illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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Summarize the life, times, and influence of William Shakespeare.

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English actor and playwright William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. He married Anne Hathaway at age eighteen, and they had three children. Shakespeare's first poems were published in London in 1593 ("Venus and Adonis") and 1594 ("The Rape of Lucrece"), and around that time, he helped establish The Lord Chamberlain's Men acting company (later The King's Men). For the next twenty years or so, Shakespeare wrote about two plays every year, ending up with thirty-eight plays and more than 150 poems. Shakespeare died in 1616 in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shakespeare lived and worked in the Elizabethan Age, which was imbued with Renaissance ideas and the excitement of exploration and discovery. It was also a time of persecution for some people in England—namely, Catholics—and some scholars have argued that Shakespeare remained a hidden Catholic throughout his life. These scholars point to strong evidence in Shakespeare's life and in his works to support their claim. Renaissance ideas like a focus on the individual and the revival of the Greek and Roman classics stand strong in Shakespeare's plays, as do the thrill of discovery and the thirst for new places and experiences.

As for Shakespeare's influence, that is nearly unbounded. Shakespeare transformed English drama with the depth of his plays and the richness of his language. He coined new words, introduced fascinating expressions (many of which we still use without even thinking about them), and brought drama to the masses of the common English people. Shakespeare also transformed the sonnet form, bringing a new vibrancy and depth to it. Shakespeare's ideas still inspire and challenge us many centuries later, and he presents humanity in all its complexity.

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