An Introduction to Shakespeare

William Shakespeare has become the most famous and influential author in English literature. Only active as a writer for a quarter century, he wrote thirty-eight plays, one hundred fifty-four sonnets and two epic poems that reinvented and defined the English language to such a degree that his works are required study all over the world.

Very little is known about Shakespeare's early life. He was born around 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon to a middle-class merchant family and by the age of eighteen he was married with a child on the way. He would later father two more children. By 1592 he had become a successful actor and playwright in London and was famous among Londoners for the popularity of his plays.

Shakespeare was an astute businessman as well as an artist. He recognized that he could broaden his audience by using characters and language that would appeal to both the noble and the lower classes. He mixed both bawdy and sophisticated humour to appeal to his larger audience. He also wrote about the human experience with universal themes of love, ambition and envy that are still felt and loved by modern audiences.

The plays are often categorized as tragedies, comedies or histories. Tragedies featured sympathetic protagonists who were doomed by their flaws. Comedies tended to be more upbeat, with happy endings that often led to a marriage. The historical plays were frequently politically motivated to appeal to the Elizabethan court and featured British and Scottish kings.

As an actor, Shakespeare was present during the production of his plays and therefore wrote them with very little stage direction. Dialogue was written in blank verse and iambic pentameter, meaning that each line of speech is ten syllables long and unrhymed. In his early works, lines were often stressed at the end. As his writing developed, Shakespeare gained an understanding that a more lyrical style of writing would hold the audiences interest and be more pleasing to the ear. He developed a characteristic cadence to his dialogue, stressing his lines in the second syllable to provide a rhythmic pattern to his speeches.

Shakespeare's writing developed and evolved throughout his career. Scholars often divide his work into periods based on different aspects of his writing style.

Early Period (Pre-1594)

Still early in Shakespeare's career, the plays of this period tend to be less sophisticated than his later works. The plays of this period are typically set in Roman and Medieval times.

Period of Comedy (1594-1600)

Shakespeare developed his writing further, with scenes flowing more naturally. His comedy became more sophisticated and he set himself apart from other playwrights by the use of comic relief and mild humour in his tragedies. His most famous work of this period, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, is a fine example of using the servant class, especially Juliet's nurse, to break tension with comic relief.

Period of Tragedy (1600-1608)

It was during this period that Shakespeare wrote his best historical dramas and relied on royal and powerful characters to demonstrate human weaknesses that were relatable to all classes of audience. This was the time in which Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello and Julius Caesar, his greatest tragedies and most celebrated works. His writing took a dark turn and explored his character's inner conflicts, guilt and remorse.

Period of Romance and Tragicomedy (1608-1613)

By this time, Shakespeare's writing was fully developed into the sharp, fast-paced and lyrical style of dialogue that became his trademark. His use of symbolism and social commentary became more pronounced in plays of this period, as is illustrated in The Tempest.


In 1609, Shakespeare published his collection of one hundred fifty-four sonnets. Like his plays, the sonnets encompass many aspects of the human experience. Mortality is a strong theme, explored from the perspective of youth being encouraged to procreate to extend their lives to a future generation. Mortality is also examined as he writes about the lives of lovers growing old, death and about the brief nature of existence.

The sonnets are constructed of fourteen lines, divided into three groups of four lines, called quatrains, and a final group of two lines called a couplet. Usually the mood of the sonnet changes in the third quatrain as the writer expresses a realization or sudden insight.

All of the sonnets are written in iambic pentameter and the final word in each line follows an abab cdcd efef gg rhyming scheme. To this day, any poem written in this pattern is known as a Shakespearean sonnet.

Shakespeare retired from writing in 1613 and died three years later at the age of fifty-two. Most of his works were published posthumously in 1623.