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Elizabethan theater: Shakespeare and The Globe

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David Gilmour's Sonnet 18

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July 16, 2013

10 Things You Didn’t Know About William Shakespeare

By History.com Staff

Did you know that some people think England’s beloved Bard never existed? According to one longstanding theory the literary masterpieces attributed to Shakespeare were actually written by Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford. Find out more about this hypothesis and explore other interesting aspects of Shakespeare’s life and legacy.

1. Shakespeare’s father held a lot of different jobs, and at one point got paid to drink beer.
The son of a tenant farmer, John Shakespeare was nothing if not upwardly mobile. He arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1551 and began dabbling in various trades, selling leather goods, wool, malt and corn. In 1556 he was appointed the borough’s official “ale taster,” meaning he was responsible for inspecting bread and malt liquors. The next year he took another big step up the social ladder by marrying Mary Arden, the daughter of an aristocratic farmer who happened to be his father’s former boss. John later became a moneylender and held a series of municipal positions, serving for some time as the mayor of Stratford. In the 1570s he fell into debt and ran into legal problems for reasons that remain unclear.

2. Shakespeare married an older woman who was three months pregnant at the time.
In November 1582, 18-year-old William wed Anne Hathaway, a farmer’s daughter eight years his senior. Instead of the customary three times, the couple’s intention to marry was only announced at church once—evidence that the union was hastily arranged because of Anne’s eyebrow-raising condition. Six months after the wedding, the Shakespeares welcomed a daughter, Susanna, and twins Hamnet and Judith followed in February 1585. Little is known about the relationship between William and Anne, besides that they often lived apart and he only bequeathed her his “second-best bed” in his will.

3. Shakespeare’s parents were probably illiterate, and his children almost certainly were.
Nobody knows for sure, but it’s quite likely that John and Mary Shakespeare never learned to read or write, as was often the case for people of their standing during the Elizabethan era. Some have argued that John’s civic duties would have required basic literacy, but in any event he always signed his name with a mark. William, on the other hand, attended Stratford’s local grammar school, where he mastered reading, writing and Latin. His wife and their two children who lived to adulthood, Susanna and Judith, are thought to have been illiterate, though Susanna could scrawl her signature.

4. Nobody knows what Shakespeare did between 1585 and 1592.
To the dismay of his biographers, Shakespeare disappears from the historical record between 1585, when his twins’ baptism was recorded, and 1592, when the playwright Robert Greene denounced him in a pamphlet as an “upstart crow.” The insult suggests he’d already made a name for himself on the London stage by then. What did the newly married father and future literary icon do during those seven “lost” years? Historians have speculated that he worked as a schoolteacher, studied law, traveled across continental Europe or joined an acting troupe that was passing through Stratford. According to one 17th-century account, he fled his hometown after poaching deer from a local politician’s estate.

5. Shakespeare’s plays feature the first written instances of hundreds of familiar terms.
William Shakespeare is believed to have influenced the English language more than any other writer in history, coining—or, at the very least, popularizing—terms and phrases that still regularly crop up in everyday conversation. Examples include the words “fashionable” (“Troilus and Cressida”), “sanctimonious” (“Measure for Measure”), “eyeball” (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and “lackluster” (“As You Like It”); and the expressions “foregone conclusion” (“Othello”), “in a pickle” (“The Tempest”), “wild goose chase” (“Romeo and Juliet”) and “one fell swoop” (“Macbeth”). He is also credited with inventing the given names Olivia, Miranda, Jessica and Cordelia, which have become common over the years (as well as others, such as Nerissa and Titania, which have not).

6. We probably don’t spell Shakespeare’s name correctly—but, then again, neither did he.
Sources from William Shakespeare’s lifetime spell his last name in more than 80 different ways, ranging from “Shappere” to “Shaxberd.” In the handful of signatures that have survived, the Bard never spelled his own name “William Shakespeare,” using variations or abbreviations such as “Willm Shakp,” “Willm Shakspere” and “William Shakspeare” instead. However it’s spelled, Shakespeare is thought to derive from the Old English words “schakken” (“to brandish”) and “speer” (“spear”), and probably referred to a confrontational or argumentative person.

7. Shakespeare’s epitaph wards off would-be grave robbers with a curse.
William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, at the age of 52—not bad for an era when the average life expectancy ranged between 30 and 40 years. We may never know what killed him, although an acquaintance wrote that the Bard fell ill after a night of heavy drinking with fellow playwright Ben Jonson. Despite his swift demise, Shakespeare supposedly had the wherewithal to pen the epitaph over his tomb, which is located inside a Stratford church. Intended to thwart the numerous grave robbers who plundered England’s cemeteries at the time, the verse reads: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare, / To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” It must have done the trick, since Shakespeare’s remains have yet to be disturbed.

8. Shakespeare wore a gold hoop earring—or so we think.
Our notion of William Shakespeare’s appearance comes from several 17th-century portraits that may or may not have been painted while the Bard himself sat behind the canvas. In one of the most famous depictions, known as the Chandos portrait after its onetime owner, the subject has a full beard, a receding hairline, loosened shirt-ties and a shiny gold hoop dangling from his left ear. Even back in Shakespeare’s time, earrings on men were trendy hallmarks of a bohemian lifestyle, as evidenced by images of other Elizabethan artists. The fashion may have been inspired by sailors, who sported a single gold earring to cover funeral costs in case they died at sea.

9. North America’s 200 million starlings have Shakespeare to thank for their existence.
William Shakespeare’s works contain more than 600 references to various types of birds, from swans and doves to sparrows and turkeys. The starling—a lustrous songbird with a gift for mimicry, native to Europe and western Asia—makes just one appearance, in “Henry IV, Part 1.” In 1890 an American “bardolator” named Eugene Schiffelin decided to import every kind of bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s oeuvre but absent from the United States. As part of this project, he released two flocks of 60 starlings in New York’s Central Park. One hundred twenty years later, the highly adaptable species has taken over the skies, becoming invasive and driving some native birds to the brink of extinction.

10. Some people think Shakespeare was a fraud.
How did a provincial commoner who had never gone to college or ventured outside Stratford become one of the most prolific, worldly and eloquent writers in history? Even early in his career, Shakespeare was spinning tales that displayed in-depth knowledge of international affairs, European capitals and history, as well as familiarity with the royal court and high society. For this reason, some theorists have suggested that one or several authors wishing to conceal their true identity used the person of William Shakespeare as a front. Proposed candidates include Edward De Vere, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and Mary Sidney Herbert. Most scholars and literary historians remain skeptical about this hypothesis, although many suspect Shakespeare sometimes collaborated with other playwrights.


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10 Slide PowerPoint
Literacy.W.9-10.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
Literacy.SL.9-10.5 Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.

Plot graphs identifying structure of Shakespeare's five-act plays.

Twelfth Night
clip except 2:47-3:17 real actors
she's the man transformation montague 1 min
Journal Prompt: Describe Orsino's and Viola's marriage OR Sebastian and Olivia's marriage in ten years. 

Literacy.RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare). (Examples: "She's the Man" transforms "Twelfth Night;" 10 Things I Hate About You" transforms "Taming of the Shrew"; "Westside Story" transforms "Romeo and Juliet:" 

Literacy.RL.9-10.10 By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9-10 text complexity band proficiently

Literacy.RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text (see Theme)

Literacy.RL.9-10.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise (see Structure)

Shakespeare wrote five act plays that follow the typical plot structure:
  1. Exposition: a situation with tensions (implicit conflict)
  2. "Rising Action": implicit conflict is developed 
  3. Turning Point: conflict reaches height; frequently an impasse
  4. "Falling Action": things begin to clear up 
  5. Conclusion: problem is resolved, knots untied

The scenes of 
Twelfth Night are carefully woven together in order to create tension and humor, and to prepare us, almost subconsciously, for what is going to happen. We are given fragments of manageable information throughout the play so that when the complex plot unfolds we understand it by piecing together all the information given to us in previous scenes. For example, to return to the Duke and Viola, the audience is aware of the fact that she is disguised as a man, so understands more than the Duke himself does as he struggles with his feelings, believing he is falling in love with a man.

The audience is fed important information in Act 2 Scene 1 when Antonio and Sebastian meet and converse:

Sebastian: . . . some hour before you took me from the breach of the sea was my sister drowned.

Antonio: Alas the day!

Sebastian: A lady, sir, though it was said she much resembled me, was yet of many accounted beautiful. [Act 2, Scene 1]

Through these lines Shakespeare lets the audience in on the fact that Sebastian is alive, and that he believes his sister Viola to be dead, and that the two resemble one another in appearance. We also see how Sebastian feels for his sister as he talks about her so passionately. This is an important part of the development stage of the play as it prepares us for the role which mistaken identity will play in the plot, and sets up the potential for dramatic irony.

Another scene which prepares us for dramatic irony is when Maria, Sir Andrew, and Sir Toby write the letter to Malvolio, under the pretence that it is from Olivia. As we the audience are aware of this deception it sets up the dramatic irony, because Malvolio himself is not aware of it when he finds and reads the letter during Act 2, Scene 5. Presuming the letter is for him, and from Olivia, he proceeds to embarrass himself.

The structure in which many subplots run through the play can be described as 'River Action'; actions not closely linked are moving in parallel to be integrated at the end of the play. This contrasts to the single or episodic action in Macbeth, or the mirror action in King Lear where there is both a main and a sub-plot present. Shakespeare has used this structural technique to create both humour and tension. The subplots also pick up on the themes of love and mistaken identities, preparing us for the part those themes will play in the main plot.\\


Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony occurs when a reader or an audience notices something that a character in the sotry or play does not know. Discuss the dramatic irony in Twelfth Night. Provide at least two examples.

We the audience, know Viola is a woman disguised as a man. Count Orsino, a character in the play, does not.

We, the audience, know Viola is falling in love with Count Orsino. He does not because he thinks Viola is a man.

Notice the various uses of the theme of deception within the play (e.g. deceptive appearances, deceptive words/language, and the related theme of self-deception).  Which characters are most clear-sighted about their own qualities and motives?  Which are manipulating appearances in order to deceive others?  What are their motivations for doing so?

Love can cause pain.

Mistaken identity, disguises, can cause chaos.

Olive gives Cesario a ring as a symbol of her love.

Figurative Language
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die
Act I, Scene I

Taming of the Shrew
10 Things I Hate About You

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In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note,
But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who in despite of view is pleased to dote.
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue's tune delighted,
Nor tender feeling to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone;
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart's slave and vassal wretch to be.
   Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
   That she that makes me sin awards me pain.

–William Shakespeare

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Potpourri and Medicine

Elizabethans did not understand germs; they thought sickness was spread by bad smells (miasma) or because someone had too much or too little of one of the humors. Doctors thought that there were four humors, or fluids, that had to be kept in balance in order for a person to stay healthy.  


People tried to prevent disease by keeping bad smells away. Women would carry small bouquets of herbs and flowers or use a pomander, a small container of potpourri or perfume, to create a nice smell around them.  When deadly plagues struck England in the seventeenth century, doctors wore masks filled with herbs and chemicals because they believed that the scent could protect them from the plague.


In addition to keeping bad smells away from their bodies, people wanted to keep bad smells out of their homes. Even the royal palaces could become stinky. Floors were covered with reeds or rushes, which would become dirty and attract bugs and other pests. One reason that Queen Elizabeth I moved from palace to palace was to allow time for thorough cleanings.


Not everyone could move whenever their home got too dirty! Mixtures of herbs were used to make potpourri and keep houses smelling sweet.   


Queen Elizabeth I and her court loved fashion! Clothing was sewn by hand by tailors and seamstresses who used expensive fabrics, beautiful embroidery, and stunning gemstones in their creations to show how wealthy and powerful the wearers were.


English fashion borrowed from European trends. The English were known for creating new looks by combining clothing from various countries. While some people liked the way that they blended styles, others made fun of them.


Rules called "Acts of Apparel" told people what kinds of clothing they could wear, based on their position in society. These rules were very extensive and governed fabrics, colors, and even kind of accessories people could wear. For example, only the most powerful nobles could wear purple silk.  Ordinary people were supposed to wear wool, although their clothes might be decorated with fancier fabrics like velvet or lace. People who broke the rules could be fined. 


In spite of the possibility of punishment, most people ignored the rules!


Clothing for Women


Women wore smocks, similiar to a long, loose shirt, underneath their clothes. Wealthy women might wearpetticoats over the smocks. The petticoats helped the kirtle, a middle garment similiar to a skirt, to hang evenly.  A bodicecame next. This was a sleeveless garment that laced over a woman's torso; bodices were stiff and sometimes padded or reinforced to give the woman an attractive, slender shape.


Sleeves were often separate from the other parts of clothing and were pinned or tied on.  Finally, a gown might go on top of everything for extra warmth or for a special occasion. Queen Elizabeth I owned over 300 gowns, in addition to other clothing!


Clothing for Men


Men's clothing, especially among the upper classes, was often more attention-getting than the ladies'. The basic parts of a man's outfit were the hose, which included breeches(short pants) and stockings, and the doublet (jacket). Men wore shirts underneath the doublet.


Bright colors, especially red and orange, were popular. Black clothing provided a nice contrast to sparking jewels. Stylish younger men might wear a short cloak, which added a dramatic look to the outfit. Older men and government officials might add a long, open-front gown over the rest of their clothes.

After John de Critz. Queen Elizabeth I. Oil on panel, after 1620. Shelfmark FPb66

Jewelry and Accessories

Many portraits of Shakespeare's queen, Elizabeth I, show her with gorgeous jewelry. Earrings, necklaces, brooches, and rings were popular accessories. The queen wore pearls in her hair, in bracelets on her wrists, and in earrings. Other rare gemstones like emeralds, rubies, and diamonds were also used. Her clothing included threads made from gold and silver; the young queen's coronation dress was made from a precious fabric known as "cloth of gold," made by creating fine gold threads and weaving them into fabric.


Most people could not afford gemstones or cloth of gold. However, jewelry was still worn by ordinary people. "Poesy rings," simple rings with expressions of love or friendship written on them, were given as engagement rings or as gifts between friends. The words were often on the inside of the band to make the message more private. Surviving portraits show stylish young men with gold or pearl earrings.


Other accessories for fashion-conscious Elizabethans included gloves, purses, and fans.  Women might carry a small metal container called a pomander filled with flowers, herbs, or perfume to make the air around them smell good. Many men carried weapons such as swords, rapiers, or daggers.  




Knights were considered the best fighters for hundreds of years, during a time known as the Middle Ages or medieval period. They were experts in using many kinds of weapons, including spears or lances, swords, and battleaxes, and fought on horseback.


Knights carried coats of arms with them on the battlefield as well as during practice matches called tournaments. Thesecoats of arms were special designs that sometimes also included a logo or motto that helped to identify the knights. Noble families passed down coats of arms from one generation to the next.


By Shakespeare's time, soldiers with guns and other types of new weapons  were replacing the knights on horseback. However, people still wanted to have coats of arms to show that their family was important. William Shakespeare applied for a coat of arms on behalf of his father, John Shakespeare. The Shakespeares received approval from the College of Heralds for a coat of arms in 1596, allowing the family to be officially recognized as members of the gentry, a class of people between commoners and the aristocracy.  

In Elizabethan times, garlands made of flowers were worn on special occasions such as weddings or celebrations, and Queen Elizabeth I was given bouquets of flowers from her admiring subjects. Just as red roses symbolize love, four-leaf clovers mean good luck, and mistletoe suggests holiday romance today, flowers also had meanings in the sixteenth century.



In Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Ophelia mentions several kinds of flowers and herbs and their meanings:

  • Pansies represent "thoughts." The English name "pansy" comes from the French word, "pensées," meanings "thoughts."
  • Rosemary is for "remembrance."
  • Rue, a bitter-tasting herb, may symbolize disdain; Ophelia pretends to give rue to herself and her imaginary guests. Rue was also thought to protect against spells and was used to sprinkle holy water during church services. For this reason, it is also called "herb-of-grace."  

Shakespeare's plays and poetry are filled with references to flowers. In The Winter's Tale, the princess Perdita wishes that she had violets, daffodils, and primroses to make garlands for her friends. The fairy queen Titania, who has fallen in love with Bottom, gives him a wreath of flowers to wear in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In fact, Shakespeare uses the word "flower" over 100 times

No TV or Movies

Two forms of entertainment that were very popular in Shakespeare's London were court masques and going to see plays.


In some ways, masques and plays were very similar. Both involved costumes, scenery, and acting. However, there were some important differences. Plays were usually performed publicly in theaters and could be seen by anyone who paid. Masques were performed at court or in a palace in front of a smaller, private audience.


In court masques, performers were often disguised, and sometimes included members of the royal family! Queen Elizabeth I's father, Henry VIII, enjoyed masques and there are records of him dressing up and joining the performers. People also used masques to entertain and impress Queen Elizabeth. Although she as an excellent dancer, she did not act in the masques. However, she might dance with the performers afterwards - unlike actors in plays, masquers could speak with or dance with the audience.


Shakespeare did not write any masques, although they were very popular in his lifetime and some of his rival playwrights did. Scholars think that two of Shakespeare's plays could have been influence by masques: A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest.


If you didn't like plays or masques, you could go see a bear or bullbaiting. The bear or bull had to fight against a pack of dogs. This was a bloody sport and sometimes people bet on the matches, which were often held next to theaters. By Shakespeare's time, bears were extinct in England and had to be imported, so most of the fights were done with bulls.



Good manners were extremely important, especially when meeting Queen Elizabeth I herself. Women were expected to curtsey, and men to bow. A subject could not turn his or her back to the queen, which often meant that they had to walk out of the room backwards.


Bowing or curtseying was also used when people greeted each other. The more important the person, the deeper you made the bow or curtsey!




Most people ate three meals a day: breakfast between 6 and 7am, a midday meal, and an evening meal served between 5 and 8pm. Hands were generally washed before eating, either before sitting down, or, if at a fancy dinner, in water brought to the table by servants.


Each person had a plate or trencher, a spoon, and a knife. Trendy people might use forks, which were introduced to England from Italy, but forks were not common. Cups and goblets were shared. For this reason, it was important to swallow your food before taking a drink!


It was bad manners to lick your hands, so polite people either wiped them on the tablecloth, or used a cloth napkin if one was provided.


Entertainment and Dancing


Guests were expected to participate in entertaining the host and household following a meal. Singing or playing instruments was a popular hobby. Men and women both learned music at home, from tutors, or from studying books.


Well-brought-up people learned many kinds of dances. At court, slow dances like the pavane were chosen by older men and women who couldn't keep up with fast steps! Younger dancers might like the galliardcinquepace, orcoranto, which moved more quickly. In the volta, the man lifted his partner up in the air while spinning around, making this a romantic and dramatic dance.


In the country, people danced on holidays in taverns or on the village green. Some of these dances eventually became fashionable at court.



The city of London, England changed a lot between the years 1500 and 1700. One of the biggest changes was in population. In 1500, London had about 50,000 people. By 1700, over 500,000 people called London home!


Immigration, or people moving into the city, was one of the main reasons that London's population kept growing. Some people came from other European countries, like France or Holland, while others arrived London from much farther away—Africa, Asia, the Middle East, or the "New World" in what is now North and South America.


Many people moved to London from other parts of England as well. Often they came looking for better jobs and ways to make more money. With all of these new people coming into the city from different parts of the world, London was a busy and exciting place to live.


It could also be dangerous. With so many people living closely together, disease was a major problem. Plague, a type of sickness that caused fevers, swelling, seizures, and sometimes death, killed many people in the city during these two centuries. 1665 was a particularly bad year, during which time the "Great Plague of London" was responsible for nearly 70,000 deaths.


Despite this tragedy, London continued to grow, and by 1700, it was one of the largest and most important cities in the world.    

Shakespeare's Life

 William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon. He died on April 23, 1616.



In November 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. When they married, he was eighteen and she was 26. They had three children.



The portrait believed to look most like Shakespeare is on the title page of the First Folio.


Does it look like Shakespeare to you?


The First Folio was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death.



Shakespeare not only wrote plays; he also performed on stage as a professional actor in London.



Shakespeare is buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.


The inscription on the stone beneath his monument reads:



Adding to the English Language

How many new words did Shakespeare coin?


In Brush Up Your Shakespeare! (Harper), author Michael Macrone explains that it’s not always easy to determine who first coined  a word, but notes that the Oxford English Dictionary attributes all of the bold-faced words below  (and some 500 more) to Shakespeare.


From the spectacled pedant to the schoolboy, all gentlefolkrecognize Shakespeare as a fathomless fount of coinages.


The honey-tongued Bard had no rival, nor could he sate hisnever-ending addiction to madcapflowery (or foul-mouthed!) neologisms.


Even time-honored exposure cannot besmirch ouramazement at the countless and useful words that lendradiance to our lackluster lives. All in a day’s work!


Create your own words, quotes, and silly stories by clicking on the link at right!

10 Ways To Be a Shakespeare Expert

Want to impress your teachers and parents? Here are 10 interesting facts about Shakespeare's life and work. You'll sound like an expert in no time!

1. Nobody knows Shakespeare's actual birthday. Scholars think he was born on April 23, 1564, three days before his baptism was recorded at a church in Stratford, England. Strangely enough, his death in 1616 also occurred on April 23.

2. As far as we know, he never went beyond grammar school, probably finishing in his early to mid-teens. In those days, grammar school was way more advanced than now: Students learned Latin, math and religion; they read classical literature and studied using a hornbook (paper glued to a piece of wood and covered with clear animal horn).


Learn more about Shakespeare's early years

3. Shakespeare applied to the College of Heralds for a coat of arms for his father. A coat of arms was a symbol of higher rank in British society. The Shakespeare family's coat of arms has a spear in the middle and a falcon on top. Shakespeare inherited the coat of arms when his father died and was then permitted to call himself a gentleman.

4. Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, had three children: Susanna and twins Judith and Hamnet. The twins were named after neighbors who named their son William. Although Hamnet died at age 11, his name lives on: It was sometimes written as Hamlet, the title of one of his father's greatest characters and plays. Shakespeare's last descendant, a granddaughter, died in 1670.

5. "Shakespeare" was spelled 80 different ways, including "Shaxpere" and "Shaxberd."


See Shakespeare's signature on his will


6. Shakespeare is the most translated author ever. His work is read in at least 80 languages, including Chinese, Italian, Armenian, Bengali, Tagalog, Uzbek and Krio (spoken by freed slaves in Sierra Leone).

7. Shakespeare is thought to have written 39 plays. About half were printed in small booklets before his death. But some of his most famous works, including Macbeth and Julius Caesar, were not printed in his lifetime. They would not have been handed down to us had not two men in Shakespeare's acting company—John Heminge and Henry Condell— printed 36 of his plays in a book called the First Folio. When the book was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, it sold for 1 British pound (several hundred dollars in today's money). One sold in 2006 for nearly $5 million.


View a First Folio

8. While most people regularly use about 2,000 words, Shakespeare used more than 25,000 in his writing.


Check out words Shakespeare coined

9. If you do a Google search on "Shakespeare," you get more than 44 million results.

10. Did Shakespeare really write Shakespeare? Some people think that other authors wrote the works credited to him. This is a debate that likely will continue.


At the Folger, we support all research questions. However, we haven't seen any research yet that would make us believe anyone but Shakespeare, the man from Stratford, wrote the plays and poems that carry his name.

Originally appeared in "10 Ways To Be Or Not To Be A Shakespeare Expert" in the Washington Post by Ellen Edwards, with Georgianna Ziegler, Head of Reference at Folger Shakespeare Library. 

Plays/Scenes Covered
Romeo and Juliet 
Marriage in Shakespeare's Day

Students often ask questions about marriage in Shakespeare's day. This activity allows students to examine a primary source from 1604 to help them gain a better understanding of the rules of marriage in the early seventeenth century, and to apply that knowledge to the play in several ways.


This activity will take one to two class periods.

What You Need

Folger edition of Romeo and Juliet
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

Primary Source Worksheet

17th century document excerpt 
17th Century Rules of Marriage 
What To Do

1. Make sure the students have completed a careful reading of the play.


2. Hand out the attached worksheet.


3. Explain to students how to read the document (i.e. how to translate the various letters.) You may need to give them this key:
v = u
u = v
i = j
f = s
vv = w

Have them grapple with it silently for a moment, then read it together as a class.


4. Have a brief brainstorming session in which students write for 10–15 minutes about what they think Lord Capulet and Friar Lawrence would think about the document, based upon their behavior in the play.


5. Break the students into small groups, with each focusing on either Lord Capulet or Friar Lawrence. Have each group find the relevant details in the document that relate to their character's ideas about marriage. Then, have each group collectively prepare a statement that demonstrates its own understanding of the document as well as its character's feelings about it.


6. Have a representative from each group present its statement. Encourage the students to present in character.


7. For homework, ask students to choose one of the characters and write a one page paper that expresses the character's more general opinions about marriage. Be sure that they refer to the text of the play to provide evidence for their beliefs. This paper could be written as a letter to the editor, a letter to a parent or child, or a more formal essay. Encourage students to be creative: the one rule is that the written piece must refer to the play as well as to the document they have just examined.


8. Have students read their work out loud, again in character.

How Did It Go?
Did students enjoy and understand the primary source document? Did they have varied opinions about the text and its meanings? Were they effective in expressing different views the different characters would have about marriage? Did their statements reflect an understanding of the text? Did they understand the characters' motivations? 

Teaching Sonnets

Many educators have found that the sonnets are a wonderful way to introduce Shakespeare to students because the smaller blocks of language are less intimidating than whole plays. Louisa Newlin, who leads workshops on sonnets for teachers, and Gigi Bradford, who teaches Shakespeare’s Sisters, a seminar for high school students at the Folger, have created a series of lesson plans about the sonnets that concentrate on the Bard but also include sonnets from before Shakespeare as well as contemporary sonnets.


This arc of study provides a context for Shakespeare’s genius, introduces the sonnet’s form and structure, includes language easier to understand than Shakespeare’s, and illustrates his continuing influence. It’s both a lot of fun and a good way to show that sonnets are ways of thinking, not just love poems in archaic language. We hope it provides a template and some inspiration for your own teaching.


The unit contains:


Lesson 1:
Easing into Shakespeare with a Modern Sonnet

Lesson 2:
Petrarch, Father of the Sonnet

Lesson 3:
The English Sonnet: Michael Drayton

Lesson 4:
Spenser, Shakespeare, and the “Blazon”

Lesson 5:
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138

Lesson 6:
Juliet vs. Laura

Lesson 7:
Close Reading

Lesson 8:
Writing a Group Sonnet

Lesson 9:
Sonnet Performance Festival


Lesson 10:
Sonnets by Women (“Shakespeare’s Sisters”) and Other Modern Sonnets


You can follow all ten plans serially or pick and choose among them to devise a shorter course. (Lessons 1, 2, 4 or 5, and 6.) Each lesson is designed to fit into one 40–45 minute class period; each builds on the last, but the lessons can also be used singly. Ideas for additional lessons are embedded throughout. Have fun and let us know what works for you.

Why teach sonnets? 

  • They are rewarding and fun to teach. Close attention to a text of fourteen lines draws attention to the power of individual words and to the nuances of meaning conveyed by variations in rhyme and meter.  
  • The characteristic sonnet explores those elements in human life which raise unanswerable questions -- love, war, mortality, suffering and change—questions that students ask even when they do not articulate them.
  • Sonnets can inspire creativity in students, who can follow the “recipe” and are more apt to write good poetry than when they embark on free verse. Writing sonnets can be done solo, in pairs, or as a group, and is an active way of internalizing the sonnet’s structure. The subjects do not have to be traditional; many students have produced surprisingly good sonnets about football games.
  • More readily than longer works of literature, sonnets can be dramatized in pairs or in groups, and they can be set to music or illustrated.
  • Exploring Shakespeare’s sonnets can be a good way to introduce students to his language. Studying a shorter form is a great introduction to the more sustained and challenging length of Shakespeare’s plays.

Why Teach Shakespeare’s Sonnets?

  • Although many questions about Shakespeare’s sonnets are unanswered, there is widespread agreement that they are the most intricate, profound, beautiful, and ingenious sonnets ever written in English.
  • A large percentage of them are about the pain and perplexities of love –a subject most young people are eager to explore.
  • Although many of the Sonnets are full of troubling – and fascinating –ambiguities, their tone is arresting. They are conversational, personal, and often intensely passionate – qualities which can kindle a spark in even a poetry-resistant student’s heart.
  •   Many ideas and themes of the Sonnets appear in Shakespeare’s plays and can be useful lead-ins. Examples are: Romeo’s initial love for Rosaline inRomeo and Juliet as well as the sonnets within the play itself; Silvius wooing Phoebe in As You Like It; love between men, one of whom loves more than another – Bassanio and Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, another Antonio and Sebastian in Twelfth Night). Several sonnets have theatrical metaphors, such as 23, “As an unperfect actor on the stage”.

A Short History of the Sonnet

Invented in Italy in the thirteenth century, the sonnet was brought to a high form of development in the fourteenth century by Francesco Petrarch (1304–74), Italian poet and humanist best remembered now for his sonnets dedicated to an idealized lady named Laura glimpsed in a church, and with whom he fell in love at first sight, or so the legend goes. Laura’s true identity is unknown; supposedly, she married someone else and, being ideally virtuous as well as beautiful, was permanently unavailable. There’s no evidence Petrarch ever talked to her.


The uses Petrach made of the conventions of courtly love for a beautiful, unattainable lady became known as “Petrarchan conventions.” Some of these are that love is excruciatingly painful; the angelically beautiful and virtuous lady is cruel in rejecting the poet’s love; and love is a religionthe practice of which ennobles the lover. Christian and classical imagery coexist. The god of Love, Cupid, is unpredictable, powerful, and cruel. The eyes are the “windows to the soul,” and love usually begins at first sight. The poet is subject to extremes of feeling and internal conflict—the “war within the self.” Life is short and art, fortunately, is long. The poetry will outlive the poet.


Sir Thomas Wyatt (1502–42) and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (1517–47), are credited with introducing the Petrarchan model to England in the sixteenth century andadjusting the rhyme scheme and the meter to accommodate the English language. They, like Petrarch, use religious imagery and terms to convey the holiness and intensity of the lover’s passion for the unattainable love-object and make frequent allusions to both classical deities and Christian symbols. 


This model exerted a strong influence on numerous English Renaissance poets: Spenser, Sidney, Sidney’s brilliant niece Mary Wroth, among others, and of course, Shakespeare himself. Writing sonnet sequences became popular among gentlemen, and these poems were often circulated in manuscript form, evidently including Shakespeare’s.Publication was not generally considered gentlemanly or ladylike.


Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets published in 1609 are a “collection” rather than a sequence, although there are some groupings that look like mini-sequences. And they are remarkably various: Shakespeare explores the same theme in different ways but never exactly repeats a patternHe is keenly aware of Petrarchan conventions and often uses them, but just as often upends them, as in Sonnet 130. The cruel loved one in many of his sonnets is a young man, not a woman, and the “Dark Lady” of sonnets 127–152 is neither virtuous nor ideally beautiful. Shakespeare’s Sonnets represented a kind of apogée of the English sonnet-writing fashion, and, in fact, may have contributed to the vogue’s fading away, since no one could outdo him or even come close to matching his skill and versatility.


The sonnet has proved to be a remarkably durable and adaptable form—a “fixed form” that is, paradoxically, enormously flexible. Although no one has ever equaled Shakespeare’s sonnets, nearly every notable poet writing in English has had a go at a sonnet or two. Among the best-known British writers of sonnets are John Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, W.H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas.


The form survived the transatlantic crossing. Distinguished American practitioners include Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Crowe Ransom, as well as significant African-American and Caribbean-American poets, such as James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Derek Walcott, Marilyn Nelson, and Claude McKay.


The sonnet can be a lens through which to look at poetry over the last 400 years.

Sonnet Structure

The most common form of the English-language sonnet, whether “Petrarchan” or “Shakespearean”—also called, respectively, “Italian” and “English”—is a fourteen-line poem in two parts: an octave (eight lines) and asestet (six lines.) The octave often presents a problem or question, or situation; and the sestet answers it with a solution to the problem, an answer to the question, or a comment on the situation— a dialectical method. The sestet, especially in the Shakespearean sonnet, is divided into a four-line stanza and a couplet which sums up the poet’s conclusion. In between octave and sestet there is often a shift, a changing of gear, called the “volta,” or sometimes just “the turn”—the “seismic shift”. Sometimes the volta is indicated by a line break, sometimes not. Caveat: not all sonnets, even Shakespeare’s, are constructed this way—sometimes, for example, a poet presents related images in three quatrains followed by a couplet.


Traditional sonnets normally use one of two basic rhyme schemes. The Italian/ Petrarchan sonnet has a tight rhyme scheme, typically abba abba cdcdcd; and the English /Shakespearean sonnet is looser, abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Although students like to get hold of these definitions and hang onto them for dear life, many sonnets use a combination of the Italian and English patterns. Ron Padgett, in The Handbook of Poetic Forms points out that “the sonnet involves a certain way of thinking: the setting up or development of a thought or idea which is brought to a conclusion at the end of the poem” (189). The sonnet’s hallmarks are really this “way of thinking” and its dialectical nature, not a particular rhyme scheme.  In fact, many contemporary sonnets depart from rhyme and meter altogether, although they are still restricted to 14 lines.


As for meter, almost no sonnet is written entirely in iambic pentameter, which risks being boring. Variations in meter are important, not only for the ear, but also sometimes for developing the central idea or argument. Students don’t really need to study meter and rhythm before approaching sonnets, though that can help; they can learn what they need to fromsonnets. Literally walking through a sonnet— walking around in a circle, saying the lines chorally, and stamping hard on the stressed syllables— can help students to understand iambic pentameter and to feel it in their bones. In a space too small to pace, they can beat out the rhythm with their hands, on desk tops. Be sure to look at a wonderful active demonstration called “Living Iambic Pentameter” on the Folger YouTube channel; on the Folger’s Education web site, click on “Audio and Video Resources.”

Teacher Sources

blog  http://folgereducation.wordpress.com/

Created by PBS in partnership with Folger Shakespeare Library, this site provides educational materials for teachers of all grade levels.


A huge, high-quality website with edited texts and many other resources.


A bard-specific search engine, for finding quotes, characters, and instances a word is used in a particular play.


Shakespeare's Theatre-- http://www.folger.edu/Content/Teach-and-Learn/Shakespeare-for-Kids/Cool-Facts/Shakespeares-Theater.cfm

What Shakespeare looks like-- http://www.folger.edu/Content/Teach-and-Learn/Shakespeare-for-Kids/Cool-Facts/Shakespeares-World/Shakespeares-Portraits.cfm

Queen Elizabeth http://www.folger.edu/Content/Teach-and-Learn/Shakespeare-for-Kids/Queen-Elizabeth/

Women in Shakespeare's Time http://www.folger.edu/Content/Teach-and-Learn/Shakespeare-for-Kids/Discover-Our-Collection/Shakespeares-Sisters/

London: a Growing City  http://www.folger.edu/Content/Teach-and-Learn/Shakespeare-for-Kids/Discover-Our-Collection/Open-City/

Worksheet--Love Lines http://www.folger.edu/documents/LoveFriendship.pdf

Worksheet--Insults http://www.folger.edu/documents/KidInsults.pdf

Worksheet--Compliments  http://www.folger.edu/documents/KidCompliments.pdf

Worksheet--Try your hand--http://www.folger.edu/documents/Try%20Your%20Hand%20at%20Shakespeare.pdf