Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford‐upon‐Avon. His birth is traditionally celebrated on April 23, the date of his death. He was the eldest son of John Shakespeare, who worked as a glover and a tanner and who played an important role in local politics. He was most likely educated at the local grammar school and later married to Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. A daughter, Susanna, was baptized on May 26, 1583 and twins, Hamnet and Judith, on February 2, 1585.
The details of Shakespeare’s transition from Stratford to London are a mystery and "[n]othing is known of his beginnings as a writer, nor when or in what capacity he entered the theatre," but he is first mentioned in print in 1592 in an allusion that suggests he was already established in London’s literary and theatrical worlds. He was a "leading member" of one of the prominent London theatre companies, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, with whom "he worked and grew prosperous for the rest of his career." In 1599, the company moved to the Globe Theatre, becoming the King’s Men on James Stuart’s accession to the English throne in 1603 and taking over the Blackfriars as a winter performance space in 1608.
Throughout most of his professional life, London was Shakespeare’s base while his family remained in Stratford. Although his name continues to appear in London records after 1608, evidence suggests that by then Shakespeare was withdrawing to New Place, a substantial house he had purchased in his birthplace of Stratford. Studying the records of his life creates the impression of an educated, well-read and ambitious man who knew how to manage his business affairs and could pursue his financial interests astutely. And while there is evidence he cared deeply for his family and his roots in Stratford, he was clearly willing to make domestic sacrifices for the sake of his career. Indeed, Shakespeare appears to have taken great pleasure in his prosperity and the status it gave him and hoped to pass on something of what he had earned to his descendants. According to the inscription on his monument, Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 and was buried in Stratford.
Shakespeare is today known primarily as one of the great English playwrights, however much of his literary reputation while alive rested on his poetic works, particularly the Ovidian narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). His well-known Sonnets, probably dating from the mid‐1590s, were printed in 1609 and further bolstered his standing as a poet.
The writing of plays, on the other hand, was not considered a literary activity, nor an activity with the goal of publication in print. The plays of Shakespeare were thus published by being performed. Scripts of only half of them appeared in print in his lifetime, some in short, corrupt texts, often known as "bad quartos." Dates and order of composition are often difficult to establish. The texts of Shakespeare’s plays survive either in the form of so-called quarto editions of single plays, published during his lifetime and after, or in the posthumous edition of collected plays known as the First Folio from 1623.
Shakespeare probably began to write for the stage in the late 1580s, developing plays based on episodes from English history centered on the life of kings, eventually known as "history plays." Works such as Richard III, Richard II and Henry V appeared from this period throughout the 1590s. Simultaneously during this decade, Shakespeare was producing well-known comedies such as The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. At the same time, he was also establishing himself as a tragedian with works such as Titus Andronicus and Romeo & Juliet dating from the early-to-mid 1590s. These tragedies culminated in the so-called major or great Shakespearean tragedies, such as Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and Antony & Cleopatra, which date from the period 1599–1607. Towards the end of his career, Shakespeare turned to tragicomedy and romance, with plays such as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, both performed in 1611.
Establishing the Shakespearean corpus—the collection of his writings—has occupied many people over many hundreds of years, in a process begun as early as 1623 with the publication of the First Folio and continuing until the present day, with significant editions produced in every century in between. Shakespeare’s works thus exist in multiple versions, produced according to multiple aims: some seeking to establish a kind of master text, a "best version" compiled from all those available, others seeking to explode the very notion of a master text by juxtaposing all available versions in the same edition.
Written by Frederick Bengtsson (Department of English & Comparative Literature)
"Shakespeare, William" in The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Dinah Birch
Stanley Wells, "Shakespeare, William" in The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, ed. Michael Dobson & Stanley Wells