Shakespeare FAQ

The following Frequently Asked Questions about Shakespeare's life and works are based on the many questions the Folger receives from the public.

Shakespeare’s life and family | Shakespeare’s works | Shakespeare’s theater | Suggested readings

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1896 print of Shakespeare's birthplace by Stas Waley & Co.

1896 print of Shakespeare's birthplace by Stas Waley & Co.

Item Title: 
Shakespeare's house, Stratford-on-Avon [graphic].
Item Call Number: 
ART File S899h1 no.56 (size M)
Item Creator: 
Stas Walery & Co., printmaker.
Item Date: 
1896

Shakespeare’s life and family

When and where was Shakespeare born?

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in 1564. The exact date of his birth isn't known, but it is generally celebrated on April 23. We do know that he was baptized on April 26, and it was common practice at the time to have an infant be baptized no later than the first Sunday after birth.

What was Shakespeare's education?

He likely attended the local grammar school, beginning at age 7, although he probably had learned his letters and basic reading before then. There is no record of him attending university.

Who were Shakespeare's parents and siblings?

Shakespeare's parents were John and Mary (neé Arden), who were married in about 1557.  William was the oldest surviving child; two infant daughters died before William was born. William's younger siblings were Gilbert (born in 1566), Joan (1569), Anne (1571), Richard (1574) and Edmund (1580). Ann died at the age of eight, but the others lived into their adulthoods.

Who was Shakespeare's wife?

Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway near the end of 1582, when he was 18 years old.  The exact date of Anne's birth is unknown, but she is thought to have been around 26 when they married.

Why did Shakespeare leave his wife his "second best bed"?

William Shakespeare wrote in his last will and testament, dated March 25, 1616, "Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture" (furniture is used to refer to the curtains and bedcover which formed part of the complete bed).

This was not an unusual bequest, nor was it likely to have been intended as a snub. The best bed was usually regarded as an heirloom piece, to be passed to the heir rather than the spouse. It is also probable that the best bed would have been reserved for guests, meaning the "second best" was the bed that William and Anne shared.

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 11 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.

When did Shakespeare die?

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 and was buried on April 25, 1616 in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.

What is the inscription on Shakespeare’s grave?

GOOD FREND FOR JESUS SAKE FORBEARE,
TO DIGG THE DUST ENCLOASED HEARE:
BLESTE BE Ye [the] MAN Yt [that] SPARES THES STONES,
AND CURST BE HE Yt [that] MOVES MY BONES.

Does Shakespeare have descendants?

William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway had three children.

The eldest, Susanna, was baptized on May 26, 1583, and married John Hall in 1607. They had one child, Elizabeth, in 1608. Elizabeth was married twice, to Thomas Nash in 1626, and to John Bernard in 1649. However, she had no children by either husband.

William and Anne also had twins, Judith and Hamnet, who were baptized on February 2, 1585. Hamnet died at age 11 and a half.

Judith married Thomas Quiney in 1616, and the couple had three sons: Shakespeare Quiney, who died in infancy, and Richard and Thomas, who both died in 1639 within a month of each other. Since neither of the boys married, there is no possibility of any legitimate descendants from Shakespeare's line.

It is possible, however, to claim a relationship to Shakespeare through his sister, Joan. She married William Hart some time before 1600 and there are many descendants of this marriage alive today, in both the male and female lines.

Did Shakespeare have a coat of arms?

Yes, William's father, John Shakespeare, was granted a coat of arms in 1596. It was disputed in 1602 by York Herald, Ralph Brooke, saying that the arms were too similar to existing coats of arms, and that the family was unworthy. However, the challenge seems to have been unsuccessful, as the Shakespeare crest appears in later collections of coats of arms and on William Shakespeare's funeral monument in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.

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Sketch of Shakespeare's Crest

Sketch of Shakespeare's coat of arms

Item Call Number: 
V.b.92
Item Date: 
ca. 1700

Shakespeare's works

Did Shakespeare write the plays and poems attributed to him?

Some have argued that a more noble writer was secretly behind the works attributed to Shakespeare; they doubt that someone without an aristocratic pedigree could have written the plays and poetry published under his name. Since the 19th 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.

In the century since these claims were first advanced, 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.

How many words did Shakespeare write?

According to Marvin Spevack's concordances, 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.

What is Shakespeare’s earliest play?

His earliest play is probably one of the three parts of King Henry VI (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), written between 1589–1591.

What is Shakespeare’s last play?

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

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.

What is the "First Folio"?

The First Folio is the first comprehensive collection of Shakespeare's plays, containing 36 of the 38 plays we now consider to be his. It was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, by some of the actors from his company. It was the first time a number of Shakespeare's plays, including Macbeth and As You Like It, were published at all. Without the First Folio we might have only about half of the plays that Shakespeare ever wrote.

How were Shakespeare's plays published before the First Folio?

Many of the plays were published during Shakespeare's lifetime as individual plays in a quarto format.

What are folios and quartos?

"Folio" and "quarto" refer to the number of times a sheet of paper has been folded for printing, and thus gives a rough indication of the size of the book.

A folio is a book for which the initial sheet of paper has been folded in half, providing two leaves and four pages (the front and back of each leaf) for printing.

A quarto is folded again, giving four leaves and eight pages.

How many First Folios still exist?

The easiest answer to this question is 233. Anthony West counts 232 in his 2001 census of First Folios. In 2014, a new copy was identified in France. But the full answer is more complicated: there are additional copies whose whereabouts aren’t currently known, and differentiating between a complete copy and a fragment of a First Folio can be tricky.

Who has the most First Folios?

The Folger Shakespeare Library has 82 First Folios, the most in one collection. Meisei University in Tokyo has the second largest collection, with 12.

Were there any other editions of the First Folio?

Four folio editions of the plays were published during the 17th century:

  • First Folio – 1623
  • Second Folio – 1632
  • Third Folio – 1664
  • Fourth Folio – 1685

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 Jaques’s speech in As You Like It (Act 2, scene 7, lines 145-46).

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
From Dick the butcher's speech in Henry VI, Part 2 (Act 4, scene 2, line 75).

"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 23-24).

"Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow"
From Juliet’s speech in Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, scene 2, lines 199-200).

"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.

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 one penny to get in and another penny if you wanted to sit in the balconies. By the early seventeenth century, the price of admission went up to about sixpence. 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 (24 pence), and a box could be had for half-a-crown (30 pence).

It’s a bit trickier to work out what those costs mean in today’s money: was a penny to get in cheap or expensive? Maybe the easiest way to think about this question is that it cost about 4 pence to provide food and drink for a grown man for one day.

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

Usually boys and young men 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" (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, lines 447–48), 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." [Act 2, scene 2, lines 451–53]), that would signal the end of female roles for him. Older men probably played female roles from time-to-time, including comic figures like Juliet's Nurse. In that case, they would probably shave off any beard.

Suggested readings

Shakespeare's Life

  • David Bevington. Shakespeare and Biography. Oxford, 2010.
  • Katherine Duncan-Jones. Shakespeare: an Ungentle Life. Arden, 2010.
  • Lois Potter. Life of William Shakespeare: A Critical Biography. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
  • James Shapiro. Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599. Simon & Schuster, 2010.
  • S. Schoenbaum. William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life. Oxford, 1975.
  • ____________. William Shakespeare, Records and Images. Oxford, 1981.

Shakespeare's Sonnets

  • Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Oxford, 2004.
  • Helen Vendler. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Harvard, 1997.
  • Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, eds. Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems. New Folger Library
  • Shakespeare, Simon & Schuster, 2006.
  • Colin Burrow, ed. The Complete Sonnets and Poems. The Oxford Shakespeare, 2002.
  • Katherine Duncan-Jones, ed. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Arden Shakespeare, 2010.

Shakespeare's Influence

  • Douglas Lanier. Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture. Oxford, 2002.
  • Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan. Shakespeare in America. Oxford, 2012.
  • Ania Loomba. Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism. Oxford, 2002.
  • Kim C. Sturgess. Shakespeare and the American Nation. Cambridge, 2007.
  • Gary Taylor. Reinventing Shakespeare: a Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present. Vintage, 1991.

Shakespeare and the theater

  • Andrew Gurr. The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642, 4th ed. Cambridge, 2009.
  • Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ichikawa. Staging in Shakespeare’s Theatres. Oxford, 2000.
  • Tiffany Stern. Documents of Performance in Early Modern England. Cambridge, 2009.

Shakespeare Filmography

  • Kenneth Rothwell. A History of Shakespeare on Screen: a Century of Film and Television, 2nd ed. Cambridge, 2009.
  • British Film Institute. Shakespeare, 16+ Source Guide (essay and bibliography).