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Shakespeare FAQs

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Shakespeare FAQs

The following FAQs are based on the many questions the Folger Library receives from the public about Shakespeare.



Shakespeare’s Life


What did Shakespeare’s son die of?


We don't really know how Shakespeare's young son Hamnet died. He had a twin sister named Judith, who lived to adulthood and married, but Hamnet died at the age of eleven and a half. Child mortality was high in the sixteenth century; there were no antibiotics and many childhood diseases might therefore prove fatal, such as scarlet fever, whooping cough, diphtheria, and even measles. He was buried on August 11, 1596.


What is the inscription on Shakespeare’s grave?




What reading would you suggest about the life of Shakespeare?


S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (Oxford, 1977)
Park Honan, Shakespeare: a Life (Oxford, 1998)
Richard Dutton, William Shakespeare: A Literary Life (Macmillan,1989)

What reading would you suggest about Shakespeare’s influence?

Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare (London, 1997)
Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present (New York, 1989)


Did Shakespeare write the plays and poems attributed to him?


Doubting that someone without an aristocratic pedigree could have written the plays and poetry published under the name of William Shakespeare, some have argued that someone else was secretly behind these works. Since the nineteenth century, several candidates for "hidden author" have been proposed, among them Queen Elizabeth, Sir Francis Bacon, and Edward de Vere (earl of Oxford). Such debates testify to the lasting importance of Shakespeare's works and call attention to the astonishing achievement that they represent.
Since these claims were advanced over a century ago, no decisive evidence has been unearthed proving that the plays were produced by anyone but the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, a man equipped with a very good "grammar-school" education and the experience gained working in a professional theater company in London.


The Folger has been a major location for research into the authorship question, and welcomes scholars looking for new evidence that sheds light on the plays' origins. How this particular man—or anyone, for that matter—could have produced such an astounding body of work is one of the great mysteries. If the current consensus on the authorship of the plays and poems is ever overturned, it will be because new and extraordinary evidence is discovered. The Folger Shakespeare Library is the most likely place for such an unlikely discovery.


Shakespeare’s Works


How many words did Shakespeare write?


This is a popular question and may be answered by looking at Marvin Spevack’s concordances to Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare’s complete works consist of 884,647 words and 118,406 lines.


How many plays did Shakespeare write?


Thirty eight is the generally accepted number, though recent claims have been made for King Edward III and some scholars would include part of Sir Thomas More. Another play, Cardenio, has not survived. Counting this play, the known total is thirty nine.


What is Shakespeare’s earliest play?


His earliest play is probably one of the three parts of King Henry VI, written between 1589–1591.


What is Shakespeare’s last play?


His last play is probably The Two Noble Kinsmen (about 1613), which Shakespeare co-wrote with John Fletcher.


What is Shakespeare’s longest play?


Hamlet,with 4,042 lines.


What is Shakespeare’s shortest play?


The Comedy of Errors,with 1,787 lines.


Can you give me the source of this quotation from Shakespeare?


Here are the sources for some frequently requested quotations. Line numbers may differ, depending on which edition you are consulting. If your quotation is not listed, search for it using Folger Digital Texts.

"All the world's a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players."
From As You Like It, Act 2, scene 7, lines 145 ff.


"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
From Dick the butcher's speech in Henry VI, Part ii. Act 4, scene 2, line 77.


"A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
From Richard III. Act 5, scene 4, line 7.


"Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,/ Take him and cut him out in little stars,"
From Juliet’s speech in Romeo and Juliet. Act 3, scene 2, lines 23 ff.


"Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow"
From Juliet’s speech in Romeo and Juliet. Act 2, scene 2, lines 185 ff.


"Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive."
This is NOT Shakespeare but Sir Walter Scott, in his long poem Marmion (1808), canto 6, stanza 17.

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 gentlefolk recognize Shakespeare as a fathomless fount of coinages. The honey-tongued Bard had no rival, nor could he sate his never-ending addiction to madcap, flowery (or foul-mouthed!) neologisms. Even time-honored exposure cannot besmirch our amazement at the countless and useful words that lend radiance to our lackluster lives. All in a day’s work!


What reading would you suggest about Shakespeare’s sonnets?


Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, New Folger Library Shakespeare edition, 2004.

Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. Stephen Booth. rpt. Yale, 2000.
Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Arden Shakespeare, 1997.
Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Harvard, 1997.

Shakespeare’s Theater


What were the different ticket costs to go to a play in Shakespeare’s time?  


Prices of admission depended on the kind of theater. Outdoor theaters like the Globe charged—in the early days—one penny ($1.66) to get in and another penny if you wanted to sit in the balconies. (A penny equals about $1.66 by today’s standards. Other equivalents are also in current US dollars.) By the early seventeenth century, they probably charged a flat sixpence (about $10) to get in. Admission to the private indoor theaters, which catered to a more affluent audience, generally began at a basic sixpence to gain entry to the galleries. Fancy gallants who wanted to be seen, however, could sit on the stage for two shillings ($40), and a box could be had for half-a-crown ($50).


How did men cover up their beards if they played women’s roles in Shakespeare’s theater?


Usually boys played women's parts on stage, so there was no problem about beards.  In fact, Hamlet jokes with one of the actors who visit the court in Denmark: "Why, thy face is valanced since I saw thee last," meaning that the boy has reached puberty and started to grow a beard.  Since his voice would change about the same time (Hamlet says, "Pray God your voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the ring."), that would signal the end of female roles for him.  Older men probably played female roles from time-to-time, such as comic figures like Juliet's Nurse.  In that case, they would probably shave off any beard.


What reading would you suggest about Shakespeare and the theater?


Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, 1992)
Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ishikawa, Staging in Shakespeare's Theatres (Oxford, 2000)
Elizabeth Gurr, Shakespeare's Globe: the Guidebook (International Shakespeare Globe Centre, 1998)

Shakespeare on Film


Where can I find a Shakespeare filmography?


Shakespeare on Screen: An International Filmography and Videography by Kenneth Rothwell and Annabelle Melzer (New York, 1990)

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