Born, Stratford-on-Avon, 1564
Died, Stratford, 1616
The following biography was originally published in The Outlines of Literature: English and American. Truman J. Backus. New York: Sheldon and Company, 1897. pp. 90-102.

Purchase Plays by William Shakespeare

The authentic biography of the most famous writer in English literature is brief. The following facts can be positively stated about William Shakespeare: John and Mary Arden Shakespeare were his parents. He was born in the little town of Stratford-on-Avon, in Warwickshire, England, probably on the 23rd day of April, 1564. He married when eighteen years old. Three years after his marriage he went from Stratford to London.

He was an actor, and one of the proprietors of the Globe Theater, in 1589. Ben Jonson was his intimate acquaintance. His last years were spent in his native place, where he was one of the influential citizens. He was once a plaintiff in a suit-at-law. He died on the 23rd day of April, 1616.

Tradition says that he was a man of fine form and features, that he was sometimes too convivial, that he was beloved by nearly all who knew him, that he had the personal acquaintance of Elizabeth and James I. His father, John Shakespeare, probably a glover, had married Mary Arden, whose family had figured in the courtly and warlike annals of preceding reigns.

John Shakespeare had long been one of the aldermen of Stratford, and had served in the office of bailiff or mayor in 1569. Mary Arden had brought her husband a small property. That William Shakespeare could have derived even the most elementary knowledge of books from his parents seems impossible; for neither of them could write -- that accomplishment being comparatively rare in Elizabeth's reign. But there was at that time ... in the borough of Stratford, an endowed "free grammar school"; and it is not probable that John Shakespeare, alderman and past bailiff as he was, should have neglected the opportunity for educating his son. This opportunity, together with the varied though irregular reading, of which his works give evidence, and the vague tradition that he had been "in his youth a schoolmaster in the country," make it probable that the poet had more training than some of his admirers would give him credit for.

A familiar legend tells of deer-poaching in company with riotous young fellows, in Sir Thomas Lucy's park at Charlcote, near Stratford. According to the story, Shakespeare was seized, brought before the indignant justice of the peace, and flogged. For this indignity he revenged himself by writing a satiric ballad and attaching it to the gates of Charlcote. Then the wrath of the knight blazed so high that Shakespeare sought refuge in London. Although the story may have a foundation of truth, Shakespeare's departure from Stratford and his entrance into theatrical life in London may be explained in a different and less improbable manner. He was then twenty-two years of age. He had been married three years to Anne Hathaway, a young woman seven years his senior. His three children had been born. It was necessary to provide means for the support of his family, and that, too, without delay.


London was the resort for such an adventurer as he in search of fortune; and the theatrical profession, with its ready reward for the successful actor, was the most advantageous calling for him. When Shakespeare arrived in London, he naturally entered the service of one of the dramatic companies. Like other young men of that time, he made himself useful both as an actor and as a re-writer of plays. His early professional career was marked by industry and success, and by the prudence with which he accumulated wealth. By adapting old plays to the demands of his theater he acquired masterly knowledge of stage effect, and discovered the genius which enabled him to write the greatest dramas in the literature of the world. His theatrical career continued from 1586 until 1611, a period of twenty-five years.

Shakespeare quickly rose to such importance in his profession as to provoke the attacks of disappointed rivals. In 1592, Robert Greene makes bitter allusion to his name, accuses him of plagiarism, and plainly shows that envy dictated the attack. The scurrilous pamphlet containing this accusation was published after Greene's death, and evidently provoked criticism by its meanness. Chettle, its editor, promptly published an apology, in which he says of Shakespeare, -- "I am as sorry as if the originall fault had beene my fault, because myself have seene his demeanor no less civill than he exclent in the quality he professes: besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightnes of dealing which argues his honesty, and his facetious [felicitous] grace in writing that approoves his art."

That Shakespeare was thoroughly acquainted with his art is clear from the inimitable "directions to the players" put into the mouth of Hamlet. There are traditions that tell of his acting the Ghost in his tragedy of Hamlet, the graceful and touching character of Adam, the faithful old servant, in his As You Like It, the deeply pathetic impersonation of grief and despair in the popular tragedy of Hieronymo, and the sensible citizen, Old Knowell, in Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humor. John Davies, in The Scourge of Folly, ascribes to him some excellence in the performance of kingly characters. But the first masterly actor of great tragic characters, as Richard III, Hamlet, and Othello, was Shakespeare's comrade, Richard Burbage.

Six years after his arrival in London, Shakespeare had won his way to the foremost rank of literary men. Riches were flowing into his hands. The young Earl of Southampton is said to have expressed admiration for his worth and genius by making him the princely gift of a thousand pounds. Through succeeding years his prosperity continued. In 1597, at the age of thirty three, he purchased "New Place," the finest house in Stratford, making it a home for his family, and a refuge for his parents. At about this time, he solicited a coat of arms for his father. His own defamed profession would have been an obstacle in the way of his securing the honor; but he succeeded in obtaining it for his father, and so gained it for himself by inheritance. He was the last to bear the family title; for his only son, Hamnet, died when eleven years of age. In 1602 he purchased one hundred and seven acres of land, and three years after, he invested four hundred and forty pounds in the tithes of Stratford. In 1611 he sold his interest in the Globe Theater, left London, and withdrew to the quietude of his home. There five years were spent in leisure that must have been a strange contrast to the thronging cares that had attended his busy professional life. An active interest in the welfare of his town, an occasional visit to London, generous entertainment of his friends, and the composition of one or two of his greatest dramas, seem to have occupied these years of retirement. He died on the 23rd of April, 1616, the anniversary of his birthday, having just completed his fifty-second year; and was buried in the parish church of Stratford. In the wall, above his grave, a monument is erected containing his bust. This bust and the coarse engraving by Droeshout, prefixed to the first folio edition of his works published in 1623, are the most trustworthy of his portraits. In eulogistic verses Ben Jonson vouches for the faithfulness of Droeshout's picture.

Few relics of Shakespeare remain. The house of New Place has long since been destroyed; but the garden in which it stood, and, in another street, the house where the poet was born, are preserved. His will, made a month before his death, testifies to his kind and affectionate disposition. To each of his old comrades and "fellows" he leaves some token of regard, generally "twenty-six shillings and eight pence apiece, to buy them rings." The three autographs attached to this document, and one or two more, are the only specimens of his writing that have been preserved.


Shakespeare's first original poems were not dramatic. He was the creator of a peculiar species of narrative composition, which achieved an immediate popularity. Venus and Adonis, a beautiful but sensuous and pagan poem, "the first heir of his invention," was published in 1593. It was reissued in five several editions between the years 1593 and 1602; while the Rape of Lucrece, which so extols the virtue of the heroine as to seem a foil to the first poem, during nearly the same time appeared in three editions.


There are internal evidences distinguishing Shakespeare's earlier from his later plays; but to obtain an accurate chronological list many acute investigators have exercised there ingenuity, with startling discrepancies in results. No reliance can be placed upon the order of the plays given in the first edition -- the folio published in 1623 by Heminge and Condell, Shakespeare's fellow-actors.

For present purposes, the most useful classification is based upon the sources from which Shakespeare drew the materials for his dramas. The historical plays depict events of various English reigns. Holinshed's Chronicles furnished much material for them, beginning with King John, and ending with Henry VIII. They are grand panoramas of national glory or national distress. Richard II, Richard III, the two dramas on the reign of Henry IV, and that chant of patriotic triumph, Henry V, illustrate the dramatist's power in representing epochs in the history of his nation. Shakespeare, though not an inventor, was the most prolific author, of such historical dramas.

In addition to the plays founded on historic facts, he wrote many of a semi-historical character, drawing their stories from legends of various countries. Thus, Hamlet was taken from a Danish chronicle; Macbeth, Lear, and Cymbeline refer to more or less fabulous legends of Scottish and British history; while Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra are derived from ancient Roman annals. Nineteen dramas are based upon fiction. Of these a large majority can be traced to the Italian novelists and their imitators, who supplied the light literature of the sixteenth century. The short tales of those writers were singularly adapted to furnish an appropriate groundwork for the poet's delineations of humor or pathos.

Many of these plays were based upon preceding dramatic works. A few of the more ancient dramas are themselves preserved, exhibiting different degrees of imperfection and barbarism. In one or two cases we have more than one edition of the same play in its progress towards perfection under the hands of Shakespeare. Hamlet is the most notable instance. Some of these thirty-seven plays show marks of an inferior hand. The three parts of Henry VI were in all probability older dramas, retouched here and there with Shakespeare's inimitable strokes of nature and poetic fancy. So, too, the last of the English historical plays, Henry VIII, bears distinct traces of having been in part composed by another author.


On reading Shakespeare's historical dramas, the first impression is of his amazing apprehension and ready delineation of the peculiarities of the age and country respected. He gave reality to every character. From the most prominent down to the most obscure, each has a distinct individuality, true at the same time to that individuality, to his nation, and to the universal man. Even the influence of climate is not forgotten in his creations. Note the characters of Ophelia and Juliet as types of the woman of the North and the woman of the South. Both are in love. As you read through the pages in which Ophelia lives, you find yourself communing with a woman whose sincerity and constancy and depth of soul, you recognize and admire. Her few words are very quietly spoken. When she discovers that her love is reciprocated, though she is chary of expression, you detect her delight. Then her trials come. Her lover is separated from her. Her cruel fortune is patiently borne until her reason is dethroned. Even in her insanity, her nature is true to its clime. Still there is reserve. Her grief finds little utterance in words, but sings itself to rest in snatches of song. Her emotional nature is under control. Her anxiety, her joy, her grief, are alike subdued by the reserve that is natural to the Northern temperament. Juliet stands in striking contrast. No calm exterior hides her impulsive spirit. Her love comes suddenly to its full expression. Her womanliness appears in emotions that are profound, though easily moved; in a constancy of love, though that love would seem to expend itself in demonstration. Her womanliness is as pure as Ophelia's. She is simply true to the impulsive nature of the Southerner.


Shakespeare's delineation of passion is unique. Others fall more or less into the error of making their personages mere embodiments of moral qualities -- of ambition, of avarice, of hypocrisy. Shakespeare never forgets the infinite complexity of human nature. As Macaulay justly observes, the primary characteristic of Shylock is revengefulness; but a closer insight discloses a thousand other qualities, whose mutual play and varying intensity go to compose the complex being that Shakespeare has drawn. Othello is no mere impersonation of jealousy, nor Macbeth of ambition, nor Falstaff of selfish gayety, nor Timon of misanthropy, nor Imogen of wifely love: in each of these personages, the more closely we analyze, the deeper and more multiform will appear the springs of action. To this wonderful power of conceiving complex character may be attributed another distinguishing peculiarity of this poet; namely, the total absence from his works of any tendency to egotism. From his dramas we learn nothing whatever of his own sympathies and tendencies. He is all persons in turn. When he has once thrown off such a character as Othello, he never recurs to it. Othello disappears from the stage as completely as a real Othello would disappear from the world. Shakespeare has given us other pictures of jealous men -- Leontes, Ford, Posthumus; but how variously is their passion manifested! In the characters of women, too, what a range, what inexhaustible variety! In no class of his impersonations are the depth, delicacy, and the extent of Shakespeare's creative power more visible than in his women. This is the more remarkable when we remember that in drawing these varied types of character, he knew that they would be acted by boys or young men -- English women not appearing on the stage until long after Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, and Juliet had been created. The author must have felt what he so powerfully expressed in the language of his own Cleopatra:

"The quick comedians
Extemporary shall stage us: Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness."


In no instance has Shakespeare taken the trouble of inventing a plot for himself. Appropriating without hesitation materials already prepared, he directed his energies to the portrayal of human nature and human passion. He fused old material and brought forth a new product. We are not to infer that the poet necessarily consulted the tales and dramas in the original tongues. A careful examination of his works seems to prove that he rarely made use of any ancient or foreign literature not then existing in English translations; a fact which lends some corroboration to the well-known statement by Ben Jonson that Shakespeare had "small Latin and less Greek."


Shakespeare's style is criticised for its obscurity. The profundity of his thinking and the reach of his imagination make him subject to that criticism. He often thinks in metaphors; and we have to discern the figure clearly, before we can apprehend his thought. The same quality of style will be noticed in Bacon; he, too, does his severest thinking in boldest metaphors. This habit is characteristic of the poetic mind. It is simply the power of condensing much thought into brief expression. Because he has that power preëminently, Shakespeare is quoted more frequently than any other English writer.


To him, more than to any other since Chaucer, the English language is indebted. The familiar version of the Bible, made in 1611, and the writings of Shakespeare, have been the conservators of English speech. The general reading of two books that are models of simplicity, of sincerity in expression, and of discrimination in words, has given to the millions of the English-speaking race a rich and fixed vocabulary. Shakespeare wrote three centuries ago, yet we read him today to find that, while he made the language of his predecessors obsolete, his vocabulary has withstood the assaults of time and is still fresh and vigorous.

Fifteen of Shakespeare's plays were printed during his lifetime, probably without his sanction. He was careless of the fate of his works, leaving them to the mercy of the dramatic companies that owned them and to speculating publishers. The first edition of his plays, a folio edited by his former comrades, Heminge and Condell, appeared in 1623. A second edition followed in 1632, and a third in 1663. Another folio in 1685 supplied the demands of his English readers, until Nicholas Rowe published the first critical edition in 1709.


The sonnets of Shakespeare possess a peculiar interest, not only from their intrinsic beauty, but also from the fact that they contain allusions to the personal feelings of their author -- allusions pointing to some deep disappointment. They were first printed in 1609, though, from references found in contemporary writings, it is clear that many of them had been composed previously. They are one hundred and fifty-four in number. Some of them are evidently addressed to a man, while others are as plainly intended for a woman. Through all of them there flows a current of sadness, discontent, and wounded affection. Had his dramatic works been unwritten, these sonnets, together with his early amatory poems, would have given him rank among the most brilliant poets of his age; but the superior glory of his dramas overshadows the minor works.

Shakespeare displays such stores of knowledge, such powers of discrimination, such resources of wit, such pathos, such exhaustlessness of language, such scope of imagination, as can be found in no other English poet. Moreover, he seems to have been a symmetrical man. The fact that, working in a defamed profession, he commanded respect; the fact that, being the most eminent of poets, he was at the same time successful in practical affairs; and the fact that, out of the resources of his mind, he has drawn every phase of humanity, indicate his own completeness and balance of character.

Purchase Books about William Shakespeare


Home · Theatre Links · Script Archive · Bookstore · © 2002 TheatreHistory.com