William Shakespeare is often called the world’s greatest playwright. He wrote comedies, tragedies and historical plays in England in the last part of the 16th and the early 17th century.
William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the English town of Stratford-upon-Avon. His father was a businessman and the town’s mayor. His mother came from a family that owned land near Stratford. William had three younger brothers and two younger sisters.
Like other boys of middle-class families, William attended a grammar school in Stratford where he got a good education and also learned Latin.
When William was 18 he married Anne Hathaway. They had three children, first Susanna and then twins, a son named Hamnet and a daughter named Judith. Hamnet died when he was 11.
We don’t really know what William did during the following years but in 1592 he went to London to work as an writer and actor. It was a difficult job and only the best found work in London.
From 1592 to 1594 the Black Death spread across England. Many public places were closed and plays couldn’t be performed either. Shakespeare spent these years writing sonnets and poems.
When the theatres opened up again in 1594 Shakespeare joined the best acting company of the country—Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It had the best actors, the best writers and the most famous theatre—the Globe.
The Globe was a huge amphitheatre without a roof. The seats were curved around a stage that was built on many levels.
Plays always started at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. People who didn’t have the money to buy a seat were allowed to stand in the front of the stage. All kinds of people came to see the shows– housewives, children, noblemen and even visitors from other countries. The company also presented special plays for kings and queens.
Shakespeare and his fellow actors were responsible for everything in the Globe theatre. They owned the building and the costumes, they wrote the scripts and they also shared the profits that they made. The actors and writers of the theatre worked together successfully for many years.
In the twenty years that he worked on stage Shakespeare wrote 37 plays. They can be put into three big categories:
- Tragedies are plays that show the downfall of a main character. His most famous tragedies are Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth.
- Comedies are funny plays that have a happy ending most of the time. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It and The Merry Wives of Windsor are among the most popular.
- Historical plays are dramas about the lives of some of England’s most powerful kings like Henry IV or Richard II.
William Shakespeare retired from the theatre in 1610 and went back to his home town Stratford, where he lived until his death in 1616.
At that time the people of England did not know that their country’s greatest poet and playwright had died. They thought of him only as a popular actor and writer.
Portrait of William Shakespeare
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is a story about two teen-aged lovers whose families hate each other. At a ball the two young people meet and fall in love. The next day they marry secretly, but Romeo has to leave Verona after he kills Tybalt. Juliet’s cousin.
Juliet’s father doesn’t know that his daughter is already married and tries to force her to marry her cousin in Paris. A friar wants to help Juliet. He gives her a drug that puts her to sleep for 42 hours and tells everyone that she is dead. When Romeo hears that Juliet has died he hurries to her grave and poisons himself. When Juliet wakes up and sees her dead lover she stabs herself. The two families discover their dead children and end their fight.
The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice is a comedy about money and greed. Antonio is a merchant in Venice, Italy. He borrows money from the Jewish moneylender Shylock and then gives the money to his friend Bassanio who needs it. Antonio promises Shylock a pound of his flesh if he cannot pay the money back. After three months Shylock wants his money back but Antonio cannot pay.
In the meantime Bassanio has married a beautiful girl, Portia. She has a plan to save Antonio. She dresses up as a lawyer and when they meet in court she tells Shylock that he can take Antonio’s flesh, but not his blood. If he spills any of Antonio’s blood he will lose his land. So Shylocks gives in and Antonio is saved.
Taming of the Shrew
Petruchio , a young Italian gentleman, loves Katherine , a beautiful but very bad-tempered young woman. He marries her and makes fun of her in order to cure her of her bad tempers. After many funny quarrels Petruchio succeeds and Katherine becomes a good wife whom he loves very much.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Shakespeare wrote this play because Queen Elisabeth liked the comic character of Falstaff from earlier plays so much. She asked Shakespeare to write a play that showed Falstaff in love.
The comedy shows Sir John Falstaff trying to make love to two honest housewives in the town of Windsor. He ends up as the victim of tricks that the women play on him.
This play is set in Ancient Rome before, during and after the murder of Julius Caesar. The main character is Brutus, a Roman general and Caesar’s best friend. When there is a plot to kill Caesar, Brutus at first does not want to take part but then agrees to help kill Caesar. When the killers attack Caesar in the Roman Senate, he can’t believe that his friend Brutus is one of them.
At the funeral Brutus allows Mark Anthony to speak in front of a crowd of Romans. He points out what a good man Caesar was and turns the mob against the plotters. They have to flee Rome and Mark Anthony leads an army to follow them.
At the end of the battle Brutus kills himself and Mark Anthony says that he was an honourable and noble Roman.
All’s Well That Ends Well
Helena is a beautiful daughter of a doctor. She loves Bertram , a nobleman. In Paris, Helena cures the French king of an illness and as a reward he gives her Bertram. But Bertram doesn’t want Helena because he thinks that she is not on the same social level as he is. He leaves her after the wedding.
In a letter he tells her that she can never call him her husband unless she can take off a ring from his finger and become pregnant by him.
One night Helena disguises herself as a girl who Bertram likes and goes to bed with him. She manages to get pregnant and also slips the ring off his finger. Bertram finally realizes that she is a good woman and promises to love her dearly.
After the King of Denmark dies, his wife marries Claudius, the king’s brother. The king’s son, Prince Hamlet, feels sorry about his father’s death and is also against his mother’s marriage. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears and tells the prince that he was murdered by Claudius.
Hamlet doesn’t know whether to believe the ghost or not. When the king shows his guilt at a play Hamlet is convinced he is the murderer. Polonius, the king’s advisor, listens in to a conversation between Hamlet and his mother. He hides behind the curtain. Hamlet feels that someone is in the room and stabs him.
Claudius sends Hamlet to England. He gives orders to execute him when he arrives there. But Hamlet finds out about this and comes back to Denmark. When he arrives he finds out that Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius and a girl that Hamlet loved, is dead.
Laertes, Ophelia’s brother blames Hamlet for the death of his father and sister. During a fencing match with Hamlet he uses a poisoned sword to kill him. Hamlet is hurt by the sword and Laertes wounds himself too. Hamlet’s mother drinks from a poisoned cup of wine that Claudius prepares for the prince.
At the end of the play Hamlet, his mother, Claudius and Laertes all lie dead on the floor.
Othello is a noble black Moor. He has spent all his life as a soldier and is now a general in the army of Venice. He marries Desdemona, a beautiful Venetian girl who is much younger than he is. After the wedding Othello must go to Cyprus and Desdemona follows him there.
Othello has an aide, Iago, who hates the general. He wants to destroy Othello by telling him that Desdemona has also made love to Cassio—Othello’s lieutenant.
Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona has become unfaithful and loves another man. Othello is full of hate and anger and murders Desdemona. After the Moor learns that he has been tricked , he stabs himself and dies.
The drama is about a man who does everything to get power.
Macbeth, a nobleman, returns back home to Scotland with his friend Banquo. On their way home he meets some witches. They predict that Macbeth will, first, become a baron and then king of Scotland. After the first part comes true Macbeth thinks that he really may become king. After his wife, Lady Macbeth, persuades him to murder King Duncan, Macbeth becomes king of Scotland.
However , Macbeth cannot live in peace. Duncan’s son, Malcolm, has escaped to England. Macbeth orders his men to start killing all of his enemies. Macduff who has also fled to England after King Duncan’s murder puts together an army to overthrow Macbeth. Lady Macbeth starts thinking that she is guilty and becomes crazy. She turns into a sleepwalker and finally dies. Macduff returns to Scotland and kills Macbeth. Duncan’s son becomes king of Scotland.
Downloadable PDF Text- and Worksheets
- acting company = a group of people who owned theatres and performed plays
- advisor = a person who gives you help and who you listen to
- agree = to say yes
- aide = you help someone with his job
- amphitheatre = a building with many seats that has the form of a circle . It normally doesn't have a roof.
- ancient = old
- anger =a feeling of hurting someone because they have done something bad to you
- appears = to start to be seen
- attend = go to
- bad tempered = if you become angry very easily
- baron = a lower nobleman
- battle = a fight between two groups of people
- Black Death = an illness that killed millions of people in Europe and Asia at the end of the Middle Ages
- blame =to hold someone responsible; accuse of
- category = group
- century = a hundred years
- character = a person in a play
- convince = to really think that something is true
- costume = the special clothes that actors wear during a play
- court =place where a trial is held and a judge and jury decide if someone is guilty or not
- crowd = a large group of people who get together
- cure = to make an illness go away
- curtain =piece of cloth that hangs over a window or divides a room
- curved =bent, rounded
- dearly = very much
- destroy =damage completely
- discover = find out
- disguise = to dress up as someone else so that people don’t know you
- downfall = the end of someone, a person’s ruin or defeat
- dress up = to put on clothes so that nobody knows who you are
- drug = medicine
- escape = to get away from a place where it is dangerous
- execute = kill, murder
- fellow = the actors who worked with him
- fencing = a sport where you fight with a long thin sword
- flee—fled = to leave a place very quickly because it is dangerous
- flesh = the soft part of a person between the skin and the bones
- following = next
- force = to make someone do something
- friar = a poor man who teaches Christianity
- funeral =to officially bury someone who has died
- give in =to finally accept something even if you don’t want to
- grave = a place in the ground where you put a dead person
- greed =if you want more and more money and power –more than you need
- guilt – guilty =fault, blame
- honest =truthful, someone who does not normally tell lies
- hounourable = respectable
- however = but
- in the meantime =the time between two events
- lawyer =a person who helps people in court or who writes agreements between two people or companies
- level =platform
- lieutenant = an officer in an army
- listen in = to listen to something in a way that nobody knows you are there
- manage = to do something that is difficult
- mayor = the leader of a town or city
- merchant = a person who buys and sells things
- merry = happy
- middle-class = people who are educated and have good jobs
- mob = a large crowd that can turn very angry
- moneylender = a person who gives money to others and makes them pay back much more than he has given to them
- Moor = a Muslim person from northern Africa who came to Spain in the 8th century
- noble =fine, good and generous
- nobleman = a person who belongs to the highest social class and usually has a title like Duke or Baron
- order = to tell someone to do something
- overthrow = to remove the king from his throne
- own = if something belongs to you
- perform = to act
- persuade = to help someone decide to do something because there are good reasons for doing it
- playwright = someone who writes plays
- plot = a secret plan by a group of people to do something that is against the law
- point out =show
- poison = to put something into your food or drink that makes you ill or kills you
- popular = many people know it and like it
- predict = to tell something that will happen in the future
- pregnant = to have a baby growing inside your body
- prepare = to make something ready so that it can be used
- present =show, perform
- profit = the money that you earn
- public places = places where a lot of people get together
- quarrel = an argument
- realize = to start to understand something
- responsible =in charge of, in control of
- retire = to stop working
- reward = something that you get because you have done something good or helpful
- script = the written form of a play
- seat = a place to sit
- secretly = if not very many people know about something
- Senate = the highest level of government in Rome
- set = takes place
- share = to have or use something with other people
- shrew = a woman who argues a lot and always gets angry
- sleepwalker = someone who walks while they are sleeping
- slip = take off
- social level =here: class in society
- sonnet = a poem with 14 lines that rhyme
- spill = here: to kill or hurt a person
- spread = to move to other places
- stab = to kill with a knife
- stage = the place where actors perform during the play
- succeed = to do what you wanted or tried
- successful = to be good at something and earn a lot of money
- sword = a long knife with a handle on it
- tame =here: to make someone obey and be calmer and more quiet
- trick =to mislead someone in order to get something from them or make them do something
- unfaithful = to love another man or woman
- unless = if not
- Venetian = from Venice
- victim =someone who suffers because of something bad happening to him
- whether = if he should ..
- witch = a woman who people think has magic powers and does bad things
- wound = hurt