A Brief History of Shakespeare
Get to know history’s most famous playwright, William Shakespeare.
William Shakespeare is indisputably one of the world’s most well-known playwrights. His plays have been translated into over 100 languages and countries around the world continue to bring his great work to life. In this article, we’ll do our best to give you the low down on this legendary figure with companion clips from our new title A Man for All Time which features expert and renowned Shakespeare Director, Trevor Nunn.
“O gentlemen, the time of life is short!” (Henry IV, Act 5, Scene 2)
Let’s start at the beginning. William Shakespeare was born on the 23rd of April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. What was happening in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564? Just a little thing called the plague, which would be a frequent occurrence throughout Shakespeare’s life. He attended school near his home where he learned to read and write and studied some of the great literary masters. Ever the poetic man, Shakespeare died on his birthday in 1616.
In the introduction to the masterclass A Man For All Time, Hugh Wooldridge gives a little background on Shakespeare
‘’If men could be contented to be what they are, there were no fear in marriage.’’ (All’s Well That Ends Well, Lavatch, Act 1 Scene 3)
Shakespeare had eight siblings, four of whom survived childhood, and one sister who survived him. Lucky for her, Shakespeare was very wealthy by the end of his life and he made sure that she was well taken care of after he passed.
As a young man of only 18, he married the 26-year-old, and suspiciously pregnant, Anne Hathaway who was the daughter of a well-to-do farmer. Together, they had three children, Susanna, born in 1583, and twins Judith and Hamnet, born in 1585.
“O gentlemen, the time of life is short! To spend that shortness basely were too long,“ Henry IV, Act 5, Scene 2
In the late 1580s Shakespeare and his brother Edmund moved to London, leaving his wife and three children behind in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Ever the go-getter, Shakespeare quickly established himself as an actor treading the boards of London’s playhouses. He joined the infamous acting troupe Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later called the King’s Men, which was created under the patronage of the 1st Lord of Hudson.
It’s difficult to know exactly when Shakespeare began writing his plays, but we do know that he wrote many of his plays specifically for his prestigious acting group. The group started out performing in The , in Shoreditch, London which was owned by the Burbage family. When the lease ran out for the building, the group decided to deconstruct the building and send it down the River Thames to London’s marshy South Bank. There, they built their iconic Globe .
In this clip, Trevor Nunn discusses Shakespeare’s big move to London’s South Bank.
‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’ (As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7).
Shakespeare moved his company to London’s South Bank where they built their own ‘O’-shaped theater which they called The Globe. Yes, that’s right, The Globe, as in the world, as in the center of the world, as in the place where everything happens. Very confident of Shakespeare, we know.
From contemporary writings, we know that Shakespeare continued to act in his plays throughout his life, playing smaller, older, and unromantic roles. Some believe that Shakespeare wrote parts specifically for himself to play, like the part of Jacques in As You Like It.
The first play to be performed in the shiny new Globe was Henry V. Some believe that Shakespeare intentionally wrote the part of the Chorus, which opens the play, for himself.
In this clip, Trevor Nunn shares his theories on Shakespeare performing the opening lines of Henry V.
‘To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by nature’ (Much Ado About Nothing, Act 3, Scene 3)
Shakespeare, reportedly, wrote his first play somewhere between 1589 and 1594. What his first play was exactly depends on who you ask. Some people believe his first play was The Taming of The Shrew, others believe it was Henry VI parts 1, 2, or 3. Regardless of which play came first, one thing is for certain, Shakespeare began writing plays on commission. Someone would come to him asking for a historical play about a famous king like Henry VI, or a retelling of a poorly written story about a woman who refuses to marry. He then would re-work the script and produce a hit play.
In this clip, Trevor Nunn speaks about Shakespeare working on commissioned plays.
Shakespeare only wrote three genres of plays, Historical plays, Comedies, and Tragedies. By the end of his career, Shakespeare had churned out a whopping 37 plays, making him one of the most prolific playwrights in history. Interestingly, only one of his plays had an entirely original plotline, this also happened to be his final play; The Tempest, written between 1610–1611. In his masterclass, Trevor Nunn proposes that Shakespeare wrote it as his final farewell to the theater. The final soliloquy, known as Prospero’s Farewell, can be imagined as Shakespeare speaking directly to his audience.
In this clip, Dame Judi Dench performs Prospero’s Farewell from The Tempest.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” (Sonnet 18)
When the plague hit London and theaters closed, Shakespeare decided to turn his hand to a new kind of writing, sonnets.
Sonnets are a type of poem that follows rigid rules about structure. They need to be 14-lines long, usually in iambic pentameter, and they must follow the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. This is harder than it may seem, but, as with most things, Shakespeare was pretty darn good at it. In total, he wrote a staggering 154 sonnets on themes of love, jealousy, infidelity, time, beauty, and morality.
In this clip, Trevor Nunn explains Shakespeare’s discovery of sonnets as a writing exercise.
What makes Shakespeare so special?
‘’Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon ’em. ‘’ (Twelfth Night, Act 2 Scene 5)
In Trevor Nunn’s masterclass, he calls Shakespeare ”A Man for All Time.” Nunn wasn’t the first person to say this though. The original quote comes from Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Johnson, who wrote 300 lines of rhymed verse as an introduction to Shakespeare’s First Folio, said that Shakespeare was a man ”Who was not just for an age, but for all time.”
One of the reasons we still love Shakespeare today is because of his ability to capture, reflect, and explore the essence of being human. Even though our clothes have changed, our ideas have broadened, and we’ve stopped saying things like ‘thou’ and ‘morrow’, Shakespeare’s plays still resonate with us because, at their core, they are about the human experience. His plays have entertained, amused, and educated us for centuries and will continue to do so for years to come.
In this clip from Trevor Nunn’s masterclass, A Man For All Time, he discusses Ben Johnson’s writings about Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was nothing short of prolific in his contributions to the theater. We did our best to squeeze the basics about Shakespeare into this brief article, but if you’d like to learn more about the ‘’Swan of Avon’’ watch our new Shakespeare Masterclass A Man For All Time, hosted by acclaimed theater Director, Trevor Nunn featuring an appearance from the stage and screen acting legend Dame Judi Dench.