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Introduction to William Shakespeare

New !King Lear | New !The Merchant of Venice

Hamlet | Macbeth | Othello | Romeo and Juliet | The Tempest | A Midsummer Night's Dream

Shakespeare websites | Shakespeare's birthday celebration 2008in Stratford-upon-Avon

Birmingham Repertory Theatre Archive


Shakespeare title page

Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare

"Not of an age, but for all time"


William Shakespeare - Born 23rd April 1564 - Died 23rd April 1616


Born at Stratford Upon Avon in the county of Warwickshire, it is likely he was educated at Stratford Grammar School.

He probably began writing plays around 1592 and of the 38 plays that comprise the Shakespeare Canon, 36 were published in the First Folio of 1623. Shakespeare wrote for nearly 20 years and at his height he probably completed as many as two or even three plays a year. Shakespeare probably retired from writing plays in 1613.

He died in 1616 at the age of 53 and was buried in the Church of the Holy Trinity. His gravestone which is thought to be the last thing he wrote bears the inscription

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.


As copyright laws did not exist at this time, playwrights often borrowed plots and dialogues from other sources. It is thought that Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra were taken from Plutarch's Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans. There was no hesitation on the part of some playwrights including Shakespeare to take events, characters or lines from previous works. Partly to overcome this it wasn't uncommon for plays not to be published until after the performances had finished. The versions sold were called quartos. About half of Shakespeare's plays were first published in this way. The texts often differ from those of the First Folio; the variations may represent performance practise.

Shakespeare's reputation grew steadily after his death. His plays are regularly performed all over the world in many different languages. His work is considered integral to the development of German literature and culture. In the U.K. we have the Royal Shakespeare Company dedicated to his work, and Shakespeare forms part of the national curriculum. Other playwrights have also used the plays as a basis for writing their own material. Because Shakespeare's works are so widely known audiences are able to recognise political allusions, coded into productions, and enjoy parodies and plays which are spin-offs from the originals such as Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Sonnet 127, Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Sonnets

Sonnet 127, Shakespeare's Sonnets, University of Boston, 1897


Words of Shakespeare's Sonnet 127 pictured above



In 1609 a collection of Shakespeare's private sonnets was published, probably without his permission. They have led to speculations about his life, as they are addressed to at least one man and one woman.
The sonnets show a relationship with a younger man, probably of higher rank than Shakespeare, urge the young man to marry and breed, but become increasingly warm and affectionate.

The sonnets to the young woman show a passionate physical relationship, but one which Shakespeare also regrets:
' The better angel is a man right fair
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill...
'
(Sonnet 144).
The young man seems to have become involved with the woman, causing Shakespeare great pain.

There has been much speculation about their identities; the most likely candidates for the young man being the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron, or William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. A. L. Rouse proposed Emilia Lanier, of a family of Italian Jews, mistress of Lord Hunston, patron of Shakespeare's company to 1596 as the Dark Lady.

Shakespeare regularly visited his wife and family in Stratford, and may also have been involved with the wife of a tavern owner in Oxford, on the route from London. Her playwright son, Sir William Davenant, claimed Shakespeare as his father.


Romeo and Juliet playlist and cover of The Tempest Galop

Romeo and Juliet playbill and cover of The Tempest Galop

The Language of Shakespeare


Shall I compare thee to a summers day

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day ? Sonnet XVIII


To enjoy Shakespeare it is a good idea to not only read the play but to see it acted or to listen to it on an audio tape. The Shakespeare collection includes copies of most films of Shakespeare's plays on videos, DVDs and sound recordings. Shakespeare used words not only to explain the plot but to create images and help us to understand the feelings of his characters.

For example a lot of the imagery used in Macbeth is concerned with blood -
" It will have blood, they say.
Blood will have blood." III. iv. 122

Many of his words have now become part of our everyday speech.
"leapfrog"
"barefaced"
"lonely"

Probably everyone could quote from at least one of Shakespeare's Works.

" There's a method in my madness " Hamlet, II. ii. 207-8

" Well the world's your oyster now." The Merry Wives of Windsor, II. ii. 4-5

Some words that he used have a different meaning today such as

"defend" meant to forbid
"fig" meant to insult
"sad" meant serious

Shakespeare usually wrote in blank verse so the lines do not have to rhyme. Those that do, tend to mark the end of the scene as there were no curtains on the stage. He used a lot of metaphors and similes. Some of the earlier plays are particularly lyrical; Romeo and Juliet includes whole sonnets in the text. The language and blank verse of his later plays became increasingly fluid, with his increased mastery of dramatic possibilities. Shakespeare was famed, in his own time, for his lyrical and passionate poems, particularly the Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis.


Shakespeare quotations

Quotations from Shakespeare

From Farce through to Tragedy


Macbeth witches and Hamlet ghost

Three witches from Macbeth and ghost scene from Hamlet


Since Shakespeare's death, his plays have almost continually been performed, and examined by those trying to understand their timeless appeal. The appeal of his plays lies in the strength of his characterisation. Shakespearean characters are neither all good nor all bad, and face dilemmas such as jealousy or love in ways which audiences can relate to.

Shakespeare's plays had their roots in Roman drama, which he probably studied at school, along with classical texts such as the poems of Ovid. He may also have been influenced by the great Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe, who was killed shortly after Shakespeare came to London. His early reputation was made by the plays based on fairly recent English history; the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, now known as the Wars of the Roses, and on light comedies which would have appealed to his aristocratic patrons. The tragic love story Romeo andJuliet was also written for this audience, and A Midsummer Night's Dream may have been commissioned for a wedding.

In the Roman plays such as Julius Caesar and Coriolanus Shakespeare used a classical setting to comment on political issues. Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V consider the responsibilities and burdens of the ruler. Around 1601 it is speculated that some personal tragedy deepened Shakespeare's appreciation of the human condition, and the great tragedies followed; Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello. Timon of Athens represents an extraordinarily misogynistic view, but was written at the same time as the great love story Antony and Cleopatra. Pericles and The Winter's Tale, later plays, commonly known as Romances, have themes of reconciliation and re-discovery of lost wives and daughters, while The Tempest, is often seen as Shakespeare's farewell to his art.

Shakespeare was also influenced by the change in fashion which followed the accession of King James I. James's interest in witchcraft and Scottish background led to Macbeth; the masques and dance in Cymbeline and The Tempest were also a response to the demands of the Court audience.


Hamlet and Macbeth

Shakespeare drew on a number of different sources for his writing. The primary source for the History plays and Macbeth was Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. The source for the Roman plays was North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans. The text for the famous description of Cleopatra's first meeting with Antony is drawn almost exactly from Plutarch:

Enobarbus:
'...The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick...


Ariel in The Tempest

Ariel in The Tempest

Shakespeare Lives On!

Birmingham has one of the world's best collections of works by and about Shakespeare including the remarkable Forrest Collection, the scrapbook collection acquired by H. R. Forrest of Manchester in 1890, which includes The Tempest and Hamlet.

Shakespeare Memorial Room
Shakespeare Memorial Room

Birmingham Shakespeare Library was founded in 1864 by members of the local Shakespeare Club during celebrations to mark the quarter centenary of Shakespeare’s birth.

The aim, as stated by George Dawson, the President of the Club, was to build a collection containing as far as practicable

every edition and every translation of Shakespeare, all the commentators, good, bad and indifferent, in short, every book connected with the life and works of our great poet. I would add portraits and all the pictures etc. illustrative of his work

Almost a century and a half later, the Library contains copies of almost all the English language editions and criticism of the works of Shakespeare, background material on his life and times and on the theatre. There are also editions and criticism in 93 other languages. There is an extensive archive of production material including videos, DVDs and sound recordings, photographs, programmes, playbills, posters, printed music, reviews and scrapbooks of illustrations.

Related Links

Shakespeare Memorial Room

The Birmingham Shakespeare Library

Shakespeare video

Shakespeare Websites

Arts, Languages and Literature