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Who is Shakespeare?

William Shakespeare was born in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, in 1564. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but today it is celebrated on April 23, which is the date of his death and, based on the record of his baptism, may very well also have been his birthday. Shakespeare's father was John Shakespeare, a glover, and his mother was Mary Arden, the daughter of a wealthy farmer.

Shakespeare probably attended what is now the Edward VI Grammar School. At age 18 he married a farmer's daughter, Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children: Susanna, born in 1583, and, two years later, the twins Hamnet (who died in childhood) and Judith. 

Nothing more is known of his life until 1592, when his earliest known play, the first part of Henry VI, became a hit in London, where Shakespeare had gone (without his family) to work as an actor.

Soon afterwards, an outbreak of the plague forced theatres to close temporarily, and Shakespeare turned for a while to writing poetry. By 1594 he was back in the theatre, acting with the Lord Chamberlain's Men. He quickly established himself as one of London's most successful dramatists, with an income that enabled him, in 1597, to buy a mansion back in Stratford. In 1599 he became a shareholder in London's newly built Globe Theatre. In 1603, Shakespeare's company was awarded a royal patent, becoming known as the King's Men.

Possibly as early as 1610, the playwright retired to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, living there and continuing to invest in real estate until his death on April 23, 1616. He is buried in the town's Holy Trinity Church.

In the first collected edition of his works in 1623, fellow playwright Ben Jonson called him a man "not of an age, but for all time." Not only did Shakespeare write some of the most popular plays of all time, but he was a very prolific writer, writing at least thirty-eight works in twenty-three years. Shakespeare enjoyed great popularity in his lifetime, and 450 years later, he is still the most produced playwright in the world. 

Have you noticed that Shakespeare's plays usually have a lot of characters? It's true, and it can sometimes feel daunting to figure out who's who. It's helpful to understand that the characters often come in groups, with different groups being featured in different parts of the plot.

Scroll below to meet some of these memorable characters.

Two families of Verona, the Montagues and the Capulets, are embroiled in a long-standing and deadly feud. One night, Romeo, a Montague, gate-crashes a party being given by the Capulets, in hopes of encountering Rosaline, with whom he is infatuated. Thoughts of her are driven from his mind, however, when he catches sight of Juliet, the daughter of Lord Capulet.


Juliet, whose father has promised her to a young nobleman, Paris, is likewise smitten with Romeo and agrees to marry him in a secret ceremony conducted by a well-intentioned priest, Friar Laurence. But no sooner is this done than Romeo is drawn into a brawl in which he kills Tybalt, Juliet's cousin. Under sentence of banishment, Romeo spends his wedding night with Juliet before going into hiding; meanwhile, Capulet orders Juliet to marry Paris within three days.


Friar Laurence devises a plan: Juliet will take a potion that will make her appear to be dead, allowing Romeo to steal into her family vault and rescue her when she revives. But the message explaining this to Romeo goes astray, and he, believing Juliet to be truly dead, commits suicide over her seemingly lifeless body. Awakening to find her husband dead beside her, Juliet too kills herself, leaving both families to mourn their children and abandon their feud.


Did You Know?

There is a long history of tragic love stories and bits from many of them may have informed the story of the "star-cross'd lovers."

In the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid's Metamorphoses, the parents of the lovers are bitterly divided and Pryamus falsely believes that Thisbe is dead; he kills himself and when Thisbe discovers his body, she stabs herself with his sword. 

Although Shakespeare may have taken the names of the two households from Dante's Divine Comedy, a story very similar to that used by Shakespeare was contained in a collection of tales by Masuccio Salernitano. The lovers have different names but many of the plot elements - the secret marriage, the aid provided by a friar, the exile of Mariotto (Romeo) and the message that is never delivered - are all contained in Salernitano's Mariotto e Gianozza.

Salernitano's story was adapted by Liugi da Porto as Giulietta e Romeo (published in 1531). He set the story in Verona, used the name Laurence for the friar and introduced many of the characters well-known in Shakespeare's play: Mercutio, Tybalt, Count Paris and the nurse.

Shakespeare likely knew a poem written by Arthur Brooke (published in 1562 and later reprinted in 1587) called "The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet" based on a collection of stories or novelles written by Matteo Bandello (1480 to 1562). He may also have been familiar with the Histoires tragiques of Pierre Boaistuau (published in Paris in 1559).

Brooke began his poem with a sonnet that summarized the plot:

Love hath inflamed twain by sudden sight,
And both do grant the thing that both desire
They wed in shrift by counsel of a friar.
Young Romeus climbs fair Juliet's bower by night.
Three months he doth enjoy his chief delight.
By Tybalt's rage provoked unto ire,
He payeth death to Tybalt for his hire.
A banished man he 'scapes by secret flight.
New marriage is offered to his wife.
She drinks a drink that seems to reave her breath:
They bury her that sleeping yet hath life.
Her husband hears the tidings of her death.
He drinks his bane. And she with Romeus' knife,
When she awakes, herself, alas! she slay'th.
"The Argument" in The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke

While there are obviously many elements that Shakespeare used in his Romeo and Juliet, he did not adopt all of Brooke's outcomes including the banishment of the nurse, the hanging of the apothecary and the removal of Friar Laurence to a hermit's cell for the rest of his life.

Boaistuau's Histoires tragiques included a series of stories, the third of which was titled Histoire troisieme de deux Amants, dont l'un mourut de venin, l'autre de tristesse ("third history of two lovers, one who died of poison and the other of sadness"). The book was translated into English by William Paynter in his collection of stories titled The Palace of Pleasure, originally published in 1566 and later updated and expanded in 1575.

In addition to their influence on Romeo and Juliet, the stories of Matteo Bandello were used as a springboard for the whole or parts of Cymbeline, Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night.

Themes and Motifs in Romeo and Juliet

• Young love, courtship and marriage
• Fate vs. free will
• Rebellion and retribution
• Language and communication
• Social graces
• Freedom and choice
• Adults versus adolescents (generation gap)
• Light vs. dark
• Love vs. hate
• Public vs. private
• Life vs. death





The Stratford Adventure

This 1954 Oscar-nominated film follows the founding of the Festival: how the idea grew, how a famous British director, international stars and Canadian talent were recruited, and how the Festival finally became a triumphant reality.