William Shakespeare: Writer for the Ages

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Perhaps the most famous writer in the English language is William Shakespeare, a 16th and 17th Century playwright and poet whose works are still performed far more than any those of other playwright. His plays number among the world’s most recognizable. A small sampling includes Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Henry V.

Despite this overwhelming fame, Shakespeare as a person is not very well understood. Not many details about his life are known. This has frustrated historians and biographers for hundreds of years.

Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Since the general practice at that time was for babies to be baptized three days after they were born, historians generally conclude that Shakespeare was born on April 23.

William was the third child of John and Mary Shakespeare, who eventually had eight children. John Shakespeare was a prominent man in his community, a merchant, and a public official. William probably attended King’s New School in Stratford, a grammar school in which students learned primarily reading, writing, and classics. (Attendance records from the period no longer survive, but most sources conclude that William attended that school.)

When he was 18, William married Anne Hathaway, who was from the nearby village of Shottery. The couple had three children: Susanna (born 1583) and twins Hamnet and Judith (born 1585). Hamnet died age 11; his sisters survived to adulthood.

One of the periods of Shakespeare’s life for which few if any records exist is between the seven years after the birth of his twins and the appearance of his name in a written record in London, as part of the 1592 theater scene. Some sources conclude that Shakespeare was a schoolmaster for part of this seven-year period. Many historians refer to this period in Shakespeare’s life as “the lost years.”

Records of when Shakespeare began writing plays do not exist. Records of which plays were performed on the stages of London, however, mention plays by Shakespeare as early as 1592. The earliest surviving mention of his name in conjunction with the London theater scene is in a not entirely complimentary article by a much more well-known playwright, Robert Greene. Other well-known English playwrights of the time included Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Nashe.

Many biographers conclude that Shakespeare must have been writing and performing well before this mention in 1592. Just two years later, it became the practice that Shakespeare’s plays were performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the leading theater company in London. Shakespeare himself was a part owner of this company at one stage. (The name of the company changed to the King’s Men in 1603, when James I succeeded Elizabeth I as ruler of England.)

Several members of the company banded together financing and interest in 1599 and built a new theater on the south bank of the River Thames. They named the new performance space the Globe. Nine years later, the theater group began ownership of the Blackfriars indoor theater.

Ownership of the Globe and Blackfriars, as well as profits from writing many of the plays performed there, made Shakespeare rather wealthy, and he used some of that wealth to buy a large house, New Place, in his hometown of Stratford, where his wife and family still lived. Shakespeare himself split his time between London and Stratford. He lived increasingly in Stratford, and he died there in 1616, on the same day that tradition said he was born, April 23. His wife and children survived him. Susanna had married a doctor, and Judith had married a vintner.

Shakespeare wrote dozens of plays, 154 sonnets (14-line poems of a certain rhythm and structure), and a couple of long narrative poems. He enjoyed a successful career onstage as well, acting in several of his own plays but also in plays written by others, notably Jonson.

Several of his plays were published in 1594 in quarto form, a method of printing that incorporated four smaller pages of text on one large sheet.

The most famous collection of his plays was the First Folio, which, through the efforts of his friends Henry Condell and John Heminges, put into writing all but two of his plays. Famed playwright Ben Jonson wrote the foreword, in which he said that Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time.”

His plays have been translated into every living language. Quotations from them are very familiar to people even today. As well, he is credited with inventing or putting on paper thousands of new words.

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David White