The History of Shakespeare
William Shakespeare led a full and interesting life in the world of literature and theater.
William Shakespeare was born April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. As an adult, he moved to London shortly after 1585 to begin his acting apprenticeship.
In 1593 and 1594, Shakespeare wrote his first two poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece.” Between 1593 and 1601, Shakespeare composed his sonnets, 154 of which were eventually published in 1909. Each sonnet comprises three quatrains (four-line verses) and one couplet (two successive lines of verse). Shakespeare’s sonnets examine the passage of time and the failure of language to immortalize beauty and love. The sonnets fall into two groups: sonnets 1-126, which address a handsome and noble young man, and sonnets 127-152, which refer to a “dark lady” whom the poet loved in spite of himself.
In 1594, William Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men acting troupe. One of the most well-known troupes in London, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed at court, receiving noble patronage. By 1599, the troupe had enough money to build the Globe Theatre. In 1603, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men became the King’s Men. By 1608, the King’s Men were performing at the Blackfriars Theatre and The Globe.
Modern Shakespeare Studies
People still study and perform Shakespeare’s works in schools and organizations around the world. However, Shakespeare’s works didn’t make it into school curricula until the late 1700s. Harvard students began reading him on their own before demanding he be integrated into their literature studies. At first, Shakespeare’s works served only as oratory tools, with a focus on elocution and speaking skills, but by the 1860s and 1870s, students were reading his scenes with context and learning how Shakespeare crafted his stories, instead of just his grammar and style.
Shakespeare was a pioneer in the fields of literature and theater. He used the tools of his time while also creating new words and ideas.
Shakespeare’s Inventions in Language
Over his career, Shakespeare invented thousands of words. He would combine or contort Latin, French, and other roots to create new words. These words would be familiar enough to the audience that, with context clues, they could understand their meanings. Some of the words include “birthplace,” “dewdrop,” “radiance,” “watchdog,” and “blanket.” He also created phrases that we still use today, such as “break the ice,” “cold comfort,” “in a pickle,” “wild goose chase,” and “what’s done is done.” Furthermore, he is credited with inventing blank (unrhymed) verse and popularizing iambic pentameter (a ten-syllable line with alternating unstressed and stressed syllables).
Shakespeare contributed to the standardization of the English language in the 17th and 18th centuries. As his work gained importance, correctly spelling words became more common. He created compound words, adverbs, and adjectives from verbs. Shakespeare added suffixes and prefixes to many words.
Through his experimentation, he expanded the idea of characterization, plot development, and genre. Shakespeare was the first to connect romance and tragedy in a lasting way. He believed that tragedy required romance.
Shakespeare’s work reflected the new political and societal discussions beginning in London. Popular works such as “Arcadia” by Sir Philip Sidney and Essays by Michel de Montaigne influenced Shakespeare’s ideas. While many of his plays were written during the Elizabethan Age, Shakespeare’s later works were written in the dawn of the , which emphasized the questioning of the social order. He examined how his society functioned, how relationships were formed, and how religion influenced politics. For example, Hamlet was full of allusions to skepticism about love and religion.
Shakespeare employed certain themes in his works, many of which have influenced modern storytelling. One of these themes is known as the prodigal son, which explores a powerful person’s struggle to meet expectations. Henry IV, The Merchant of Venice, and King Lear incorporate the prodigal son theme. Another common theme is star-crossed lovers. Many of Shakespeare’s plays follow the story of young lovers, a still-common plot today. Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Two Gentlemen of Verona all revolve around love at first sight, the struggle to be together, and the eventual victory of true love.
Shakespeare often explored conflict between children and parents. A common practice today, Shakespeare wrote coming-of-age stories, focusing on a child’s struggle to find their own way. The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, and Hamlet all explore what causes children to outgrow their parents and how their desire to find themselves strains familial bonds. He also used true stories and real history. Shakespeare’s histories were based on true events, using real political figures as characters. These stories dramatized Britain’s history and told the story of a few legends. Richard III, King Lear, and the other histories all record and dramatize real events.
Modern Shakespeare Performances, Adaptations, and Reimaginings
Not only are students reading and studying Shakespeare’s works today, but stage productions and film adaptations of his plays continue to bring new life to the poet and playwright.
Shakespeare on the Stage
The top 10 most popular Shakespeare plays performed worldwide by number of productions since 1992 are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors, and Julius Caesar
Shakespeare on the Big Screen
Many of Shakespeare’s plays have served as the inspiration for movies, some of which kept the original structure, while others took liberties with the traditional storylines. Examples include Julius Caesar (1953), King Lear (1970), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Richard III (1995), and Romeo + Juliet (1996).
More Evidence of Shakespeare’s Influence
Film producers, screenwriters, and authors have further reimagined Shakespeare’s plots in movies, books, and other media that tell his stories from a different vantage point. Five films that adapted Shakespeare’s stories are West Side Story (1961), Chimes at Midnight (1965), The Lion King (1994), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), and Deliver Us From Eva (2003). His plots also appear in novels such as Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838), Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851), Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1931), The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1951), and A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1991).
Shakespeare’s Lasting Legacy
William Shakespeare was well-known in his time, and his legacy continues today. His language innovations, the multiple uses of his works and themes, and his plays’ enduring popularity mark him as an undeniable influence on modern literature. Shakespeare’s works are still studied and performed around the world, and writers will continue to find new ways to tell his stories for decades to come.
Encyclopedia Britannica, Jacobean Literature
Encyclopedia Britannica, William Shakespeare
Folger Library, The Collection
The Great Courses Daily, “Even Shakespeare Knew—Great Artists Steal”
The Guardian, “Top 10 Novels Inspired by Shakespeare”
Oprah Daily, “The 17 Best Movies Based on William Shakespeare’s Plays”
Poets, William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company, Collection and Archive
Shakespeareances, Play Popularity Index
Shakespeare Online, Shakespeare: General Q&A
Shakespeare Resource Center, Shakespearean Theatre Companies
The Upcoming, “How Shakespeare Changed Literature ArouShakespearances, The Bard on The Boardsnd the World”
Washington Post, “13 Shakespeare-Inspired Movies to Stream in Honor of His Birthday”
Your Dictionary, 40 Common Words and Phrases Shakespeare Invented