who cannot live with hypocrisy (pretending to believe in something) against a society built on it. Both of these tragedies present ancient history with a vividness (intensity) that makes it seem contemporary.

The romances

A final group of plays takes a turn in a new direction. Pericles (1607), Cymbeline (1609), The Winter's Tale (1611), and The Tempest (1611) have a unique power to move and are in the realm of the highest art. The Tempest is the most popular and perhaps the finest of the group. In it Prospero and his daughter are shipwrecked on an island inhabited by supernatural creatures. Prospero rules the island with magic, but renounces (gives up) magic at the end. After the composition of The Tempest Shakespeare retired to Stratford. He returned to London to compose Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1613. Neither seems to have fired his imagination. He died in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 23, 1616, at the age of fifty-two.

Shakespeare's work has continued to seem to each generation like its own most precious discovery. His value to his own age is suggested by the fact that two fellow actors performed the virtually unprecedented (never done before) act in 1623 of gathering his plays together and publishing them in the Folio edition. Without their efforts, since Shakespeare was apparently not interested in publication, many of the plays would not have survived.

For More Information

Bentley, Gerald E. Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Chambers, Sir Edmund K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1930. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

De Grazia, Margreta, and Stanley Wells, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Gollob, Herman. Me and Shakespeare: Adventure with the Bard. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Schoenbaum, S. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Southworth, John. Shakespeare, The Player: A Life in the Theatre. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2000.

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Shakespeare, William

Shakespeare, William (1564–1616). Dramatist and poet. Baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26 April 1564, William was the son of John Shakespeare, a glovemaker and prominent Stratford citizen who became mayor and justice of the peace during William's childhood. He was educated at the Stratford grammar school, and married Anne Hathaway, daughter of a successful local farmer, eight years his senior (and already pregnant at the wedding) in 1582. Myths abound about the ‘lost years’, but there is negligible evidence of his activities between leaving school and beginning work as an actor and playwright in London in the late 1580s. He started as an actor, continued as a playwright, and developed as an administrator and entrepreneur: by the time of his death, on 23 April 1616, he had established his status as a major shareholder in the King's Men, the principal acting company of his time, and was a successful and wealthy man.

Shakespeare wrote approximately 42 plays, in a range of genres and styles, which occupy the principal place in the canon of English literature and which are the subject of a considerable theatrical and critical industry (as well as of substantial tourist revenue). Quotations from Shakespeare remain an often unwitting part of everyday speech; productions of his plays remain hugely popular, both in theatres and in the cinema; his style and verse techniques have come to define ‘literariness’; and his history plays in particular are, for many people, the only source of information readily available for a considerable period of medieval history.

His earliest plays are mostly comedies and histories—The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew are probably the very earliest—for a variety of companies and theatres. He wrote the first play (The First Part of the Contention, generally better known as 2 Henry VI) in the four-play cycle known as the ‘first tetralogy’ in 1591, completing it with the best known of his earlier histories, Richard III, the following year. These plays emerged from a rapidly changing culture fascinated by historiography and particularly by the function of history in the analysis of current affairs. Shakespeare drew on contemporary histories of England, notably Holinshed's Chronicles, for accounts of the events he dramatized, but he rarely left his source (already the product of careful selection, omission, and collaboration) unaltered. His portrayals of kings—most notably of Richard III—have bequeathed a fixed, but often wholly inaccurate, sense of their historical personalities.

The first tetralogy preceded Shakespeare's attachment to the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1594; it was for that company, and for their first playhouse, the Theatre, that he wrote the ‘second tetralogy’, his most popular group of history plays—Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, and Henry V—which turned back to the period immediately prior to that delineated in the earlier histories to plot the rise to power of Henry Bolingbroke and the accession to the throne of his son, Henry V. Both tetralogies attest to the lasting impact on English society of the Wars of the Roses (which had occupied much of the previous century) and to the need of the Tudor dynasty, only relatively recently established, to mythologize and legitimize its claim to power. The historiographical focus of the plays shifts: where the earlier histories had adopted a wave-like, cyclical structure and a providentialist outlook— principal characters emerging and fading in succession, attention devoted to overarching issues of causation— the later histories focus on the character of the young Henry V, edging away from providential history and depicting a world in which ‘miracles are ceas'd; | And therefore we must needs admit the means | How things are perfected’ (Henry V, i. i. 67–9). As Phyllis Rackin notes, Shakespeare's Prince Hal ‘anticipates the Tudors in using the resources of theatrical role-playing to produce the perfect image of royal authority that he could not inherit from the ambiguous genealogy that left him the throne’.

The move to the new Globe theatre in 1598–9 marked a new phase in Shakespeare's writing career and the demise of the Shakespearian history play ‘proper’. The common assumption is that, as it became clearer that civil war was not likely to follow the death of the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, the plays' function as lightning rods for succession anxiety gradually diminished. For the Globe, Shakespeare turned to other genres, writing his mature comedies (As You Like It and Twelfth Night) and his major tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth), as well as his later tragicomedies or romances (Pericles, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest)—these latter plays affected also by the company's acquisition of an additional playhouse, the smaller, indoor Blackfriars theatre—and putting his Holinshed aside.

But his Jacobean plays none the less exhibit a strong consciousness of their cultural and historiographical function. The Lord Chamberlain's Men had become the King's Men at James I's accession, and played regularly at court. King Lear and Macbeth, for example, by depicting dark alternatives, acknowledge the role of James I in reunifying Britain, and both Lear and Cymbeline delve far back into mythical British history in search of complex political resonances. Shakespeare's penultimate (and collaborative) play, Henry VIII, or All is True—echoing another underestimated Shakespearian history, the energetically ambivalent King John—offers a complex, and not wholly complimentary, picture of the status of history and of ‘truth’ in the mid-Jacobean period, representing a vacillating, casually adulterous Henry, a cruel, machiavellian Wolsey, and a haughty yet sympathetic Catherine of Aragon, and culminating in the birth and christening of the baby Elizabeth and a prophecy from Cranmer that implies a certain frustration with the direction of James's policies, foreign and ecclesiastical.

Shakespeare wrote at a unique period in the history of the British theatre—for the range of his audiences, for the cultural resonance of theatrical institutions—and his plays cannot fairly be dismissed as ‘mere’ fiction or entertainment. It is a commonplace of current literary criticism that Shakespearian drama both responded to and shaped public perspectives on history and politics at a time of considerable, and hugely productive, cultural anxiety, ‘shaping fantasies’ for a developing nation state.

Gordon Macmullan


Greenblatt, S. J. , Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford, 1988);
Rackin, P. , Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca, NY, 1990);
Shakespeare, William , The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford, 1986), pp. xiii–xl;
Shakespeare Survey, 38 (Cambridge, 1985), a review of criticism of Shakespeare's history plays.

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Shakespeare, William (1564–1616)

Shakespeare, William (15641616)

Playwright and poet whose works made his reputation as the most original and brilliant writer of the English language. Born as the son of a glove maker in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, Shakespeare came from a middle-class family. He was educated in the local grammar school in the traditional subjects of rhetoric, logic, Latin, and classical literature. After marrying Anne Hathaway and starting a family, he left his hometown for London to make his fortune as an actor and author.

Historians know almost nothing about Shakespeare's early years in London but have speculated that he may have been an actor or schoolteacher. By 1592, the year Shakespeare published Venus and Adonis, a long mythological poem, he was well known in London literary circles as a poet. Shakespeare was familiar with classical mythology and literature and based one of his early works for the stage, The Comedy of Errors, on comic plays by the Roman writer Plautus. Shakespeare's other plays from this early period are Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labour Lost, comedies of mistaken identity and the trials and tribulations of love. The author's complex plotting and brilliantly inventive language are used to draw large casts of memorable characters, whose very human foibles and eccentricities make them familiar to modern audiences in any language.

At some time in the 1590s Shakespeare joined a repertory company, Lord Chamberlain's Men. At this time, the popular theater was gaining widespread acceptance among all classes of English society, and plays were coming to be accepted as a worthy pursuit of talented writers, including Shakespeare's contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Shakespeare went well beyond the ordinary playwrights of his day, however, in creating epics such as Henry VI and Richard III, plays that combined theatrical dramatics with recent English history.

The Lord Chamberlain's Men relied on Shakespeare as a writer, financial backer, and actor. In 1599 the company built the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames River, a large stage surrounded on three sides by the audience, and open to the sky. For the company Shakespeare wrote The Taming of the Shrew, in which the author combines Italian and English plot devices, the fantasy play A Midsummer Night's Dream, as well as The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing. On a request from Queen Elizabeth that he write a romantic story for Falstaff, a character of the two historical plays of Henry IV, Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor. Other comedies from this period include As You Like It and Twelfth Night.

In 1593, the theaters of London were closed due to an outbreak of plague, and Shakespeare turned to the writing of poetry. For his patron, the Earl of Southampton, he wrote The Rape of Lucrece. Both this poem and Venus and Adonis are considered masterpieces in the tradition of the long narrative epic. He also wrote a series of 154 sonnets, fourteen-line poems in which the author explored a wide range of emotions and moods, and described a mysterious dark lady whom historians have yet to identify.

Around 1600 Shakespeare wrote tragedies including Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, his most famous single work. He treated the ancient Trojan War in Troilus and Cressida, and also wrote a bittersweet play of love and sex in Measure for Measure. In 1603, on the accession of King James I, the Lord Chamberlain's Men won the support of the crown and became the King's Men. The last productive years of Shakespeare's life saw the writing of historical plays Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, and Coriolanus, all based on short biographies by the Greek historian Plutarch, as well as three of Shakespeare's most famous plays, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear. These plays, based on traditional English historical tales, reveal a more cynical and pessimistic author, who describes characters alienated from their surroundings, and who are controlled and ultimately destroyed by their passions and desires. The Tempest, believed to be Shakespeare's final play, describes the shipwreck of the magician Prospero, who represents an author looking back on his own works as the strange, magical creations of a powerful imagination.

Shakespeare returned to Stratford at the end of his life and lived a comfortable, prosperous retirement. After his death in 1616, his reputation as poet and playwright spread rapidly in England and on the European continent. In 1623 all of his plays were collected and printed from the author's own manuscripts, a rare act in Renaissance England, where plays were widely considered to be disposable works meant only for the temporary amusement of a mass audience. In all, Shakespeare wrote thrity-eight plays, including many that are still considered the pinnacle of the dramatic art: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and The Tempest. His works have been translated into many languages, have been performed all over the world, and have been remade into operas and movies. Hundreds of lines and phrases from his plays became familiar expressions that have survived into the twenty-first century. In the meantime, Shakespeare became emblematic of the literary achievements of the English Renaissance during which, partially through the popularity of his own works, a relatively obscure and little-used language emerged to become the national tongue of a great empire.

See Also: Elizabeth I; James I of England; Marlowe, Christopher; theater

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Shakespeare, William

Shakespeare, William (1564–1616) English poet and dramatist. By 1592 he was established in London, having already written the three parts of Henry VI. By 1594, Shakespeare was a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and in 1599 a partner in the Globe Theatre, where many of his plays were presented. He retired to Stratford upon Avon around 1613. His 154 Sonnets, which were first published in 1609, stand among the finest works in English literature. The plays are usually divided into four groups – historical plays, comedies, tragedies, and late romances. Shakespeare's plots are generally drawn from existing sources, such as Holinshed.;

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Shakspere, William

William Shakspere: see Shakespeare, William.

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Shakespeare •Dampier •Napier, rapier, tapir •Shakespeare • sepia • Olympia •copier • compeer • photocopier •cornucopia, dystopia, Ethiopia, myopia, subtopia, Utopia

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