what is literature by shakespeare

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William Shakespeare

By: History.com Editors

Updated: June 7, 2019 | Original: October 3, 2011

Did Shakespeare Write His Own Plays?

Considered the greatest English-speaking writer in history and known as England’s national poet, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) has had more theatrical works performed than any other playwright. To this day, countless theater festivals around the world honor his work, students memorize his eloquent poems and scholars reinterpret the million words of text he composed. They also hunt for clues about the life of the man who inspires such “bardolatry” (as George Bernard Shaw derisively called it), much of which remains shrouded in mystery. Born into a family of modest means in Elizabethan England, the “Bard of Avon” wrote at least 37 plays and a collection of sonnets, established the legendary Globe theater and helped transform the English language.

Shakespeare’s Childhood and Family Life

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a bustling market town 100 miles northwest of London, and baptized there on April 26, 1564. His birthday is traditionally celebrated on April 23, which was the date of his death in 1616 and is the feast day of St. George, the patron saint of England. Shakespeare’s father, John, dabbled in farming, wood trading, tanning, leatherwork, money lending and other occupations; he also held a series of municipal positions before falling into debt in the late 1580s. The ambitious son of a tenant farmer, John boosted his social status by marrying Mary Arden, the daughter of an aristocratic landowner. Like John, she may have been a practicing Catholic at a time when those who rejected the newly established Church of England faced persecution.

Did you know? Sources from William Shakespeare's lifetime spell his last name in more than 80 different ways, ranging from “Shappere” to “Shaxberd.” In the handful of signatures that have survived, he himself never spelled his name “William Shakespeare,” using variations such as “Willm Shakspere” and “William Shakspeare” instead.

William was the third of eight Shakespeare children, of whom three died in childhood. Though no records of his education survive, it is likely that he attended the well-regarded local grammar school, where he would have studied Latin grammar and classics. It is unknown whether he completed his studies or abandoned them as an adolescent to apprentice with his father.

At 18 Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway (1556-1616), a woman eight years his senior, in a ceremony thought to have been hastily arranged due to her pregnancy. A daughter, Susanna, was born less than seven months later in May 1583. Twins Hamnet and Judith followed in February 1585. Susanna and Judith would live to old age, while Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died at 11. As for William and Anne, it is believed that the couple lived apart for most of the year while the bard pursued his writing and theater career in London. It was not until the end of his life that Shakespeare moved back in with Anne in their Stratford home.

Shakespeare’s Lost Years and Early Career

To the dismay of his biographers, Shakespeare disappears from the historical record between 1585, when his twins’ baptism was recorded, and 1592, when the playwright Robert Greene denounced him in a pamphlet as an “upstart crow” (evidence that he had already made a name for himself on the London stage). What did the newly married father and future literary icon do during those seven “lost” years? Historians have speculated that he worked as a schoolteacher, studied law, traveled across continental Europe or joined an acting troupe that was passing through Stratford. According to one 17th-century account, he fled his hometown after poaching deer from a local politician’s estate.

Whatever the answer, by 1592 Shakespeare had begun working as an actor, penned several plays and spent enough time in London to write about its geography, culture and diverse personalities with great authority. Even his earliest works evince knowledge of European affairs and foreign countries, familiarity with the royal court and general erudition that might seem unattainable to a young man raised in the provinces by parents who were probably illiterate. For this reason, some theorists have suggested that one or several authors wishing to conceal their true identity used the person of William Shakespeare as a front. (Most scholars and literary historians dismiss this hypothesis, although many suspect Shakespeare sometimes collaborated with other playwrights.)

Shakespeare’s Plays and Poems

Shakespeare’s first plays, believed to have been written before or around 1592, encompass all three of the main dramatic genres in the bard’s oeuvre: tragedy (“Titus Andronicus”); comedy (“The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “The Comedy of Errors” and “The Taming of the Shrew”); and history (the “Henry VI” trilogy and “Richard III”). Shakespeare was likely affiliated with several different theater companies when these early works debuted on the London stage. In 1594 he began writing and acting for a troupe known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (renamed the King’s Men when James I appointed himself its patron), ultimately becoming its house playwright and partnering with other members to establish the legendary Globe theater in 1599.

Between the mid-1590s and his retirement around 1612, Shakespeare penned the most famous of his 37-plus plays, including “Romeo and Juliet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and “The Tempest.” As a dramatist, he is known for his frequent use of iambic pentameter, meditative soliloquies (such as Hamlet’s ubiquitous “To be, or not to be” speech) and ingenious wordplay. His works weave together and reinvent theatrical conventions dating back to ancient Greece, featuring assorted casts of characters with complex psyches and profoundly human interpersonal conflicts. Some of his plays—notably “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “Measure for Measure” and “Troilus and Cressida”—are characterized by moral ambiguity and jarring shifts in tone, defying, much like life itself, classification as purely tragic or comic.

Also remembered for his non-dramatic contributions, Shakespeare published his first narrative poem—the erotic “Venus and Adonis,” intriguingly dedicated to his close friend Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton—while London theaters were closed due to a plague outbreak in 1593. The many reprints of this piece and a second poem, “The Rape of Lucrece,” hint that during his lifetime the bard was chiefly renowned for his poetry. Shakespeare’s famed collection of sonnets, which address themes ranging from love and sensuality to truth and beauty, was printed in 1609, possibly without its writer’s consent. (It has been suggested that he intended them for his intimate circle only, not the general public.) Perhaps because of their explicit sexual references or dark emotional character, the sonnets did not enjoy the same success as Shakespeare’s earlier lyrical works.

Shakespeare’s Death and Legacy

Shakespeare died at age 52 of unknown causes on April 23, 1616, leaving the bulk of his estate to his daughter Susanna. (Anne Hathaway, who outlived her husband by seven years, famously received his “second-best bed.”) The slabstone over Shakespeare’s tomb, located inside a Stratford church, bears an epitaph—written, some say, by the bard himself—warding off grave robbers with a curse: “Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” His remains have yet to be disturbed, despite requests by archaeologists keen to reveal what killed him.

In 1623, two of Shakespeare’s former colleagues published a collection of his plays, commonly known as the First Folio. In its preface, the dramatist Ben Jonson wrote of his late contemporary, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” Indeed, Shakespeare’s plays continue to grace stages and resonate with audiences around the world, and have yielded a vast array of film, television and theatrical adaptations. Furthermore, Shakespeare is believed to have influenced the English language more than any other writer in history, coining—or, at the very least, popularizing—terms and phrases that still regularly crop up in everyday conversation. Examples include the words “fashionable” (“Troilus and Cressida”), “sanctimonious” (“Measure for Measure”), “eyeball” (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and “lackluster” (“As You Like It”); and the expressions “foregone conclusion” (“Othello”), “in a pickle” (“The Tempest”), “wild goose chase” (“Romeo and Juliet”) and “one fell swoop” (“Macbeth”).

what is literature by shakespeare

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William Shakespeare

Playwright and poet William Shakespeare is considered the greatest dramatist of all time. His works are loved throughout the world, but Shakespeare’s personal life is shrouded in mystery.

painting of william shakespeare

Quick Facts

Wife and children, shakespeare’s lost years, poems and sonnets, the king’s men: life as an actor and playwright, globe theater, william shakespeare’s plays, later years and death, legacy and controversies, who was william shakespeare.

William Shakespeare was an English poet , playwright , and actor of the Renaissance era. He was an important member of the King’s Men theatrical company from roughly 1594 onward. Known throughout the world, Shakespeare’s works—at least 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 narrative poems—capture the range of human emotion and conflict and have been celebrated for more than 400 years. Details about his personal life are limited, though some believe he was born and died on the same day, April 23, 52 years apart.

FULL NAME: William Shakespeare BORN: c. April 23, 1564 DIED: c. April 23, 1616 BIRTHPLACE: Stratford-upon-Avon, England, United Kingdom SPOUSE: Anne Hathaway (1582-1616) CHILDREN: Susanna, Judith, and Hamnet ASTROLOGICAL SIGN: Taurus

preview for William Shakespeare - Mini Biography

The personal life of William Shakespeare is somewhat of a mystery . There are two primary sources that provide historians with an outline of his life. One is his work, and the other is official documentation such as church and court records. However, these provide only brief sketches of specific events in his life and yield little insight into the man himself.

When Was Shakespeare Born?

No birth records exist, but an old church record indicates that William Shakespeare was baptized at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564. From this, it is believed he was born on or near April 23, 1564, and this is the date scholars acknowledge as Shakespeare’s birthday. Located about 100 miles northwest of London, Stratford-upon-Avon was a bustling market town along the River Avon and bisected by a country road during Shakespeare’s time.

Parents and Siblings

Shakespeare was the third child of John Shakespeare, a glove-maker and leather merchant, and Mary Arden, a local heiress to land. John held official positions as alderman and bailiff, an office resembling a mayor. However, records indicate John’s fortunes declined sometime in the late 1570s. Eventually, he recovered somewhat and was granted a coat of arms in 1596, which made him and his sons official gentleman.

John and Mary had eight children together, though three of them did not live past childhood. Their first two children—daughters Joan and Margaret—died in infancy, so William was the oldest surviving offspring. He had three younger brothers and two younger sisters: Gilbert, Joan, Anne, Richard, and Edmund. Anne died at age 7, and Joan was the only sibling to outlive William.

Childhood and Education

Scant records exist of Shakespeare’s childhood and virtually none regarding his education. Scholars have surmised that he most likely attended the King’s New School, in Stratford, which taught reading, writing, and the classics, including Latin. He attended until he was 14 or 15 and did not continue to university. The uncertainty regarding his education has led some people question the authorship of his work.

portrait of anne hathaway in pencil from the shoulders up, she is drawn wearing a high necked outfit and a headdress

Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway on November 28, 1582, in Worcester, in Canterbury Province. Hathaway was from Shottery, a small village a mile west of Stratford. Shakespeare was 18, and Anne was 26 and, as it turns out, pregnant.

Their first child, a daughter they named Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583. Two years later, on February 2, 1585, twins Hamnet and Judith were born. Hamnet died of unknown causes at age 11.

There are seven years of Shakespeare’s life where no records exist: after the birth of his twins in 1585 until 1592. Scholars call this period Shakespeare’s lost years, and there is wide speculation about what he was doing during this period.

One theory is that he might have gone into hiding for poaching game from local landlord Sir Thomas Lucy. Another possibility is that he might have been working as an assistant schoolmaster in Lancashire. Some scholars believe he was in London, working as a horse attendant at some of London’s finer theaters before breaking on the scene.

By 1592, there is evidence Shakespeare earned a living as an actor and a playwright in London and possibly had several plays produced. The September 20, 1592, edition of the Stationers’ Register , a guild publication, includes an article by London playwright Robert Greene that takes a few jabs at Shakespeare:

“...There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, 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 being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”

Scholars differ on the interpretation of this criticism, but most agree that it was Greene’s way of saying Shakespeare was reaching above his rank, trying to match better known and educated playwrights like Christopher Marlowe , Thomas Nashe, or Greene himself.

Early in his career, Shakespeare was able to attract the attention and patronage of Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his first and second published poems: Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). In fact, these long narrative poems—1,194 and 1,855 lines, respectively—were Shakespeare’s first published works. Wriothesley’s financial support was a helpful source of income at a time when the theaters were shuttered due to a plague outbreak.

Shakespeare’s most well-known poetry are his 154 sonnets, which were first published as a collection in 1609 and likely written as early as the 1590s. Scholars broadly categorize the sonnets in groups based on two unknown subjects that Shakespeare addresses: the Fair Youth sonnets (the first 126) and the Dark Lady sonnets (the last 28). The identities of the aristocratic young man and vexing woman continue to be a source of speculation.

In 1594, Shakespeare joined Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the London acting company that he worked with for the duration of his career. Later called the King’s Men, it was considered the most important troupe of its time and was very popular by all accounts. Some sources describe Shakespeare as a founding member of the company, but whatever the case, he became central to its success. Initially, he was an actor and eventually devoted more and more time to writing.

Records show that Shakespeare, who was also a company shareholder, had works published and sold as popular literature. Although The Taming of the Shrew is believed to be the first play that Shakespeare wrote, his first published plays were Titus Andronicus and Henry VI Part 2 . They were printed in 1594 in quarto, an eight-page pamphlet-like book. By the end of 1597, Shakespeare had likely written 16 of his 37 plays and amassed some wealth.

At this time, civil records show Shakespeare purchased one of the largest houses in Stratford, called New Place, for his family. It was a four-day ride by horse from Stratford to London, so it’s believed that Shakespeare spent most of his time in the city writing and acting and came home once a year during the 40-day Lenten period, when the theaters were closed. However, Shakespeare expert and professor Sir Stanley Wells posits that the playwright might have spent more time at home in Stratford than previously believed, only commuting to London when he needed to for work.

Although the theater culture in 16 th century England was not greatly admired by people of high rank, some of the nobility were good patrons of the performing arts and friends of the actors. Two notable exceptions were Queen Elizabeth I , who was a fan of Lord Chamberlain’s Men by the late 1590s after first watching a performance in 1594, and her successor King James I. Following his crowning in 1603, the company changed its name to the King’s Men.

By 1599, Shakespeare and several fellow actors built their own theater on the south bank of the Thames River, which they called the Globe Theater. Julius Caesar is thought to be the first production at the new open-air theater. Owning the playhouse proved to be a financial boon for Shakespeare and the other investors.

In 1613, the Globe caught fire during a performance of Henry VII I and burned to the ground. The company quickly rebuilt it, and it reopened the next year. In 1642, Puritans outlawed all theaters, including the Globe, which was demolished two years later. Centuries passed until American actor Sam Wanamaker began working to resurrect the theater once more. The third Globe Theater opened in 1997, and today, more than 1.25 million people visit it every year.

a color illustration of william shakespeare with the writer sitting in a cushioned red chair, his right hand holds a quill and rests on his right knee, his left elbow rests on an ornate wood desk with his left hand holding his head, he wears a dark outfit with a large white collar, dark tights, and dark shoes

It’s difficult to determine the exact chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, but over the course of two decades, from about 1590 to 1613, he wrote 37 plays revolving around three main themes: history, tragedy, and comedy. Some plays blur these lines, and over time, our interpretation of them has changed, too.

Shakespeare’s early plays were written in the conventional style of the day, with elaborate metaphors and rhetorical phrases that didn’t always align naturally with the story’s plot or characters. However, Shakespeare was very innovative, adapting the traditional style to his own purposes and creating a freer flow of words.

With only small degrees of variation, Shakespeare primarily used a metrical pattern consisting of lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse, to compose his plays. At the same time, there are passages in all the plays that deviate from this and use forms of poetry or simple prose.

Many of Shakespeare’s first plays were histories. All three Henry VI plays, Richard II , and Henry V dramatize the destructive results of weak or corrupt rulers and have been interpreted by drama historians as Shakespeare’s way of justifying the origins of the Tudor Dynasty. Other histories include Richard III , King John , the two Henry IV plays, and Henry VIII . With exception of Henry VIII , which was Shakespeare’s last play, these works were likely written by 1599.

Although Shakespeare wrote three tragedies, including Romeo and Juliet , before 1600, it wasn’t until after the turn of the century that he truly explored the genre. Character in Othello , King Lear , and Macbeth present vivid impressions of human temperament that are timeless and universal.

Possibly the best known of these plays is Hamlet , which explores betrayal, retribution, incest, and moral failure. These moral failures often drive the twists and turns of Shakespeare’s plots, destroying the hero and those he loves.

Julius Caesar , written in circa 1599, portrays upheaval in Roman politics that might have resonated with viewers at a time when England’s aging monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, had no legitimate heir, thus creating the potential for future power struggles.

Titus Andronicus , Anthony and Cleopatra , Timon of Athens , and Coriolanus are Shakespeare’s other tragic plays.

Shakespeare wrote comedies throughout his career, including his first play The Taming of the Shrew . Some of his other early comedies, written before 1600 or so, are: the whimsical A Midsummer Night’s Dream , the romantic Merchant of Venice , the wit and wordplay of Much Ado About Nothing , and the charming As You Like It .

Some of his comedies might be better described as tragicomedies. Among these are Pericles , Cymbeline , The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest . Although graver in tone than the comedies, they are not the dark tragedies of King Lear or Macbeth because they end with reconciliation and forgiveness.

Additional Shakespeare comedies include:

  • The Two Gentlemen of Verona ,
  • The Comedy of Errors ,
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost ,
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor ,
  • Twelfth Night ,
  • Measure for Measure , and
  • All’s Well That Ends Well

Troilus and Cressida is emblematic of the Shakespearean “problem play,” which defies genres. Some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries classified it as a history or a comedy, though the original name of the play was The Tragedie of Troylus and Cressida .

Collaborations and Lost Play

Shakespeare is known to have created plays with other writers, such as John Fletcher. They co-wrote The Two Noble Kinsmen around 1613–14, making it Shakespeare’s last known dramatic work. They also collaborated on Cardenio , a play which was not preserved. Shakespeare’s other jointly written plays are Sir Thomas More and The Raigne of King Edward the Third . When including these works, Shakespeare has 41 plays to his name.

Around the turn of the 17 th century, Shakespeare became a more extensive property owner in Stratford. When his father, John, died in 1601, he inherited the family home. Then, in 1602, he purchased about 107 acres for 320 pounds.

In 1605, Shakespeare purchased leases of real estate near Stratford for 440 pounds, which doubled in value and earned him 60 pounds a year. This made him an entrepreneur as well as an artist, and scholars believe these investments gave him uninterrupted time to write his plays.

A couple years prior, around 1603, Shakespeare is believed to have stopped acting in the King’s Men productions, instead focusing on his playwriting work. He likely spent the last three years of his life in Stratford.

When Did Shakespeare Die?

Tradition holds that Shakespeare died on his 52 nd birthday, April 23, 1616, but some scholars believe this is a myth. Church records show he was interred at Holy Trinity Church on April 25, 1616. The exact cause of Shakespeare’s death is unknown , though many people believe he died following a brief illness.

In his will, he left the bulk of his possessions to his eldest daughter, Susanna, who by then was married. Although entitled to a third of his estate, little seems to have gone to his wife, Anne, whom he bequeathed his “second-best bed.” This has drawn speculation that she had fallen out of favor or that the couple was not close.

However, there is very little evidence the two had a difficult marriage. Other scholars note that the term “second-best bed” often refers to the bed belonging to the household’s master and mistress, the marital bed, and the “first-best bed” was reserved for guests.

The Bard of Avon has gone down in history as the greatest dramatist of all time and is sometimes called England’s national poet. He is credited with inventing or introducing more than 1,700 words to the English language, often as a result of combining words, changing usages, or blending in foreign root words. If you’ve used the words “downstairs,” “egregious,” “kissing,” “zany,” or “skim milk,” you can thank Shakespeare. He is also responsible for many common phrases, such as “love is blind” and “wild goose chase.”

First Folio

shakespeare’s first folio edition open to the title page with a portrait of william shakespeare on the right page, a white gloved hand touches the top righthand corner of the book

Although some of Shakespeare’s works were printed in his lifetime, not all were. It is because of the First Folio that we know about 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, including Macbeth , Twelfth Night , and Julius Caesar . John Heminge and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors in the King’s Men, created the 36-play collection, which celebrates its 400 th anniversary this year. It was published with the title Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died.

In addition to its literary importance, the First Folio contains an original portrait of Shakespeare on the title page. Engraved by Martin Droeshout, it’s considered one of the two authentic portraits of the writer. The other is a memorial bust at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.

Today, there are 235 surviving copies of the First Folio that date back to 1623, but experts estimate roughly 750 First Folios were printed. Three subsequent editions of Shakespeare’s Folio, with text updates and additional plays, were published between 1632 and 1685.

Did Shakespeare Write His Own Plays?

About 150 years after his death, questions arose about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Scholars and literary critics began to float names like Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere, and Francis Bacon —men of more known backgrounds, literary accreditation, or inspiration—as the true authors of the plays.

Much of this stemmed from the sketchy details of Shakespeare’s life and the dearth of contemporary primary sources. Official records from the Holy Trinity Church and the Stratford government record the existence of Shakespeare, but none of these attest to him being an actor or playwright.

Skeptics also questioned how anyone of such modest education could write with the intellectual perceptiveness and poetic power that is displayed in Shakespeare’s works. Over the centuries, several groups have emerged that question the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.

The most serious and intense skepticism began in the 19 th century when adoration for Shakespeare was at its highest. The detractors believed that the only hard evidence surrounding Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon described a man from modest beginnings who married young and became successful in real estate.

Members of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, founded in 1957, put forth arguments that English aristocrat and poet Edward de Vere, the 17 th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the poems and plays of “William Shakespeare.” The Oxfordians cite de Vere’s extensive knowledge of aristocratic society, his education, and the structural similarities between his poetry and that found in the works attributed to Shakespeare. They contend that Shakespeare had neither the education nor the literary training to write such eloquent prose and create such rich characters.

However, the vast majority of Shakespearean scholars contend that Shakespeare wrote all his own plays. They point out that other playwrights of the time also had sketchy histories and came from modest backgrounds.

They contend that King’s New School in Stratford had a curriculum of Latin and the classics could have provided a good foundation for literary writers. Supporters of Shakespeare’s authorship argue that the lack of evidence about Shakespeare’s life doesn’t mean his life didn’t exist. They point to evidence that displays his name on the title pages of published poems and plays.

Examples exist of authors and critics of the time acknowledging Shakespeare as the author of plays such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona , The Comedy of Errors , and King John .

Royal records from 1601 show that Shakespeare was recognized as a member of the King’s Men theater company and a Groom of the Chamber by the court of King James I, where the company performed seven of Shakespeare’s plays.

There is also strong circumstantial evidence of personal relationships by contemporaries who interacted with Shakespeare as an actor and a playwright.

Literary Legacy

What seems to be true is that Shakespeare was a respected man of the dramatic arts who wrote plays and acted in the late 16 th and early 17 th centuries. But his reputation as a dramatic genius wasn’t recognized until the 19 th century.

Beginning with the Romantic period of the early 1800s and continuing through the Victorian period, acclaim and reverence for Shakespeare and his work reached its height. In the 20 th century, new movements in scholarship and performance rediscovered and adopted his works.

Today, his plays remain highly popular and are constantly studied and reinterpreted in performances with diverse cultural and political contexts. The genius of Shakespeare’s characters and plots are that they present real human beings in a wide range of emotions and conflicts that transcend their origins in Elizabethan England.

  • The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
  • This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.
  • There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
  • Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.
  • Lord, what fools these mortals be!
  • To weep is to make less the depth of grief.
  • In time we hate that which we often fear.
  • Men at some time are masters of their fates: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.
  • What’s done cannot be undone.
  • We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
  • Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.
  • The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
  • All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
  • Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
  • I say there is no darkness but ignorance.
  • I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.
  • Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
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William Shakespeare Biography

Who was william shakespeare.

  • In this section

An Introduction

William Shakespeare was a renowned English poet, playwright, and actor born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon . His birthday is most commonly celebrated on 23 April (see  When was Shakespeare born ), which is also believed to be the date he died in 1616.

Shakespeare was a prolific writer during the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages of British theatre (sometimes called the English Renaissance or the Early Modern Period). Shakespeare’s plays are perhaps his most enduring legacy, but they are not all he wrote. Shakespeare’s poems  also remain popular to this day. 

Shakespeare's Family Life

Records survive relating to  William Shakespeare’s family  that offer an understanding of the context of Shakespeare's early life and the lives of his family members. John Shakespeare married Mary Arden , and together they had eight children. John and Mary lost two daughters as infants, so William became their eldest child. John Shakespeare worked as a glove-maker, but he also became an important figure in the town of Stratford by fulfilling civic positions. His elevated status meant that he was even more likely to have sent his children, including William, to the local grammar school . 

William Shakespeare would have lived with his family in their house on Henley Street until he turned eighteen. When he was eighteen,  Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway , who was twenty-six. It was a rushed marriage because Anne was already pregnant at the time of the ceremony. Together they had three children. Their first daughter, Susanna , was born six months after the wedding and was later followed by twins  Hamnet and Judith . Hamnet died when he was just 11 years old.

  • For an overview of William Shakespeare's life, see Shakespeare's Life: A Timeline

Shakespeare in London

Shakespeare's career jump-started in London, but when did he go there? We know Shakespeare's twins were baptised in 1585, and that by 1592 his reputation was established in London, but the intervening years are considered a mystery. Scholars generally refer to these years as ‘ The Lost Years ’.

During his time in London, Shakespeare’s first printed works were published. They were two long poems, 'Venus and Adonis' (1593) and 'The Rape of Lucrece' (1594). He also became a founding member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company of actors. Shakespeare was the company's regular dramatist, producing on average two plays a year, for almost twenty years. 

He remained with the company for the rest of his career, during which time it evolved into The King’s Men under the patronage of King James I (from 1603). During his time in the company Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous tragedies, such as King Lear and Macbeth , as well as great romances, like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest . 

  • For more about Shakespeare's patrons and his work in London see; Shakespeare's Career

Shakespeare's Works

Altogether  Shakespeare's works include 38 plays, 2 narrative poems, 154 sonnets, and a variety of other poems. No original manuscripts of Shakespeare's plays are known to exist today. It is actually thanks to a group of actors from Shakespeare's company that we have about half of the plays at all. They collected them for publication after Shakespeare died, preserving the plays. These writings were brought together in what is known as the First Folio ('Folio' refers to the size of the paper used). It contained 36 of his plays, but none of his poetry. 

Shakespeare’s legacy is as rich and diverse as his work; his plays have spawned countless adaptations across multiple genres and cultures. His plays have had an enduring presence on stage and film. His writings have been compiled in various iterations of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which include all of his plays, sonnets, and other poems. William Shakespeare continues to be one of the most important literary figures of the English language.

New Place; a home in Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare’s success in the London theatres made him considerably wealthy, and by 1597 he was able to purchase  New Place ,   the largest house in the borough of  Stratford-upon-Avon . Although his professional career was spent in London, he maintained close links with his native town. 

Recent archaeological evidence discovered on the site of Shakespeare’s New Place shows that Shakespeare was only ever an intermittent lodger in London. This suggests he divided his time between Stratford and London (a two or three-day commute). In his later years, he may have spent more time in Stratford-upon-Avon than scholars previously thought.

  • Watch our video for more about Shakespeare as a literary commuter:

On his father's death in 1601, William Shakespeare inherited the old family home in Henley Street part of which was then leased to tenants. Further property investments in Stratford followed, including the purchase of 107 acres of land in 1602.

Shakespeare died  in Stratford-upon-Avon on 23 April 1616 at the age of 52. He is buried in the sanctuary of the parish church, Holy Trinity.

All the world's a stage /And all the men and women merely players. / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts. — As You Like It, Act 2 Scene 7

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what is literature by shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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While William Shakespeare’s reputation is based primarily on his plays, he became famous first as a poet. With the partial exception of the Sonnets (1609), quarried since the early 19th century for autobiographical secrets allegedly encoded in them, the nondramatic writings have traditionally been pushed to the margins of the Shakespeare industry. Yet the study of his nondramatic poetry can illuminate Shakespeare’s activities as a poet emphatically of his own age, especially in the period of extraordinary literary ferment in the last ten or twelve years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

Shakespeare’s exact birth date remains unknown. He was baptized in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564, his mother’s third child, but the first to survive infancy. This has led scholars to conjecture that he was born on April 23rd, given the era’s convention of baptizing newborns on their third day. Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, moved to Stratford in about 1552 and rapidly became a prominent figure in the town’s business and politics. He rose to be bailiff, the highest official in the town, but then in about 1575-1576 his prosperity declined markedly and he withdrew from public life. In 1596, thanks to his son’s success and persistence, he was granted a coat of arms by the College of Arms, and the family moved into New Place, the grandest house in Stratford.

Speculation that William Shakespeare traveled, worked as a schoolmaster in the country, was a soldier and a law clerk, or embraced or left the Roman Catholic Church continues to fill the gaps left in the sparse records of the so-called lost years. It is conventionally assumed (though attendance registers do not survive) that Shakespeare attended the King’s New School in Stratford, along with others of his social class. At the age of 18, in November 1582, he married Anne Hathaway, daughter of a local farmer. She was pregnant with Susanna Shakespeare, who was baptized on May 26, 1583. The twins, Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare, were baptized on February 2, 1585. There were no further children from the union.

William Shakespeare had probably been working as an actor and writer on the professional stage in London for four or five years when the London theaters were closed by order of the Privy Council on June 23, 1592. The authorities were concerned about a severe outbreak of the plague and alarmed at the possibility of civil unrest (Privy Council minutes refer to “a great disorder and tumult” in Southwark). The initial order suspended playing until Michaelmas and was renewed several times. When the theaters reopened in June 1594, the theatrical companies had been reorganized, and Shakespeare’s career was wholly committed to the troupe known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men until 1603, when they were reconstituted as the King’s Men.

By 1592 Shakespeare already enjoyed sufficient prominence as an author of dramatic scripts to have been the subject of Robert Greene’s attack on the “upstart crow” in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit . Such renown as he enjoyed, however, was as transitory as the dramatic form. Play scripts, and their authors, were accorded a lowly status in the literary system, and when scripts were published, their link to the theatrical company (rather than to the scriptwriter) was publicized. It was only in 1597 that Shakespeare’s name first appeared on the title page of his plays— Richard II and a revised edition of Romeo and Juliet .

While the London theaters were closed, some actors tried to make a living by touring outside the capital. Shakespeare turned from the business of scriptwriting to the pursuit of art and patronage; unable to pursue his career in the theatrical marketplace, he adopted a more conventional course. Shakespeare’s first publication, Venus and Adonis (1593), was dedicated to the 18-year-old Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton. The dedication reveals a frank appeal for patronage, couched in the normal terms of such requests. Shakespeare received the Earl’s patronage and went on to dedicate his next dramatic poem, Lucrece, to the young lord as well. Venus and Adonis was printed by Richard Field, a professionally accomplished printer who lived in Stratford. Shakespeare’s choice of printer indicates an ambition to associate himself with unambiguously high-art productions, as does the quotation from Ovid’s Amores on the title page: “Vilia miretur vulgus: mihi flavus Apollo / Pocula Castalia plena ministret acqua” (Let worthless stuff excite the admiration of the crowd: as for me, let golden Apollo ply me with full cups from the Castalian spring, that is, the spring of the Muses). Such lofty repudiation of the vulgar was calculated to appeal to the teenage Southampton. It also appealed to a sizable slice of the reading public. In the midst of horror, disease, and death, Shakespeare was offering access to a golden world, showing the delights of applying learning for pleasure rather than pointing out the obvious morals to be drawn from classical authors when faced with awful catastrophe.

With Venus and Adonis Shakespeare sought direct aristocratic patronage, but he also entered the marketplace as a professional author. He seems to have enjoyed a degree of success in the first of these objectives, given the more intimate tone of the dedication of Lucrece to Southampton in the following year. In the second objective, his triumph must have outstripped all expectation. Venus and Adonis went though 15 editions before 1640; if was first entered in the Stationers’ Register on April 18, 1593. It is a fine and elegantly printed book, consisting of 1,194 lines in 199 six-line stanzas rhymed ababcc . The verse form was a token of social and literary ambition on Shakespeare’s part. Its aristocratic cachet derived from its popularity at court, being favored by several courtier poets, such as Sir Walter Ralegh , Sir Arthur Gorges , and Sir Edward Dyer . Venus and Adonis is unquestionably a work of its age. In it a young writer courts respectability and patronage. At one level, of course, the poem is a traditional Ovidian fable, locating the origin of the inseparability of love and sorrow in Venus’s reaction to the death of Adonis: “lo here I prophesy, / Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend /... all love’s pleasure shall not match his woe.” It invokes a mythic past that explains a painful present. Like so many texts of the 1590s, it features an innocent hero, Adonis, who encounters a world in which the precepts he has acquired from his education are tested in the surprising school of experience. His knowledge of love, inevitably, is not firsthand (“I have heard it is a life in death, / That laughs and weeps, and all but with a breath”). There is a staidly academic quality to his repudiation of Venus’s “treatise,” her “idle over-handled theme.

Shakespeare’s literary and social aspirations are revealed at every turn. In his Petrarchism, for example, he adopts a mode that had become a staple of courtly discourse. Elizabethan politicians figured themselves and their personal and political conditions in Petrarchan terms. The inescapable and enduring frustrations of the courtier’s life were habitually figured via the analogy of the frustrated, confused, but devoted Petrarchan lover. Yet Shakespeare’s approach to this convention typifies the 1590s younger generation’s sense of its incongruity. Lines such as “the love-sick queen began to sweat” are understandably rare in Elizabethan courtly discourse. Power relations expressed through the gendered language of Elizabeth’s eroticized politics are reversed: “Her eyes petitioners to his eyes suing / ... Her eyes wooed still, his eyes disdain’d the wooing.” It is Venus who deploys the conventional carpe diem arguments: “Make use of time / ... Fair flowers that are not gath’red in their prime, / Rot, and consume themselves in little time”; she even provides a blason of her own charms: “Thou canst not see one wrinkle in my brow, / Mine eyes are grey, and bright, and quick in turning.”

Like most Elizabethan treatments of love, Shakespeare’s work is characterized by paradox (“She’s love, she loves, and yet she is not lov’d”), by narrative and thematic diversity, and by attempts to render the inner workings of the mind, exploring the psychology of perception (“Oft the eye mistakes, the brain being troubled”). The poem addresses such artistic preoccupations of the 1590s as the relation of poetry to painting and the possibility of literary immortality, as well as social concerns such as the phenomenon of “masterless women,” and the (to men) alarming and unknowable forces unleashed by female desire, an issue that for a host of reasons fascinated Elizabeth’s subjects. Indeed, Venus and Adonis flirts with taboos, as do other successful works of the 1590s, offering readers living in a paranoid, plague-ridden city a fantasy of passionate and fatal physical desire, with Venus leading Adonis “prisoner in a red-rose chain.” In its day it was appreciated as an erotic fantasy glorying in the inversion of established categories and values, with a veneer of learning and the snob appeal of association with a celebrated aristocrat.

Since the Romantic period the frank sexuality of Shakespeare’s Venus has held less appeal for literary critics and scholars than it had to Elizabethan and Jacobean readers. C.S. Lewis concludes in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (1954) that “if the poem is not meant to arouse disgust it was very foolishly written.” In more recent years a combination of feminism, cultural studies, renewed interest in rhetoric, and a return to traditional archival research has begun to reclaim Venus and Adonis from such prejudice.

The elevated subject of Shakespeare’s next publication, Lucrece , suggests that Venus and Adonis had been well received, Lucrece comprises 1,855 lines, in 265 stanzas. The stanza (as in Complaint of Rosamund ) is the seven-line rhyme royal ( ababbcc ) immortalized in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1385) and thereafter considered especially appropriate for tragedy, complaint, and philosophical reflection. In places the narrator explicitly highlights the various rhetorical set pieces (“Here she exclaims against repose and rest”). Lucrece herself comments on her performance after the apostrophes to “comfort-killing Night, image of Hell,” Opportunity, and Time. Elizabethan readers would have appreciated much about the poem, from its plentiful wordplay (“to shun the blot, she would not blot the letter”; “Ere she with blood had stain’d her stain’d excuse”) and verbal dexterity, to the inner debate raging inside Tarquin. Though an exemplary tyrant from ancient history, he also exemplifies the conventional 1590s conflict between willful youthful prodigality and sententious experience (“My part is youth, and beats these from the stage”). The arguments in his “disputation / ‘Tween frozen conscience and hot burning will” are those of the Petrarchan lover: “nothing can affection’s course control,” and “Yet strive I to embrace mine infamy.” But the context of this rhetorical performance is crucial throughout. Unlike Venus and Adonis , Lucrece is not set in a mythical golden age, but in a fallen, violent world. This is particularly apparent in the rhetorical and ultimately physical competition of their debate--contrasting Tarquin’s speeches with Lucrece’s eloquent appeals to his better nature.

The combination of ancient and contemporary strengthens the political elements in the poem. It demonstrates tyranny in its most intimate form, committing a private outrage that is inescapably public; hence the rape is figured in terms both domestic (as a burglary) and public (as a hunt, a war, a siege). It also reveals the essential violence of many conventional erotic metaphors. Shakespeare draws on the powerful Elizabethan myth of the island nation as a woman: although Tarquin is a Roman, an insider, his journey from the siege of Ardea to Lucrece’s chamber connects the two assaults. His attack figures a society at war with itself, and he himself is shown to be self-divided.” Tyranny, lust, and greed translate the metaphors of Petrarchism into the actuality of rape, which is figured by gradatio , or climax: “What could he see but mightily he noted? / What did he note but strongly he desired?”

The historically validated interpretation—for Shakespeare’s readers, descendants of Brutus in New Troy—is figured by Brutus, who “pluck’d the knife from Lucrece’s side.” He steps forward, casting off his reputation for folly and improvising a ritual (involving kissing the knife) that transforms grief and outrage at Lucrece’s death into a determination to “publish Tarquin’s foul offense” and change the political system. Brutus emerges from the shadows, reminding the reader that the poem, notwithstanding its powerful speeches and harrowing images, is also remarkable for what is unshown, untold, implicit. Until recently few commentators have taken up the interpretative challenge posed by Brutus. Traditionally Lucrece has been dismissed as a bookish, pedantic dry run for Shakespeare’s tragedies, in William Empson ‘s phrase, “the Bard doing five-finger exercises,” containing what F.T. Prince in his 1960 edition of the poems dismisses as defective rhetoric in the treatment of an uninteresting story. Many critics have sought to define the poem’s genre, which combines political fable, female complaint, and tragedy within a milieu of self-conscious antiquity. But perhaps the most significant recent developments have been the feminist treatments of the poem, the reawakening interest in rhetoric, and a dawning awareness of the work’s political engagement. Lucrece , like so many of Shakespeare’s historical tragedies, problematizes the categories of history and myth, of public and private, and exemplifies the bewildering nature of historical parallels. The self-conscious rhetorical display and the examination of representation is daringly politicized, explicitly, if inconclusively, connecting the aesthetic and the erotic with politics both sexual and state. At the time of its publication, Lucrece was Shakespeare’s most profound meditation on history, particularly on the relations between public role and private morality and on the conjunction of forces—personal, political, social—that creates turning points in human history. In it he indirectly articulates the concerns of his generation and also, perhaps, of his young patron, who was already closely associated with the doomed earl of Essex.

In 1598 or 1599 the printer William Jaggard brought out an anthology of 20 miscellaneous poems, which he eventually attributed to Shakespeare, though the authorship of all 20 is still disputed. At least five are demonstrably Shakespearean. Poem 1 is a version of Sonnet 138 (“When My Love Swears that She Is Made of Truth”), poem 2 of Sonnet 144 (“Two Loves I Have, of Comfort and Despair”), and the rest are sonnets that appear in act 4 of Love’s Labor’s Lost (1598). Investigation of Jaggard’s volume, called The Passionate Pilgrime, has yielded and will continue to yield insight into such matters as the relationship of manuscript to print culture in the 1590s, the changing nature of the literary profession, and the evolving status of the author. It may also, as with The Phoenix and Turtle (1601), lead to increased knowledge of the chronology and circumstances of Shakespeare’s literary career, as well as affording some glimpses of his revisions of his texts.

“With this key / Shakespeare unlocked his heart,” wrote William Wordsworth in “ Scorn not the Sonnet “ (1827) of the Sonnets . “If so,” replied Robert Browning in his poem “House” (1876), “the less Shakespeare he.” None of Shakespeare’s works has been so tirelessly ransacked for biographical clues as the 154 sonnets, published with A Lover’s Complaint by Thomas Thorpe in 1609. Unlike the narrative poems, they enjoyed only limited commercial success during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and no further edition appeared until Benson’s in 1640. The title page, like Jaggard’s of The Passionate Pilgrim , relies upon the drawing power of the author’s name and promises “SHAKE-SPEARES / SONNETS / Never before Imprinted.”

The 154 sonnets are conventionally divided between the “young man” sonnets (1-126) and the “dark lady” sonnets (127-152), with the final pair often seen as an envoy or coda to the collection. There is no evidence that such a division has chronological implications, though the volume is usually read in such a way. Shakespeare employs the conventional English sonnet form: three quatrains capped with a couplet. Drama is conjured within individual poems, as the speaker wrestles with some problem or situation; it is generated by the juxtaposition of poems, with instant switches of tone, mood, and style; it is implied by cross-references and interrelationships within the sequence as a whole.

There remains a question, however, of how closely Shakespeare was involved in preparing the text of the sonnets for publication. Some commentators have advocated skepticism about all attempts to recover Shakespeare’s intention. Others have looked more closely at Thorpe, at Benson, and at the circulation of Shakespeare’s verse in the manuscript culture: these investigations have led to a reexamination of the ideas of authorship and authority in the period. Although scholarly opinion is still divided, several influential studies and editions in recent years have argued, on a variety of grounds, for the authority, integrity, and coherence of Thorpe’s text, an integrity now regarded as including A Lover’s Complaint .

The subsequent history of the text of the sonnets is inseparable from the history of Shakespeare’s reputation. John Benson’s Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare. Gent (1640) was part of an attempt to “canonize” Shakespeare, collecting verses into a handsome quarto that could be sold as a companion to the dramatic folio texts (“to be serviceable for the continuance of glory to the deserved author in these his poems”). Benson dropped a few sonnets, added other poems, provided titles for individual pieces, changed Thorpe’s order, conflated sonnets, and modified some of the male pronouns, thereby making the sequence seem more unambiguously heterosexual in its orientation. In recent years there has been increasing study of Benson’s edition as a distinct literary production in its own right.

The Romantic compulsion to read the sonnets as autobiography inspired attempts to rearrange them to tell their story more clearly. It also led to attempts to relate them to what was known or could be surmised about Shakespeare’s life. Some commentators speculated that the publication of the sonnets was the result of a conspiracy by Shakespeare’s rivals or enemies, seeking to embarrass him by publishing love poems apparently addressed to a man rather than to the conventional sonnet-mistress. The five appendices to Hyder Edward Rollins’s Variorum edition document the first century of such endeavors. Attention was directed toward “problems” such as the identity of Master W. H., of the young man, of the rival poet, and of the dark lady (a phrase, incidentally, never used by Shakespeare in the sonnets). The disappearance of the sonnets from the canon coincided with the time when Shakespeare’s standing as the nation’s bard was being established. The critics’ current fascination is just as significant for what it reveals about contemporary culture, as the “Shakespeare myth” comes under attack from various directions.

The sonnets were apparently composed during a period of ten or a dozen years starting in about 1592-1593. In Palladis Tamia Meres refers to the existence of “sugared sonnets” circulating among Shakespeare’s “private friends,” some which were published in The Passionate Pilgrim. The fact of prior circulation has important implications for the sonnets. The particular poems that were in circulation suggest that the general shape and themes of the Sonnets were established from the earliest stages. Evidence suggesting a lengthy period of composition is inconvenient for commentators seeking to unlock the autobiographical secret of the sonnets. An early date (1592-1594) argues for Southampton as the boy and Christopher Marlowe as the rival poet; a date a decade later brings George Herbert and George Chapman into the frame. There are likewise early dark ladies (Lucy Negro, before she took charge of a brothel) and late (Emilia Lanier, Mary Fitton). There may, of course, have been more than one young man, rival, and dark lady, or in fact the sequence may not be autobiographical at all.

No Elizabethan sonnet sequence presents an unambiguous linear narrative, a novel in verse. Shakespeare’s is no exception. Yet neither are the Sonnets a random anthology, a loose gathering of scattered rhymes. While groups of sonnets are obviously linked thematically, such as the opening sequence urging the young man to marry (1-17), and the dark lady sequence (127-152), the ordering within those groups is not that of continuous narrative. There are many smaller units, with poems recording that the friend has become the lover of the poet’s mistress (40-42), or expressing jealousy of the young man’s friendship with a rival poet (78-86). Sonnet 44 ends with a reference to two of the four elements “so much of earth and water wrought,” and 45 starts with “The other two, slight air and purging fire.” Similarly indivisible are the two “horse” sonnets 50 and 51, the “Will” sonnets 135 and 136, and 67 and 68. Sonnets 20 and 87 are connected as much by their telling use of feminine rhyme as by shared themes. Dispersed among the poems are pairs and groups that amplify or comment on each other, such as those dealing with absence (43-45, 47-48, 50-52, and 97-98).

“My name is Will,” declares the speaker of 136. Sonnet 145 apparently puns on Anne Hathaway’s name (“I hate, from hate away she threw”). Elizabethan sonneteers, following Sir Philip Sidney , conventionally teased their readers with hints of an actuality behind the poems. Sidney had given Astrophil his own coat of arms, had quibbled with the married name of the supposed original for Stella (Penelope Rich) and with the Greek etymology of his own name (Philip, “lover of horses”) in Astrophil and Stella sonnets 41, 49, and 53. Shakespeare’s speaker descends as much from Astrophil as from Daniel’s more enigmatic persona, most obviously in the deployment of the multiple sense of will in 135 and 136. Yet Shakespeare’s sequence is unusual in including sexual consummation (Spenser’s Amoretti led to the celebration of marriage in Epithalamion , 1595) and unique in its persuasion to marry. There is evidence that some contemporary readers were disturbed by the transgressive and experimental features of 1590s erotic writing. Works by Marston and Marlowe were among those banned in 1599 along with satires and other more conventional kindling. Benson’s much-discussed modification of the text of the Sonnets indicates at least a certain level of anxiety about the gender of the characters in the poems. Benson retained Sonnet 20 but dropped 126 (“O Thou My Lovely Boy”) and changed the direct address of 108 (“Nothing, Sweet Boy”) to the neutral “Nothing, Sweet Love.”

The speaker sums up his predicament in 144, one of the Passionate Pilgrim poems:

Two loves I have of comfort and despair, Which like two spirits do suggest me still: The better angel is a man right fair, The worser spirit a woman color’d ill.

The speaker’s attraction to the “worser spirit” is figured in harsh language throughout the sequence: in fact, the brutal juxtaposition of lyricism and lust is characteristic of the collection as a whole. The consequent disjointedness expresses a form of psychological verisimilitude by the standards of Shakespeare’s day, where discontinuity and repetition were held to reveal the inner state of a speaker.

The anachronism of applying modern attitudes toward homosexuality to early modern culture is self-evident. Where Shakespeare and his contemporaries drew their boundaries cannot be fully determined, but they were fascinated by the Platonic concept of androgyny, a concept drawn on by the queen herself almost from the moment of her accession. Sonnet 53 is addressed to an inexpressible lover, who resembles both Adonis and Helen. Androgyny is only part of the exploration of sexuality in the sonnets, however. A humanist education could open windows onto a world very different from post-Reformation England. Plato’s praise of love between men was in marked contrast to the establishment of capital punishment as the prescribed penalty for sodomy in 1533.

In the Sonnets the relationship between the speaker and the young man both invites and resists definition, and it is clearly presented as a challenge to orthodoxy. If at times it seems to correspond to the many Elizabethan celebrations of male friendship, at others it has a raw physicality that resists such polite categorization. Even in sonnet 20, where sexual intimacy seems to be explicitly denied, the speaker’s mind runs to bawdy puns. The speaker refers to the friend as “rose,” “my love,” “lover,” and “sweet love,” and many commentators have demonstrated the repeated use of explicitly sexual language to the male friend (in 106, 109, and 110, for example). On the other hand, the acceptance of the traditional distinction between the young man and the dark lady sonnets obscures the fact that Shakespeare seems deliberately to render the gender of his subject uncertain in the vast majority of cases.

For some commentators the sequence also participates in the so-called birth of the author, a crucial feature of early modern writing: the liberation of the writer from the shackles of patronage. In Joel Fineman’s analysis, Shakespeare creates a radical internalization of Petrarchism, reordering its dynamic by directing his attention to the speaker’s subjectivity rather than to the ostensible object of the speaker’s devotion: the poetry of praise becomes poetry of self-discovery.

Sidney’s Astrophil had inhabited a world of court intrigue, chivalry, and international politics, exemplifying the overlap between political and erotic discourse in Elizabethan England. The circumstances of Shakespeare’s speaker, in contrast, are not those of a courtier but of a male of the upwardly mobile “middling sort.” Especially in the young man sonnets, there is a marked class anxiety, as the speaker seeks to define his role, whether as a friend, a tutor, a counselor, an employee, or a sexual rival. Not only are comparisons drawn from the world of the professional theater (“As an unperfect actor on the stage” in sonnet 23), but also from the world of business: compared to the prodigal “Unthrifty loveliness” of the youth (sonnet 4), “Making a famine where abundance lies” (1), the speaker inhabits a bourgeois world of debts, loans, repayment, and usury, speaking in similar language to the Dark Lady: “I myself am mortgaged to thy will” (134).

Yet Shakespeare’s linguistic performance extends beyond the “middling sort.” He was a great popularizer, translating court art and high art—John Lyly, Sidney, Edmund Spenser —into palatable and sentimental commercial forms. His sequence is remarkable for its thematic and verbal richness, for its extraordinary range of nuances and ambiguities. He often employs words in multiple senses (as in the seemingly willfully indecipherable resonance, punning, polysemy, implication, and nuance of sonnet 94). Shakespeare’s celebrated verbal playfulness, the polysemy of his language, is a function of publication, whether by circulation or printing. His words acquire currency beyond himself and become the subject of reading and interpretation.

This linguistic richness can also be seen as an act of social aspiration: as the appropriation of the ambiguity axiomatically inherent in courtly speech. The sequence continues the process of dismantling traditional distinctions among rhetoric, philosophy, and poetry begun in the poems of 1593-1594. The poems had dealt in reversal and inversion and had combined elements of narrative and drama. The Sonnets occupy a distinct, marginal space between social classes, between public and private, narrative and dramatic, and they proceed not through inverting categories but rather through interrogating them. Variations are played on Elizabethan conventions of erotic discourse: love without sex, sex without love, a “master-mistress” who is “prick’d ... out for women’s pleasure” as the ultimate in unattainable (“to my purpose nothing,” 20) adoration. Like Spenser’s Amoretti , Shakespeare’s collection meditates on the relationships among love, art, time, and immortality. It remains a meditation, however, even when it seems most decided.

The consequences of love, the pain of rejection, desertion, and loss of reputation are powerful elements in the poem that follows the sequence. Despite Thorpe’s unambiguous attribution of the piece to Shakespeare, A Lover’s Complaint was rejected from the canon, on distinctly flimsy grounds, until quite recently. It has been much investigated to establish its authenticity and its date. It is now generally accepted as Shakespearean and dated at some point between 1600 and 1609, possibly revised from a 1600 first version for publication in Thorpe’s volume. The poem comprises 329 lines, disposed into 47 seven-line rhyme-royal stanzas. It draws heavily on Spenser and Daniel and is the complaint of a wronged woman about the duplicity of a man. It is in some sense a companion to Lucrece and to All’s Well That Ends Well (circa 1602-1603) as much as to the sonnets. Its connections with the narrative poems, with the plays, and with the genre of female complaint have been thoroughly explored. The woman is a city besieged by an eloquent wooer (“how deceits were gilded in his smiling”), whose essence is dissimulation (“his passion, but an art of craft”). There has been a growing tendency to relate the poem to its immediate context in Thorpe’s Sonnets volume and to find it a reflection or gloss or critique of the preceding sequence.

Interest in Shakespeare’s nondramatic writings has increased markedly in recent years. They are no longer so easily marginalized or dismissed as conventional, and they contribute in powerful ways to a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s oeuvre and the Elizabethan era in which he lived and wrote.

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, on what may have been his 52nd birthday.

The Phoenix and the Turtle

From the rape of lucrece, song: “ blow, blow, thou winter wind ”.

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Anti-Love Poems

Poems of anxiety and uncertainty, poems for retirement, common core state standards text exemplars, bottom's dream, esther belin in conversation with a. van jordan, evie shockley vs gathering, hang there, my verse, love looks not with the eyes.

  • A Deeper Consideration

Dig It Up Again

From the archive: harriet monroe on shakespeare, "gabble like a thing most brutish".

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Song: “ come away, come away, death” , song: “ fear no more the heat o’ the sun” , song: “full fathom five thy father lies” , song: “ hark, hark the lark at heaven's gate sings”, song: “ it was a lover and his lass ”, song: “ o mistress mine where are you roaming”, song of the witches: “double, double toil and trouble”, song: “ orpheus with his lute made trees”, song: “ sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more”, song: spring, song: “ take, oh take those lips away ”, song: “under the greenwood tree”, song: “ when daisies pied and violets blue” , song: “ when that i was and a little tiny boy ( with hey, ho, the wind and the rain)”, song: “ where the bee sucks, there suck i”, song: “ who is silvia what is she”, sonnet 1: from fairest creatures we desire increase, sonnet 2: when forty winters shall besiege thy brow, sonnet 3: look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest, sonnet 12: when i do count the clock that tells the time, sonnet 15: when i consider everything that grows, sonnet 18: shall i compare thee to a summer’s day, sonnet 19: devouring time, blunt thou the lion's paws, sonnet 20: a woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted, sonnet 25: let those who are in favour with their stars, sonnet 29: when, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, sonnet 30: when to the sessions of sweet silent thought, sonnet 32: if thou survive my well-contented day, sonnet 33: full many a glorious morning have i seen, sonnet 34: why didst thou promise such a beauteous day, sonnet 35: no more be grieved at that which thou hast done, sonnet 40: take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all, sonnet 53: what is your substance, whereof are you made, sonnet 55: not marble nor the gilded monuments, sonnet 57: being your slave, what should i do but tend, sonnet 60: like as the waves make towards the pebbl'd shore, sonnet 64: when i have seen by time's fell hand defac'd, sonnet 65: since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, sonnet 66: tir'd with all these, for restful death i cry, sonnet 71: no longer mourn for me when i am dead, sonnet 73: that time of year thou mayst in me behold, sonnet 76: why is my verse so barren of new pride, sonnet 87: farewell thou art too dear for my possessing, sonnet 94: they that have power to hurt and will do none, sonnet 97: how like a winter hath my absence been, sonnet 98: from you have i been absent in the spring, sonnet 104: to me, fair friend, you never can be old, sonnet 106: when in the chronicle of wasted time, sonnet 107: not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul, sonnet 109: o never say that i was false of heart, sonnet 110: alas, 'tis true i have gone here and there, sonnet 111: o, for my sake do you with fortune chide,, sonnet 116: let me not to the marriage of true minds, sonnet 121: 'tis better to be vile than vile esteemed, sonnet 123: no, time, thou shalt not boast that i do change, sonnet 125: were’t aught to me i bore the canopy, sonnet 126: o thou, my lovely boy, who in thy pow’r, sonnet 129: th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame, sonnet 130: my mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun, sonnet 133: beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan, sonnet 134: so now i have confessed that he is thine, sonnet 135: whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy will, sonnet 138: when my love swears that she is made of truth, sonnet 139: o, call not me to justify the wrong, sonnet 141: in faith, i do not love thee with mine eyes, sonnet 142: love is my sin, and thy dear virtue hate, sonnet 144: two loves i have of comfort and despair, sonnet 145: those lips that love’s own hand did make, sonnet 146: poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,, sonnet 147: my love is as a fever, longing still, speech: “ all the world’s a stage ”, speech: bottom's dream, speech: “ friends, romans, countrymen, lend me your ears ”, speech: “ is this a dagger which i see before me ”, speech: “ no matter where; of comfort no man speak ”, speech: “now is the winter of our discontent”, speech: “ o romeo, romeo, wherefore art thou romeo ”, speech: “ once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more ”, speech: “ the raven himself is hoarse ”, speech: “ this day is called the feast of crispian ”, speech: “ time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back ”, speech: “to be, or not to be, that is the question”, speech: “ tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow ”, venus and adonis.

For breakups, heartache, and unrequited love. More “screw Cupid” than “Be mine.”

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Poetry about the joys and challenges of life post-career.

Poems to read as the leaves change and the weather gets colder.

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Love is love poetry, by and for LGBTQ+ folks.

Spring Poems

Classic and contemporary poems to celebrate the advent of spring.

Halloween Poems

Spooky, scary, and fun poems that will make your hair curl.

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Love poetry to read at a lesbian or gay wedding.

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Love, I’m done with you!

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Educational resources on poetic forms curated by Poetry Foundation staff

By William Shakespeare

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The Hearers to Collection: T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

Who are all these people? Where is this waste land they inhabit? What is this chaos of impressions we are privy to? Wherefore such madness?

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Old and new poems about unnamed lovers. Need a transcript of this episode? Request a transcript here.

William Shakespeare: Selections

An introduction to one of the most influential English-language poets of all time

Appeared in Poetry Magazine The XYZ of Hearing: The Squid’s Ink

For a physician, poetry serves as a magical antidote.

Ye Elves of Hills, Brooks, Standing Lakes and Groves

  • Venus and Adonis (London: Printed by Richard Field, sold by J. Harrison I, 1593).
  • The First Part of the Contention betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster [abridged and corrupt text of Henry VI , part 2] (London: Printed by Thomas Creede for Thomas Millington, 1594).
  • Lucrece (London: Printed by Richard Field for John Harrison, 1594); republished as The Rape of Lucrece. Newly Revised (London: Printed by T. Snodham for R. Jackson, 1616).
  • The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedie of Titus Andronicus (London: Printed by John Danter, sold by Edward White & Thomas Middleton, 1594).
  • A Pleasant Conceited Historie, Called The Taming of a Shrew [corrupt text] (London: Printed by John Danter, sold by Edward White & Thomas Middleton, 1594; London: Printed by Peter Short, sold by Cuthbert Burbie, 1594).
  • The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the Death of Good King Henrie the Sixt [abridged and corrupt text of Henry VI , part 3] (London: Printed by Peter Short for Thomas Millington, 1595).
  • The Tragedy of King Richard the Third (London: Printed by Valentine Simmes & Peter Short for Andrew Wise, 1597).
  • The Tragedie of King Richard the Second (London: Printed by Valentine Simmes for Andrew Wise, 1597).
  • An Excellent Conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet [corrupt text] (London: Printed by John Danter [& E. Allde?], 1597); republished as The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet. Newly Corrected, Augmented, and Amended (London: Printed by Thomas Creede for Cuthbert Burby, 1599).
  • A Pleasant Conceited Comedie Called, Loues Labors Lost (London: Printed by William White for Cuthbert Burby, 1598).
  • The History of Henrie the Fourth [part 1] (London: Printed by Peter Short for Andrew Wise, 1598).
  • The Passionate Pilgrime , attributed to Shakespeare (London: William Jaggard, 1599).
  • A Midsommer Nights Dreame (London: Printed by R. Bradock for Thomas Fisher, 1600).
  • The Most Excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice (London: Printed by James Roberts for Thomas Heyes, 1600).
  • The Second Part of Henrie the Fourth, Continuing to His Death, and Coronation of Henrie the Fift (London: Printed by Valentine Simmes for Andrew Wise & William Aspley, 1600).
  • Much Adoe about Nothing (London: Printed by Valentine Simmes for Andrew Wise & William Aspley, 1600).
  • The Cronicle History of Henry the Fift [corrupt text] (London: Printed by Thomas Creede for Thomas Mullington & John Busby, 1600).
  • The Phoenix and Turtle , appended to Loves Martyr: or, Rosalins Complaint , by Robert Chester (London: Printed by Richard Field for E. Blount, 1601).
  • A Most Pleasaunt and Excellent Conceited Comedie, of Syr John Falstaffe, and the Merrie Wives of Windsor [corrupt text] (London: Printed by Thomas Creede for Arthur Johnson, 1602).
  • The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmark [abridged and corrupt text] (London: Printed by Valentine Simmes for Nicholas Ling & John Trundell, 1603); republished as The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke. Newly Imprinted and Enlarged to Almost as Much Againe as It Was, According to the True and Perfect Coppie (London: Printed by James Roberts for Nicholas Ling, 1604).
  • M. William Shak-speare: His True Chronicle Historie of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters (London: Printed by N. Okes for Nathaniel Butter, 1608).
  • The Historie of Troylus and Cresseida (London: Printed by G. Eld for R. Bonian & H. Walley, 1609).
  • Shake-speares Sonnets (London: Printed by G. Eld for Thomas Thorpe, sold by W. Aspley & John Wright, 1609).
  • The Late, and Much Admired Play, Called Pericles, Prince of Tyre (London: Printed by W. White for Henry Gosson, 1609).
  • The Tragædy of Othello, The Moore of Venice (London: Printed by Nicholas Okes for Thomas Walkley, 1622).
  • Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies (London: Printed by Isaac Jaggard & Edward Blount, 1623)--comprises The Tempest; The Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Merry Wives of Windsor; Measure for Measure; The Comedy of Errors; Much Ado About Nothing; Love's Labor's Lost; A Midsummer Night's Dream; The Merchant of Venice; As You Like It; The Taming of the Shrew; All's Well That Ends Well; Twelfth Night; The Winter's Tale; King John; Richard II; Henry IV , parts 1 and 2; Henry V; Henry VI , parts 1-3; Richard III; Henry VIII; Troilus and Cressida; Coriolanus; Titus Andronicus; Romeo and Juliet; Timon of Athens; Julius Caesar; Macbeth; Hamlet; King Lear; Othello; Antony and Cleopatra; Cymbeline .
  • The Two Noble Kinsmen , by Shakespeare and John Fletcher (London: Printed by Thomas Cotes for John Waterson, 1634).
  • Poems. Written by Wil. Shake-speare, Gent. (London: Thomas Cotes & John Benson, 1640).
  • A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare , 29 volumes to date, volumes 1-15, 18, edited by Horace Howard Furness; volumes 16-17, 19-20, edited by Horace Howard Furness Jr. (Philadelphia & London: Lippincott, 1871-1928); volumes 1-25, general editor, Joseph Quincey Adams; volumes 26-27, general editor, Hyder Edward Rollins (Philadelphia & London: Lippincott for the Modern Language Association of America, 1936-1955); volumes 28- , general editors, Robert K. Turner Jr. and Richard Knowles (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1977- ).
  • The Works of Shakespeare , The New Cambridge Shakespeare, 39 volumes, edited by J. Dover Wilson, Arthur Quiller-Couch, and others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921-1967).
  • The Complete Works of Shakespeare , edited by George Lyman Kittredge (Boston: Ginn, 1936); revised by Irving Ribner (Waltham, Mass.: Ginn, 1971).
  • Shakespeare Quarto Facsimiles , 14 volumes, edited by W. W. Greg and Charlton Hinman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939-1966).
  • William Shakespeare: The Complete Works , edited by Peter Alexander (London & Glasgow: Collins, 1951; New York: Random House, 1952).
  • The Arden Shakespeare , 38 volumes to date, general editors, Harold F. Brooks and Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen, 1951- ).
  • The Complete Works of Shakespeare , edited by Hardin Craig (Chicago: Scott Foresman, 1961); revised by Craig and David Bevington (Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foresman, 1973); revised again by Bevington (Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foresman, 1980); revised again by Bevington (New York: Longman, 1997).
  • The New Penguin Shakespeare , general editor, T. J. B. Spencer, 33 volumes to date (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967- ).
  • The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare , edited by Hinman (New York: Norton, 1968).
  • William Shakespeare: The Complete Works , The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, general editor, Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969).
  • The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare , general editor, Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972).
  • The Riverside Shakespeare , general editor, G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).
  • Shakespeare's Sonnets , edited, with analytic commentary, by Stephen Booth (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1977).
  • Shakespeare's Plays in Quarto: A Facsimile Edition of Copies Primarily from the Henry E. Huntington Library , edited by Michael J. B. Allen and Kenneth Muir (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).
  • The Complete Works: Original-Spelling Edition , general editors, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).
  • The Poems. Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Phoenix And the Turtle, The Passionate Pilgrim, A Lover's Complaint , The New Cambridge Shakespeare, edited by John Roe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Play Productions

  • Henry VI , part 1, London, unknown theater (perhaps by a branch of the Queen's Men), circa 1589-1592.
  • Henry VI , part 2, London, unknown theater (perhaps by a branch of the Queen's Men), circa 1590-1592.
  • Richard III , London, unknown theater (perhaps by a branch of the Queen's Men), circa 1591-1592.
  • The Comedy of Errors , London, unknown theater (probably of Lord Strange's Men), circa 1592-1594; London, Gray's Inn, 28 December 1594.
  • Titus Andronicus , London, Rose or Newington Butts theater, 24 January 1594.
  • The Taming of the Shrew , London, Newington Butts theater, 11 June 1594.
  • The Two Gentlemen of Verona , London, Newington Butts theater or the Theatre, 1594.
  • Love's Labor's Lost , perhaps at the country house of a great lord, such as the earl of Southampton, circa 1594-1595; London, at court, Christmas 1597.
  • Sir Thomas More , probably by Anthony Munday, revised by Thomas Dekker, Henry Chettle, Shakespeare, and possibly Thomas Heywood, evidently never produced, circa 1594-1595.
  • King John , London, the Theatre, circa 1594-1596.
  • Richard II , London, the Theatre, circa 1595.
  • Romeo and Juliet , London, the Theatre, circa 1595-1596.
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream , London, the Theatre, circa 1595-1596.
  • The Merchant of Venice , London, the Theatre, circa 1596-1597.
  • Henry IV , part 1, London, the Theatre, circa 1596-1597.
  • Henry IV , part 2, London, the Theatre, circa 1597.
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor , Windsor, Windsor Castle, 23 April 1597.
  • Much Ado About Nothing , London, the Theatre, circa 1598-1599.
  • Henry V , London, Globe theater(?), between March and September 1599(?).
  • Julius Caesar , London, Globe theater, 21 September 1599.
  • As You Like It , London, Globe theater, circa 1599-1600.
  • Hamlet , London, Globe theater, circa 1600-1601.
  • Twelfth Night , London, at court(?), no earlier than 6 January 1601(?); London, Globe theater(?), circa 1601-1602(?); London, Middle Temple, 2 February 1602.
  • Troilus and Cressida , London, Globe theater(?), circa 1601-1602(?).
  • All's Well That Ends Well , London, Globe theater, circa 1602-1603.
  • Measure for Measure , London, Globe theater(?), 1604(?); London, at court, 26 December 1604.
  • Othello , London, Globe theater(?), 1604(?); Westminster, Whitehall, 1 November 1604.
  • King Lear , London, Globe theater(?), by late 1605 or early 1606; London, at court, 26 December 1606.
  • Timon of Athens (possibly unperformed during Shakespeare's lifetime); possibly London, Globe theater, circa 1605-1608.
  • Macbeth , London, Globe theater(?), 1606(?); London, at court, probably 7 August 1606.
  • Antony and Cleopatra , London, Globe theater, circa 1606-1607.
  • Pericles , possibly by Shakespeare and George Wilkins, London, at court, between January 1606 and November 1608; London, Globe theater, probably circa 1607-1608.
  • Coriolanus , London, Globe theater, circa 1607-1608.
  • Cymbeline , London, Blackfriars theater or Globe theater, 1609.
  • The Winter's Tale , London, Globe theater, 15 May 1611.
  • The Tempest , London, at court, 1 November 1611.
  • Cardenio , probably by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, London, Globe theater(?), circa 1612-1613.
  • Henry VIII , possibly by Shakespeare and Fletcher, London, Globe theater, 29 June 1613.
  • The Two Noble Kinsmen , by Shakespeare and Fletcher, London, probably Blackfriars theater (possibly Globe theater), 1613.

The Booke of Sir Thomas More (a play probably written principally by Anthony Munday, with revisions by Thomas Dekker, Henry Chettle, William Shakespeare, and possibly Thomas Heywood) is preserved in a manuscript at the British Library (Harleian Ms. 7368). Most scholars now concur that two brief passages were written by Shakespeare circa 1594-1595, and that one of them represents the only surviving example of a literary or dramatic manuscript in Shakespeare's hand. Shakespeare's autograph signature occurs in three places in his will, dated 25 March 1616, located in the Public Records Office (PROB 1/4). His signature is also on a deposition given to the Court of Requests in 1612 (Public Records Office, REQ 4/1), and in two documents relating to the mortgage purchase of a property in Blackfriars (one in the Guildhall Library, the other in the British Library, Egerton Ms. 1787).    

Further Readings

  • Walter Ebish and Levin L. Schucking, A Shakespeare Bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931).
  • Larry S. Champion, The Essential Shakespeare: An Annotated Bibliography of Major Modern Studies (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986).
  • Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession (London: Royal Historical Society, 1978).
  • Philippa Berry, "Women, Language and History in The Rape of Lucrece ," Shakespeare Survey , 44 (1992): 33-39.
  • John Buxton, "Two Dead Birds," in English Renaissance Studies Presented to Helen Gardner , edited by John Carey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 44-55.
  • Margreta De Grazia, "The Scandal of Shakespeare's Sonnets," Shakespeare Survey , 46 (1994): 35-50.
  • Ian Donaldson, The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and Its Transformations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).
  • Heather Dubrow, Captive Victors: Shakespeare's Narrative Poems and Sonnets (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987).
  • Katherine Duncan-Jones, "Much Ado with Red and White: The Earliest Readers of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (1593)," Review of English Studies , new series 44 (1993): 479-501.
  • Duncan-Jones, "Was the 1609 Shake-speares Sonnets Really Unauthorized?," Review of English Studies , new series 34 (1983): 151-171.
  • Robert Ellrodt, "Shakespeare the Non-dramatic Poet," in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Survey , edited by Stanley Wells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 105-125.
  • William Empson, " The Phoenix and the Turtle ," Essays in Criticism , 16 (June 1966): 147-153.
  • Anne Ferry, The "Inward Language" (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
  • Joel Fineman, Shakespeare's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
  • Thomas M. Greene, "Pitiful Thrivers: Failed Husbandry in the Sonnets," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory , edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 230-244.
  • A. Kent Hieatt, " Cymbeline and the Intrusion of Lyric into Romance Narrative: Sonnets , 'A Lover's Complaint,' Spenser's Ruins of Rome ," in Unfolded Tales: Essays on Renaissance Romance , edited by George M. Logan and Gordon Teskey (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989), pp. 98-118.
  • C. H. Hobday, "Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis Sonnets," Shakespeare Survey , 26 (1973): 103-109.
  • E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare: The Lost Years (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985).
  • Clark Hulse, Metamorphic Verse: The Elizabethan Minor Epic (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981).
  • Anthea Hume, " Love's Martyr , 'The Phoenix and the Turtle,' and the Aftermath of the Essex Rebellion," Review of English Studies , new series 40 (1989): 48-71.
  • Coppelia Kahn, "The Rape in Shakespeare's Lucrece ," Shakespeare Survey , 9 (1976): 45-72.
  • Dennis Kay, William Shakespeare: His Life, Works, and Era (New York: Morrow, 1992).
  • William Keach, Elizabethan Erotic Narratives (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1977).
  • John Kerrigan, Motives of Woe: Shakespeare and the "Female Complaint" (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
  • Arthur F. Marotti, "'Love is not Love': Elizabethan Sonnets and the Social Order," ELH , 49 (Summer 1982): 396-428.
  • Marotti, "Shakespeare's Sonnets as Literary Property," in Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry , edited by Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 143-173.
  • Katherine E. Maus, "Taking Tropes Seriously: Language and Violence in Lucrece ," Shakespeare Quarterly , 37 (Spring 1986): 66-82.
  • Georgio Melchiori, Shakespeare's Dramatic Meditations: An Experiment in Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).
  • Joseph Pequigney, Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).
  • Thomas P. Roche, Jr., Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences (New York: AMS Press, 1989).
  • Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991).
  • Peter Stallybrass, "Editing as Cultural Formation: The Sexing of Shakespeare's Sonnets," Modern Language Quarterly , 54 (March 1993): 91-103.
  • Gary Taylor, "Some Manuscripts of Shakespeare's Sonnets," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library , 68 (1985): 210-246.
  • Nancy M. Vickers, "'The Blazon of Sweet Beauty's Best': Shakespeare's Lucrece ," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory , pp. 95-115.
  • Linda Woodbridge, "Palisading the Elizabethan Body Politic," Texas Studies in Language and Literature , 33 (Fall 1991): 327-354.
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what is literature by shakespeare

Shakespeare's Literature: Creating Words

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, in 1564, and during his lifetime, he wrote 38 plays and more than 150 poems . Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest playwright who ever lived, and his plays have been translated into virtually every language on Earth. Shakespeare's contributions to the world of literature are well-known, but somewhat less commonly understood is his contribution to the English language. Shakespeare created or recorded many previously unknown or unrecorded words and phrases, a sizable number of which people still use to this day.

Shakespeare as Neologist

Neologisms are newly coined words, though sometimes, you don't need to create a new word to convey an idea; it's perhaps even more common to imbue an old word with a new meaning . Neologisms and shifts in meaning play a large role in how a language evolves, and Shakespeare played an outsized part in the changes in the English language that took place as Modern English took hold. In fact, Shakespeare appears in more citations in the Oxford English Dictionary than any other writer, and linguists such as David Crystal suggest that about 1,700 of these words were actually invented by Shakespeare. About half of these words are still a part of our modern lexicon as well as being spoken in productions of his plays by companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company . Presented in a LitCharts-style list, some of the words coined by Shakespeare include:

  • Premeditated
  • Accommodation

But not every word that Shakespeare wrote down would catch on. For example, he used the word "anthropophaginian" to mean "cannibal" in The Merry Wives of Windsor . It is also important to note that while some words were first recorded by Shakespeare, they were not all necessarily invented by him: It's possible that some of the words credited to Shakespeare were used in older texts that did not survive to the present day.

Shakespeare enjoyed experimenting with the English language. He felt that the rules of grammar should be played with, and often, he manipulated the conventions of the language to create new but intelligible words. For example, he often used the prefix "un-" to invent new words from existing ones, such as "unlock," "unhand," and "unveil." He also created compound words such as "bare-faced." Shakespeare also sometimes changed nouns into verbs and vice versa, and he added new meanings to existing words. For instance, the concept of an angel was well-known at the time, but calling Juliet an angel in Romeo and Juliet to mean that she was beautiful was a new use of the word.

Shakespeare in Context

Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English during a time of great change in the English language. English was in transition from the Middle English used by writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer to the language we use today. Shakespeare was not the only writer to create and adapt words during this time. Ben Johnson created several words, such as "clumsy" and "defunct"; Sir Thomas Moore created the words "explain" and "exaggerate"; and Sir Thomas Floyd is credited with inventing the words "modesty" and "animate."

Phrases From Shakespeare

Shakespeare did not only invent words: He also invented phrases , many of which are still in use today. Some are easily recognized as being from Shakespeare, while others are not. These phrases include:

  • Vanish into thin air ( Othello )
  • In a pickle ( The Tempest )
  • In my mind's eye ( Hamlet )
  • A laughing stock ( The Merry Wives of Windsor )
  • Cold comfort ( The Taming of the Shrew )

In fact, research by Bill Bryson, an author known for writing about the English language, found that a tenth of the quotes in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations were drawn from Shakespeare. The English language is ever-evolving, but the influence that Shakespeare had and continues to have over how we write and speak is a true testament to his skill as a wordsmith. Few can say they contributed a word or phrase to a language, but Shakespeare contributed hundreds, perhaps even thousands.

  • The Life and Legacy of Shakespeare : Examine Shakespeare's impact on our language and literature and how it persists to this day.
  • Why Shakespeare Remains an Icon : The Bard is still influential for many reasons.
  • Shakespeare's Characters : Find a comprehensive list of every character in every Shakespeare play here.
  • Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays? Many people suspect that at least part of Shakespeare's works weren't actually written by him.
  • To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare : Centuries after his death, Shakespeare might be one of the most famed authors of all time, but many questions still surround his life and works.
  • Shakespeare's Life : Learn more about Shakespeare's life, including his birth, his years in London, and his death.
  • Shakespeare's Family : Shakespeare might be one of the most famous writers of all time, but details about his personal life can be scant, with many gaps still remaining in his story.
  • The Globe : The Globe was the venue for many of Shakespeare's plays.
  • Shakespeare's Skull Was Probably Stolen : A study of Shakespeare's grave using modern radar technology showed that grave-robbers appear to have taken his skull, despite the fact that the grave is marked with a curse on anyone who moves the bones.
  • Shakespeare's Memorial : Though Shakespeare was buried in his hometown, a memorial to him stands in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey in London.

William Shakespeare

Married life, some important facts of his life, writing career, william shakespeare’s works, william shakespeare’s impacts on future literature, william shakespeare’s famous quotes, related posts:, post navigation.

Interesting Literature

10 Classic Shakespeare Plays Everyone Should Read

The best of the Bard’s plays, with some interesting facts about them

Every Shakespeare play is a classic, of course. But William Shakespeare left behind nearly forty plays, including his collaborations with John Fletcher and others, and it would be disingenuous to claim that they all have equal ‘classic’ status among the Bard’s work. What we’ve compiled here, then, is less a definitive list of ‘best Shakespeare plays’ and more a small selection of some of his most talked-about, reread, performed, and adapted plays. We’ve included some facts about them as we go. We’ve not attempted to place them in any preferential order: that would be a step too far. But what, if you had to choose, would be the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays?

Macbeth poster

Macbeth .  Based on a real king and queen of Scotland named Mac Bethad mac Findlaích and Gruoch,  Macbeth  was composed shortly after the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605, the Catholic conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London and, with them, King James I of England. James, of course, was already King James VI of Scotland when he came to the English throne in 1603, and he claimed descent from Banquo – hence the prophecy surrounding Banquo’s descendants in the play. In 1849, the play caused a riot in New York , which arose after two rival actors fell out.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream . One of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies, this play is about ‘the course of true love’ and how it never runs smooth. The enchanting story of magic and fairies has inspired some unusual adaptations: in 1911, Herbert Beerbohm Tree staged a celebrated production of the play which included live rabbits on stage . It’s even influenced Hollywood blockbusters: the director of the 1988 action movie Die Hard , John McTiernan, was inspired to have the events of the film take place over a single night by reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream .

King Lear .  This play, which opens with the titular king preparing to divide his kingdom up between his three daughters Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia, was based on an earlier play about ‘King Leir’, king of ancient Britain. In the original chronicle on which that earlier play was itself based, the story has a happy ending – but Shakespeare saw the potential for tragedy in this tale of parents, children, siblings, and civil war. The play also, somewhat pleasingly, contains the earliest known reference to a ‘football player’ – though footballers weren’t paid nearly as much in Shakespeare’s day.

Hamlet . Based on an earlier play, now sadly lost,  Hamlet  is often considered Shakespeare’s masterpiece. It certainly marked a turning point in his development as a playwright, seen in the more intense and psychologically complex soliloquies spoken by the title character. Composed in around 1600-1,  Hamlet  has received the somewhat unusual honour of being translated into Klingon . The Klingon Hamlet , whose full title is  The Tragedy of Khamlet, Son of the Emperor of Qo’noS , was translated by Nick Nicholas and Andrew Strader of the ‘Klingon Shakespeare Restoration Project’, using the fictional language from the television series Star Trek . Is this Shakespeare’s best play of all? T. S. Eliot didn’t think so, as he argued in his 1919 essay on  Hamlet .

The Tempest . Often read as Shakespeare’s farewell to the London stage , this play was first performed in 1611 and was, indeed, the last play Shakespeare wrote entirely on his own. After writing this play about a shipwreck and a magical island, Shakespeare went on to collaborate with John Fletcher on several plays, including  Henry VIII , The Two Noble Kinsmen , and the lost play  Cardenio , based on a story from Cervantes’  Don Quixote .

Richard III . Interest in this play has always been high, but it has received a boost in the last few years following the discovery of the real King Richard III’s remains underneath a Leicester car park. One of the most intriguing discoveries that followed was the fact that the real King Richard, although not exactly a ‘crookback’ (he is described, in brilliant Shakespearean metaphors, as a ‘bottled spider’ and a ‘bunch-back’d toad’ in the play), did suffer from scoliosis and a slightly deformed spine – meaning that the propaganda which Shakespeare’s play helped to perpetuate had some basis in fact.

Twelfth Night

1 Henry IV .  This is probably Shakespeare’s most widely praised history play, although Henry V is also much-loved. The standout scene takes place in the Boar’s Head tavern, the favourite haunt of young Prince Hal (later to become Henry V) and his friend, the avuncular knight Sir John Falstaff, whose favourite pastimes are eating, drinking wine, and having his end away. Having received a summons to appear before his father – King Henry IV, of course – the young Hal and Falstaff play-act what they imagine the meeting will be like, revealing, in the process, more about the distant relationship between the king and his son, compared with Hal’s warm friendship with that personification of England, fat John Falstaff. But at the end of the scene comes a twist – though we’ll say no more here, for fear of offering spoilers…

Twelfth Night .  This play was probably first performed on 2 February 1602 , or Candlemas – which was the end of the Christmas festival at the time. Twelfth Night focuses on two twins, Viola and Sebastian, separated as a result of a shipwreck. Viola disguises herself as a boy to get close to Duke Orsino (whom she loves), in the process attracting the attention of Olivia, who falls in love with the new ‘boy’ at the Duke’s court. This play was recently performed at the Globe in London , starring Mark Rylance as Viola and Stephen Fry as Malvolio, the steward trying to dampen everybody’s holiday fun.

So much for Shakespeare’s ‘greatest’ plays – but what about his lesser-known ones? Continue your Shakespearean journey with our pick of Shakespeare’s best underrated plays , and some interesting stories behind them. For more play recommendations, check out our pick of the best plays by women , the best ancient plays , and the greatest Restoration comedies and tragedies .

Image (top): Poster for Thomas Keene  Macbeth  production, c. 1884 (author: W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith.); Wikimedia Commons . Image (bottom): A scene from  Twelfth Night by William Hamilton, c. 1797; Wikimedia Commons .

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21 thoughts on “10 Classic Shakespeare Plays Everyone Should Read”

A Midsummer’s Night Dream is my favourite Shakespeare play. I have read it many times in its original English. However, I can never bring myself to read Romeo and Juliet in the original language. It was bad enough reading a translated version.

There is a free MOOC online course on Othello starting in Feb (I think) Just search free MOOC and it shd come up.

I wd be hard put to choose a favourite but I do appreciate A Winter’s Tale for its psychological resolution – ending on a positive note which was a changed ending from the source material. The tragedies are so pessimistic about human nature – they may be insightful but hard to stomach sometimes!

Macbeth is brilliant, I think, and one that I can read or watch again and again. Richard III is hugely enjoyable also. But if you’re going to read it, rather than watch it, I’d go with Richard II which is, I think, Shakespeare’s most poetical work…

  • Pingback: 10 Classic Shakespeare Plays Everyone Should Read | JCU // Creative Writing Workshop

I have to read King Lear, Richard III and Henry before I can pick a favorite off this list. But I’m inclined to say Macbeth will be my favorite.

What are the unclassic Shakespeare plays?

Of course any lover of Shakespeare will wish to drop one or more off and put another one or more on of this mostly good list. I certainly don’t like it that ,As you like it,is not there. But then, the ieea that there are TEN Shakespeare plays that everyone should read rather than twenty or thirty or more is the problem, not the list itself.

And Troilus! This is the play that has most come into its own after neglect. David Bevington’s edition is best according to me.

Reblogged this on sublime days and commented: I’ve been following Interesting Literature for some time now. Sometimes the site introduces new (to me) writers and their works. Other times, like today, I’m reminded of reading I did many years ago – some of the above, when I was in high school. Reading this post tempts me to do a study of Shakespeare’s works again. Macbeth was my fav.

  • Pingback: 10 Classic Shakespeare Plays Everyone Should Read | psychosputnik

I’ve read eight out of these ten and I’d have to say Macbeth is my favorite.

Reblogged this on Janet’s thread .

I suggest trading out Merchant of Venice for Macbeth. Had to root for a guy who caves in to the prattling of witches and a nagging wife.

I’ve had the pleasure of acting in two of these (Midsummer and Twelfth Night.) I have to say though…I appreciate Titus Andronicus for the craziness it is.

  • Pingback: Ten Underrated Shakespeare Plays | Interesting Literature

Reblogged this on nativemericangirl's Blog .

I think many of us were put off Shakespeare by having to READ him at school. They are all much better played.

Apart from going to the theatre, the next best thing is to watch a DVD of the play and follow in the text/book. Also I’d recommend the many free MOOC online course about his plays and life and times. The Shakespeare Institute is an outstanding example.

A DVD of the play is good!

  • Pingback: Five Fascinating Facts about Macbeth | Interesting Literature

Still rate King Lear the most. Read it after I watching Westworld quote a dialogue from it. Good stuff.

  • Pingback: Why is it important to study Shakespeare? | Self Educating Family

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William Shakespeare: Writing Style, Literary Works, & Life

what is literature by shakespeare

William Shakespeare is one of the most influential writers in the world today. His works are studied in schools and colleges, while critics find new themes in his plays and poems to examine. Of course, it wasn’t always that way.

In this article, our experts have explored the author’s life, legacy, and writing style.

  • 🕰️ Timeline
  • 🎉 Biography
  • 📚 Works & Legacy
  • ✒️ Writing Style

🎓 References

🕰️ william shakespeare: timeline.

William Shakespeare’s life lacks twists and turns. Judging from what we know, he was a successful and wealthy person, with a loving family and prosperous career. Seeing his life in a timeline format can be helpful nonetheless.

William Shakespeare: Timeline

🎉 William Shakespeare’s Biography

William Shakespeare’s success started in London, where he pursued the career of an actor and playwright. His popularity at the time could be explained by the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, who enjoyed the theatre and his plays. He was the favorite of both monarchs.

William Shakespeare’s works are now printed all over the world. Some of his most well-known works include Macbeth , The Merchant of Venice , Othello , Hamlet , and Romeo and Juliet .

William Shakespeare’s Childhood

Allegedly born in 1564, William was the eldest child in the family. His father was an important person in town, as he was fulfilling civic positions. His higher standing allowed him to send his children to a local grammar school. Yet, there is no record of Shakespeare having an education. This uncertainty has led to some doubts regarding the authorship of the plays.

All of his early life, Shakespear lived with his parents. When he turned 18, he married a 26-years-old Anne Hathaway. The marriage was quite rushed, as she was pregnant during the wedding.

William Shakespeare’s Career

Around the 1580s, Shakespear arrived in London. By the 1590s, he was partnered with Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was an acting company that he was connected to for most of his career. Later, it was renamed King’s Men due to the crowning of King James I.

Shakespeare mainly was earning a living as an actor and playwright. By 1597, he had already published 15 of his plays. During his lifetime, Shakespeare became quite wealthy. He purchased a real estate property near Stratford that doubled in value and brought him profit. That allowed him to write his plays without interruptions for work. Being an entrepreneur and an artist, he purchased the second-largest house in Stratford for his family.

Shakespeare and his partners built their own theatre, which was called the Globe Theatre. Unfortunately, in 1613, it was burned down after a cannon shot set fire to the roof during one of the performances. The year after, it was completely rebuilt.

William Shakespeare’s Personal Life

As we’ve mentioned above, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he was eighteen. Six months after their marriage, Anne gave birth to their daughter, Susanna. She later gave birth to twins – Hanneth and Judith. However, Hanneth died at the age of 11 due to unknown causes.

William Shakespeare’s Death

It is suggested that Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday in 1616. The exact cause of death is unknown. However, many believe he died after a brief illness of some sort. He left all of his possessions to his eldest daughter, Susanna.

📚 William Shakespeare’s Works & Legacy

Shakespeare was a respected man during the time of his career. However, scholars didn’t recognize his true genius until the 19th century. The popularity of his works reached its height. During the 20th century, his works were rediscovered once again and adopted.

Now, William Shakespeare’s books are incredibly popular. People study them at educational institutions and interpret them in plays.

William Shakespeare’s Plays

Throughout his literary career, Shakespear wrote 37 plays. Most of his first works, except for Romeo and Juliet , were historical. As a writer, he mostly portrayed the destructive results of corrupt rulers. The play that most likely resonated the most with the audience was Julius Caesar that describes the shift in Roman politics. At that time, an aging monarch, Elizabeth I, had no heir, which created a potential for political struggles.

Shakespeare also wrote comedies, such as Midsummer Night’s Dream, Merchant of Venice , and Much Ado About Nothing .

In his later period, he wrote such tragedies as Macbeth , Othello , King Lear , and Hamlet . His characters represented the qualities of humans that are timeless.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet might be the most popular one of his plays. The story tells about a prince who wants to avenge his father’s death but gets entangled in philosophical issues he can’t solve. Why did Shakespeare write Hamlet ? There is no specific reason. It was the product of Reformation – a religious revolution where Protestants broke from the Catholic Church. So, what heavily influenced Hamlet, if not humanism and religion.

Finally, Shakespeare wrote several tragicomedies and other plays. Some of them are Cymbeline , The Tempest , and Coriolanus .

William Shakespeare’s Poems

Among other accomplishments of the writer, there are poems. Although Shakespeare became more famous for his plays, he did write a handful of poetry in his early career. At that time, he wasn’t thought of as a poet. Serious artists who could be considered poets were highly educated people, unlike children of glove-makers.However, the poems that have survived these days show that Shakespeare was indeed a great lyrist. These are A Lover’s Complaint, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and The Phoenix and the Turtle, among other incredible examples.

✒️ William Shakespeare’s Writing Style

Shakespeare’s writing style improved over the years. In his early career, he wrote conventionally. As he got more comfortable, he started using the language derived from the needs of characters. The main idea of Shakespeare’s writing style was to make his heroes talk in the natural language while being quite poetic.

The writer used a pattern consisting of unrhymed iambic pentameter, which was called blank verse. Most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries used the same pattern. The danger with blank verse was of being monotonous. That could be seen in some of the early Shakespeare plays. However, as he progressed, he mastered the iambic pentameter to the extent where he could perfectly portray human emotions. Readers can observe this pattern in Shakespeare’s writing style used in Macbeth .

He also wrote his plays in a combination of verse and prose. Shakespeare’s prose style was primarily used in soliloquies. These provide the necessary information about the plot to the reader and give scenes an emotional appeal. Take Hamlet , for example. The protagonist’s lengthy monologues help the audience understand his struggles and emotions.

Also, Shakespeare switches between verse and prose to show the difference between a careful and disordered speech. When Hamlet switched to prose, it meant that he wasn’t thinking clearly. Plus, the Prince had to pretend to be crazy most of the play. The scenes where Hamlet deliberately speaks in prose are the ones where he’s acting insane. That’s also shown in the scene where Ophelia goes mad and talks in prose.

Shakespeare used the flexibility of blank verse together with poetic devices to present different characters. For instance, in Othello , Shakespeare uses the techniques to show two polar opposites. The protagonist, Othello , speaks with round, open vowels, poetics images, which present a picture of a noble, well-educated person. The antagonist, Iago , is a hissing character. Shakespeare highlighted the “s’s” in his speech and used a lot of short words.

Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays was questioned 150 years after his death. Many scholars suggested that people of more known backgrounds were the real authors. How large was Shakespeare’s vocabulary, considering there is no evidence about his education? Could he write all the sophisticated plays without a proper educational background?

The vast majority of Shakespearean scholars argue that yes. He did exist, was a genius, and wrote all of his plays. There is evidence of contemporaries who communicated with Shakespeare as an actor and playwright. Plus, he was recognized as a member of the King’s Men.

Thanks for reading the article! We hope you’ve learned about William Shakespeare everything you were interested in. You can check our study guides on his Hamlet and Othello for more information about the plays.

  • William Shakespeare: Facts, Life, and Complete Work — Fultus.com
  • William Shakespeare: Quotes, Plays & Wife — Biography
  • William Shakespeare’s Biography — Shakespeare Birthplace, Arts Council, England
  • William Shakespeare — Poetry Foundation
  • Shakespeare’s Writing Style and Metrical Pattern — Shakespeare-Online.com
  • Dramatic Techniques in Shakespeare — Kristine Tucker, Pen and the Pad
  • Shakespeare’s Poetic Techniques & Devices — No Sweat Shakespeare
  • Prose and Verse in Shakespeare’s Plays — The British Library
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10 Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Works

By lorna wallace | jun 19, 2024.

what is literature by shakespeare

Fans often like to read between the lines to develop theories about their favorite books , movies , and TV shows , from Jar Jar Binks being a Sith Lord to all of the Pixar movies taking place in the same universe . Most of these theories don’t stand up to scrutiny, but they sure can be fun. Here are 10 such theories about Shakespeare ’s works, ranging from the almost believable to the utterly outlandish.

In King Lear , Cordelia and the Fool were played by the same actor.

Iago is in love with othello., the tempest ’s prospero was based on john dee …, … or shakespeare himself., the characters named antonio in several of shakespeare’s plays are one person., macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech is actually lady macbeth’s suicide note., shakespeare once played the part of lady macbeth., hamlet is linked to the death of shakespeare’s son, hamnet., ophelia is pregnant in hamlet ., the “fair youth” sonnets suggest that shakespeare was gay..


Role doubling usually happens for one of two reasons: There aren’t enough actors for each role or to strengthen the subtext between two characters. It isn’t known if doubling was used in the original performances of Shakespeare’s plays, but it has been suggested that in King Lear , Cordelia and the Fool were played by the same actor . The two characters are never on stage together, so this theory is possible, and they are linked by being the only two characters to tell Lear the truth. Plus, at the end of the play, Lear mourns his daughter with the words, “my poor fool is hanged.”

Scene from Shakespeare's Othello, 19th century.

The typical view of Othello is that the plot is driven by Iago’s hatred for the titular character. The play opens with Iago complaining that Othello has promoted bookish Cassio to lieutenant over himself—a seasoned veteran. A few scenes later, Iago also says that he suspects that Othello has slept with his wife: “It is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / ’Has done my office.” But perhaps these reasons are a cover for Iago’s true motivation: His unrequited love for Othello. Evidence for this theory lies in Iago’s misandry throughout the play—he tells his own wife that all women are volatile and untrustworthy —as well as his declarations of love for Othello. Is his statement “I am your own forever” false flattery or his true thoughts? You decide.

When penning The Tempest , some believe that Shakespeare looked to John Dee —a polymath who served as Queen Elizabeth I ’s astrologer—when creating Prospero. The biggest similarity between the two is that Prospero is a wizard, while Dee experimented with the occult. Other parallels include both of them having large libraries (Dee had one of the largest private libraries in England) and both experiencing misfortune (Dee’s brother-in-law sold many of his books without permission, while Prospero was exiled).

The Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), c1610.

Another suggestion is that Prospero is actually a stand-in for the playwright himself. Both magic and writing are acts of creation, and Prospero controls the events of the play in the same way as a writer. To cap this theory off, Prospero’s epilogue is sometimes perceived as a farewell speech from a retiring Shakespeare. But Emma Smith , Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford, points out that for that puzzle piece to fit, The Tempest would need to have been Shakespeare’s last play—a position which probably belongs to The Two Noble Kinsmen , Henry VIII , or the now-lost Cardenio .

The name Antonio crops up several times across Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s been theorized that rather than being separate characters, all of these Antonios are one man at different stages in his life. Dan Beaulieu and Kevin Condardo from the Seven Stages Shakespeare Company have dubbed this the Unified Antonio Theory .

The theory starts with Antonio as a captain in Twelfth Night , rescuing and falling in love with Sebastian. Antonio makes passionate declarations of love to Sebastian—“If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant”—and willingly endangers himself to accompany him to Orsino’s court. Sebastian, however, ends up marrying Olivia. Then, according to the theory, Antonio becomes the Duke of Milan and later finds himself shipwrecked in a storm caused by his brother Prospero in the events of The Tempest .

Once back on the Italian mainland, Antonio becomes a wealthy merchant and falls in love with Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice . The connection between these two men is so passionate that some productions even add in a kiss between them. But Bassanio also marries a woman, leaving Antonio to end up as a side character in Much Ado About Nothing .

Macbeth (Act I)

In Act 5 of Macbeth , the titular Scottish king receives word that Lady Macbeth has died by suicide. He then gives one of the most famous soliloquies in the play, known as the “ tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow ” speech, traditionally taken as a rumination on the futility of life by a husband in the depths of grief. But an alternate way to look at the speech is that Macbeth is reading his wife’s suicide note. Just a few scenes earlier, a guilt-stricken and sleepwalking Lady Macbeth is described by one of her attendants as writing something on a piece of paper, which could be a suicide note. This idea is also supported by Macbeth’s speech changing in style halfway through: The first section, full of long and soft-sounding words, could be Lady Macbeth’s words; the second section, which uses short and plosive words, comes from Macbeth himself.

Another Macbeth -based theory is that Shakespeare himself once played the part of Lady Macbeth. This theory is actually tied to the famous curse that led to the play being referred to as “ the Scottish play ” in theaters. According to the legend, during the first performance of Macbeth , the actor playing Lady Macbeth (who would have been a man; women didn’t professionally act at that time) unexpectedly died, and Shakespeare jumped in to save the day. The First Folio does list Shakespeare as an actor in his own plays, but there isn’t any surviving evidence about which specific roles he played.

Hamlet holds the skull of  the jester Yorick

In 1596, Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, Hamnet, died—an event the playwright never directly commented on in his work. Although many academics steer clear of searching Shakespeare’s plays for biographical breadcrumbs, some believe that there’s a connection between Hamnet’s death and Hamlet , which was written around 1599–1601 .

The Prince of Denmark’s name almost matching the name of Shakespeare’s deceased son is likely a coincidence (although the names were basically interchangeable at the time!). Hamlet is believed to have been based on a now-lost play from the 1580s, and the story itself is much older than that, so it didn’t spring solely from Shakespeare’s mind. But Harvard Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt argues that working on the tragedy “may have reopened a deep wound.” He also points to the potentially imminent demise of Shakespeare’s father, John, which—coupled with Hamnet’s death a few years earlier—“could have caused a psychic disturbance that helps to explain the explosive power and inwardness of Hamlet .” But this is mere conjecture.

Ophelia, mad with grief, mourns Polonius' death

Another theory about Hamlet is that Ophelia—who meets her end by drowning (whether by suicide, accident, or murder is unknown)— is pregnant . To start, there are hints that Hamlet and Ophelia may have had sex: Hamlet teases Ophelia with sexual innuendoes, such as “shall I lie in your lap?,” while Ophelia (who has gone mad) later sings , “Before you tumbled me, / You promised me to wed.” The strongest evidence of Ophelia’s potential pregnancy comes in the scene where she gives out flowers and herbs in Act 4. The plants she names—rosemary, pansies, daises, etc.—were used to treat physical and mental pain [ PDF ], and she decides to keep some rue for herself. This herb may just symbolize regret, but according to John M. Riddle, a specialist in the history of medicine, rue’s “most recognized use in classical antiquity and the Middle Ages was as an abortifacient.”

Of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, 126 of them are addressed to a mysterious male figure known as the “Fair Youth.” Although the identity of the young man remains unknown, the fact that the sonnets are Shakespeare’s most personal writings has led some people to believe that they are proof that he was gay. Many of the poems are certainly passionate, but they may not be straightforwardly confessional as there is often a distance between a poet’s private identity and the persona they craft for their writing. Shakespearean expert Dr. Elizabeth Dollimore neatly sums up what we really know about whether the playwright had sexual feelings for men: “It’s certainly not impossible that he did,” but “it’s certainly not definite that he did.”

Read More About Shakespeare:

what is literature by shakespeare


How Verbal Irony Works: Examples and Practical Uses

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what is literature by shakespeare

Verbal irony is a clever twist of language that keeps conversations interesting and adds humor by contrasting what is said with what is meant.

Whether it's Michael Scott from "The Office" declaring, "I am a master of leaving people wanting more," or a coworker saying, "Oh great, another meeting!" when they're clearly not excited, verbal irony spices up literature, pop culture and beyond.

Let's look at how you can master this engaging form of speech and transform your interactions.

What Is Verbal Irony?

Origins in ancient greece, rome and shakespeare, 7 verbal irony examples, 7 practical uses of verbal irony, other forms of irony, the true irony of alanis morissette's 'ironic'.

Verbal irony is a statement that, on its face, is the opposite of what the speaker truly means. This figure of speech is often used to express sarcasm and humor or emphasize a point by saying the opposite of what is true.

For example, if it's pouring rain outside and someone says, "What lovely weather we're having," that's verbal irony. The speaker doesn't actually think the weather is nice; they're using irony to highlight how unpleasant it is.

This type of irony relies on context and tone to convey the true meaning — but it's not the same as lying. The intention is for the audience to recognize the disparity between the words and the actual situation, not to take the literal meaning at face value.

This rhetorical device is common in literature, everyday conversation and various forms of media. It adds layers of meaning and engages the audience through wit and subtlety.

It can be employed as ironic similes , which compare two contrasting things in a way that highlights the irony. For instance, saying "as clear as mud" to describe something very confusing is an ironic simile that emphasizes the lack of clarity.

Verbal irony, like many rhetorical devices, has its roots in ancient literature and rhetoric. The concept can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman cultures, where it was used extensively in both written and spoken forms of communication.

One of the earliest known references to irony is found in the works of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates , who employed a method known as "Socratic irony." This technique involved Socrates pretending to be ignorant or feigning ignorance about a topic to provoke discussion and draw out the underlying assumptions and contradictions in his interlocutor's arguments.

This form of irony was more situational and dramatic but laid the groundwork for understanding irony as a rhetorical device.

Irony was also prevalent in ancient Greek comedy, where playwrights like Aristophanes used it to poke fun at societal norms, politicians and everyday life, providing entertainment while offering social commentary.

The formal study and definition of verbal irony came with the development of classical rhetoric. In his work " Institutio Oratoria ," the Roman rhetorician Quintilian provided one of the earliest comprehensive accounts of rhetorical devices, including irony. He described irony as a figure of speech where the speaker's intended meaning is opposite to the words they use.

Throughout history, verbal irony has been employed by many notable writers and playwrights, such as Shakespeare , who used it extensively in his plays to add humor, highlight contrasts and develop characters. For example, in "Julius Caesar," Mark Antony repeatedly calls Brutus an "honorable man" while implying the opposite.

Examples of verbal irony are everywhere, and you have likely used a few of these yourself over the years.

  • Sarcasm : Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony. For example, if someone is having a particularly bad day and a friend says, "Well, aren't you having a great time?" The friend's statement is verbally ironic because it means the opposite of what they are saying.
  • Literature : In Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," Mr. Bennet sarcastically remarks, "I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last 20 years at least." This is verbally ironic because Mr. Bennet is actually mocking Mrs. Bennet's constant complaints about her nerves.
  • Everyday conversation : If it is raining heavily outside and someone says, "What a beautiful day for a picnic," this is verbal irony because the actual weather is the opposite of beautiful for outdoor activities.
  • Praise as criticism : A student who performs poorly on a test might say, "Wow, I really aced that one," meaning they did quite the opposite.
  • Understatement : After finishing a marathon, a runner might say, "I’m a bit tired," when they are exhausted. The understatement here is verbally ironic because it downplays the true intensity of their fatigue.
  • Exaggeration : A person stuck in traffic for hours might say, "This is exactly how I wanted to spend my day," meaning it is the complete opposite of what they wanted.
  • Historical speeches : Winston Churchill, known for using irony, once said, "You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war." Here, the ironic twist highlights the false belief that dishonor would prevent war.

Verbal irony can be a powerful rhetorical tool when used effectively. Here are some ways it can be employed.

  • Humor and wit : Verbal irony can add a layer of humor and wit to a conversation or piece of writing. For instance, in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," the line "The truth is rarely pure and never simple" is humorous and ironic, as it highlights the complexities of truth.
  • Emphasizing a point : A speaker can forcefully emphasize the true point by stating the opposite of what one means. For example, a parent might say, "Oh sure, play video games instead of doing your homework. That's a brilliant idea," to stress the importance of completing homework first.
  • Criticism without direct accusation : Verbal irony allows for less aggressive criticism. A statement like, "Oh, you're just the hardest worker, aren't you?" is directed at a lazy colleague and criticizes without direct accusation (but can also be seen as passive aggressive).
  • Engaging an audience : Verbal irony can engage the audience by making them think about the deeper meaning behind the words. This can be particularly effective in speeches and writing, encouraging the audience to pay closer attention.
  • Expressing frustration or disappointment : Sometimes, verbal irony is used to express frustration or disappointment. For instance, someone might say, "Just what I needed today," after encountering a series of unfortunate events.
  • Building character depth : In storytelling, verbal irony can reveal the complexities of a character's personality, showing their cynicism, intelligence or sense of humor. Characters like Dr. Gregory House in the TV series "House" often use verbal irony to convey cynicism and sharp wit.
  • Highlighting absurdity : Verbal irony can be used to highlight the absurdity of a situation. Suppose a government official is caught in a corruption scandal. A journalist might write, "Another victory for honesty in politics," to underscore the opposite reality.

Irony comes in various forms, each with its unique mode of delivery and context.

1. Situational Irony

Situational irony arises when there is a discrepancy between what is expected to happen and what actually occurs. The irony is embedded in the situation itself.

An example of situational irony would be a fire station burning down, which is unexpected because it's the place you'd assume that would happen.

2. Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something the characters do not, creating a contrast between the character's understanding of their situation and what the audience knows to be true.

For example, in a horror movie, when the audience knows the killer is hiding in the closet but the character does not, that's dramatic irony.

3. Cosmic Irony

Cosmic irony, also known as "irony of fate," involves a higher power or fate manipulating events in a way that contrasts with human efforts and desires.

For instance, in Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," the protagonist faces continual misfortune despite her best efforts, suggesting that a cruel fate governs her life.

4. Romantic Irony

Romantic irony, emerging during the Romantic period , often involves a self-aware or self-reflective use of irony. This form of irony is characterized by a playful and paradoxical approach, frequently highlighting the complexities and contradictions of human experience and art itself.

For example, in Lord Byron's works, he often mocks his own poetic conventions and the grandiose themes he explores.

5. Classical Irony

Classical irony — common in Greek and Roman literature and drama — typically involves a more structured and restrained use of irony. This form tends to be straightforward and logical in its contrast between expectation and reality.

For instance, in Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex," the protagonist’s efforts to avoid a prophecy only lead him to fulfill it, highlighting the inescapable nature of fate.

Alanis Morissette's 1995 hit song " Ironic " is a notable example of introducing the concept of irony to pop culture, despite many arguing that it doesn't actually showcase true irony. The song's lyrics present various situations often mistaken for situational irony — those moments when what happens is the exact opposite of what you’d expect.

Think of lines like “a traffic jam when you're already late” or “a free ride when you've already paid.” These examples might seem like situational irony, but they are more accurately described as unfortunate coincidences.

Interestingly, there's a layer of irony in the fact that a song titled "Ironic" doesn't include many actual examples of irony. (One of the few instances of actual irony is the line "like rain on your wedding day," which some say is good luck but can be a logistical nightmare.) This meta-irony adds an unexpected twist to the song itself.

The song also touches on broader, more complex types of irony in some lines.

Take “meeting the man of my dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife”: This line could be seen as situational irony because the dream-come-true meeting is disappointing. Yet, it also flirts with dramatic irony. We, the listeners, feel the sting of the twist even more because we understand the irony that the protagonist didn’t see coming.

In 2015, Morissette herself teamed up with James Corden on "The Late Late Show" to perform a parody version of "Ironic" with updated lyrics that more accurately reflect true irony, including the line "It's singing 'Ironic,' but there are no ironies."

We created this article in conjunction with AI technology, then made sure it was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

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William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s Important Works

Romeo and juliet (c. 1594–96).

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598–99)

Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Julius Caesar (c. 1599–1600)

scene from Julius Caesar

Hamlet (c. 1599–1601)

Laurence Olivier in a scene from Hamlet

King Lear (1605–06)

King Lear

Macbeth (c. 1606–07)

Macbeth (1971)

Sonnets (1609)

The tempest (1611).

scene from The Tempest

What is Shakespeare's definition of literature?

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Literature is generally taken to mean those pieces of writing which despite the passing of years even of the centuries, still inspire admiration, reflection and emotion in readers

Poems, plays, novels and short stories in a given language that have stood the test of time collectively make up a national literature

In these cases, it is the critics and not time that decide what is and what is not to be regarded as literature. Whether their choices are appropriate or not will be a matter for future generations to decide

It is impossible to formulate a totally comprehensive and all-encompassing definition of literature because literature is never static

Writers, genres and styles of writing have fallen in and out of favour throughout history

These disputes can be left to the critics because, for the reader, literature is simply beautiful, meaningful writing

Shakespeare did not write dictionaries, and so did not provide definitions for any words. The only time he ever used the word was as a verb where he has Fluellen in Henry V say "Gower is a good captain, and is good knowledge and literatured in the wars." Bear in mind that Fluellen is Welsh and Shakespeare was making fun of his defective English.

It is unlikely that Shakespeare cared a great deal about literature one way or the other. He was writing to make a living, not to impress anyone.

Literature is from Old French litterature , from Latin litteratura , writing, learning, from litteratus , learnèd, literate, from littera , letter

Add your answer:


What is the definition of British literature?

it is literature from briten

What is the definition of time and space in postmodernist literature?

What is concise and precise definition of literature as a social science subject.

Literature is classed as a subset of language study, not social science study.

What is the definition of charts as in literature?

A graphic organizer used to indicate literary elements.

What is the definition of catalyst in literature?

A catalyst is something that causes an important event to happen.


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