William Shakespeare was born in
Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in 1564.
This was the sixth year of the reign of
Queen Elizabeth I. He was christened on
April 26 of that year. The day of his birth
is unknown. It has long been celebrated
on April 23, the feast of St. George.
Shakespeare's father was a tanner and
glove maker. He was an alderman of
Stratford for years. He also served a term
as high bailiff, or mayor. Toward the end
of his life John Shakespeare lost most of
his money. When he died in 1601, he left
William only a little real estate. Not much
is known about Mary Shakespeare, except
that she came from a wealthier family
than her husband.
Stratford-upon-Avon is in Warwickshire,
called the heart of England. In
Shakespeare's day it was well farmed and
heavily wooded. The town itself was
prosperous and progressive
In 1582, when he was 18, he married
Anne Hathaway. She was from Shottery, a
village a mile (1.6 kilometers) from
Stratford. Anne was seven or eight years
older than Shakespeare. From this
difference in their ages, a story arose that
they were unhappy together. Their first
daughter, Susanna, was born in 1583. In
1585 a twin boy and girl, Hamnet and
Judith, were born.
What Shakespeare did between 1583 and 1592
is not known. Various stories are told. He may
have taught school, worked in a lawyer's office,
served on a rich man's estate, or traveled with a
company of actors.
One famous story says that about 1584 he and
some friends were caught poaching on the
estate of Sir Thomas Lucy of Carlecote, near
Warwick, and were forced to leave town.
A less likely story is that he was in London in
1588. There he was supposed to have held
horses for theater patrons and later to have
worked in the theaters as a page.
Little is really known about Shakespeare 's life. He
probably went to London in the late 1580s and
wrote his first play - Henry VI - in 1591.
He joined a theatre company - the Lord
Chamberlain's Men - in 1594 and became their
poet/playwright, as well as being an actor.
He became a shareholder of the Globe Theatre
when it was built in 1598 and the return on these
shares this made him wealthy enough to buy the
best house, New Place, in Stratford in 1597.
He retired to Stratford in 1610, wrote his last play
in 1612 (Henry VIII) and died on April 23, 1616.
His 37 plays were collected together by his friends,
including Ben Jonson, and published in 1623.
First, let us take a brief look at the England of Queen
Elizabeth I, the world in which Shakespeare worked.
In 1558, when Elizabeth became queen of England, that
country was a small but extremely exciting one, bursting
with energy of all kinds. English ships were exploring new
routes over the world's oceans. Protestant England was
successfully resisting the pope in his attempt, with the help
of Spain, to restore Catholicism as England's official
religion. England also had the benefit of the world's most
advanced security and intelligence service under Sir Francis
Walsingham, who succeeded in thwarting several attempts
at assassinating the queen
Queen Elizabeth I on her way to the
Glossary of Terms
Act-main division of a drama.
Shakespeare’s plays consist of five acts
with each act subdivided into scenes.
Alliteration: repetition of the same initial
sound in two or more consecutive or
closely associated words.
Allusion: reference to a literary or
historical person or event to explain a
Glossary of Terms
Aside: brief remark made by a character
and intended to be heard by the audience
but not by other characters.
Comic relief: humorous scene or speech in
a serious drama which is meant to provide
relief from emotional intensity and, by
contrast, to heighten the seriousness of
Glossary of Terms
Foreshadowing: hint of what is to come in the
story. This is often used to keep the audience in
a state of expectancy.
Imagery: term used to describe words or
phrases that appeal to the five senses.
Irony: contrast between what is and what
appears to be. (verbal, dramatic)
Oxymoron: contrast of two contradictory terms
for the sake of emphasis. (jumbo shrimp)
Glossary of Terms
Personification: figure of speech in which
human qualities are attributed to
inanimate objects, animals or ideas.
Scene: a small unit of a play in which
there is not shift of location or time
Soliloquy: speech given by a character
alone on the stage. The purpose of a
soliloquy is to let the audience know what
the character is thinking and feeling.
Glossary of Terms
Tragedy-type of drama of human conflict
which ends in defeat and suffering. Often
the main character has a tragic flaw which
leads to his or her destruction.
Sometimes the conflict is with forces
beyond the control of the character—fate,
evil in the world.
At the end of the 16th century London was a
bustling fast-growing city. It grew from a
population of 100,000 in 1580 to 400,000 by
1650. The center of government and culture,
people from all over Britain and Europe were
drawn there. The defeat of the Armada in 1588
and the success of English adventurers such as
Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake
combined with growing prosperity created an
exhilarating social and cultural climate which
was reflected in the vibrant city bursting with
However, the city authorities, concerned both
with health and religious propriety, did not allow
places of entertainment (such as bear-baiting
and cock-fighting rings) to be built within the
city boundaries and so they tried to suppress
and stifle the theatre's development. Without
the patronage of Queen Elizabeth and several
wealthy nobles the theatre may not have
survived. London bridge, with its numerous
arches and houses on either side, was the only
bridge and most people crossed the river to
Southwark by ferry.
James Burbage was an actor, carpenter and an
entrepreneur who built the first permanent
theatre in London in 1576. Certain that he would
be able to get a lot more money from the
growing audiences at the performances of his
company he built The Theatre, as it was called,
in Shoreditch just north of the City of London. It
was a great success and other theatres were
built both to the north and south of London.
Some 20 years after it was built difficulties arose
over the lease of The Theatre, then occupied by
Shakespeare's company. James Burbage's sons,
Cuthbert and Richard, organized a posse of men
to dismantle it and transport the timbers across
the river for the building of the Globe Theatre, in
which Shakespeare received a tenth share. The
Globe opened in 1598-9 but was destroyed by
fire in 1613. It was rebuilt the following year,
but by then Shakespeare was no longer actively
involved with it, having retired to Stratford.
Shakespeare referred to the theatre as 'this
wooden O' but it was probably many-sided,
appearing round from a distance. The walls
were constructed with a wooden frame, made
from green (unseasoned) oak and filled with
interwoven wattle plastered over with lime
plaster (made of goat-hair, lime and sand). The
central yard was open to the sky and gave
access to the three-tiered wooden galleries,
which were protected from the weather by a
Since there was no electricity, all plays took
place in the daytime. When the play was about
to begin, a trumpet sounded, and a flag was
hoisted and flew during the performance. Money
was collected in a box at the entrance - a penny
for the groundlings, more for the galleries.
There were no breaks between acts and the
plays could last for several hours, people eating
and drinking throughout. If the audience did not
like what they saw they would heckle the actors
and throw bits of food at them.
Who played the girl part?
Boy players had to play a wide range of
female parts. They needed the grace and
agility to manage cumbrous farthingales,
as well as being able to cut a fashionable
figure in doublet and hose. Elizabethans
loved complex plots in which girls dressed
as boys - roles admirably suited to the boy
Number One Fan
The Chamberlain's Men did not just
perform at the Globe. It was the company
most favored by the Queen, and
performed many of Shakespeare's plays in
front of her. James I, when he came to
the throne in 1603, adopted them as his
own and renamed them the King's Men.
Many of Shakespeare's plays were written
to support and flatter royal interests.
What could close the theatre?
Sometimes outbreaks of the plague forced
the closure of the theatres, and to survive
the theatre companies went on tour,
traveling roughly in wooden carts, and
setting up their stage for performances
wherever they were allowed to.
Shakespeare's extraordinarily rich
language is remarkable for at least
His vocabulary was enormous. Estimates
differ, but it is generally agreed that he
used at least 25,000 different words in his
writings, including technical terms drawn
from every profession, craft, sport, and
trade. This is a far more extensive
vocabulary than that of any other writer in
He used hundreds of phrases and
expressions that appear for the first time
in print in his works. It is hard to have a
long, serious conversation with anyone
without quoting Shakespeare, often
without being aware you are doing so.
I couldn’t sleep a wink.
He was dead as a doornail.
She’s a tower of strength.
They hoodwinked us.
I’m green-eyed with jealousy.
We’d better lie low for awhile.
Keep a civil tongue in your head.
All Shakespeare's plays fall into one
of the four categories of tragedy,
comedy, history, or romance.
Generally, tragedies end with the death of the
protagonist, and often with that of several of the
principals. Do not think, however, that tragedies
are simply gloomy. Several of them, notably
Hamlet, contain much wit and dry humor. Great
tragedies, such as Shakespeare's, do not leave
their audience sad, but exalted, even if in tears.
We often come away feeling we have
understood something new about ourselves or
The comedies may or may not be very funny, but they
usually end with the marriage of the principal couple and
often with that of other couples as well. However, the
comedies are not uniformly lighthearted. Some contain
bitter and disturbing scenes. What mainly distinguishes
Shakespeare's comedies from his tragedies is that the
comedies look forward to the future. In the tragedies,
we almost always witness the end of something
important. Usually it is not just the end of the life of the
protagonist and some of his friends, but that of an entire
historical era or royal dynasty.
The history plays deal with actual events and
people, and they end in whatever way is
dictated by the historical facts. These plays,
although based on known events and historical
figures, are often as fanciful in details as the
tragedies and comedies. Shakespeare was not
really a historian, and he used historical events
as ways of stimulating his imagination, not of
recording what actually happened.
Like Chaucer, Shakespeare had a genius
for telling a story. Although he generally
took over stories already told by others,
his adaptations of these narratives made
them into something new and wonderful.
Shakespeare surpassed even Chaucer in
creating character. Noble and disturbed
Hamlet, pathetic Ophelia, wise Portia,
ambitious Macbeth, witty Rosalind,
villainous Iago, dainty Ariel—these are a
few of the characters Shakespeare made
In addition to his ability to tell a story and
to create character, Shakespeare was
able to use words brilliantly. Phrases and
whole lines from his works have become
part of daily speech—for example, “the
milk of human kindness” or “the play's the
thing.” Entire speeches are universally
familiar—“To be or not to be,” from
Hamlet; “All the world's a stage,” from As
You Like It; “The quality of mercy is not
strained,” from The Merchant of Venice.
The dramatic poetry in which the
plays are largely written generally
does not rhyme, but it is written in
the regular meter, or rhythm, called
iambic pentameter. The sonnets are
14 lines long, each line of ten
syllables with stress alternating
between light and heavy; and their
rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efef,
Terms to know
Blank verse: a poetic form that usually uses a
metrical pattern known as unrhymed iambic
Meter: the use of a regular rhythm pattern in
Iamb: a unit of speech that contains on
unstressed syllable followed by a stressed
Iambic pentameter: a poetic form that consists
of five iambs. Shakespeare used this form in his
plays to mimic the natural rhythms of the
In Romeo and Juliet as well as other
Shakespearean plays, the main characters
speak in blank verse; lower social classes
speak in prose.