William Shakespeare – The Life of William Shakespeare

This was long thought to be the only portrait of William Shakespeare that had any claim to have been painted from life, until another possible life portrait, the Cobbe portrait, was revealed in 2009. The portrait is known as the 'Chandos portrait' after a previous owner, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos. It was the first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1856. The artist may be by a painter called John Taylor who was an important member of the Painter-Stainers' Company.
The Chandos Portrait of William Shakespeare, 1610.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

William Shakespeare is arguably the most well-known writer and playwright in English history. He is very popular worldwide; his works have been translated into many different languages and are performed regularly. He is also very influential in terms of his impact on the English Language itself, inventing many new words and changing how some of the older ones were used. The most popular example is the word elbow, which existed as a noun before Shakespeare made it a verb in his plays. While he made his name as a writer, Shakespeare was also a prominent businessman and entrepreneur who built his theater on the south bank of the Thames River, the Globe Theater. He was affluent and an upperclassman, and his investments allowed him to write his plays uninterrupted.

Apart from the tragic love story Romeo and Juliet, most of Shakespeare’s plays were based on history. These include Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Henry VI, King John, and so on. Shakespeare’s most well-known play is Hamlet, taking his love for history and combining it with themes of drama to create probably what is probably his most enduring commentary to date. Many popular films and TV shows are loosely based on Shakespearean plays, with Hamlet being very popular. 

The Personal Life of William Shakespeare

Cobbe portrait, claimed to be a portrait of William Shakespeare done while he was alive
The Cobbe Portrait of William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

William Shakespeare was born to John Shakespeare, an alderman and a glove-maker, and Mary Arden, the daughter of a well-off, affluent family. He was born in Stratford and was baptized on 26 April 1564. Although we cannot know for sure due to the lack of records kept in those times, it is reasonably assumed that Shakespeare got his education at the King’s New School in Stratford. At the age of 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway and had three children, Susanna Hall, Hamnet Shakespeare, and Judith Quiney. He does not have many historical records besides this confirming his existence beyond just marriage papers, dates of baptism for himself and his children, a few legal complaints, and a will he left on his passing. 

There are, however, records of his emergence in the theater in 1592. By this point, he had most certainly been earning a living as an actor and a playwright in London, with several of his plays already being produced and performed in front of audiences. In 1592, Robert Greene, a renowned playwright himself, took some jabs at Shakespeare, famously saying:

“…There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his conceit the only Shake-scene in a country,”.

This criticism was generally assumed to imply that Shakespeare was trying to reach above his rank and compete with other established playwrights of the time. Whatever the case may be, what was certain was that Shakespeare had them rattled. He also gained the favor of Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. He dedicated his first published poems to Henry. By 1597, 15 of Shakespeare’s plays had already been written and published, and this is the same year he bought the second-largest house in Stratford for his family. 

Shakespeare was also the managing partner of Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an acting company. He stuck with this company throughout most of his career, acting for them and producing and hosting plays using the company to handle production. By 1603, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I and the crowning of King James I, the company changed its name to the King’s Men because of the direct patronage of the crown. The company had the best actor of the time in Richard Burbage, they had their own theatre made by experts and professionals in the field, called the Globe, and had the best playwright in William Shakespeare. The company was bound to thrive.

Shakespeare’s Plays and Poems

Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies is a collection of plays by William Shakespeare, commonly referred to by modern scholars as the First Folio, published in 1623, about seven years after Shakespeare's death. It is considered one of the most influential books ever published
Engraving of William Shakespeare on the front page of the First Folio, 1623.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, such as King Lear, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar, were written while he was working with the King’s Men. His great romances such as The Tempest, Pericles, and The Winter’s Tale were also notable works he had finished as a playwright in London. The totality of his work includes 38 plays, 2 narrative poems, 154 sonnets, and many other smaller poems. None of his original manuscripts are known to exist today.

One of the biggest reasons that Shakespeare’s plays survived is because a lot of workers and actors working in his plays collected his works for publication after Shakespeare himself passed away. His works survived in the first collection, known as the First Folio and published in 1623, a little over 7 years after Shakespeare passed away. This Folio was compiled by two of Shakespeare’s friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell. The plays were arranged as Tragedies, Comedies, and Histories. 

Shakespeare’s first works include Richard III and the trilogy of Henry VI, sticking to his interest in historical drama. Additionally, works like Titus Andronicus, The Comedy of Errors, and the Taming of the Shrew are also most likely some of his earliest works. The Taming of the Shrew makes for an uncomfortable read, especially in the modern era, as it focuses on the narrative of taming a woman’s independence and desire for sovereign thought. 

Next came his universally acclaimed A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the witty and romantic play, The Merchant of Venice. Merchant of Venice is accurate in its portrayal of the antisemitic values of Elizabethan England but, like the Taming of the Shrew, causes slight discomfort to modern audiences despite the incredible wit and humor demonstrated throughout the play. 

Hamlet is probably the most discussed Shakespearean character of all time, especially because of the memorable soliloquy, “To be or not to be; that is the question.” His character arc under Shakespeare identifies his hesitance as his eventual downfall, unlike the heroes of the tragedies that followed, Othello and King Lear, who found ruin through their errors of judgment made in haste. The plots of Shakespeare’s tragedies often mark these fatal flaws of character in the main hero that eventually lead to the ruin of the hero and all those connected with him. Think of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who, in their greed for the throne, become overcome with the guilt of having deposed the rightful ruler of the Kingdom.

Shakespeare’s earliest poems and his most popular are The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, these poems demonstrate the guilt and moral peril that results from insatiable lust. His sonnets, similarly, generally focused on themes of love and life. There are two other notable poems that Shakespeare is credited with, and they are called The Phoenix and Turtle and A Lover’s Complaint

154 of his most popular Sonnets are compiled and published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609 under the title “Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” There are 6 additional sonnets that he wrote that were published later and were included in future plays. Unlike other sonnets that were popular before him ever since the renaissance in Europe, Shakespeare’s sonnets and their content mark significant departures from established traditions for Sonnet writing. Instead of focusing on a goddess-like and unattainable female object as the center of his sonnets, Shakespeare focuses on a young man and a dark lady, neither of whom are the traditional goddess-like figure that was a theme of sonnets of his time.  

William Shakespeare’s Influence and Impact 

This portrait, possibly by the Dutch painter Pieter Borsselaer was once owned by the Earl of Chesterfield. It is perhaps the most Baroque of all paintings of Shakespeare, with its flamboyant and expressive gesture. Shakespeare's head is clearly modelled on the Chandos portrait (now in the National Portrait Gallery, London), including the characteristic earring.
The Chesterfield Portrait of William Shakespeare, circa 1679.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shakespeare’s works have influenced English Literature for generations to come. He is unparalleled as a writer whose influence stretched far beyond just England, where he was based. He revolutionized how theatre worked in England and consequent theatre traditions in other European countries. Before Shakespeare, playwrights used soliloquies to reveal crucial bits of information related to a character to help move the plot along. Shakespeare changed it to reflect a character’s inner monologue to help understand their minds. Such was his impact that Shakespeare to this day remains the world’s best-selling playwright, with sales of his works exceeding 4 billion copies in the years since his death. He is also among the top 3 most translated authors in History

Additionally, Shakespeare is regularly considered among the greatest Britons ever. According to Historian and Television presenter Dan Snow, Shakespeare was among the ten most notable Britons in history, especially because of his evergreen plays and his contributions to the development of the English language. In a survey conducted by Heritage Magazine in 1999, Shakespeare was ranked the greatest Briton of all time by viewers, experts, and historians. Similarly, in BBC’s list of the 100 Greatest Britons through a poll conducted in 2002, Shakespeare ranked 5th. 

In Shakespeare’s times, English grammar and spelling were not as standardized as they are today. And hence his use of various terms and phrases not only led to the creation of new words and phrases, but he also changed the way a lot of words we use today. Expressions such as waiting “with bated breath” from Merchant of Venice and “a foregone conclusion” from Othello have become commonplace today but were not even considered expressions before Shakespeare. 

Shakespeare’s influence extended far beyond his native England, he was a poet truly for the world, and his plays remain relevant even in the 21st century, particularly because of the content. His plays are timeless and are just as relevant today as they were in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.


If you want to support HistoryColored further, consider donating! When donating to us, you are providing us with funding to provide higher quality content on a more regular basis!

Related Posts
Sign Up to the HistoryColored Newsletter!

Leave a Comment

More Posts from HistoryColored