By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The first attempts at biographical research were not begun until over half a century after Shakespeare's death, and are therefore not based on first-hand accounts. Few biographies, even of the famous, were written during the period. Also, though it may seem odd today, drama was not considered serious literature at the time, so dramatists in general were not considered to be worthy subjects of writing.

In addition, the theaters were closed by the Puritans in 1642, 36 years after Shakespeare's death, with the result that many records and manuscripts were lost.

Nonetheless, we know a surprising number of facts about Shakespeare and his theatrical enterprises, and we can make additional inferences based on the lives of similar people. Of course, there are also many legends, which tend to gather around famous people.

Facts* about Shakespeare...

Although little is known about Shakespeare the man, much more is known about him than about many of his contemporaries. Public records enable us to reconstruct the framework of his life, such as his baptism, marriage, and death, and many of his business and legal transactions. There are also a number of specifically theatrical documents that record facts about him.

More personal information may be gleaned from stories told about him by his contemporaries, and some information is also available through allusions to Shakespeare in the work of other writers of his time.

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Inferences* we can reasonably make about his life...

While the facts are fewer than we might like, there is much we have learned about the life of people like Shakespeare, such as their schooling and their domestic lives. We know about life in Stratford and in the growing city of London.

Many theater records survive, and even from those that do not specifically mention Shakespeare, we can learn much about his activities in the theater.

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Legends...*

Because of the lack of personal information about Shakespeare's life, there are many apocryphal stories about him both as man and as writer. There is also a great deal of room for interesting speculation about him.

In the material that follows, legend and speculation are carefully labelled so that they can be kept separate from factual information and well-informed inferences.

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Who wrote about Shakespeare?

With the single exception of Ben Jonson, we know more about Shakespeare than about any other major dramatist of the period. Jonson wrote extensively about Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is known to have acted in some of his plays.

You can consult brief biographies of Shakespeare's contemporaries.

Footnotes

  1. Facts

    Although little is known about Shakespeare the man, much more is known about him than about many of his contemporaries. Public records enable us to reconstruct the framework of his life, such as his baptism, marriage, and death, and many of his business and legal transactions. There are also a number of specifically theatrical documents that record facts about him.

    More personal information may be gleaned from stories told about him by his contemporaries, and some information is also available through allusions to Shakespeare in the work of other writers of his time.

  2. Inferences about Shakespeare's life

    While the facts are fewer than we might like, there is much we have learned about the life of people like Shakespeare, such as their schooling and their domestic lives. We know about life in Stratford and in the growing city of London.

    Many theater records survive, and even from those that do not specifically mention Shakespeare, we can learn much about his activities in the theater.

  3. Legends

    Because of the lack of personal information about Shakespeare's life, there are many apocryphal stories about him both as man and as writer. There is also a great deal of room for interesting speculation about him.

    In the material that follows, legend and speculation are carefully labelled so that they can be kept separate from factual information and well-informed inferences.