We know only enough about Shakespeare to form a general
impression of his life. He was deeply involved in the theater as a
playwright, actor, and shareholder. He showed concern for his
family's reputation and financial security, although he often lived apart
from them. He enjoyed great respect from fellow writers and
popularity among theatergoers from all levels of English society. But
Shakespeare's personality remains elusive, and no biography could
ever explain what inspired or enabled him to write his remarkable
Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Because he was the son of a prominent merchant who held political
office, he probably attended the local grammar school, where he
would have learned Latin and studied classical literature. In 1582 he
married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years older. She gave birth
to a daughter the next year and to twins, a boy and a girl, in 1585.
Shakespeare moved to London sometime in the late 1580s. He must
have quickly established himself in the theater, for in 1592 a jealous
playwright referred to him contemptuously as "an upstart crow."
Shakespeare's real prominence began after 1594, when he joined the
Chamberlain's Men (later the King's Men), which became the most
important theater company in London. Shakespeare acted in
productions throughout the 1590s. During the same period he wrote
plays that led one writer in 1598 to say that he was already the best
tragic and comic playwright in England.
His acting seems to have tapered off in the following decade, when
he wrote many of his greatest plays. He made considerable money
from his shares in the Chamberlain's Men, and he invested this
money profitably, which allowed him to support a prominent
household in Stratford, where his family remained throughout his
career. Sometime around 1610, Shakespeare began spending more
of his time in Stratford and eventually retired there. He died in 1616.
Seven years later, the First Folio, a collected edition of his plays,
was printed by two of his colleagues, preserving much of the work
that has given him a central place in English literature.
Shakespeare's 38 plays are usually classified as comedies (such as
Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream), histories (Henry V
and Richard III), tragedies (Hamlet and Macbeth), or romances (The Winter's Tale
and The Tempest). He also wrote two long narrative
poems and many shorter nondramatic poems. The plays are
performed throughout the world and have been adapted into ballets,
operas, and films. His profound influence on literature over the past
four centuries fulfills Ben Jonson's prediction in a poem included in
the First Folio, where he says that Shakespeare was "not of an age,
but for all time."