By Robert W. Butler
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English poet, playwright, and actor. Shakespeare wrote
approximately 38 plays and 154 sonnets. In this informational text, Robert W. Butler discusses the course of
Shakespeare’s career and his success. As you read, take notes on what contributed to the success of
Many people consider Shakespeare the greatest
writer in the English language. His legions1
admirers point with awe to the rhythm of his words
and the wide range of human emotions he portrays
and evokes. But has Shakespeare always been so
popular? And how did an Elizabethan2
actor-turnedplaywright become a world-famous figure?
From the start, Shakespeare was popular among the
English. Shortly after his death, his plays were
published in a collection known as the First Folio
(1623), with a poem by Ben Jonson included that
featured the lines, “He was not of an age, but for all
time!” The memory of Shakespeare remained strong
among audiences as well, since his plays were
produced regularly by many companies. But, in 1642,
during the English Civil War, the theaters of London were closed by order of the government and remained so
for 18 years. By the time they reopened in 1660, styles had changed. The court of the new king wanted a more
elegant, refined, classical world, and Shakespeare struck them as coarse in his language and careless in his
plots. His comedies, in particular, fell out of favor as the years passed.
By the 1700s, however, a turnaround had begun. The first new edition of his plays in nearly a century, along
with the first biography ever written, appeared in 1709 and immediately sparked a Shakespeare revival. Despite
continuing questions about his style, which led many producers to cut or alter his plays (sometimes even
writing new endings for them), audiences were enthusiastic. Great performances also helped. David Garrick, the
greatest actor of the century, and Sarah Siddons, the greatest actress, were both enthusiastic Shakespeare
supporters and starred in many of his plays at the Drury Lane Theatre. In the 1800s, Shakespeare’s popularity
soared. Multivolume editions of his plays were published, exuberant3
productions and extravagant sets
supported stars such as Fanny Kemble and Edmund Kean, and touring companies brought small-scale versions
of Shakespeare to towns and villages everywhere.
- Legion (noun) a great number of people or things
- describing someone or something from the period of Queen Elizabeth I’s rule
- Exuberant (adjective) filled or characterized by great energy and excitement
In the 20th century, Shakespeare remained as popular as ever, with actors such as Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John
Gielgud, and Kenneth Branagh bringing his characters to life. Students around the world now read Shakespeare
in literature classes, and his plays are sometimes staged in modern-day costume to emphasize his significance
to today’s world.
 More remarkable is the story of Shakespeare’s popularity in other lands.
News of Shakespeare’s talent spread even during his lifetime. Occasionally, a foreign merchant or diplomat saw
a Shakespearean production. In 1601, the Russian ambassador was present when Twelfth Night was first
performed. Traveling companies of English actors staged some of Shakespeare’s plays in Germany and Poland
while the playwright was still alive. But it was the great French author Voltaire who truly popularized
Shakespeare beyond English shores in the 1730s. From that time onward, Shakespeare’s works have been
extensively studied and performed around the world.
In America, copies of the plays are believed to have circulated in the late 1600s, and the first performance was
Romeo and Juliet in the early 1700s. A century later, Americans practically worshiped Shakespeare. Philosopher
and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson called him “the first poet of the world.” In the 1900s, Shakespeare’s works were
being translated and printed in India, Africa, China, and Japan.
In the 20th century, a new medium inspired countless variations on the Shakespeare canon: the movies. Some
have been filmed as recreated plays, such as Romeo and Juliet (1968) or Henry V (1989). Others were adapted
stories in modern settings such as West Side Story (1961) or Richard III (1995). Still others were transposed4
stories in a completely different land and culture such as Ran (1985), a Japanese tale of samurai based mostly
on King Lear.
Whether recorded or live, the performance of a major Shakespeare role is traditionally seen as the ultimate test
of an actor’s ability. From Richard Burbage in the 1500s to Ian McKellen and Judi Dench today, the greatest
actors are those who are able to master Shakespeare. By itself, this is the most enduring tribute to the
theatrical talent of William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon.
- to transfer to a different place or context
Directions: Brainstorm your answers to the following questions in the space provided. Be prepared to
share your original ideas in a class discussion.
- William Shakespeare’s plays explore various themes, including love and morality. Do you
think that Shakespeare’s plays still have value today, despite being hundreds of years old?
Do you think that Shakespeare’s messages about the themes listed could ever become
- In the context of the text, what contributed to William Shakespeare’s success as a
playwright and poet? Why do you think his work continues to be so popular today? Do you
think any of the plays, poems, or songs created today will be popular in 400 years?