• Why is Shakespeare famous?

    Who was William Shakespeare?
    William Shakespeare is one of the world's greatest writers. He wrote plays for the theatre. He wrote poetry too.

    Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, in England. Later he went to London, to be an actor. But he became famous for writing plays. His friends said he was the best writer of his time. Most people now say he was the best of all time.

    Why is Shakespeare so famous?
    Shakespeare lived more than 400 years ago. Yet people still go to see his plays.

    Shakespeare plays are performed all over the world. Students study Shakespeare in school and at university. People write books about Shakespeare. There are Shakespeare theatres and Shakespeare festivals.

    When did Shakespeare live?
    William Shakespeare was born in 1564. He grew up in Tudor England in the time of Queen Elizabeth I.

    He lived in exciting times. Francis Drake sailed around the world (1577-1580). Shakespeare was probably in London when the Spanish Armada sailed to attack England in 1588. He saw the coronation of King James I in 1603. 1605 was the year of the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes. Shakespeare died in 1616.

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  • The young Shakespeare

    The Shakespeare family
    Baby William was christened (baptised a Christian) on 26 April 1564. Many people think his birthday was 23 April - St George's Day.

    William Shakespeare was probably 'Will' to his family.

    Shakespeare's father was John Shakespeare, a glove-maker. His mother Mary was the daughter of a farmer named Robert Arden. His grandfather was a farmer too.

    School days
    John Shakespeare was an important man in the town of Stratford. In 1568, he was mayor. He sent William to the town grammar school.

    The boys at the school had lessons in Latin, Greek and history. They had to work hard. If boys were naughty, the teacher beat them.

    Having fun
    Shakespeare and his friends played in the fields. They went fishing and swimming in the River Avon.

    When Shakespeare was about 5, a group of actors came to Stratford. Perhaps he was taken to see their show. When he was 11, he may have seen Queen Elizabeth, who made a visit to Kenilworth Castle. For her, there were plays, dances, music, feasts and fireworks!

    Shakespeare gets married
    Young Shakespeare left school by the time he was 16. We do not know what job he did. Perhaps he worked as a teacher. Perhaps he helped his father.

    In 1582, Shakespeare got married. His wife, Anne Hathaway, was a farmer's daughter. She was 8 years older than him. Soon they had a family - a daughter Susanna, and in 1585 twins, named Judith and Hamnet.

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  • Shakespeare in London

    The mystery years
    Shakespeare did not write his life story. Some of his life is a mystery.

    Some time before 1590, he left Stratford. One story says he had to run away from home, after poaching deer. But this is probably just a story.

    He may have been a tutor in a rich family's home. He may have joined a travelling group of actors. He may have gone off to be a soldier. In the end he went to London.

    Why London?
    London was the biggest city in England, though much smaller than today. London had markets, shops, taverns (inns), churches and palaces. The River Thames was busy with ships.

    London was where poor people went hoping to make their fortunes. And London had theatres!

    London's theatres
    London's first theatre or 'playhouse' opened in 1576. By 1590, there were several theatres, such as the Rose, the Theatre and the Curtain.

    Shakespeare became an actor. Soon he was writing plays too.

    Making his name
    By 1592 Shakespeare was being talked about. A jealous writer named Robert Greene wrote rude things about a newcomer he called 'an upstart crow'. He meant Shakespeare.

    In 1593, a terrible disease called the plague hit London. Thousands of people got sick and died. The theatres shut. Shakespeare turned to writing poems instead of plays. He may have been helped by a rich nobleman, the Earl of Southampton.

    Soon the theatres were open again.

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  • Plays in Shakespeare's time

    A new theatre
    Shakespeare was a member of a company of actors, called the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

    In 1598, they built a new theatre. It was round. They called it the Globe.

    The Globe was open to the sky. A flag was raised to show a play was about to begin. Plays began at 2 in the afternoon.

    What were theatres like?
    Some people stood in front of the stage. Others had seats. Rich men paid 12 pennies (one shilling) to sit on the stage. The audience shouted and clapped, laughed and booed.

    Over the stage was a roof, to keep off the rain. Actors could be lowered from the roof on wires. There was a trap door in the stage too. So actors could pop up to surprise the audience.

    The new Globe
    The modern Globe Theatre in London is a replica (copy) of Shakespeare's Globe. People can watch plays just as people did in Shakespeare's day.

    The new Globe opened in 1997. The first play was Henry V - just as when the first Globe opened in 1599.

    Actors in Shakespeare's day
    In Shakespeare's time, there were no women actors. Women's parts were played by boys. For a time, child actors were more popular than grown-actors.

    Actors wore the clothes of the day, with wigs and make up. Shakespeare is said to have played the Ghost in his play Hamlet.

    Special effects
    Plays had exciting special effects. There were ghosts, witches, loud bangs, flames and smoke, drums, and even cannons.

    In 1613, during Shakespeare's play Henry VIII, a cannon set fire to the straw in the roof. The Globe burned down.

    Shakespeare's plays
    Shakespeare wrote comedies, stories with a happy ending. These plays often have people falling in love, wearing disguises, and generally getting mixed up. A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy with fairies and humans.

    He wrote tragedies, stories with a sad ending. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, because the young lovers, Romeo and Juliet, both die.

    Shakespeare's history plays are about real people, such as Julius Caesar, the Roman general, or the English kings Henry V and Richard III.

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  • More about Shakespeare

    A famous man
    By 1598, Shakespeare was rich and famous. He owned houses in Stratford. He also had homes in London, near the theatres. For a time, he lived with a French family in London.

    In 1603, Queen Elizabeth died. The new king was James I, from Scotland. James liked the theatre. Shakespeare's actors became The King's Men. They walked in the king's coronation procession.

    Between 1600 and 1608, Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest plays. They include Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.

    Shakespeare's last years
    By 1613, when the Globe burned down, Shakespeare had left London. He lived quietly in Stratford.

    In 1616, his friend Ben Jonson came to visit. They drank wine and ate pickled herrings. Then Shakespeare fell ill. He died on 23 April 1616. He was 52.

    Shakespeare's plays
    Shakespeare wrote (or helped write) at least 38 plays.

    The plays were first printed as books in 1623. His friends wanted to stop other people selling bad copies of the plays, full of mistakes.

    What else did Shakespeare write?
    Shakespeare wrote some long poems, and lots of short poems called sonnets. In his plays, people speak in poetry too.

    The language of Shakespeare
    Shakespeare used more English words than any other writer. He made up words and expressions too. When someone says quick as a flash, blinking idiot or I haven't slept a wink, you are listening to Shakespeare.

    The English language has changed since Shakespeare's time. So he is not always easy to read. But it's worth the effort.

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William Shakespeare Game

William Shakespeare

Take part in the To Be or Not To Be? game show.

Fun Facts
  • In his will Shakespeare left his wife the 'second-best bed'.

  • Pencils were invented about the time Shakespeare was born.

  • In winter rich people watched plays indoors by candlelight.

  • Six examples of Shakespeare's signature are known. They are all different.

  • Shakespeare's first play was Henry VI. His last play was Henry VIII.

  • At the Globe people could buy apples to munch while they watched the play.

Other famous writers, poets and musicians

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

Someone who acts or performs for an audience.
A big gun set off by gunpowder.
A group of people, especially a group working together in a business.
The ceremony for making a new king or queen.

E to G

grammar school
Local town schools started in the Middle Ages.
Gunpowder Plot
An event in 1605 when some people tried to blow up Parliament and the King.

H to L

M to O

The leader of a town council, running a town's affairs.
A rich person with a title such as Duke or Lord.

P to S

A performance is when a play is put on for an audience.
A stage entertainment with actors acting out a story.
The crime of hunting deer or other animals belonging to someone else.
Spanish Armada
A great fleet of ships sent by Spain to attack England in 1588.

T to Z

A building where plays and other shows can be seen.
trap door
Small door in a floor (or a roof), leading to a hidden space.
Family name of England's kings and queens from Henry VII to Elizabeth I.
A teacher giving private lessons at homes.