illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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How is Shakespeare's personal life reflected in his plays?

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Shakespeare's personal life is reflected in his plays through themes of love, grief, and familial relationships. His upbringing and classical education influenced works like "Romeo and Juliet." The death of his son Hamnet is believed to have inspired tragedies such as "Hamlet" and "King John." Additionally, his strained marriage may be reflected in the often troubled portrayals of love and marriage in his plays.

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Confidence and innovation marked the historical period when William Shakespeare toiled writing plays in London from 1592 to about 1613. This confidence and optimism in England at the time is reflected in Shakespeare's plays, especially the histories such as Henry V which celebrates English military greatness. Shakespeare is also very much a product of the Renaissance which produced some the world's finest art and literature. Unfortunately, very little is known about the actual life of Shakespeare so much needs to be inferred about the influence his life had on his plays.

One thing that is known about Shakespeare is that he was brought up in a strict middle class family in Stratford which, like most of Elizabethan society, took education very seriously. From a young age, Shakespeare would have been reading the classical Roman and Greek texts. It's likely he would have known the works of Homer, Virgil and Ovid. The romance and violence which highlight The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and The Metamorphoses would have inspired Shakespeare to write scenes of tender love and terrible battles. Simply think of Romeo and Juliet with its romantic love affair set against a world of violent street fights.

Shakespeare was married in 1582 at the age of only 18 and had three children by 1585. From 1585 until the first reference to him as a playwright in London in 1592, are considered Shakespeare's "lost years." Some critics have surmised that Shakespeare may have joined the military because of the number of battles and military engagements in his plays. They point to the plays based in foreign lands to suggest Shakespeare must have traveled extensively and had a wide understanding of different cultures. Some, however, believe he was probably just a schoolmaster. They believe his imagination and inspiration from the classics were mostly responsible for the variety and worldliness of his plays.

Critics have also argued that the sudden death of his son Hamnet at the age of only eleven greatly affected his plays, especially his more serious tragedies such as Hamlet and MacBeth. There is a rumination on death in both of these plays, just listen to the words of Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy. In turn, critics believe that Shakespeare's later plays King Lear, The Tempest, and The Winter's Tale, which focus on a father's relationship with his daughters, were partly inspired by his own interactions with his two adult daughters Susanna and Judith.

Shakespeare's final play, The Tempest, is a seeming commentary on his life as Prospero controls the proceedings on his mysterious island. Just as Shakespeare weaved a world of fiction populated with fascinating characters, so to Prospero conjures a magical world of spirits and hallucinations. Shakespeare's own retirement and ultimate death are profoundly echoed in the words of Prospero:

And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself—
Yea, all which it inherit—shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
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Many Shakesperean scholars have studied whether or not (and where) the real life of William Shakespeare affected his work. We must assume that some of his writing on love and grief were reflections on his own experience, or of popular sentiments which influenced his own feelings.

For example, the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet was closely followed by the publishing of the play King JohnMany scholars believe that the play Hamlet was a sort of tribute to Shakespeare's dead son, though it was not written until several years later. In King John, we find the following lines from the mouth of a mother who is grieving her dead child:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,

Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,

Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,

Remembers me of all his gracious parts,

Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.


We can imagine that as the publishing of this play so closely followed the death of young Hamnet, perhaps these were Shakespeare's own feelings on his loss, or the feelings of his wife.

While we know little about Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare, beyond the dates of her birth and death, Shakespeare's work may offer some insight into his feelings on love and marriage. Marriage in the Elizabethan period was primarily a social function rather than one based on a loving relationship. In fact, William and Anne had a hurried marriage because she was pregnant, and it was considered indecent for an unmarried woman to be pregnant. It is thought that Shakespeare resented being forced to marry her, and though the two lived apart, they had three children together and Shakespeare spent some time in Stratford with his family every year. Love and marriage in his plays are often represented as tragedies, or filled with bickering, or perhaps betraying one's parents in order to fulfill selfish desires. Perhaps Shakespeare experienced some of these things, first-hand or otherwise, in his real life.

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