William Shakespeare was a playwright, poet and actor in the late 16th and early 17th centuries — England’s Elizabethan and Jacobean ages. He is widely regarded as the greatest dramatist of all time, and as England’s ‘national poet’. His 37 known plays, four poems and 154 sonnets exist today in at least 80 languages, and it is estimated that, every minute of every day, someone somewhere is performing Hamlet.
Ophelia, Macbeth, Lear, Desdemona — Shakespeare’s characters are indelible. He explored human nature with sharp, often humorous insight. His vivid turns of phrase, meanwhile, still season our everyday speech. ‘A pound of flesh’, ‘a wild goose chase’, and ‘the lady doth protest too much’ all fell from his goose feather pen.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, in April 1564, the eldest son of John Shakespeare — a glover whose civic positions included mayor and town ‘ale taster’ — and Mary Arden, the literate daughter of gentry farmers.
By the time Shakespeare graduated from grammar school, though, his father had fallen into debt and been prosecuted for illegal wool trading and usury.
At 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway (also called Agnes Hathaway), who was six years his elder and already pregnant. Two years after the birth of daughter Susanna came twins: Judith and Hamnet. In 1596, 11-year-old Hamnet died, perhaps of plague.
By then, Shakespeare was in London, though he visited Stratford regularly. With 11 plays to his name, including Romeo and Juliet and Richard III, he was well-known enough for jealous rival Robert Greene to refer to him as an ‘upstart crow’ and ‘Johannes Factotum’ (a ‘Johnny do-it-all’) in a pamphlet.
For most of his career, he wrote for a company called The Chamberlain’s Men, who had the advantage of both Richard Burbage — the star actor of his day — and, from 1599, the Globe Theatre. With the accession of James I in 1603, they became ‘The King’s Men’.
Actors rarely saw full texts, using cue cards for rehearsals, but Shakespeare’s plays were so popular that in 1592, canny printers began selling cheap, flimsy editions of his plays known as ‘quartos’, because the paper was folded into four leaves. Today, these are extraordinarily rare; some exist as a single copy. In 1623, two of Shakespeare’s actor friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, collected 36 of his plays into more sturdy form, a book known today as the ‘First Folio’ (‘Folio’ refers to the paper size). It was prefaced by a tribute by fellow dramatist and poet Ben Jonson prophesying Shakespeare’s immortality: ‘The wonder of our Stage...He was not of an age, but for all time!
A First Folio offered at Christie’s New York in October 2020 realised $9,978,000, establishing a new world auction record not only for a First Folio but for any work of literature.
SHAKESPEARE, William (1564-1616). Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies . Published according to the True Originall Copies . Edited by John Heminges (d. 1630) and Henry Condell (d. 1627). London: Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount at the Charges of W. Jaggard, Ed. Blount, I. Smithweeke, and W. Aspley, 1623.
Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. Published according to the true original copies. The third impression. And unto this Impression is added seven Playes, never before Printed in Folio . Edited by John Heminge (d. 1630) and Henry Condell (d. 1627), except for the 7 additional plays. London: Printed [by Roger Daniel, John Hayes or Thomas Ratcliffe, and Alice Warren] for Philip Chetwind, 1664.
SHAKESPEARE, William (1564-1616). Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. Published according to the true Original Copies. Unto which is added, Seven Plays, never before Printed in Folio. The Fourth edition . Edited by John Heminge (d. 1630) and Henry Condell (d. 1627), except for Pericles and six other plays added by the publisher of the Third Folio, Philip Chetwind (d. 1680). London: Printed [by Robert Roberts and others] for H. Herringman, E. Brewster, and R. Bentley, 1685.
Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. Published according to the true Originall Copies. The second Impression . Edited by John Heminge (d. 1630) and Henry Condell (d. 1627). London: Printed by Thomas Cotes, for Robert Allot and others, 1632.
SHAKESPEARE, William (1564-1616). The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. As it is now Acted at the Theatre Royal, by their Majesties Servants . London: printed for H. Herringman, and R. Bentley; and sold by R. Bentley, J. Tonson, T. Bennet, and F. Sanders, 1695. [ bound with :] RAVENSCROFT, Edward (1654-1707). Titus Andronicus, or the Rape of Lavinia. Acted at the Theatre Royall, A Tragedy, Alter’d from Mr Shakespears Works, By Mr. Edw. Ravenscroft . London: printed by J. B. for J. Hindmarsh, 1687. [ and :] 8 other contemporary plays.
The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark . London: printed for R. Bentley, 1695. [ Bound with :] – Julius Caesar. A Tragedy . London: printed for Henry Herringman and Richard Bentley, 1691. [ And :] four plays by other dramatists, 1696-1701.
A George III silver, mulberry wood and miniature portrait snuff box, English, 1792.