British Literature

Author Bio: William Shakespeare


William Shakespeare


"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts..." (As You Like It, 2.7.142-145)

The world knows William Shakespeare.  Author of the most beloved plays and poems in the English language, Shakespeare’s name has become a household word.  To speak it is to conjure up murderous villains, court jesters, hapless heroes, and fated lovers.  His is Macbeth, Hamlet, Brutus and Cassius, Romeo and Juliet, Prince Hal and his beloved Falstaff, Katherine the Shrew and her rough match Petruchio.  The world’s a stage, and these faces continue to strut and fret, timeless in their moment, eternal in their utterance.  So profound is the influence Shakespeare has had on the world through his art that his characters have become types, his plots patterns for other artists, his linguistics and syntax the stuff of style books.  Yet, few know that this towering author was born humbly and educated in public grammar schools through only the eighth grade.  Fewer still realize that he curated his spectacular stories from other literary narratives and history books. 

Third of eight children born to a glovemaker, William exceeded all expectations.  He married an older woman at the age of 19, one Anne Hathaway of Stratford.  Together they produced three children, two of them twins.  In the late 1500’s, Shakespeare ventured to London to pursue a career in acting and playwriting.  A member of Christopher Marlowe’s theater, and shortly thereafter James Burbage’s theater, he gained reputation and experience, coming to understand both the art and the audience it drew. 

He published poems such as Venus and Adonis (1592) before turning to theater with his The Comedy of Errors and Henry VI.  Contemporary reviews belie the envious admiration he inspired in his peers, who called him “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.”  By 1594, Shakespeare had composed five plays, which he performed with Burbage’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Recognizing genius, Burbage made him partner.  During this time, he wrote the parts of Romeo, Prince Hal, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth to be performed by Burbage’s son, Richard, who certainly had no notion of the great honor accorded to him in originating these historic roles.  While popular plays in Shakespeare’s time narrated ancient histories, William staged the history of the English people, in this way not only preserving the nation’s history, but in a real sense authoring it.  In narrating the stories, he influenced how particular historic figures would be remembered by future generations.  Was Richard III as dastardly as Shakespeare paints him?  He will ever be remembered so.  Was Prince Hal so cold to his friend, Falstaff?  Shakespeare didn’t merely record the histories of his people, he turned them into art, shaping his narratives to highlight themes, develop ideas, and censure behaviors accordingly.  Thus, in a real sense, he contributed largely to the sensibilities and self-perception of the English people. 

When Burbage lost his lease on the land that held his theater, he and his men deconstructed the theater in the secret of night and erected a new theater, the Globe, on the other side of the Thames.  There Shakespeare staged As You Like It, Henry V, and Julius Caesar.  When in 1601, the Earl of Southampton commissioned him to stage Richard II, he was accused of treason against the crown of Queen Elizabeth; however, he escaped with merely a hand slap from her majesty.  Essex, the leader of the coup, was executed and Southampton imprisoned.  Yet, Shakespeare, the upstart crow, remained the darling of the hour.  When Queen Elizabeth died, James I became the patron of Shakespeare’s company, which became known as the King’s Men.  It was for this Scottish king that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, and observant viewers will discover in the character Banquo’s mirror an homage to James’s crown.  The subject of the story, an ambitious soldier that usurps the throne and reigns in tyrrany until his betters put him down, seems a conscious effort to assure the king of his own devotion to the Lord’s chosen monarch. 

At 47, Shakespeare retired, returning to Stratford to build his family a house considered lavish in his day.  Although he continued to write until his death, he never returned to the London theater.  He died in 1614 at the age of 52 and is buried in the local church, where his resting place is marked with the crude epitaph: 

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,

To dig the dust encloased heare:

Blese be the man who spares thes stones,

And curst be he who moves my bones.


His artistic peers eulogized him, Ben Jonson perhaps most eloquently, who, doubting not his genius, wrote, “He was not for an age, but for all time.”

Shakespeare’s friends collected and published his works posthumously in 1623 in the First Folio.  Some of the plays it contains differ from previous manuscripts, since these exist largely from what men were able to copy down and actors themselves remembered from viewing and acting in the stage plays. 



Evans, G. Blakemore.  The Riverside Shakespeare.  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974. editors. “William Shakespeare” The website, 5 August,

2017,  8 Nov. 2017. 


Bevington, David, John Russell Brown, and Terence John Bew Spencer.  “William Shakespeare – English

Author.” website,  8 November, 2017. 

Author Bio: Jane Austen


Jane Austen

December 16, 1775 – July 18, 1817

Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another.
— Emma

Born in 1775, during the reign of King George III of England, novelist Jane Austen is now widely regarded as the crown jewel of British Regency Period literature.  Her six novels, Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), all of which achieved recognition after her death, caricatured 18th c. England’s upper class and satirized their complex social mores. 

She was born to George and Cassandra Austen, and one of 8 siblings.  Her sister, Cassandra, was her best friend; the majority of what is known of her is the result of Cassandra’s notes.  So too must we blame Cassandra for the silence that surrounds her, since she destroyed many of Jane’s letters in an effort to preserve her privacy from both the family and the public eye. 

Jane was born in Steventon in December of 1775, where she remained for the majority of her short life.  Her father, a rector and teacher, was largely responsible for her education.  She enjoyed a close relationship with her brother Henry, who became her literary agent.  She began writing at the age of eleven.  Her earliest work, a collection of three notebooks entitled Juvenalia, contains her novels Love and Friendship and Lady Susan

Although Jane espoused marriage and romantic love as her major themes, she herself never married.  In a letter to her niece, she warned against marrying for social and economic reasons, arguing, “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.”  Her sentiments marked a sea change in general sentiiments regarding the honorable purpose of marriage.  The effects of her influence in this regard are still visible in 21st c. culture. 

Today, however, Austen’s novels are still read for their amiable and realistic portrayal of human nature.  A 19th c. Realist, Austen satirized the popular Sentimentalist and Gothic novels of her own day, preferring instead to present a realistic, if comic portrayal of the world. 

Austen remains the originator and master of romantic comedy as a genre.  Her varying use of narration and dialogue were ground breaking as was her participation, as a woman, in writing comedic novels.  During her lifetime, she published anonymously, identifying herself only as “A Lady.”  This obfuscation indicates the groundbreaking nature of her significant contribution to literature.

Austen died in 1817 at the age of 42 and is buried at Winchester Cathedral.  Her brother memorialized her passing in verse:

"In her, rare union, were combined a fair form, and a fairer mind;
Hers fancy quick, and clear good sense,
And wit which never gave offence;
A heart as warm as ever beat, A temper even; calm & sweet.
Though quick & keen her mental eye Poor nature's foibles to espy,
And seemed for [ever?] on the watch,
Some trails of ridicule to catch
Yet not a word she ever penned
Which hurt the feelings of a friend."


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