Background on Shakespeare

Door into the world of King Lear
A Door Into the World of King Lear.  Are we inside or out? (from


Shakespeare was born around 23 April 1564 at Stratford-on-Avon. He moved a hundred miles away to London in his early twenties, where he wrote 37 or 38 extant plays and some poetry that has established him as the finest playwright and poet of the English language, or any language. He returned to Stratford around 1612 and died there around 23 April 1616.

Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare?

The only sensible answer to this question is, “of course.” The evidence that Shakespeare wrote the plays ascribed to him overwhelms the evidence anyone has mustered for any other candidate—Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Edward deVere, some undercover female, or a committee. However, the controversy seems to have extraordinary life. This section will provide summaries of the various arguments and let visitors take their shots.

History of English Stage

The Globe TheaterThe professional theater in England has a long and complex antecedent history, including medieval religious plays, court festivities and tournaments, and organized secular dances and parades. The first purpose-built playhouse was erected near London in 1576, after which quite a few, including the Globe (1599), were added. Most were outdoor stages with modest covering and few accessories. In 1607 the first indoor proscenium stage was built in England, providing drop curtains and the possibility of three-dimensional sets. During this period lived the greatest assembly of English playwrights—Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Kyd, and Webster, to name the ones now considered the best. In 1642 the Puritan-controlled Parliament ordered public theaters closed; the Globe itself was razed in 1644. Theaters returned in 1660 with Charles II, but the outdoor theaters were not rebuilt. However, the number of great English playwrights was few (if any) before the 1880s. Then Oscar Wilde, George Shaw, and adaptations of Ibsen and Chekhov brought into being the modern stage sensibility, which now shares the stage with persistent revivals of Shakespeare and his cohorts.

Shakespeare’s England

Shakespeare’s life (1564-1616) spanned two royal tenures, those of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) and James I (1603-1625). While clearly the greatest period of English poetry and drama, the period was otherwise less than glorious. During this time England suffered substantial economic reversals, dropped to a second rate European power, escaped Spanish colonization by luck, only envied colonial successes of others (the English were great pirates but earned nothing from colonization until late in the term of James I), and leveraged their unstable religious and political systems into a regicide (1649) and civil war (1642-49) every bit as bloody as the American one that followed two hundred years later. The seeds of modern democracy, science, technology, free market economies, and England’s extraordinary global power may have been sown then, but no one living then could smell the fruit.