Biography of William Shakespeare, History's Most Famous Playwright

His plays and sonnets are still studied and performed to this day

Statue of Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare (April 23, 1564–April 23, 1616) wrote at least 37 plays and 154 sonnets, which are considered among the most important and enduring ever written. Although the plays have captured the imagination of theatergoers for centuries, some historians claim that Shakespeare didn’t actually write them.

Amazingly, little is known about Shakespeare’s life. Even though he is the world’s most famous and popular playwright, historians have had to fill in the gaps between the handful of surviving records from Elizabethan times.

Fast Facts: William Shakespeare

  • Known For: One of history's most famous playwrights, who wrote at least 37 plays, which are still studied and performed to this day, as well as 154 sonnets, which are also highly regarded
  • Also Known As: The Bard
  • Born: April 23, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England
  • Parents: John Shakespeare, Mary Arden
  • Died: April 23, 1616 in Stratford-upon-Avon
  • Published Works: "Romeo and Juliet" (1594–1595), "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" (1595–1596), "Much Ado About Nothing" (1598–1599), "Henry V" (1598–1599), "Hamlet" 1600–1601, "King Lear" (1605–1606), "Macbeth" ( 1605–1606), "The Tempest" (1611–1612)
  • Awards and Honors: After Shakespeare's death, a funerary monument was erected to honor him at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is buried. It depicts a half-effigy of The Bard in the act of writing. Numerous statues and monuments have been erected around the world to honor the playwright.
  • Spouse: Anne Hathaway (m. Nov. 28, 1582–April 23, 1616)
  • Children: Susanna, Judith and Hamnet (twins)
  • Notable Quote: "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, his acts being seven ages."

Early Years

Shakespeare was probably born on April 23, 1564, but this date is an educated guess because we only have a record of his baptism three days later. His parents, John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, were successful townsfolk who moved to a large house in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, from the surrounding villages. His father became a wealthy town official and his mother was from an important, respected family.

It is widely assumed that Shakespeare attended the local grammar school where he would have studied Latin, Greek, and classical literature. His early education must have made a huge impact on him because many of his plots draw on the classics.

Shakespeare’s Family

At age 18, on November 28, 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway from Shottery, who was already pregnant with their first daughter. The wedding would have been arranged quickly to avoid the shame of having a child born out of wedlock. Shakespeare fathered three children, Susanna, born in May 1583 but conceived out of wedlock, and Judith and Hamnet, twins who were born in February 1585.

Hamnet died in 1596 at age 11. Shakespeare was devastated by the death of his only son, and it is argued that "Hamlet," written four years later, is evidence of this.

Theater Career

At some point in the late 1580s, Shakespeare made the four-day ride to London, and by 1592 had established himself as a writer. In 1594, an event occurred that changed the course of literary history: Shakespeare joined Richard Burbage’s acting company and became its chief playwright for the next two decades. Here, Shakespeare was able to hone his craft, writing for a regular group of performers.

Shakespeare also worked as an actor in the theater company, although the lead roles were always reserved for Burbage himself. The company became very successful and often performed in front of the Queen of England, Elizabeth I. In 1603, James I ascended the throne and granted his royal patronage to Shakespeare’s company, which became known as The King’s Men.

Shakespeare the Gentleman

Like his father, Shakespeare had excellent business sense. He bought the largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon by 1597, owned shares in the Globe Theater, and profited from some real estate deals near Stratford-upon-Avon in 1605. Before long, Shakespeare officially became a gentleman, partly due to his own wealth and partly due to inheriting a coat of arms from his father who died in 1601.

Later Years and Death

Shakespeare retired to Stratford in 1611 and lived comfortably off his wealth for the rest of his life. In his will, he bequeathed most of his properties to Susanna, his eldest daughter, and some actors from The King’s Men. Famously, he left his wife his “second-best bed” before he died on April 23, 1616. (This date is an educated guess because we only have a record of his burial two days later).

If you visit Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, you can still view his grave and read his epitaph engraved into the stone:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

Legacy

More than 400 years after his death, Shakespeare's plays and sonnets still hold a special place in theaters, libraries, and schools around the world. "His plays and sonnets have been performed in nearly every major language on every continent," notes Greg Timmons writing on Biography.com.

In addition to the legacy of his plays and sonnets, many of the words and phrases Shakespeare created infuse dictionaries today and are embedded in modern English, including these sayings from some of his plays:

Few writers, poets, and playwrights—and Shakespeare was all three—have had the influence on culture and learning that Shakespeare has. With luck, his plays and sonnets may still be revered and studied four centuries from now.

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