What is the big deal about Shakespeare, anyway? Here's a guide to Shakespeare's biography, plays, and why we can't get enough of the Bard.
If there ever was a man whose fame preceded him, that man would be William Shakespeare. Surely you’ve heard teachers and snobs go on and on about how he was the greatest writer of all time. Surely you’ve heard about all of his contributions to the English language, and how he was a poet for all the ages, and all the rumors and speculations regarding his true identity, and all that stuff everyone talks about that is getting a bit old. I mean, have you ever actually read his stuff? His English is so old and nobody really gets a word, so why do we keep reading it after 400 years? What is the big deal? Well, for those of you who may still be curious or have to write that paper on Shakespeare, you might as well just keep on reading because, if you're looking for a Shakespeare 101, today's your lucky day. To begin with: what do we talk about when we talk about Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare biography
Who was William Shakespeare? Some say he was a woman. Some say he was a some rich guy using a pen name to hide the fact that he wrote plays. Some say he was a playwright-slash-spy who knew too much, so he faked his own death Tupac-style. While it's true that there are many things we don't know about the man, wild fantasies about the Bard's identity are mostly misinformed and misinforming. In fact, what we do know about him is actually plenty, and it’s certainly enough to debunk any conspiracy theories about his alleged secret identity.
In short, William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small market town a hundred miles from London, in late April 1564. In 1582, at the age of 18, Will married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway. Six months later, they had their first child, and a year later, they had twins. After that, what he did or where he went is anyone’s guess.
That’s until 1592, when he was mentioned in the news by a writer called Robert Greene, who bashes at someone he calls "Shakes-scene" for attempting to measure up to him and other university-educated playwrights like Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe. Greene was totally like, "he doesn't even go here!"
The interesting thing about this reference is that it establishes Shakespeare as a recognized playwright and actor in the booming scene of Elizabethan London showbiz. That being said, we can place him in London from about the late 1580s to 1613. That is when he wrote some 36 plays and co-wrote a few more. He also published three narrative poems and a sonnet collection. Moreover, he became a successful businessman by buying shares of a theatre company called "The Lord Chamberlain’s Men." And from 1599 onward, he was part-owner of the Globe Theatre (very close to where its replica, Shakespeare Globe, is now built).So, for about twenty years, he made money from acting, writing, and running a theater company. He had theater for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and since practice makes perfect, it just makes sense why he became so good at it.
After 1613, Shakespeare was rich enough to retire to Stratford. In March 1616, he signed his will and testament, leaving his wife his “second-best bed” (whatever that means), and a month later, he was dead. It was April 23rd, Saint George’s day, exactly 52 years after he was born.
Shakespeare left no diaries, letters, or memoirs; no scrapbooks with his children's first drawings, or selfies of his vacations in Ibiza. But much of what we know of his life is thanks to a number of legal documents that mention him by name, as well as accounts from people who lived in and around London at the time and recognize him as a playwright, and a darn good one at that. There were publications of his plays and poetry that clearly identify him as their author, all in his own lifetime.
One of the most important documents, however, is not a document at all, but a book. This book is known as the First Folio, and it was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. The Folio claims to contain the "Complete Works of William Shakespeare" and was put together by those who knew, worked with, and loved him. Its frontispiece (the first page inside the book) even contains an engraving of Shakespeare, which is the only “image” of the bard that people clearly point to as being his.Because of several explicit mentions about Will being from Stratford, the Folio leaves absolutely no doubt that William Shakespeare, the writer, was the same as William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon. End of story.
If, despite the facts, you're somehow still a staunch anti-Stratfordian, let's agree not to disagree for now. Even if old Will was, in fact, some other guy using a pen name, does it make that much of a difference? The fact is the plays and poems speak for themselves no matter who wrote them, which brings me to the point of it all: his works.
The Shakespeare Plays
Shakespeare wrote at least 36 plays, though a few more have been attributed to him over time. Some of them are very, very famous, and I bet you can even name a few even if you haven’t read them. They are usually divided them into three categories: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. Here's the complete list.
- The Tempest
- Two Gentlemen of Verona
- The Merry Wives of Windsor
- Measure for Measure
- The Comedy of Errors
- Much Ado About Nothing
- Love's Labour'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
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre
- The Two Noble Kinsmen
- King John
- Richard II
- Henry IV, Part 1
- Henry IV, Part 2
- Henry V
- Henry VI, Part 1
- Henry VI, Part 2
- Henry VI, Part 3
- Richard III
- Henry VIII
- Edward III
- Troilus and Cressida
- Titus Andronicus
- Romeo and Juliet
- Timon of Athens
- Julius Caesar
- King Lear
- Antony and Cleopatra
The William Shakespeare poems
At the time of Shakespeare’s career as a playwright, London was severely hit by the plague. This prompted authorities to shut down the playhouses and, thus, Will had to look for money elsewhere: poetry. Here's the complete list of Shakespeare's long poems:
- Venus and Adonis
- The Rape of Lucrece
- The Phoenix and the Turtles
- The Lover's Complaint
Shakespeare published Venus and Adonis in 1593, and The Rape of Lucrece the following year, both of which are super sexual, and both of which were dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. This has led to wild speculations regarding Shakespeare's sexuality. Was he or was he not gay? The people demand to know.
Read more: Shakespeare Teaches You 100 Ways To Seduce With Language
The Shakespeare Sonnets
Even though sonnets were way out of fashion by then, Shakespeare's sonnets were published in 1609. His collection of sonnets, 154, to be exact, are as beautiful as they are sexual, intense, witty, and sometimes outright hilarious.
Why Shakespeare is so good
It’s safe to say Shakespeare’s quality is undisputed. But it really isn’t because your snobby teachers want to trick you into thinking so, it’s because there’s simply something about his use of language that just hits the right spot. He simply seems to know exactly what to say. Shakespeare lived during the Reinassance or the Early Modern Period, a time where new ideas were thriving. We hold some of these ideas to be true today, but it's thanks to people like Shakespeare who simply had the talent and a certain afinity for thinking and for spotting a good story. (He might have even read Cervantes, another literary giant of the time!)
Thanks in part to a broad range of characters, situations, feelings, and timeless themes like love, power, ambition, and betrayal, his work has a firm grasp on what in means to be alive, or at least, he makes you feel one step closer to understanding what it's like to feel and, you know,exist. Isn’t that what art is all about?
Shakespeare is, first and foremost, a crowd pleaser. His plays and poems are full of sexual puns; his characters are often silly but likeable; his plays are filled with magic, witches, fights and kissing; and his endings are often happy. Except when they're not. Shakespeare is a master of compressing and enlarging tension. He orchestrates diversions, digressions, and interruptions to keep the audience on edge. His plays feature sub-plots and sub-sub-plots that intertwine with funny, happy, or terrible consequences. And if you still don't believe me, there's only one way to see it for yourself.
You don't want to miss: 5 Of The Most Badass Shakespeare Female Characters And What They Taught Us
Shakespeare phrases in English
People claim Shakespeare invented many words in English that we still use today. Sometimes he created words by simply adding a prefix like "un" in "uncomfortable," but he still gets credit for it. Other times, he gets credit for giving a particular word a different meaning. Either way, here's a list of words that wouldn't have been the same had it not been for Will:
- Assassination: Macbeth, Act I, Scene VII
- Bedazzled: The Taming of the Shrew
- Belongings: Measure for Measure
- Cold-blooded: King John
- Dishearten: Henry V
- Fashionable: Troilus and Cressida
- Half-blooded/hot-blooded: King Lear,
- Manager: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene I
- Uncomfortable: Romeo and Juliet
- Eyeball: The Tempest
And here are some Shakespeare phrases we still use today:
- "What's done is done" — Macbeth
- “Be-all and the end-all” — Macbeth
- “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” — (Hamlet)
- “Brave new world” — (The Tempest)
- “Break the ice” — (The Taming of the Shrew)
- “Cold comfort” — (The Taming of the Shrew / King John)
- “Faint hearted” — (Henry VI Part I)
- “For goodness’ sake” — (Henry VIII)
- “Full circle” — (King Lear)
- “Good riddance” — (Troilus and Cressida)
- “Jealousy is the green-eyed monster” — (Othello)
- “Heart of gold” — (Henry V)
- “Kill with kindness” — (The Taming of the Shrew)
- “Knock knock! Who’s there?” — (Macbeth)
- “Laughing stock” — (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
- “Love is blind” — (The Merchant of Venice)
- “Wild-goose chase” — (Romeo and Juliet)
No Fear Shakespeare, a.k.a. the Shakespeare translator, saves the day
To be fair, Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago. Some of his jokes, phrasing, and words are now unintelligible if taken out of context, so it's only normal if you don't quite get it. Not at first, at least. Also, Shakespeare wrote in verse. This means that his words, and word order must fit a certain rythm and form, which makes it all a bit more confusing. Luckily, sites like Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, and Shmoop offer free study guides with summaries, analyses, and additional information for you to get a better idea. Sparknotes even has a thing called "No Fear Shakespeare," which is a, shall we say, "bilingual" version of each of Shakespeare's plays, where they place the original text on the left column, and a translation to simple, modern, prose English on the right one. If you really want to dig into the bard's works, I recommend each and every one of these tools.
Shakespeare film adaptations
Shakespeare is best enjoyed on stage but that doesn’t mean great films haven’t been made from plays by Shakespeare. Some directors even made a career out of Shakespeare, at least at some level. Laurence Olivier made an Academy Award-winning film of Hamlet, but he also directed and starred in Henry V and Richard III, which received wide acclaim. Orson Welles had a more radical approach to the Shakespearean text, often adding characters who didn’t exist in the original, and adding scenes from other plays, as well as cutting, rearranging, and redistributing dialogue.
After Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) was a total flop, people sort of fled from adapting Shakespeare plays. That was until Kenneth Branagh came along with a Henry V in 1989 and totally ignited a new "Shakespeare on film" era. He went on to make several of them, including Love’s Labours Lost, As You Like It, and a four-hour-long Hamlet. Notable mentions include: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which brings the star-crossed lovers into an MTV kind of world at the beach, and Macbeth, featuring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in a true visual spectacle.
Sometimes, a film might adapt a play using everything from the original except its words, and the result can be amazing. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa gave us what many people consider the best Shakespeare adaptations ever with Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran (King Lear). My personal favorite is 10 Things I Hate About You, a Taming of the Shrew brought to the late 90s teen world. There’s also O (Othello), Get Over It (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), She’s the Man (Twelfth Night), and many more.
We are currently living the Golden Age of TV series (although some of these aren’t on TV at all, but on streaming sites), and it couldn’t complete without some Shakespeare. Critically acclaimed series like Sons of Anarchy (Hamlet), House of Cards (Richard III and Macbeth), and Empire (King Lear), are all really good. I wonder why!It's thanks to adaptations like these and translations across the world that Shakespeare remains relevant. There are so many mentions and references to Shakespeare in pop culure that it's just undeniable how much his works have shaped it. We can't get enough of him, and we won't get enough of him. So, rest assured this won't be the last you hear of him.
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