• Imagining History

Who was William Shakespeare? A Beginner's Guide

Updated: Apr 22


What a fabulous beard you have Mr Shakespeare

Right, so just who is this William Shakespeare I keep on hearing about?

Only the most famous English Playwright of all time!


That’s great and all but… what’s a playwright?

Ah! Well, a playwright is someone who writes plays, a script if you will, which are then performed live on stage by actors in front of an audience.


As a playwright, Mr Shakespeare wrote a stonking 39 plays – some of them are the most famous plays of all time.


Oh yeah? Like what?

He wrote comedies – which are, shockingly, still funny – such as Much Ado about Nothing, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer’s Night Dream. He also wrote tragedies, notably Macbeth, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. The tragedies lived up to their name, each story ending in lots of bad things happening to the main characters.

Twelfth Night Courtesy folger.edu

In his later years he combined comedy and tragedy to write – the pretty unoriginally titled – ‘tragicomedies’. Famous examples of these include The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale. Finally he wrote histories, about familiar kingly dudes like Henry V.


OK, so what about Shakespeare the actual person. What can you tell me about him?

Surprisingly little for certain, despite all his plays, poems and sonnets, we know precious little about Shakespeare the person. He’s surprisingly mysterious! Historians still debate what he actually looked like and whether or not he even wrote all his plays. What I can tell you is that he was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1564.


Whoa whoa whoa! So his plays are over 400 years old?

That’s right. In fact, his plays are still performed more than any other playwright. His writing focused on what it means to be human; on universal themes such as freedom, loyalty, guilt and sadness. As such Shakespeare’s plays are just as relevant to audiences today as they were 400 years ago.


A modern audience at the Globe Theatre

Does that mean performing Shakespeare’s plays today is the same as it was 400 years ago?

Not exactly. In Shakespeare’s day women weren’t allowed to act on the stage, so all of the female roles were played by men. Not only that, but the audience were far more unruly.


They wouldn’t sit quietly and applaud at the end like an audience watching Shakespeare today. Instead they would cheer, boo, shout, and hurl insults at the character’s they didn’t like! A Shakespearean actor had to have a thick skin.


So other than all the plays, why do you we still remember Shakespeare today?

Well, his writing was so popular, so influential, that he came up with brand-new words that we still use today. Examples include: unaware, swagger, bandit, critic, and green-eyed. In fact, Shakespeare is meant to have invented around 1700 words.


However, just like most things to do with Shakespeare, brainy people cannot agree whether or not Shakespeare really did come up with all those words. Some people have the number at 88, others 420 – either way you look at it, that’s still a heck of a lot of words. I, for example, have only invented one word so far; wigglewump.


It describes one of my infamous dance moves if you really must know. All you need to do is stand up, keep your hands by the side and sway side to side. When you start to lose your balance and begin to tip over like a cow on a windy day you simply wiggle your body like crazy until you regain your balance. Give it a try next time Will Smith’s Men in Black is playing at your local discotheque and maybe the wigglewump will catch on!