Share this page

William Shakespeare Biography

Who was William Shakespeare?

William Shakespeare was a renowned English poet, playwright, and actor born in 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon. His birthday is most commonly celebrated on 23 April (see When was Shakespeare born), which is also believed to be the date on which he died in 1616.

Shakespeare was a prolific writer during the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages of British theatre (sometimes referred to as the English Renaissance or the Early Modern Period). Shakespeare’s plays are perhaps his most enduring legacy, but they are not the only things he wrote. Shakespeare’s poetry has also remained popular to this day.

Shakespeare's Work

Shakespeare's work includes 38 plays, 2 narrative poems, a collection of 154 sonnets, and other poems as well. No original manuscripts of Shakespeare's plays are known to exist today, and about half of Shakespeare’s plays are only available to us because a group of actors in his company collected them for publication after his death. These writings were brought together in what is known as the First Folio ('Folio' refers to the size of the paper used). It contained 36 of his plays, and none of his poetry. 

Shakespeare’s legacy is as rich and diverse as his work; his plays have spawned countless adaptations across multiple genres and cultures, and his plays have had an enduring presence on stage and film. His writings have been compiled in various iterations of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by different entities, which usually include all of his plays, his sonnets, and his other poems. From Stratford to London and beyond, William Shakespeare was and is one of the most important literary figures of the English language. 

Shakespeare's Life

Records survive relating to William Shakespeare’s family. Through these, we can gain an understanding of the context of Shakespeare's early life and the lives of his family members. John Shakespeare married Mary Arden and together they had eight children. William became their eldest child after the premature deaths of his two older siblings, and would have lived with his family in their house on Henley Street until he turned eighteen. John Shakespeare worked as a glove-maker; he also became an important figure in the town of Stratford through fulfilling civic positions during much of his life. His elevated status in the town meant that he was even more likely to have sent his children to the local grammar school, where Shakespeare was educated. John Shakespeare was awarded a coat of arms which is displayed on William Shakespeare’s monument above his grave in Holy Trinity Church. Versions of the Shakespeare coat of arms can be seen on Shakespeare’s Birthplace, outside of the Shakespeare Centre, and above the entrance to Shakespeare’s New Place.

When he was eighteen, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was twenty-six. It was a rushed marriage because Anne was already pregnant at the time of the ceremony. Together they had three children. Their first daughter, Susanna, was born six months after the wedding and was later followed by twins Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died when he was just 11 years old.

When did Shakespeare go to London? We do know that Shakespeare’s reputation was established in London by 1592, but the intervening years between his time in London and when he left Stratford are considered a mystery. These years are now generally referred to as ‘The Lost Years’ by scholars and have generated much speculation.

During his time in London, Shakespeare became a founding member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company of actors, which would later become The King’s Men (from 1603) under the patronage of King James I. It was during this time that Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous tragedies, such as King Lear and Macbeth, as well as great romances, like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest

In 1597, William Shakespeare bought a home called New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon. Recent archaeological evidence discovered in Shakespeare’s New Place shows that Shakespeare was only ever an intermittent lodger in London, which suggests he divided his time between Stratford and London (a two or three-day commute) and may have spent more time in Stratford-upon-Avon in his later years than has been previously thought. 

Shakespeare died in Stratford-upon-Avon on 23 April 1616 at the age of 52. He is buried in the sanctuary of the parish church, Holy Trinity.

Visit Shakespeare's family homes

Find out more

More like this

Shakespedia Index

Go behind the scenes

Read our blogs
This is where the story began Enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of a working Tudor Farm Relive Shakespeare’s love story Walk in Shakespeare's footsteps The home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna