William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare
"the Bard"

Born c. April 1564
Died April 23, 1616

William Shakespeare (April 1564 - April 23, 1616), also called the Bard of Avon or simply the Bard, was an Elizabethan playwright known as the greatest in the English language for his masterful plots, poetic dialogue, and subtle conservative themes.[1] Among the most famous are his Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth (a renowned yet bloody tragedy), Julius Caesar (a historical tragedy depicting the former dictator of Rome), King Lear, the whimsical A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet and Othello.[2][3] His works were performed mostly at his patron theater, the Globe Theater, published posthumously in 1623 in the First Folio, so delayed perhaps due to a lack of copyright protection during Shakespeare's life.[4] Shakespeare's work totaled nearly 900,000 words, or slightly more than the word length of the Bible.

Shakespeare was a devout Christian, as proven by what he wrote in his will: "I commend my soul into the hands of God, my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing, through the only merits of Jesus Christ, my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting."[5] Yet his work is also loved by people who are not religious, who consider it "the secular canon, or even the secular scripture."[6] Shakespeare is admired for his pithy wit, artful use of language, and insights into human nature including betrayal.

Shakespeare was a conservative then, and even more so by today's standards. His play The Taming of the Shrew is anti-feminist and censored from some schools today for that reason. Major conservative themes in his works include the sacred nature of the family in King Lear, the recognition of God in his plays and personal life, the existence of necessary war in The Famous Life of King Henry V, and the exposed injustice of taxation in Coriolanus. Not surprisingly, modern liberal literary critics often ignore these themes because of their place on the modern political spectrum. Shakespeare's hilarious jokes were often at the expense of the liberal base, such as his following quip by Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare's Henry VI: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."[7] Shakespeare was politically incorrect.

The "First Folio," which is the first edition of 36 plays of Shakespeare from more than 400 years ago, of which about 220 survived (only about 20 of which are in private ownership) from the printing of 750 copies, sold at an auction in July 2022 for about $2.5 million.[8] The only portrait purportedly of him while alive went on sale for more than $11 million in London in 2022, amid doubts about its authenticity.[9] A revered icon of traditional British culture, Shakespeare receives 20 full pages of detailed explanation and commentary in the entry about him in the Encyclopedia Britannica - far more than nearly any other historical figure. Shakespeare is considered Britain's greatest author, and is credited with coining more than 1,500 words and expressions still used today.[10] Familiar expressions used today that were first coined by Shakespeare include "elbow-room"[11] and "catching a cold."[12]


Shakespeare wrote 17 comedies, 10 tragedies, 10 historical plays, 154 love sonnets, and several other works of non-dramatic poetry.[13] All his plays are freely available on the internet.[14] Shakespeare developed first as a poet and then, when his acting career was ended by the Plague temporarily closing theaters in London, he turned to writing plays.[15]

His 154 sonnets are short poems written in a very strict rhyme scheme. The sonnets fall into series or sequences. Most of them are read as expressions of romantic or platonic love; some appear to be written to a married woman known in the sonnets as the "Dark Lady," some to a young man known as the "Fair Lord."

Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan writers were gradually eclipsed by a new generation of playwrights led by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. After Samuel Johnson reissued Shakespeare's plays in 1765, there was renewed interest in the plays.


Shakespeare spent his early years in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, and is also known as "the Bard of Avon." Because of sharing the name "Stratford," the towns of Stratford, Ontario, in Canada and Stratford, Connecticut, have become the homes of Shakespeare festivals where his plays are performed on a regular basis.

Shakespeare did not become famous until late in his life and few details are known about his early life. Although no attendance records remain, it is believed that he attended Stratford-Upon-Avon Grammar School, where he would have received a sound education in the Latin and Greek classics, reflected in many of his plays. The social class from which he came could be described as wealthy tradesmen. His father, John Shakespeare, was a glove-maker who became mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon despite almost certainly being a Roman Catholic (in the early part of the reign of Elizabeth I, penalties against Catholics were light and often not imposed). His mother, Mary Arden, the daughter of a farmer, was certainly Catholic. William Shakespeare himself knew many of the Warwickshire Catholic gentry who later led the Gunpowder Plot to overthrow King James VI. Shakespeare himself did not adhere publicly to the Roman religion and it is not known if, like many Catholics, he practiced it in private.[16] There are few pictures of him but his near-contemporary as a playwright, Ben Jonson, stated that the famous engraving by Martin Droeshout, shown on this page, was a good likeness.

To his contemporaries, Shakespeare was not well-educated, and his coming among them and making a success was upsetting to the University-educated playwrights of the time. It is believed that the poet, Philip Green, was referring to Shakespeare when he wrote

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; being an absolute Johannes Factotum, in his conceit the only shake-scene in a country.

The 'tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide' is a reference to one of Shakespeare's plays, The Third Part of King Henry VI,[17] while 'shake-scene' is a pun or play on words on Shakespeare's name.

He died on April 23, 1616.[18]


Shakespeare used "31,534 different words. 14,376 words appeared only once and 846 were used more than 100 times."[19] While the average English speaker knows between only 10,000 and 20,000 words, it is estimated based on a statistical extrapolation that Shakespeare knew 66,534 words.[19]

His plays show so much erudition that theories have arisen that those works were written by someone else. Famous candidates include Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford, and Sir Francis Bacon. Most scholars reject these theories, but there are enough questions that new theories of Shakespearean authorship continue to arise.

A long-standing theatrical superstition holds that it is bad luck to refer to Macbeth directly by its name while inside a theater, and accordingly, actors traditionally refer to it obliquely as "the Scottish play." It is considered acceptable to voice the play's name only while rehearsing or performing the production itself.

Because Shakespeare's plays are so familiar, there are innumerable references to them in English literature. Sometimes his stories are recast into a different form. The musical West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, and the classic movie Forbidden Planet is a science-fiction version of The Tempest.

The reverence in which Shakespeare is held, and the archaic language of his plays (from the same era as the King James translation of the Bible, should not obscure the fact that his plays were (and still are) highly successful.

His tomb in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-on-Avon, England, reads as follows: "Good Friend For Jesus Sake Forbeare, To Digg The Dust Enclosed Heare. Blese Be Ye Man Spares Thes Stones, And Curst Be He Moves My Bones."[20]

Ideas attributed to or made famous by Shakespeare

  • "a pound of flesh" - from The Merchant of Venice, it is the concept of an overly harsh penalty, too severe to enforce
  • infinity - viewed with disdain by intellectuals since ancient Greece, except for Jesus, Shakespeare promoted the concept with success
  • “hoist with his own petard” - Act III, Scene IV of Hamlet
  • "politics makes for strange bedfellows" - adapted from The Tempest (“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows")[21]
  • "Gilded Age" - adapted from King John (1595) (“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily ... is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”)
  • “What the dickens?” - Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Many of the storylines for Shakespeare's works were based on prior works. But three of Shakespeare's plays were completely original in their plots: Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest.

Quotes Original to Shakespeare

There are dozens of timeless quotes from Shakespeare that ring true much as Proverbs from the Bible do. Lists of his most-quoted verses are widely available,[22] and here are a few:

  • "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."[23]
  • "Cowards die many times before their deaths, The valiant never taste of death but once."[24]
  • "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."[25]
  • "Neither a borrower nor a lender be"[26]
  • "This above all: to thine own self be true"[27]
  • "To be, or not to be: that is the question"[28]
  • "The lady doth protest too much, methinks"[29]
  • "What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."[30]
  • "The better part of valor is discretion"[31]
  • "All that glisters is not gold"[32]
  • "There is a tide in the affairs of men"[33]
  • "Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed, that he has grown so great!"[34]
  • "Heart of gold"[35]
  • Motley Fool (not a direct quote, but a concept used repeatedly by a character)[36]
  • "Necessity's sharp pinch"

Authorship controversy

Shakespeare f. Reuters.jpg

Several writers who knew Shakespeare, including Ben Jonson, attest to his authorship in the First Folio, a collection of his plays published in 1623. There is no indication that this claim was controversial, either at the time or for another 200 years.[37]

Although researchers discovered Shakespeare's will and several other personal documents, popular biographies published in the early 19th century stressed the contrast between Shakespeare's fame and how little biographical information was known.[38] Alternative theories of authorship concerning Homer and the Gospels also emerged at around this time. In 1857, American author Delia Bacon wrote a book arguing that Shakespeare was a fraud and that the real author of his work was Sir Francis Bacon (no relation). This book kicked off the "Shakespeare authorship controversy," which continues to this day. Various late 19th-century figures took up Bacon's cause, including Ignatius Donnelly, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, and Helen Keller.

In 1895, a book by Wilbur G. Zeigler argued that English playwright Christopher Marlowe was the author of Shakespeare's plays.[39] While Marlowe's style is closer to Shakespeare's than that of other suggested candidates,[40] he died in 1593 when Shakespeare's writing career was just beginning.[41] In 1920, English author J. Thomas Looney suggested that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays. Looney argued that Oxford's travels in Europe and aristocratic life at the English court made him a more plausible author than an untitled glover's son. Since the 1920s, Looney's theory has been dominant among Shakespeare skeptics.[42]

In 1996, computer-style analysis at the Shakespeare Clinic at Claremont College in California compared Shakespeare's writing to that of a corpus of twenty-six Elizabethan authors, including Bacon, Marlowe and Oxford. Ten style criteria were used to test the corpus, including the use of relative clauses and the use of hyphenated compound words. Shakespeare's writing was found to have a style distinct from that of every other author in the study. The authors were ranked according to how similar their styles were to that of Shakespeare. Oxford scored 22nd of the 26 claimants.[43]

Shakespeare's The Tempest (1610) is believed to have been inspired by the experience of George Somers, who was shipwrecked in Bermuda in 1610. Oxford died in 1604, making him an implausible author, at least for this play. Despite these style and chronological difficulties, Oxford's claim continues to receive enormous attention.[44] It was the subject of a 2011 movie by Roland Emmerich called Anonymous.

Despite the overwhelming evidence against the theory of Oxfordian authorship, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court—including Justices Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens, Lewis Powell, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Harry Blackmun—apparently all believed that the Earl of Oxford was the true author of Shakespeare's works rather than the commoner from Stratford.[45] Justice Scalia cited Shakespeare far more than any other Supreme Court Justice, according to one study.[46]

Sonnet controversy

Shakespeare wrote 154 love sonnets between the 1590s and perhaps 1605, and early versions of his sonnets 128 and 144 were published in 1599 as part of poetry entitled The Passionate Pilgrim. His Love Sonnet 18 is his most famous.

Because some of these love sonnets are about male beauty, critics have suggested that Shakespeare was gay or bisexual. But Stanley Wells writes, in Looking for Sex in Shakespeare, that more recent, liberal commentators have possibly allowed their ideology to influence their understanding.[47] Love Sonnet 20 appears to condemn homosexuality by asking whether the narrator, presumably a man, has fallen in love with someone who was originally a woman turned into a man by nature, which implies that homosexuality is an aberrant form of sexuality.

Many of Shakespeare's sonnets are tributes to male beauty, but the narrator could have been a woman, or the love sonnets could be fantasies about a woman in love with Shakespeare. Many refer to a "Fair Lord" or "Fair Youth," who scholars assume is the same person as "Mr W.H.", to whom the sonnets are dedicated. That there are very few exclusive female pronouns in these sonnets has led liberal critics to believe that Shakespeare was gay.

If Hamlet is partly autobiographical, then Shakespeare was heterosexual while homosexuals in theater may have been attracted to Shakespeare, of which he would have been aware. Hamlet was in love with the woman Ophelia, while the man Horatio was in love with Hamlet.

If Shakespeare was a homosexual, then he was a conservative one who was pro-life and believed strongly in the afterlife. His love sonnets imply abstinence and could have been his substitute for promiscuity. Shakespeare was also an avid reader of the Geneva Bible, from which he copied many concepts and terms into his works.[48]

List of plays[49]

Shakespeare's plays are divided into comedies, histories, and tragedies.





  • Shakespeare is cited or quoted in about 5,000 federal and state court decisions, as of February 2023. These citations are increasing in frequency over time, with about a quarter of them during the last decade and an increase in these citations during this most recent decade.
  • "Shakespeare" was spelled many ways before English spelling was standardized. Some of the more unexpected forms are "Shaxper," "Shaxberd," "Shaksper," and "Shake-Speare". The hyphenated version added fuel to the ongoing Shakespeare authorship question.[50]


Some feel that Shakespeare is overhyped, and debunk several of the claims that praise his work.[51] The elite were critical of how little Shakespeare made use of Latin phases, and the absence of any of the Greek language in his works.

Many of the names of Shakespeare's plays and word usage are 7 letters or less, such that studying his work is not the best way to expand one's vocabulary. Shakespeare's somewhat primitive word choice could be attributable to what works best in theater, or to Shakespeare's own humble background. Many of the words supposedly invented by Shakespeare consist of word alterations for the stage, which could then have been considered slightly improper English in written form.

Cancel culture

Shakespeare is a target of wokeism, or cancel culture, and has been falsely (but increasingly) accused of white supremacy.

See also

External links


  1. "Shakespeare, William." Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
  2. The New York Public Library Student's Desk Reference. Prentice Hall: New York, 1991.
  3. "Shakespeare I." Great Books of the Western World.
  4. The first copyright law was in 1710.
  5. Shakespeare's Last and Testament
  6. Hurrah for Dead White Males! - TIME
  7. Part II, act IV, Scene II, Line 73.
  8. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2022/jul/22/shakespeare-first-folio-sells-for-2m-at-auction
  9. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2022/nov/16/shakespeare-portrait-said-to-be-only-one-made-in-his-lifetime-on-sale-for-10m
  10. https://www.discoverwalks.com/blog/london/top-10-most-popular-british-writers/
  11. King John, Act 5, Scene 7 [1]
  12. "Once Shakespeare came up with this phrase, he used it in everything from Troilus and Cressida to King Lear to Cymbeline." [2]
  13. Chronology of Shakespeare's plays.
  14. Shakespeare
  15. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/william-shakespeare
  16. In Search of Shakespeare, by Michael Wood. BBC Books, 2003.
  17. Great Books, Shakespeare: I, Edited by Mortimer J. Adler, 1952.
  18. A Brief Biographical Note. Shakespeare II, Great Books of the Western World.
  19. 19.0 19.1 https://kottke.org/10/04/how-many-words-did-shakespeare-know
  20. American minute for April 23
  21. Charles Dudley Warner, a 19th-century writer and friend of Mark Twain, is credited with the adaptation of the quote to its modern political sense. [3]
  22. https://time.com/4299219/william-shakespeare-plays-quotes-kindle/
  23. Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2, lines 74-86.
  24. Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2.
  25. Hamlet, Act I, Scene 4.
  26. Hamlet, Act I, Scene III.
  27. Hamlet Act I, Scene III
  28. Hamlet Act III, Scene I
  29. Hamlet Act III, Scene II
  30. Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2
  31. Henry IV, Part 1, Act 5, Scene 4
  32. The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 7
  33. Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 2
  34. Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2
  35. Henry V (1599)
  36. Jacques in As You Like It [4]
  37. Shapiro, James, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2011)
  38. McCarter, Jeremy, "A Question of Authorship", New York Times, May 2, 2010
  39. Zeigler, Wilbur G., It Was Marlowe (1895)
  40. Shakespeare's Henry VI is written in a style similar to that of Marlowe's, so the two authors may have collaborated. See "Tamburlaine Stalks Henry VI" by Thomas Merriam.
  41. Marlowe worked as an intelligence agent for Thomas Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spymaster. Walsingham may have had Marlowe murdered for fear that his involvement with atheism would make both of them notorious.[5] The murderer was later pardoned by the queen. See the The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection for various wildly implausible faked death theories.
  42. The Oxford Authorship Site
  43. Ward Elliott and Robert Valenza, "Was the Earl of Oxford the true Shakespeare? A Computer-aided analysis" (1991)
    Elliott and Valenza, "And Then There Were None: Winnowing the Shakespeare Claimants", Computers and the Humanities, v30 n3 p191-245 1996. For a summary, see here.
    Elliott and Valenza, "Oxford by the Numbers: What Are the Odds That the Earl of Oxford Could Have Written Shakespeare's Poems and Plays?. (2004) "The odds that either could have written the other’s work are much lower than the odds of getting hit by lightning."
  44. The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition
  45. http://shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org/end-of-an-oxfordian-era-on-the-supreme-court/
  46. Scott Dodson & Ami Dodson, “Literary Justice,” 18 Green Bag 2d 429 (2015), cited by Professor Bryan H. Wildenthal, "End of an Oxfordian Era on the Supreme Court? Remembering Justice Antonin Scalia (1936-2016)" (linked in a prior footnote).
  47. Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp.8–9.
  48. See Shakespeare and the Bible.
  49. Bibliography
  50. Shakespeare authorship
  51. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/from-coining-1k-words-to-poor-latin-5-myths-about-shakespeares-contribution-to-english/articleshow/93939383.cms?from=mdr