Life Encyclopedia of ESC PDF version

Works Exercises, revision Menu ESC

Quotations Projects





William ShakespeareWilliam Shakespeare was born on 23rd April 1564 as a son of a glove maker and a well-to-do merchant John Shakespeare, and his wife Mary Arden. Both his father and mother came from families of yeomen - small but independent property owning farmers - in the Forest of Arden. The name Arden was a fairly common one in those parts of England. Stratford of those days, when Shakespeare's parents set up their home, was a quiet little place of some 200 houses. But to the neighbouring villages it was something of a capital (but a very sleepy capital, by our standards). The town was full of orchards, gardens and trees - in 1582 there were nearly a thousand elms in and around the borough. Trees have given place to houses now, but still a good deal of the 16th century remains. There is the house in Henley Street, where John Shakespeare lived and worked and kept his shop, and where his children were born - eight in all, of whom two died young.

William was born as the third child and the eldest son. It is practically certain that, after attending petty school as an infant, Shakespeare went to the grammar school, to which he could be admitted free by virtue of his father's status and residence in the town. William had to be in his place by six o'clock in summer and seven in winter.

Shakespeare's education has often been discussed. It is true that he never went to university, or travelled abroad, or walked the golden road of a sophisticated Renaissance courtier. We know that he learnt grammar, logic and rhetoric, on a firm Latin base, in the normal routine for the son of a well-to-do burgess. His formal education was particularly extensive, but it was perfectly adequate. After leaving school, and during the hard times of his father's money troubles, he most likely helped his father at his trade. But he may have tried to turn his talents elsewhere, as well. He probably taught as an assistant master at the grammar school.

In 1582, at the age of 18, he must have seemed to be adding to the family's difficulties by getting entangled with a young woman of 26, a daughter of a respectable yeoman from Shottery, a mile out of Stratford. The girl - Anne Hathaway - became pregnant, and had to be married. Apart from the age difference, there was nothing very special about that, given the customs of the time. But she brought no property with her apart from a small dowry.

There are nearly no records of Shakespeare's life during the seven years than followed - except one mention from 1588 which shows that he probably still stayed at Stratford. In the later 1580s William Shakespeare left Stratford, alone, for London. We do not know whether he went up to London with the fixed intention of becoming an actor. By 1592 he was already an established actor and playwright. The London to which young Shakespeare came some time before 1590 was a place ablaze with the full splendour of Elizabethan achievement. Painters, musicians and poets shone and glittered in a spectrum of enchantment. In one rare moment, Byrd and Dowland, Bacon and Spenser Marlowe and Shakespeare, were all alive and working imaginatively at the same time.

Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1594, working as a leading actor and dramatist. By 1599 this all-male company of experienced and talented players - no women appeared on the stage until the Restoration - had built their own theatre, the Globe. Its owners were seven members of the company, including Shakespeare, who shared in its profits.

Elizabethan theatreFor the next decade the Globe, on the Thames at Bankside, was to be London's chief theatre, and the home of Shakespeare's work. Many of his greatest plays were written during those ten years, and were acted there. Both Queen Elizabeth I and after her James I, showed the company many favours.

In 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII, the Globe was destroyed by fire. But the former Lord Chamberlain's Men, by now called the King's Men, had leased a second, smaller playhouse, the Blackfriars, four years earlier. This was an indoor theatre, unlike the Globe which was open to sky, and it had the technical facilities for scenic effects - a fact which probably accounts for the spectacular element in Shakespeare's late plays. The Elizabethan theatre was a theatre not of action or of illusion, but of language, and in fact of poetry.

By 1603, when Queen Elizabeth I died, Shakespeare had already established his position as the leading poet and dramatist of his time. Shakespeare was now a royal servant and a man of some consequence.

In 1612, Shakespeare, it seems, went home. His son Hamnet had died when only eleven, but his two daughters were in Stratford with his wife Anne. He was now a wealthy man and in 1597 he bought the house called New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was generally considered the finest in the town, with its court, two barns, two gardens and two orchards.  Here, with his family, he spent the last years of his life till he died in 1616. Unfortunately, the house has gone, pulled down by its owner in the 18th century, a clergyman who was annoyed by sightseers and was willing to spite the townsfolk. Only the foundations and two walls remain on the open site.

It is said that Shakespeare died on the same day as he was born (on 23rd April 1616) after his birthday celebration with Ben Johnson and Michael Drayton. He is buried at local Trinity Church. There are only two portraits of Shakespeare which are authentic and one of them is the bust in Stratford at Trinity Church.



Back to the top





The first plays he wrote were historical, and followed a pattern already set by other authors. Then, in 1593 and 1594 he made his great bid for recognition with two long narrative poems, "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece". They succeeded and won him the patronage of the Earl of Southampton. Under Southampton's protection, he wrote some of his happiest and most magical plays in the mid-1590s. Shakespeare wrote 37 plays which are commonly divided into tragedies (T), comedies (C), historical plays (H), and romances (R). The list of probably the best known is as follows:


Richard III (1592) H

Macbeth (1605) - T

The Taming of the Shrew (1593) C

Anthony and Cleopatra (1606) - H

Romeo and Juliet (1954) T

Coriolanus (1607) - H

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595) C

Pericles (1608) - R

The Merchant of Venice (1596) C

The Winter's Tale (1610-11) - R

Henry IV  I, II (1597) H

The Tempest (1611-12) - R

The Merry Wives of Windsor (1598)  C

The Comedy of Errors - C

Julius Caesar (1599) H

The Two Gentlemen of Verona - C

As you like it (1599) C

Much Ado about Nothing - C

Twelfth Night (1599) C

Henry V - H

Hamlet (1601) T

Henry VI - H

Othello (1604) T

Richard II - H

King Lear (1605) T





MacbethMacbeth is a tragic story of a noble and brave Scottish soldier who, because of ambition, became a murdering despot. With their double meanings, the prophesies of three old witches gave him grounds for hope that one day he would become king. He told his wife about this meeting with the witches. Lady Macbeth, who was even more ambitious than her husband, urged him to kill the present king Duncan, who was visiting them in their castle.

Two of the evil prophesies had then come true. The third had said that the sons of Banquo, a fellow-soldier, would become kings. So Macbeth and his wife hired murders to kill Banquo. Still they did not feel safe, and Macbeth consulted the witches again. They told him that he would never be defeated until Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane. This seemed an unlikely happening. But it came about in an unexpected way and all prophesies of the witches came true.



JulietThough this is placed among the tragedies, it differs from the other tragedies in the simple fact that the heroes are not destroyed through faults in their natures, but by the hatred of their two families, and after their death comes reconciliation.

It is about the unhappy love and death of Romeo and Juliet, the only children of two powerful houses of Verona - the House of Montague and the House of Capulet. These two houses hate each other. Romeo Montague meets Juliet at the ball. He falls in love with her although he knows that she is Capulet. They love each other very much and ask Friar Laurence to marry them. Their love and marriage are secret. Romeo kills Thybalt, Juliet's cousin by an unfortunate coincidence.

Prince of Verona sends Romeo to the exile outside Verona and young Juliet is forced to get married to a young nobleman called Paris. She asks Friar Laurence for help again and he gives her magic drops after which she falls asleep for several hours and looks as if she was dead. Romeo learns about Juliet's death in Mantua and hurries to the Capulet's Monument in a churchyard. He does not know about the trick and kills himself. Soon after that Juliet wakes up and when she sees Romeo dead, she kills herself too. Both Montague and Capulet Houses reconcile only after the death of their beloved children. "See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love."





CordeliaKing Lear is a tragedy of loyalty and treason. Kind Lear banishes his youngest daughter Cordelia who, being asked how much she loves her father, does not speak to him with insincere affectation like her sisters Regan and Goneril, but says that she loves him according to her duty. King Lear is also later banished by his two daughters, between whom he has divided his kingdom. He is left in a cruel storm and loses his wits. Cordelia, who had married the king of France, comes to help him, but she is imprisoned and hanged and King Lear dies of grief.

The tragedy illustrates the complete chaos which prevails in a state not properly governed by a weak ruler.




OthelloThe theme of Othello is sexual jealousy. Othello, a Moor who is an honoured Venetian general, marries Desdemona. Iago, one of his officers, is disappointed at not being promoted. This totally evil man is resolved on revenge both on Othello and on Cassio, Othello's lieutenant, the rank Iago desires. In Cyprus - a Venetian possession which Othello and his army have been sent to defend against a Turkish fleet - Iago's revenge begins. He contrives for Cassio to be dismissed from the army by making him drunk. Then, through the great middle scenes of the play, he goads Othello into believing that Desdemona is Cassio's lover. Othello is enraged by unjustified jealousy. He strangles Desdemona. Iago's wife finds out her husband's plot and discloses it. In  an agony of remorse, Othello kills himself. Iago stabs his wife to death and is arrested.





HamletIn Hamlet Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, has succeeded Hamlet's father (the king of Denmark) and marries the Queen. The ghost of the dead king appears to Hamlet at Elsinor Castle and tells him about his murder (Claudius and the Queen killed him). Hamlet wants to revenge his father's death. He pretends to be mad because he does not know how to find some proofs against Claudius and he seems to be too weak to decide, he hesitates if he is the right person to punish others' sins. He tries to test the story of the murder with a theatrical performance during which the murder is re-enacted and, by seeing the story, King Claudius betrays himself. He sends Hamlet to England to be killed. Later Hamlet returns to Denmark and sees Ophelia's funeral. Ophelia loves Hamlet but they cannot fulfil their love because of Hamlet's plans. He pretends his madness even before Ophelia and she, crazed with grief, perishes by drowning. Claudius is alarmed and wants to destroy Hamlet. When Hamlet kills only by mistake Polonius, Ophelia's father, Claudius sends Laertes, Ophelia's brother, to a fencing match with Hamlet. Hamlet is wounded by Laertes's poisoned sword. He manages to stab Claudius and Laertes is dying too. Hamlet's mother drinks poisoned wine destined for Hamlet. This is a tragedy of the sufferings and hesitation of an honest, strong and responsible man who is not able to kill or punish without having a clear proof of guilt.


Back to the top




To be or not to be – that’s the question. (Hamlet)

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (Hamlet)

Frailty, thy name is woman! (Hamlet)

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. (Hamlet)

My kingdom for a horse! (Richard III)

Cowards die many times before their deaths. (Julius Caesar)

Uneasy lays the head that wears a crown. (Henry IV)

Two women placed together make cold weather. (Henry VIII)

All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. (As you like it)

I saw the handkerchief! (Othello)

The worst is not; so long as we can say, "This is the worst." (King Lear)

When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools. (King Lear)

The wheel is come full circle. (King Lear)



Back to the top