William Shakespeare, Playwright, Poet and Actor

“He was not for an age but for all time,” said Ben Jonson in the dedication to William Shakespeare’s 1623 First Folio. It may be the truest thing Jonson ever wrote: four and a half centuries after the Bard’s birth, his works continue to inspire us.

William Shakespeare’s Early Days

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in April 1564. The exact date of his birth is unknown, though he was baptized April 26. Because baptisms customarily occurred three or four days after birth, his birth is traditionally celebrated on April 23, which was also the date of his death and St. George’s Day, the day celebrating England’s patron saint.

His father John Shakespeare was a glover and alderman who also participated in illegal money-lending and trading of wool. His family may have been Catholic or had Catholic sympathies at a time when the majority of the country was converting to Protestantism under Queen Elizabeth I.

In 1582, when he was 18, William Shakespeare married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway, with whom he would have three children. Little is known about Shakespeare’s life after his marriage and before 1592, when his career as a playwright took off.

Sources in this Story

Shakespeare’s Work

The first mention of Shakespeare’s playwriting career is found in 1592, when rival dramatist Robert Greene wrote that he was “an upstart crow.” He had written the “Henry VI” trilogy in the preceding years, followed in 1592 by another history play on the War of the Roses, “Richard III.”

In 1594, he and others, including actor Richard Burbage, formed the theater company Lord Chamberlain’s men, with which Shakespeare would spend nearly 20 years. Lord Chamberlain’s men would perform plays such as including “Romeo and Juliet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Merchant of Venice” in the ensuing few years.

In 1599, the troupe built a new theater, the Globe, on the south bank of the Thames River. The Globe would become synonymous with Shakespeare, as it was here that his most famous works—including “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet,” “Twelfth Night,” “King Lear” and “Macbeth”—debuted.

The Rest of the Story

Shakespeare died April 23, 1616, on what we now consider to be his 52nd birthday. His will, written in March 1616, is available at the U.K. National Archives.

In his known career, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and several other shorter poems. All of these works can be read at MIT’s Complete Works of William Shakespeare collection.

There has long been suspicion that Shakespeare himself did not write the work we now ascribe to him, or even that Shakespeare did not exist. Various historians have contended that Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere or others are the true author of Shakespeare’s work.

Shakespeare Resources on findingDulcinea

The five-part series “Shakespeare in the Limelight” examines the mystery surrounding Shakespeare’s life and the questions over his authorship.

The Web Guide to Shakespeare links to the best sites for researching Shakespeare’s life and understanding his works.