Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
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Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
Considering how famous and well-regarded William Shakespeare's work is today, it's kind of surprising that we really don't know a whole lot about his life. Some people even challenge the fact that Shakespeare actually wrote the plays he was credited with - that's how mysterious he is. Some people don't even believe he wrote his plays!
It's ironic that he is such an incredibly influential figure and, with regard to his personal life, a blank slate. We just don't know much about him, but that doesn't mean that this will be a short lesson. Sorry!
Let's go over the biographical details that we do have. We'll also talk about his most famous plays and poems, as well as their lasting influence. So, when I say we don't know that much about William Shakespeare, we really don't. We don't even know his birthday because birth certificates - short or long-form - didn't exist back then. People born into noble families might have had their birthday recorded for posterity, similar to how these days you can find Brad Pitt's birthday by Googling it, but you probably can't find your next-door neighbor's birth date.
Shakespeare, though, was born into a family of commoners. We do know that he was baptized. There are some public records of that. So, he must have been born somewhere near his baptism date of April 26, 1564. His father was a glover from Snitterfield, which sounds like a Harry Potter name, but apparently was a real place. The Shakespeare family wasn't badly off, but they were still commoners. We don't really know where Shakespeare went to school, but he probably did go because he ended up literate.
The next solid record we have of the life of William Shakespeare is his marriage, which took place in 1582. Shakespeare married at the age of 18, while his wife, Anne Hathaway (no, not that Anne Hathaway, though seriously, what were that Anne Hathaway's parents thinking, naming her that) was actually of the ripe old age of 26. Six months after their wedding, their first daughter, Susanna, was born… so I'll let you draw your own conclusions about that. They then had twins in 1585, named Judith and Hamnet (Hamnet, you say? That sounds familiar! - We'll talk about that later). Hamnet sadly died at the age of 11, and there's been a lot of speculation that his death may have influenced Shakespeare's playwriting, including the famous (and similar-sounding) Hamlet. While the name Hamlet technically comes from a different Scandinavian name, scholars still search for a connection.
At some point, while still married to Anne, Shakespeare scooted off to London and got involved in the theatre scene - rather like the Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore of today, William and Anne's marriage was a May-December romance that was destined for failure. From various records, we do know that he worked as an actor as well as a playwright. He wrote plays for a company called Lord Chamberlain's Men. Starting in 1599, the company performed at the Globe Theatre, which is south of the Thames in London. If you go to London now, you can watch Shakespeare performances in a rebuilt Globe roughly in the same spot. Why was it rebuilt? Well, it was made entirely of wood, and it burned down in 1613, but the recreation is pretty good. Well, I mean, it looks good to me. I didn't see the original, but it looks great now, and if you go to London, you really should see a Shakespeare play at the Globe. It's pretty incredible.
So, the Globe burned down from a fire started by a special effects cannon fired during a performance. So even back then, there was always a desire for snappy special effects, and this one had a pretty serious consequence. Personally, I'd rather see a real, live cannon go off than some lame video projection. That would have been awesome.
Shakespeare had a lot of success from his playwriting and grew reasonably wealthy from it, which was a rare feat at the time… or now, really, I don't know how many wealthy playwrights you can name. He competed for audiences with the likes of Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson and other famous playwrights of the time. Christopher Marlowe might sound familiar if you've seen the movie Shakespeare in Love. Shakespeare's work has enjoyed a far wider audience in modern times than it did in his time, though.
What was it that he wrote that was so awesome and influential and long lasting? Well, let's talk about it. Shakespeare is really pretty unavoidable for most people. You've probably had contact with some of his plays; almost no one escapes high school without having to read Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's famous tragedy of star-crossed lovers in Verona. If you haven't read it, you've probably seen one of the numerous movie adaptations, or maybe even West Side Story, which is based on the plot of Romeo and Juliet.
I'm not going to list off all of his plays. If you really want to know the names of all of them, you can go to Wikipedia. But I want to give you a timeline of some of his most significant works. I'll talk a little bit about each one, but keep in mind that we've got separate videos devoted to each the really big plays, so you should check those out. Also, you should bear in mind that scholars are divided on the dating of many of these. They're working off of multiple versions and incomplete records. Shakespeare's plays didn't have copyright dates like books do now, so not all of these dates are 100% accurate; they're really a best estimate based on the evidence available. So, take this chronology as a suggestion, and use it for slotting the plays in relation to each other, but don't hold on to the dates as gospel.
Before we start - what did Shakespeare's plays look like when he wrote them? They tended to be written in something called blank verse. This is made up of lines of iambic pentameter that don't rhyme. What's iambic pentameter? Well, it's a 10-syllable line divided into five units, or feet, called iambs. An iamb is just two syllables that go light-STRONG in stress. For example, one of the more famous lines of iambic pentameter comes from Romeo and Juliet. This is when Romeo sees Juliet on the balcony at the start of that famous balcony scene:
'But SOFT! what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS.' Obviously, the actors don't read it that way, but that's a line of iambic pentameter, and that's how the syllables are supposed to work together.
So, Shakespeare went to London in the early 1590s, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Scholars fight about which play was the first he wrote, but many agree that it was probably The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which was written sometime between 1589-1591. Though it is significant for being (maybe) his first play and definitely the first instance of cross-dressing, which Shakespeare LOVED, it's generally not considered to be his best work.
Next, possibly, came The Taming of the Shrew, around the same time period (1590-1591). It's another comedy and one of my personal favorites. If you want to know the plot of this play, you should watch the movie 10 Things I Hate About You - it's very similar, it's really based on the play - but then go and read or watch The Taming of the Shrew as well, since that's where it came from.
Remember how, in the movie, Julia Stiles is this cranky, mean girl, and she doesn't want a boyfriend, but her younger sister really wants a boyfriend, and so Heath Ledger (RIP) has to wear her down and make her fall in love with him? Julia Stiles plays 'the shrew' in The Taming of the Shrew, or the Catherine character, and Heath Ledger is the Petruchio character - his name is Patrick Verona in the film.
Rolling right along, we hit Richard III sometime around 1592-1593. This is a play about a villain, Richard III, scheming to get the crown and - SPOILER - he gets it, hence the kingly name. He kills a ton of people, including smothering a few children. This is an example of one of Shakespeare's history plays because it has a basis in history.
Next up comes Romeo and Juliet, in 1595. You probably know the drill: Romeo falls in love with Juliet, but he's a Montague, and she's a Capulet, and their families hate each other. Their plan to be together goes awry, and they both end up killing themselves.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a lot more lighthearted - it's also from 1595. This involves four Athenian teenagers who run out into the woods to try and figure out their romantic problems. They run into some fairies, who mess around with them for fun. There's also an awesome dude, named Bottom, whose head gets turned into a donkey's head. It's a really fun play - I highly recommend A Midsummer Night's Dream.
1596 brings The Merchant of Venice. It's the first entry in 'Cultural Studies with William Shakespeare.' This play is famous for the character Shylock, who's portrayed as a miserly Jew who demands a 'pound of flesh' as payment for a debt. That's problematic; anti-Semitism is not cool. It's an interesting play, but you've got to take it with a grain of salt and keep in mind when it was written.
An important event in Shakespeare's life comes around the same time, which is the death of young Hamnet in1596. Shortly after that, or maybe around the same time, comes Henry IV, Parts I and II. The titular Henry IV is referred to as 'Hal' throughout the play, just to make it confusing, and there's also a really funny fat guy named Falstaff, who totally steals the show. Falstaff alone makes the Henry plays worthwhile.
Another history play is Julius Caesar, from 1599. You might remember the famous line 'Et tu, Brute?' ('You too, Brutus?'). Roman emperor Julius Caesar is brutally murdered by a bunch of people in the government, including his previously loyal friend Brutus. Saying You too, Brutus? is probably the thing most people remember from this. Chaos ensues as everyone scrambles to lead Rome.
Now we're coming up to the big daddy, the grand poobah, the big cheese: Hamlet, written around 1599-1601. It's probably the most famous and frequently discussed play he ever wrote. It's referenced in everything and performed a ton; it's even the basis for The Lion King. The play is about poor Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who just can't seem to make up his mind about whether he should kill his uncle Claudius to avenge his father's death. It features his mother, Gertrude; his poor love interest, Ophelia; hilarious old fool, Polonius; and probably the most famous skull in theatre history - the 'Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well…' scene. Hamlet is really the first of Shakespeare's great tragedies and, arguably, the most well known.
Next up is one of his great comedies, Twelfth Night. Shakespeare's really on a roll in this period around 1601. Twelfth Night is wildly successful, and it features even more cross-dressing. We've got the heroine, Viola, who falls in love with Duke Orsino while she's dressed as a boy. Orsino loves Olivia, who falls in love with Viola dressed as a boy - don't worry, it's all sorted out in the end, but hijinks ensue.
Around this time, Queen Elizabeth I dies and is succeeded by James I, the former king of Scotland - just a little historical context there. Next up: Othello, written around 1603-1604ish. It's another entry in 'Cultural Studies with Shakespeare.' Othello is a Moor (a North African) who is a general in Venice, and a lot of people don't like that because he's black and they're jerks. There's a bad guy named Iago who convinces Othello that his wife Desdemona is cheating on him. Eventually, Iago wears Othello down; Othello believes him, goes mad, kills his wife - it's a bummer. It's dramatized in a fabulous movie called O featuring Julia Stiles as yet another Shakespearean heroine. It's really the second of the great tragedies.
Moving right along, we've got King Lear, features an old man (King Lear) who wants to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He ends up banishing one daughter, Cordelia, because she doesn't kiss up enough. The other two, Regan and Goneril turn out to be really nasty and, again, pretty much everyone dies. That's the third of the great tragedies. If you're familiar with the book or the movie called A Thousand Acres, that's based on the story of King Lear.
Next up we've got 'the Scottish play', aka Macbeth, written around 1606. People refer to it as 'the Scottish play' because it's considered bad luck to say 'Macbeth' in the theatre - not really sure why. It features Macbeth, a Scottish lord, who tries to become king through murder and avarice at the encouragement of his nutty wife, Lady Macbeth. It features a lot of witches, ghosts, kilts and some great monologues. It's a lot of fun, but it's also a bummer because it's a tragedy.
This is followed up by The Tempest, written in the 1610-1611 region. This play is a lot of fun. It features Prospero, the former Duke of Milan. He wrecks a ship carrying the usurping Duke of Milan on a magical island. Prospero's weird supernatural servants Ariel and Caliban hang out with the shipwrecked passengers while his daughter Miranda falls in love with one of them. It's kind of like the original Lost, if you will.
The Tempest is probably the last play that Shakespeare wrote on his own. Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen were most likely co-written, both in 1613.
OK, I need to take a breath. That was a lot of plays, and I didn't even tell you about all of them. Again, if you want to find out the names of all of Shakespeare's plays, go look on Wikipedia. So, that's a lot to remember, and I don't expect you to recite that all back to me.
So, what should you keep in mind after hearing this massive list of plays? I would say, first, that Shakespeare's plays can generally be divided into three categories: comedies, tragedies and histories. At this point, the timeline we've been building could become color-coded for each type of play. The lines can get fuzzy, especially in the tragedy/history areas, because some of the tragedies have a historical basis - also, what kind of history isn't tragic in some way?
The comedies are things like The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. They have fun hijinks like cross-dressing or mistaken identity. They tend to end with a wedding - sometimes more than one wedding. Tragedies are plays like Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, and they tend to end with pretty much everyone dying, or at least a significant number of people dying. The histories are the ones like Henry IV Parts I and II and Richard III - really, if it's got a strong basis in British or Scottish or whatever history, it's a history play.
So, in addition to all of those plays (and, like I said, I didn't even hit on all of them), Shakespeare actually wrote even more. He wrote poems, sonnets in particular, which are 14-line poems with a very specific rhyme structure. You can learn more about them in our lesson on Shakespeare's sonnets. But if you see a 14-line iambic pentameter poem in Shakespearean-type language, odds are you're looking at one of his 154 sonnets. This guy was busy. He wrote a ton!
You've probably heard the oft-parodied 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' poem. Depending on your point of view, you may find it gloriously romantic or seriously cheesy, but that's a Shakespearean sonnet, and really, the remaining ones are just as good. They're beautiful; they're really worth checking out.
In addition to the sonnets, he also wrote some longer poems - Venus and Adonis, written in the 1592-1593 range, and also The Rape of Lucrece in 1594. In Venus and Adonis, the Greek goddess Venus tries to get the mortal Adonis (who is really, really hot and buff - that's where the term 'Adonis' comes from) to sleep with her, but he refuses and then is killed while on a hunt. Bummer. It's written in 6-line stanzas that go a/b/a/b/c/c. The Rape of Lucrece is pretty self-explanatory, unfortunately. Lucretia is raped by the son of the King of Rome and commits suicide, which incites a revolt against the king. That poem is written in 7-line stanzas that go a/b/a/b/b/c/c, also known as 'rhyme royale.'
So, those are Shakespeare's works in the tiniest of nutshells. Unfortunately, William Shakespeare died in 1616 - that's another date that we have associated with his life. In true Shakespeare fashion, he wrote the following epitaph for his own tombstone:
'Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.'
It rhymes, and it's funny, and it's self-referential - it's everything you'd come to expect from Shakespeare. Some scientists actually have wanted to exhume Shakespeare, to dig up his bones, but this seems like a terrible idea because, clearly, Shakespeare will curse them. So no one else has moved those stones, and you can still see his grave and the epitaph today in Stratford-Upon-Avon, so if you're ever in England, go do that.
Whew! We have talked about a lot. We've gone over Shakespeare's life. He was born in in Stratford; he was married to Anne Hathaway (but not the one who's still alive, obviously); he had three kids, including a son named Hamnet, who died young; he moved to London and became an actor and playwright, and his marriage kind of went south then. We've covered a bunch of his plays and laid down a timeline for when they were written and how they relate to each other; we've briefly touched on his poems, both his sonnets and his longer poems.
It's true that Shakespeare's life may be a mystery to us, but we're really lucky that the words that he wrote, the works that he created, are still available to us now, centuries later. So, go and check out our other videos on his notable plays and get to reading or seeing them for yourself!
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
12 chapters | 120 lessons