Shakespeare: The man

William Shakespeare is one of the most famous figures in British history. His 37 plays and 154 sonnets have been translated into over 100 languages, and he is widely credited with bringing hundreds of words, such as “assassination” and “swagger”, into everyday use. Although we know little about Shakespeare’s private life, momentous historical events of his time, including the reign of Elizabeth I; the unification of the English and Scottish crowns, and the Gunpowder Plot, clearly influenced his work.

Tudor England

Shakespeare was born in 1564, early in Elizabeth’s reign. It was a time of high fashion, unprecedented religious upheaval and political intrigue at home and abroad. The context of Shakespeare’s time heavily influenced the presentation and content of his plays and poems. How much has England changed since Tudor times?


Plays such as Henry V and Richard III showed Shakespeare’s interest in the historical detail of previous monarchs’ reigns. Shakespeare’s work relied heavily on the patronage of both Elizabeth and James, who are known to have enjoyed his plays. But does the monarchy still have such significance today?


When James (already king of Scotland since 1567) succeeded Elizabeth to the English throne in 1603, he brought together the crowns of England and Scotland. This was a first step towards the countries entering into a full political union in 1707. In 1606 (early in James’s reign), Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, a play which showed a strong knowledge of the political character and geography of Scotland. Who are the British people and how strong is their national identity today?


The bard was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, but moved to London to put on his plays. In 1598, he and his company financed the building of the first Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank. The building which now stands in its place is a testament to his relationship with the capital. How much has the city which lured him changed?

His legacy

Shakespeare’s work has shown remarkable endurance. He was named the fifth greatest Briton of all time in a BBC poll in 2002, while this year’s anniversary of his death will be marked with an array of events in Stratford-upon-Avon, London and around the world. Why do we treat him with unique reverence?