Study Guide

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Introduction

William Shakespeare scarcely needs an introduction. Born in 1564, he was an English playwright, poet, actor, favorite dramatist of queens and kings, inventor of words, master of drama, and arguably the most famous writer of all time. In his 36 plays and 154 sonnets, he left behind the evidence of a brilliant mind, a wicked sense of humor, a deep sensitivity to human emotions, and a rich classical education. We know all about his work. But what do we know about the man?

In the 400 or so years since Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday in 1616, there have been plenty of rumors about the Bard and the personal experiences that may have inspired his works. Some of these explanations may well be true; others are pure falsehood. We don't know much about Shakespeare's inner world—he left behind no tell-all confessionals—but we know a lot about his outer world, and that is perhaps even more important to understanding his genius. Shakespeare came of age during the Renaissance, a flourishing of arts, culture, and thought that took place in the middle of the last millennium. All across Western Europe, ideas on everything from God to the nature of the universe were shifting. In England, it was a time of great literary and dramatic achievement, encouraged by Queen Elizabeth I and her successor James I. It was the perfect environment for a gifted dramatist to thrive.

Shakespeare changed the English language, inventing dozens of new words we still use today. His plays have been translated into more than 80 other tongues and performed in dozens of countries, where diverse audiences all still recognize the timeless elements of the human experience as depicted by a young Englishman 400 years ago. And if you are somehow one of the last two people in the literate world who know Shakespeare but still fail to see the Bard's relevance? Well, then, a pox on both your houses.

William Shakespeare Trivia

Shakespeare's surviving works add up to a staggering 884,647 words and 118,406 lines.

Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play, clocking in at 4,042 lines. His shortest is The Comedy of Errors, with 1,787.

Though commonly attributed to the Bard, Shakespeare never wrote or said "Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive." The line belongs to Sir Walter Scott, from his 1808 poem Marmion.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Shakespeare coined more than 500 new words, many of which are still commonly used in English speech. Popular Will-isms include: amazement, bump, lonely, countless, useful, radiance and lackluster.

Shakespeare has been translated into at least 80 languages, including Chinese, Bengali, Tagalog, and Uzbek.

When the First Folio was published in 1623, you could buy a copy for £1, worth as much at the time as several hundred dollars today. In 2006, a surviving original copy of the First Folio (one of only about 230 in the world) sold for nearly $5 million.

"Shakespeare" is spelled 80 different ways in documents dating from the Bard's time, including "Shaxpere" and "Shaxberd."

A ticket to the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare's time would have cost you a penny, or $1.66 in today's money. At a posh indoor theater like Blackfriars, tickets started at a whopping sixpence (about $10). If you were rolling large, you could sit on the stage for two shillings ($40) or buy a box for half-a-crown ($50).

The average number of actors required for a Shakespearean comedy is 18. For the tragedies, it's 27. Histories require 35.

In his will, William Shakespeare bequeathed to his wife Anne Hathaway only his "second best bed." (Under the law, she was also automatically entitled to one-third of his estate and lifelong occupancy of Shakespeare's home.) There's no way of knowing whether this was a thoughtful bequest (hey, maybe she really liked that bed), some kind of inside joke, or a rather nasty insult.

The Klingon Language Institute, the official organization dedicated to the revival of Star Trek's Klingon language, runs the Klingon Shakespeare Restoration Project. They've so far translated Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing into Klingon. (For Christian Klingon speakers, they've also translated the Bible.)

William Shakespeare Resources

Books

The Riverside Shakespeare (1997)
This is the definitive collection of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Think of it as an entire course on Shakespeare squished into one single volume. The notes on Shakespeare's life and times are invaluable, and the introductory essays to each play are pretty much the best overview you can get.

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World (2005)
Harvard professor Greenblatt constructed this fascinating biography of Shakespeare's life. Greenblatt knows the Bard's work inside and out—one reviewer described him as more familiar with Shakespeare than the Dark Lady of the sonnets was—and his take on the playwright's life is well worth a read.

James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005)
1599 was a milestone year for William Shakespeare. The Globe opened, and Shakespeare enjoyed an immensely productive year in which he wrote many of his best-known plays. Rather than trying to scrounge up details on Shakespeare's personal life and speculate on his psychological motivations, Shapiro looks at the current events that may have shaped Will's plays.

Anne Somerset, Elizabeth I (2003)
This biography is a fascinating introduction to Elizabeth and her era. The brilliant and complex Queen Elizabeth I defined England as Shakespeare knew it for most of his life. Her reign paved the way for an artist like Shakespeare to emerge, and her love of the theater (Shakespeare's plays in particular) was vital to furthering his career.

Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays
Shakespeare wasn't the only talented playwright in town. Born the same year as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe was Shakespeare's contemporary and rival. The gifted dramatist was murdered under mysterious circumstances at the age of 29, but the body of work he completed during his short life shows the breadth of his talent. His plays include Tamburlaine, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, and The Jew of Malta.

Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres (1991)
The themes of Shakespeare's plays are universal, transcending place, race and time. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, author Jane Smiley sets the story of King Lear among feuding sisters in an Iowa farm town. The chilling depiction of betrayal, jealousy and family drama illustrates the cross-cultural relevance of the Bard.

Music

Various Artists, Shakespeare's Songbook
"If music be the food of love, play on!" Shakespeare referenced music frequently in his plays. This two-disc series pulls all the songs mentioned or performed in his work, so that you can hear for yourself the tunes his audiences probably knew by heart.

Various Artists, Come Gentle Night: Music from Shakespeare's World
This is the music of Renaissance England, the stuff that would have been performed in the royal court and sung by women as they went about their work. Listen to this to put yourself in the mind of the Bard.

John Blow, Venus and Adonis
In the late 1600s, Jacobean composer John Blow wrote an opera based on Shakespeare's long poem "Venus and Adonis." It was performed in front of the royal court in 1681.

Cleo Laine, Shakespeare and All That Jazz
Jazz singer Cleo Laine released an album in 1964 where she sings lines from the Bard's plays. Fans say that her vocals take Shakespeare to a whole new level—even Will himself might have approved.

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Soundtrack
Let's say you happened to be in high school in 1996, the year that Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet was released. You went to see the movie. You wept over the lovers' tragic death—how could such pretty people end this way?—and then you went out to a music store and bought an actual copy (no downloads, no iTunes) of the soundtrack, which you and everyone you knew soon learned by heart. Don't ask us how we know this. We just do.

Trip Shakespeare, Are You Shakespearienced?
This Minneapolis-based powerpop band started rocking in the late 1980s, when Harvard grads Matt Wilson, Elaine Harris and Dan Wilson, plus University of Minnesota grad John Munson got together. They broke up in the 1990s, but their Bard-worthy name lives on.

Images

Collected Works
Cover of the 1623 edition of Shakespeare's plays. The engraving by Martin Droeshout is considered one of only two accurate depictions of the playwright. Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson swore it looked just like him.

Memorial Bust
Shakespeare's memorial at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, thought to be the other reliable image of Shakespeare.

Holy Trinity Church
Photographs of the church in Stratford where Shakespeare was baptized and buried.

Shakespeare's London
A 1574 engraving of the city from Civitates Orbis Terrarum.

The Globe
A rendering of Shakespeare's theater, built in 1599 and destroyed by fire in 1613.

The New Globe
The replica theater built in 1997 in London.

Love's Labour's Lost
A 1598 edition of the play "presented before her Highness this last Christmas."

The Tragedie of King Richard the Second
A 1598 copy of the play.

Shake-Speares Sonnets
Title page of the 1609 collection of Shakespeare's poems.

"Venus and Adonis"
Title page of Shakespeare's first published poem.

Stick Figure Hamlet
Hamlet, in stick figures. Yes.

Movies & TV

Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Oh. My. God. There have been other love stories on the silver screen, sure, but Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 take on Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers is one of the most beautiful movies we've ever seen. If you are not weeping by the end of this movie, there is a cold hard stone where your heart should be.

Henry V (1989)
English actor Kenneth Branagh is a modern master of Shakespeare on film. His performance as the monarch who conquers France is electrifying. Henry V contains the famous St. Crispin's Day speech, which is probably the best psyche-up speech in literature: "And gentlemen in England now-a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."_CITATION42_ Yeah!

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Kenneth Branagh again, this time as both director and actor. This delightful movie features pretty sets and an all-star cast that includes Kate Beckinsale and Denzel Washington. The verbal sparring between Branagh's Benedick and his then-wife Emma Thompson's Beatrice is delicious to watch. Equally entertaining is Keanu Reeves' wooden performance as Don John.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Director Baz Luhrmann's awesome version of Romeo and Juliet is fast-paced, modern, and nothing that the Bard could have imagined. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are gorgeous, and they manage to make the final scene even more heart-wrenching than the original text. Don't miss the amazing soundtrack.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)
This lovely film imagines Shakespeare's life during the "lost years" of 1585 and 1592. The plot is made-up—young Will (Joseph Fiennes) falls in love with beautiful heiress Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), who inspires him to write Romeo and Juliet—but the historical details of Shakespeare's life and times are more or less true. Oh my Bard, we like this movie so much.

Ten Things I Hate About You (1999)
This modern-day twist on The Taming of the Shrew takes the story of ornery Katherine (here Kat) to high school. It's fun, funny and surprisingly true to the themes of the Bard's play. The late great Heath Ledger is charming as slacker hero Patrick Verona.

O (2001)
This is a modern-day version of Othello, also set in an American high school. It stars Mekhi Phifer as star basketball player Odin, Josh Hartnett as the scheming Hugo, and Julia Stiles as the doomed Desi. Dark and disturbing, just like Shakespeare intended.

Websites

Mr. William Shakespeare on the Internet
True to its name, this site contains pretty much everything about Mr. William Shakespeare on the Internet—or at least everything worth reading. The site is a like an online course in Shakespearean and Renaissance theater, with extensive information on his biography and works. It also contains information on Shakespeare's dramatic contemporaries and literary criticism of the Bard.

The Folger Shakespeare Library
The Folger Library in Washington, D.C. is the world's largest collection of Shakespeare materials (they also edit the Folger editions of Shakespeare's plays that you probably read at school). Their website is as useful and information-packed as the library itself, with resources for both the casual and serious Shakespeare scholar.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
Shakespeare is an industry in Stratford-upon-Avon, the English town that proudly claims the Bard as its native son. This site has biographical information and photographs of Shakespeare sites. If you're interested in visiting Stratford or attending any of the plays frequently staged there, this is the site to visit.

Shakespeare's Globe
The original Globe burned to the ground during a performance of Henry VIII in 1613. In 1997, a reconstruction of the Globe opened in London. The site is an important resource for Shakespeare and Renaissance studies, as well as a working theater that hosts frequent performances of Shakespeare's plays.

University of Victoria Internet Shakespeare Editions
This excellent site pulls together the best Shakespeare sources on the Web. If you're studying a specific play, you can search by title to find just the information relevant to that one. It is especially good for finding information about past Shakespeare performances.

Shakespeare Authorship
We here at Shmoop firmly support the idea that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays. This site mounts an impressive argument against the claims that someone else wrote some or all of Shakespeare's works.

Video & Audio

"To Be or Not to Be"
Hamlet's famous soliloquy, by the great Laurence Olivier.

Hamlet on the Street
18-year-old actor Craig Bazan performs Hamlet on a street corner in his hometown of Camden, New Jersey. He's awesome.

St. Crispin's Day speech
The amazing, go-get-'em speech from Henry V.

Lady Macbeth Loses It
Dame Judi Dench in the sleepwalking scene.

Macbeth Rap
Flocabulary's excellent summary of Macbeth, with mad rhymes.

Romeo and Juliet
The whole play in 12 minutes, by the hilarious Reduced Shakespeare Company.

Shakespeare Sketch—A Small Rewrite
Comic Hugh Laurie imagines a day in the life of the Bard.

Shakespeare and the Beatles
Here are the Beatles performing a Shakespearean skit on British TV in 1964, because… well, why not?

Elizabethan Insults
Make your own and swear like Shakespeare!

Primary Sources

The First Folio
Browse the Folger Library's online version of the original 1623 edition of Shakespeare's first collected works. The text is beautiful but hard to read—visit the University of Virginia's site for readable plays.

Shakespeare's Plays
The University of Virginia has put the text of Shakespeare's plays online.

"Venus and Adonis"
Text of Shakespeare's first published poem.

"The Rape of Lucrece"
Text of the 1594 poem.

Shakesepeare's Sonnets
The full text of the 1609 edition of his poems.

History of Primary Documents
Most of what scholars know about Shakespeare is pieced together through church records, property records and other such primary documents. This is a list of every known primary document referencing Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's Will
You can send an e-card of the handwritten testament, complete with Shakespeare's signature. Not sure why you'd want to.

"A Room of One's Own"
Had Bill Shakespeare been born as Belinda, he would never have received the education that allowed him to write his masterful plays. In this essay Virginia Woolf points out this injustice by imagining Shakespeare's fictional sister, Judith.