Drama was a nation-wide activity in Shakespeare's time but there were buildings designed specifically for performing plays only in London . Most public theatres were tall, circular structures, open to the sky, with a cover over part of the stage and a roof running round the edge to protect the galleries. Performances took place in the afternoons, with the actors playing on a raised stage. All the women's roles were performed by boys. The audience, which either stood in the yard around the stage or sat in the galleries, represented a wide social mix of people.
More is known about Shakespeare than any other professional dramatist of his time. William Shakespeare was born in 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon in the centre of England, the town was and still is an important river-crossing settlement and market centre. The register of Stratford's Holy Trinity Church records Shakespeare's baptism on 26th April. He is traditionally said to have been born on 23rd April.
John Shakespeare, his father, trained as a glove-maker and married Mary Arden, the daughter of Robert Arden, a farmer from the nearby village of Wilmcote. John and Mary lived in Henley Street, Stratford, in the house now known as Shakespeare's Birthplace. John Shakespeare was a prominent citizen, serving on the town council for many years and becoming Mayor in 1568. In addition to his work as a glover, he traded as a wool dealer and was also involved in money-lending. John and Mary lost two children before William was born. They had five more children, another of whom died young.
As the son of a leading man in town, William almost certainly attended Stratford's 'petty' or junior school before progressing, perhaps at the age of seven, to the Grammar School, which still stands. The grammar school's curriculum included teaching pupils Latin, both spoken and written. The classical writers studied in the classroom influenced Shakespeare's plays and poetry; for example, some of his ideas for plots and characters came from Ovid's tales, the plays of Terence and Plautus, and Roman history.
It is not known what Shakespeare did when he left school, probably at the age of fourteen, as was usual. In November 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of Richard Hathaway, a local farmer. Her home, now known as Anne Hathaway's Cottage, still stands in the village of Shottery, a mile from Stratford. At the time of their marriage William was eighteen and Anne was twenty-six. Their first-born child was Susanna, who came to life on 26th May 1583. Two years later twins followed, Hamnet and Judith.
We do not know when or why Shakespeare left Stratford for London, or what he was doing before becoming a professional actor and dramatist in the capital. There are various traditions and stories about the so-called 'lost years' between 1585 and 1592, a period for which there is virtually no evidence concerning his life. One tale tells how he was caught hunting deer illegally in Charlecote Park, near Stratford, and went off to London to avoid prosecution. A plausible early tradition claims Shakespeare was a schoolmaster for some years. When he was growing up, drama was a significant part of Stratford's social life. Local people put on amateur shows and the town was visited regularly by London-based companies of actors so Shakespeare may have joined one of them. He probably arrived in London around 1586/7.
Shakespeare's elder daughter, Susanna, married John Hall a Stratford physician, in 1607; Shakespeare's other daughter, Judith, married Thomas Quiney, a Stratford vintner, in 1616. Whereas
Shakespeare's son Hamnet, twin brother to Judith, had died in 1596, aged eleven. From around 1611 Shakespeare seems largely to have disengaged himself from the London theatre world and to
have spent his time at his Stratford house, New Place. In March 1616 he signed his will, in which he left substantial property and other bequests to his family and friends, including theatre
colleagues in the King's Men.
Shakespeare died in Stratford, aged fifty-two, on 23 April 1616, and was buried in Holy Trinity Church two days later.
Shakespeare's reputation was established in London by 1592; in that year another dramatist, Robert Greene, was envious of his success and called him 'an upstart crow'. Shakespeare's earliest
plays included the three parts of Henry VI, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Titus Andronicus.
On his father's death in 1601, he inherited the arms and the right to style himself a gentleman, even though, at the time, actors were generally regarded as rogues and vagabonds. Shakespeare's success in the London theatres made him quite rich and in 1597 he bought New Place, one of the largest houses in Stratford. In 1599 the acting company with which Shakespeare was involved, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, built a new theatre, the Globe. Situated in the suburb of Southwark, it is the theatre most closely associated with Shakespeare's plays.
Shakespeare's first printed works were two long poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). These were both dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, a young
courtier and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, who had become Shakespeare's patron. Most of the Sonnets were probably written about this time, too, although they were not published until
1n 1594, Shakespeare joined others in forming a new theatre company, under the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain, with Richard Burbage as its leading actor. For almost twenty years Shakespeare was its regular dramatist, producing on average two plays a year. Burbage played roles such as Richard III, Hamlet, Othello and Lear.
In 1596 Shakespeare's father was granted a coat-of-arms, and it is likely that in this matter the dramatist took the initiative with the College of Arms in London. In 1598, the author of a book on the arts, Francis Meres, described Shakespeare as the best contemporary dramatist and mentioned twelve of his plays, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II and Henry IV, all of which date from the mid- to late-1590s. Two of his plays, Henry V and Julius Caesar, were almost certainly written during the year in which the Globe opened, 1599.
On his father's death in 1601, he inherited the arms and the right to style himself a gentleman, even though, at the time, actors were generally regarded as vagabonds.
Here are some of his famous works in abridged versions so you can read them.