Tuesday, 19 March, 2013 - 17:08

Who was William Shakespeare?

by Jane Bristow

William Shakespeare is known across the world as the writer of plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, and as one of the most famous British people ever. Sometimes known simply as ‘the Bard’, he lived over four hundred years ago – not bad for the son of a man who made a living from making gloves.

Part of the fascination is that despite being so well-known we don’t actually have much information about him; even his name is spelt differently each time it appears, ranging from ‘Shak-peare’ to ‘Shaksper’. Over the years people have argued long and hard about whether he wrote the plays, although these days he’s generally accepted as the author of about thirty-eight plays, some of which were written in partnership with others. He also wrote lots of famous poetry.

Baptised on 26th April, 1564, his actual birthday isn’t known but conveniently England’s national day, St George’s Day, is the 23rd of April so over the years this is when his birth has been celebrated. Whether or not this is true he certainly died on this same date in 1616, having made a successful career in London first as an actor with a group called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and then as a writer.

In the UK Shakespeare is taught throughout school, making it easy to forget that lots of the plays are actually very funny; some parts are also incredibly rude which means they’re sometimes not covered in lessons. At the time they were written plays were enjoyed by rich and poor alike - it was like going to the cinema - and only later on did the theatre become more exclusive.

Some famous quotations from Shakespeare include now common phrases which he probably invented such as the ‘green-eyed monster’ (meaning jealousy) mentioned in Othello and the idea of being ‘eaten out of house and home’ for someone who’s got a greedy guest from Henry IV. There’s also some imaginative insults such as saying someone is ‘like a toad; ugly and venomous’ in As You Like It or ‘fat as butter’ in Henry IV. The most famous quote of them all is of course the much more serious ‘To be or not to be’ from Hamlet. Basically whether you want witty one-liners or grim drama Shakespeare has something for everyone.

Today you can still visit the house where he was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, as well as where his wife Anne Hathaway was born. In London you can watch plays staged at Shakespeare’s Globe which is a reconstruction of the theatre he worked for. Not only is the theatre partly open to the elements but you can get ‘groundling’ tickets and stand just in front of the stage like the poorest would have done in the 16th century.


Do you know any of Shakespeare's plays? Who's the most famous writer from your country?

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