Shakespeare's Life and Inspirations

Shakespeare’s timeline

  • 1558 Elizabeth I becomes queen at 25 years of age.
  • 1564. Shakespeare is born.
  • 1580s Shakespeare comes to London sometime at the end of this decade.
  • 1590 Shakespeare writes his first play – Henry VI Part 1.
  • 1594 There are records of Shakespeare and his company performing plays for the queen from now on. This is the year Romeo and Julietwas first performed.
  • 1603. Queen Elizabeth dies. Her cousin, James VI of Scotland becomes James I of England. This is a big upheaval because Elizabeth had ruled for 45 years. James also liked theatre and continued to commission plays from Shakespeare.
  • 1605. The Gunpowder Plot intended to blow up the Houses of Parliament to kill the King.
  • 1606. Macbethis performed for the first time.
  • 1606-16. Shakespeare keeps writing, but starts to live at home in Stratford-upon-Avon more.
  • 1616. Shakespeare dies on 23 April, which coincidentally is St George’s Day which remembers the English patron saint.
  • 1623. The First Folio, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays, is published.

Childhood and family

Shakespeare grew up in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. His mother was the daughter of a local farmer and his father was a glove-maker. They were one of the richest families in town. Shakespeare went to school in Stratford, where he would have learnt to read and write in Latin and Greek as well as English. One of the ways in which the students were taught was through the performance of Latin plays. He would also have learnt about plays from the travelling companies who performed in Stratford. Shakespeare’s father was a bailiff and companies had to get a licence from him to perform in town.
At 18 Shakespeare married a local girl, Anne Hathaway. They had three children – a daughter called Susanna and twins, Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died in 1596 – Shakespeare appears to have named his most famous character, Hamlet, after his son. Apart from his marriage and children, there is no record of what Shakespeare was doing at this time, before he went to London. Some people have suggested he was a teacher.
The area in which he grew up influenced his plays – the Forest of Arden, to the north of Stratford, appears in As You Like It. As a country lad he knew plenty of names of plants and flowers, which feature all over his work – like the wild pansy, known as ‘love in idleness’, which, ‘purple with love’s wound’, is the little flower which causes all the mischief in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Did you know?
  • In Elizabethan times spelling was not fixed. You could choose how to spell certain things – including your own name! Shakespeare signed himself Shakespe, Shakspe, Shakspere and Shakespear.
  • Shakespeare’s plays weren’t published during his life – it was only after he died that his friends got together and paid for his plays to be collected. If they hadn’t, most of the plays would not have survived to this day.
  • The only thing Shakespeare left to his wife in his will was his ‘second-best bed’ and its bedclothes. This would be their marriage bed – the best bed was kept for guests, and kept in a downstairs room, so that passers-by could see it and see how rich the house-owners were.

Where did he get his ideas?

Shakespeare wrote different types of plays – histories, tragedies and comedies, as well as some mixtures called ‘problem plays’. He drew on many different sources to create his unique plays. Some of them were based on the history of the kings of England – Elizabeth’s ancestors. These plays did not necessarily tell the truth, but the version that was most acceptable to the queen or king.
The politics of the court and what people on the street were talking about also inspired Shakespeare. When James I came to the throne, Shakespeare wrote his Scottish play, Macbeth, which featured the witches James was interested in. The character of Banquo was portrayed as good and wise – because James was descended from him.
Shakespeare set some of his plays, such as Twelfth Night and A Merchant of Venice, in Italy – which was far enough away to be a kind of fantasy world for the English. Italians were also the butt of a lot of English jokes at the time – probably because Italy was where the Pope lived, and was strongly associated with Catholics.
Shakespeare used stories from older books of all sorts for his non-historical plays. He borrowed from Latin and Greek authors as well as adapting stories from elsewhere in Europe. Hamletis borrowed from an old Scandinavian tale, but Romeo and Juliet comes from an Italian writer writing at the same time as Shakespeare. Adapting the work of other writers was very common at the time. Although he borrowed plots, Shakespeare made the details his own, and often combined different plots.

Did you know?
  • Just as Shakespeare borrowed his ideas from others, lots of modern films borrow ideas from Shakespeare. You might have seen adaptations like Ten Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) or She’s the Man (Twelfth Night). Films like Shakespeare in Loveborrow elements of his plays as well as his life.
  • Shakespeare didn’t write all the plays himself. It was common in those days to write plays with another person. We know he wrote several plays with other people – such as Timon of Athens with Thomas Middleton. These are often his less famous plays.