Discover what you know about William Shakespeare now

Shakespeare shares his birthday with St George’s Day. If you want to discover more about St George there is an earlier Blog post about the Union Flag where you can discover lots of interesting facts. I missed posting on the actual date, 23rd April, but to quote Shakespeare time just “melted into thin air!” (The Tempest)

Who was William Shakespeare?

William Shakespeare was an actor, a playwright, and a partner in a leading acting company; the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He became both prosperous and well-known in England and eventually across the globe. Although we cannot be absolutely certain of his actual date of birth William Shakespeare was born about April 23, 1564, possibly in Stratford. His parents were John and Mary Shakespeare and he was their eldest surviving child. William had three younger brothers, Gilbert, Richard, and Edmund, and two younger sisters: Anne, who died at seven, and Joan.

His childhood

John Shakespeare, was a glove maker/ leatherworker and a wealthy businessman, becoming an alderman and then the town bailiff, a similar position to a mayor. His mother was an heiress from a well-to-do family.

Due to John Shakespeare’s wealth and position William almost certainly attended the grammar school in Stratford, where he would have studied Latin and acted in Latin plays. He probably remained in school until about 15.

Adult life

In 1582, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway; he was 18 and she was 26! In total William and Anne had three children. The eldest, Susanna, was baptised on 26 May 1583 followed by twins, Judith and Hamnet, who were baptised on 2 February 1585. Anne and the children remained in Stratford while Shakespeare worked in London, however, we don’t know when he moved there, what he did before joining, or even how he joined the theatre.

Plays and Poems

We do know that Shakespeare’s life centred around two places: Stratford and London. He grew up, had a family, and bought property in Stratford, but he worked in London, the centre of English theatre.

Historians confirm that the first definite mention of Shakespeare, as an established London actor and playwright, was in 1592 when a contemporary writer mentions Henry VI, Part 3. In the following year, 1593, Shakespeare published the poem, Venus and Adonis.

During his lifetime, William Shakespeare wrote around 37 plays for the theatre and over 150 poems. We may not know the exact number as some of his work is believed to have been lost, and it has been suggested that some were written with the help of other people. William wrote tragedies – including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet; comedies – including Twelfth Night and the The Taming of the Shrew and historic plays, including Henry IV, Henry V and Richard III.

Many of his poems were sonnets, which is a poem of fourteen lines using any of a number of formal rhyme schemes, in English typically having ten syllables per line.

Shakespeare’s plays were very popular, even with Royalty, both Queen Elizabeth I and James VI of Scotland and I of England would often hire Shakespeare’s company to come and perform at the royal court.


William Shakespeare is associated with two main theatres, The Rose and The Globe. The Globe was originally called simply “The Theatre” but after a dispute with the landlord it was dismantled, rebuilt on the other side of the River Thames and renamed The Globe. Two of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, Henry VI and Titus Andronicus, were first performed at The Rose theatre.

A replica of The Globe was rebuilt on Bankside in 1997 about 230m away from the original site. Just like in Tudor times it is still a large, open-air theatre with an open area on the ground floor where are no seats; you were/are exposed to the cold, wind and rain that comes in through the open top, and audiences could be very rowdy. They would shout, boo and even throw food at the actors if they didn’t like them! It was against the law to have women on stage so there were no female actors; all women’s parts were played by men. If you were rich – or today want to pay more, you can sit in the higher-level, covered galleries in a comfy seat – away from the smelly poor people below! The comfy seats are just plain wooden benches, but you can rent a cushion.

Even all those centuries ago there were many special effects such as trap doors, actors lifted on wires, smoke, fire and even cannons. In fact there was a huge disaster in 1613 when a cannon shot set fire to the roof of the Globe and burned it down. Shortly after this Shakespeare retired from the theatre.

Later life

After retiring from the theatre William lived moved back to his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon where he lived quite quietly. He died on 23 April 1616, aged 52, on the day that has been designated his birthday.

Shakespeare wrote his own epitaph; on his gravestone in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, is written:

‘Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.’

Shakespeare today

Today, Shakespeare’s work is studied in schools and universities around the world, and his stories are depicted on TV and in films. Whilst many films are the plays shown in modern dress others adapt the story lines, for example West Side Story is a version of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew has been remade several times; The Taming of the Shrew (1929), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Kiss Me Kate (1953), 10 Things I hate About You (1999), and Deliver Us From Eva (2003).

William Shakespeare is also given credit for introducing over 1,700 words and several phrases that are still used in English today. A few examples are surprising such as alligator, downstairs and eyeball! Next time you say you “have to be cruel to be kind,” “The world is my oyster,” or moan that someone has “eaten me out of house and home” remember that you are quoting Shakespeare!

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