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William Shakespeare

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 plays.

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."