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Four hundred years after Shakespeare's death, millions of people continue to read his poems, repeat his phrases, watch his plays, and use the words he coined. In addition to being the most celebrated writer in the English language, Shakespeare is also the most studied. Though understanding the breadth of research on Shakespeare would require multiple lifetimes, this guide will give you a comprehensive introduction to his life, work, and place in history. Below, you'll find a curated, annotated, and organized summary of the best available information on Shakespeare.
Even though Shakespeare is one of the most scrutinized authors of all time, there are few historical records regarding his private life. We know the essential facts (baptism date, family information, birthplace), but there are aspects of his life that are subject to speculation or assumption. These include the “lost years” (1578–82 and 1585–92). The resources below will help you piece together the biography of Shakespeare as we know it.
The Wikipedia entry on Shakespeare’s life discusses most of the public records available, such as lawsuits and accounting records. One helpful feature of the entry is the visual family tree.
This resource from Biography.com outlines the contours of Shakespeare's life in a brief but comprehensive way. It includes sections on his childhood, education, and family.
In less than five minutes, this Biography.com video summarizes Shakespeare’s life, work, and legacy. The video includes commentary from Shakespeare scholars and authorities.
James Shapiro, an eminent Shakespeare professor at Columbia University, describes E.K. Chambers as "the most scrupulous of scholars and probably the most influential Shakespeare scholar to have ever lived." With accolades like this one, you'll want to check out Chambers's book, a thorough yet accessible treatment of Shakespeare’s life.
This webpage, hosted by the University of Victoria, organizes Shakespeare’s life into seven periods and provides an overview and detailed discussion of each age. The pages provide insightful information as well as images of records such as Shakespeare’s marriage license.
Andrew Dickson (an author, journalist, and former arts editor for The Guardian) offers this short article on the known details of Shakespeare's life. The article is part of the British Library's series on Shakespeare and Renaissance writers.
The Poetry Foundation's website provides short biographies of major poets. This article on Shakespeare’s life discusses some of the scholarly disputes surrounding Shakespeare’s works, and the continuing impact of his work today.
The lack of actual historical records about William Shakespeare inhibits research on his life. As a result, some historians question the man’s very identity. This article discusses the broad outlines of this debate.
The BBC created a masterful timeline of Shakespeare's life. The page tracks Shakespeare’s life from birth to death, complete with dates, discussion, and images. To gain the deepest understanding of Shakespeare’s life and work in the shortest amount of time, this resource is a must.
This encyclopedia entry on Shakespeare’s life explores aspects of the bard's persona (man, poet, dramatist), his plays and poems, and his work's known sources. Included on the page are additional images, videos, and related articles.
Michael Wood asks some questions regarding the lack of records surrounding Shakespeare’s life, and offers some tentative answers.
For a succinct summary of Shakespeare’s life, the Literature Network’s bio is a good place to start. The straightforward organization of Shakespeare’s tragedies, comedies, and histories is a helpful reference point.
Many students of Shakespeare organize his life into four periods. Although these periods have been labelled in various ways, they can be described as the early period, the balanced period, the overflowing period, and the final period.
The well-known early modern literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt published this "attempt" at a Shakespeare biography in 2004. Though he admits the gaps in our knowledge make this biographical project difficult, he successfully fleshes out the details. This book, though intended for a wide readership, is a few steps above "entry-level" treatments of the topic.
Shakespeare's career overlapped with the Elizabethan era, when the eponymous Queen Elizabeth reigned (1558–1603). This period, also known as the “Golden Age” and apex of the English Renaissance, was a time of economic growth, international expansion, and nationalistic fervor. The resources below will help you get to know the world in which Shakespeare lived.
We tend to think that Shakespeare’s world was thoroughly Elizabethan, characterized by the optimism of the English Renaissance. In reality, as this essay by a prominent early modern scholar asserts, Shakespeare’s “world was largely a medieval one.”
Although this article is largely biographical, it provides some insight into drama during Shakespeare's day and the way that Shakespeare himself profited from his plays.
To understand Shakespeare in his historical context, it’s important to understand the period of the Tudor Dynasty in English history. This BBC timeline surveys the period from 1485 to 1603, during which Shakespeare lived.
One of the best ways to understand Shakespeare’s plays is to understand what the theater experience was like in his day. What would it be like to attend a Shakespearean comedy at the Globe? This article discusses 16th century theater etiquette, the absence of female actors, and the business of running a theater.
Shakespeare lived during the apogee of the English Renaissance. Never before in English history had there been such a proliferation of masterful art, literary interest, and popular appeal in theater. This article discusses the nexus of the English Renaissance with Shakespeare’s life, how the era shaped the man, and how the man shaped the era.
To understand an era, it’s important to examine it from many angles—cultural, political, legal, and religious. This resource from Internet Shakespeare Editions provides some background on the many streams of influence in Shakespeare’s lifetime.
The Wikipedia entry on Elizabethan England provides a helpful overview of the period, and includes sections on "government," "social history," "religion," and more.
For an at-a-glance-reference to major dates during the English Renaissance, check out this page from an English literature graduate student at the University of Oxford.
Shakespeare was a Londoner, and his identity and daily activities were shaped by the city’s expansion, politics, and turmoil. This article provides a compelling description of London city life.
There are 37 extant plays attributed to Shakespeare, each of which is categorized below under tragedies, comedies, or histories. Clicking on the title of the play provides you with the full text alongside a modern English translation.
Most of us know Shakespeare as a playwright, but he first gained fame as a poet. Shakespeare’s poetry is no less masterful than his plays—some would even argue that Shakespeare was a better poet than playwright. Shakespeare’s poems contain some of the best-loved lines and popular expressions in the English language. The resources below will introduce you to this body of work.
Our Shakescleare series provides the full text of all 154 Shakespearean sonnets, along with a line-by-line modern English translation and a one-line summary of each poem.
One of the best ways to understand and even interpret poems is to hear them read aloud. Sir John Gielgud performs each of Shakespeare’s sonnets in this YouTube collection.
Shakespeare Online has the complete text of each sonnet with accompanying interpretive notes. The introduction to the resource discusses the dates of composition for the sonnets and their narrative objects.
The form in which we read Shakespeare’s sonnets today are not the form in which they were originally written. These images from the UCLA Library and hosted by a University of Victoria site offer facsimiles (exact copies of printed material) of the early editions of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
One arena of scholarly dispute is the interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnets. For those who are interested in surveying the scholarly melee (and better understanding the sonnets), this essay from The Guardian should help.
This video is a Q&A discussion between three Shakespeare authors and educators discussing the context and interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It is hosted by the University of Warwick.
For an entertaining and humorous survey of Shakespeare’s sonnets, look no further than this 12-minute video from Crash Course Literature.
Aside from the famous sonnets, Shakespeare also published a handful of other, longer poems. The LitCharts Shakescleare series provides access to the text, alongside a modern English translation.
Although Shakespeare sometimes followed dramatic conventions of the Renaissance, he also forged his own path. The Tempest follows Aristotle's classical unities of time, space, and action (for example, that the play's action should occur during 24 hours or less), while The Winter's Tale traverses 16 years and two diverse kingdoms. The resources below survey Shakespeare's stylistic approaches and lasting influence on literature.
This entry gives an overview of Shakespeare’s style in both his plays and poems. One helpful aspect of the entry is the discussion on similarities to and differences from contemporaries.
For a simple discussion of Shakespeare’s writing style, this article is a helpful place to start. The article surveys Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter and explores the depth of character development in his work.
This TED-Ed original introduces students to Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter and explains why "Shakespeare's words have such staying power."
Gordon McMullan, a literature professor at King’s College, suggests that Shakespeare’s writing style was a result both of his inherent genius and the extrinsic forces of market and popular appeal.
Many of the themes in Shakespeare's work are easy to spot—for example, love in Romeo and Juliet. Other themes may be less obvious, but are no less significant. Had you noticed that Romeo and Juliet also has a recurring theme of servants and masters? These figures' presence conveys a subtle message that the disadvantaged possess identity and worth apart from their menial duties. The resources below will help you get to know these common threads.
Each LitChart for Shakespeare's plays contains a guide to its major themes. Linked above is the "themes" section for Romeo and Juliet, which features colors and icons you can use to track each theme across the play.
When introducing students to the subject of themes in Shakespeare’s plays, it may be helpful to start at a basic level. Each Shakespeare play may have multiple themes, but the elemental ones are power, nature, love, and conflict.
This resource by Shakespeare professor Tracey Sanders explains how Shakespeare communicates his themes, and discusses the four recurring themes found throughout Shakespeare’s plays and poetry.
This BBC archived page provides a list of Shakespeare's plays followed by the key themes of that play. For example, the listed themes for Twelfth Night are love and disguise.
Shakespeare’s tragedies share several common features, as explained in this brief summary of tragic themes. It was written by a former university lecturer of Theater Studies.
This short animation from Oxford University Press discusses the theme of thinking in Shakespeare, and provides helpful examples from several of his plays.
According to some analyses, Shakespeare is the most quoted writer in the English language, not counting quotations from the Bible. Shakespeare quotations are so common, in fact, that many people quote him without realizing it. Phrases like “Greek to me,” “fair play,” and “into thin air” come directly from Shakespeare plays (Julius Caesar, King John, and The Tempest, respectively). Each of the resources below deals with Shakespeare's contributions to the English language.
Rather than choosing quotations at random, TIME counted the Kindle highlights across three editions of Shakespeare’s works. Their quasi-scientific approach brought up 15 well-loved quotes.
This admittedly arbitrarily-chosen Buzzfeed list will introduce you to many of the most quoted Shakespearean lines, including a few by Polonius (Hamlet), Jacques (As You Like It), and Cordelia (King Lear).
ThoughtCo, which publishes a wide variety of Shakespeare resources, offers this article on ten Shakespeare quotes. It was written by a former English teacher and believer in the persuasive power of quotations.
If visual quotations are more to your liking, BrainyQuote provides quotations overlaid on scenic landscapes. Each quotation is tagged with its corresponding themes.
Although this website is dated and a bit clunky, it helpfully nests famous quotations under headings for the play in which the line is found.
Did Shakespeare actually write the plays attributed to him? The relative lack of records for Shakespeare's life has led to rampant speculation. The resources below will introduce you to the "Stratfordian position" (that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon authored the plays), along with the “anti-Stratfordian” position that he did not. Alongside these questions, it is important to note that recent scholarship has named a number of collaborators on plays we usually think of Shakespeare's alone.
The Wikipedia treatment of the authorship question is thorough and well-organized. It is the perfect place to begin attempting to understand the main arguments for and against Shakespeare’s authorship.
Peter A. Sturrock, an astrophysicist, uses Bayesian statistics to tackle the authorship question. Sturrock invites readers to answer the question themselves, but furnishes all the information needed to make up your mind.
This author makes a case for Shakespeare’s authorship by setting the stage with the four most likely authors, a discussion of motive and plausibility, and a conclusion—“the plausibility of Shakespeare.”
Wade gently into the controversy by understanding the theories, the purported evidence, and who else might conceivably have written the plays if not William Shakespeare himself.
Another entry-level treatment of the question comes from History.com. In the end, the author takes the traditional position that Shakespeare authored the works attributed to him, but provides an informative sketch of the issue.
For high school literature teachers wondering if this question matters, The Guardian says “yes.” They tend to side with the Stratfordians, and suggest that “if Shakespeare did write those works (and all the evidence makes that more likely than not) it reminds us that genius is not delimited by our start in life."
Robert McCrum of The Guardian uses James Shapiro’s book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (1599) as a springboard for his own editorializing on the authorship question. McCrum’s article buzzes with the energy of the debate, while also naming names and pointing fingers at various characters.
This piece from Oxford University Press's blog, an excerpt from the New Oxford Shakespeare, will introduce you to the actors, poets and playwrights who scholars have identified as Shakespeare's collaborators.
Using primary source documents and visuals from as far back as 1597, Kennedy Center award-winning Shakespeare producer Ron Song Destro examines the case for the most popular candidate of the last hundred years, Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, referencing such famous doubters as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain.
Teaching students about Shakespeare is no easy task, but it can be immensely rewarding. The resources below offer starting points for preparing lessons geared toward any grade level. You'll find classroom activities, distinct resources to create units on the Bard's life and work, and entire websites devoted to teaching Shakespeare.
The Shakespeare’s Globe website has a full selection of online games for kids on Shakespearean topics. The "Shakespeare Word Games" page provides a scrambled word game of Shakespearean terms and characters, as well as a Weird Words Quiz.
The Folger Shakespeare Library has a list of eight "Who Am I" questions to help students learn about several important Shakespearean female characters.
This page offers ten bits of trivia about life in Shakespeare’s era, and will help students to visualize the world in which Shakespeare lived.
The classic children’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays comes from Charles and Mary Lamb. Although the style is very much that of the 18th century, it remains a popular choice for young readers.
The Guardian provides a list of ten excellent Shakespeare books for kids, from Leon Garfield's Shakespeare Stories to Bloomsbury's Shakespeare Today.
This Folger education blog highlights individual lessons on Shakespeare and other resources. Under the "resources" tab, you'll find Shakespeare lesson plans, a digital image collection, and more.
This website, a collaboration between some of the U.K.'s major cultural institutions, aims to "provide creative routes into the world of Shakespeare."
Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company offers a number of resources for teaching Shakespeare on its website. Simply choose a play, type of resource, and age range. (Note: KS1 corresponds to ages six and seven, while KS5 corresponds to ages 16 through 18).
The New York Times's Learning Network has compiled a list of articles that will help your students connect Shakespeare's work to our contemporary world. (Note: Though access to The New York Times requires a subscription, you can access a few free articles a month).
Though all of Shakespeare's plays are worthy of study, some of them are particularly suited for use in the middle school and high school classroom, or in undergraduate surveys. These links contain practical suggestions for selecting appropriate plays and advice for designing lesson plans.
Playwright Ken Ludwig suggests that educators start with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, since its themes and humor are accessible to both younger and older age groups. Among the tragedies, Ludwig singles out Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet.
According to research from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the most common plays to teach in the high school English classroom are: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, and Julius Caesar.
ThoughtCo writer Melissa Kelly, a veteran high school English teacher, lists eight Shakespeare plays to use in the classroom. She starts with Romeo and Juliet and concludes with The Merchant of Venice.
This top-rated TPT unit on Twelfth Night, designed for middle school and high school students, includes student handouts, a quiz and test, a character information sheet, and more.
Another top-rated TPT Shakespeare unit, this resource includes an internet scavenger hunt, graphic organizers, group project, power writing prompt, and unit test.