Your Comprehensive Guide to Everything Shakespeare

shakespeare guide

William Shakespeare is perhaps the most celebrated playwright in history. Most of his work was written between 1589 and 1613 and is composed of 38 plays and 154 sonnets. His writing is known for being composed in the poetic form of blank verse, in an iambic pentameter style (most of the time his lines are unrhymed, with every other syllable emphasized).

Many doubt the ability of a common layman, from the small England “Stratford-upon-Avon,” to compose such literary masterpieces, leading to a debate over the authorship of his plays. However, today the works of William Shakespeare are the most performed of any playwright; his plays are constantly being analyzed, interpreted, and performed around the world. Below are some resources that Best Online College has put together to help you learn more about the famous “bard” and his literary masterpieces.

Cool Shakespeare FactsGeneral Shakespeare ResourcesLinks to Every Single Shakespeare Work OnlineLinks to Resources that Give Notes/Info/Explanations of Shakespeare PlaysShakespeare Festivals

Cool Shakespeare Facts

  • He invented words, among them “assassination.” (Absolute Shakespeare)
  • Nobody knows Shakespeare’s true birthday. (Absolute Shakespeare)
  • His parents, two of three of Shakespeare’s children, Judith and Suzanna were illiterate. (
  • According to some rumors, Shakespeare had an illegitimate son named William Davenant. (Theatre Database)
  • Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, was three months pregnant and eight years his senior at the time of their marriage. (PBS)
  • Shakespeare’s plays hold many of the first usages of modern common phrases, such as “in a pickle,” “vanish into thin air,” “love is blind,” and “like the dickens.” (English For Students)
  • The Shakespeare descendant line ended after his only granddaughter, Elizabeth, died childless (1670). (William Shakespeare)
  • In 1613, the original Globe Theatre burned to the ground when a cannon shot during a performance of Henry VIII ignited the thatched roof of the gallery.  (Shakespeare Resource Center)
  • It is believed that Shakespeare penned his first play Henry VI, Part One, between 1589 and 1590. Shakespeare would have been 25 at the time. (Shakespeare Resource Center)
  • In his will, Shakespeare left his wife his “second-best bed.” (Shakespeare Online)

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General Shakespeare Resources

Absolute Shakespeare: The essential resource site for William Shakespeare’s plays, sonnets, poems, quotes, biography, the legendary Globe Theatre and even a section discussing the authorship debate. There is also a complete biography, a timeline of Shakespeare’s life, and links to trivia quizzes.

The Literature Network: This network has extensive information about Shakespeare’s life and links to all of his plays and sonnets. There is also a section titled “Forum Discussions” that houses many interesting conversations relating to Shakespeare’s life and work.

Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet: This website has two main goals: to be an “annotated guide” to internet Shakespeare resources, and to “present unique Shakespeare material unavailable elsewhere.” These unique resources include a Shakespeare genealogy, reviews of other websites, CDs, and books, and a large archive of primary documents relating to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Resource Center: The Shakespeare Resource Center is a compilation of resources relating to Shakespeare, including links and a glossary to improve one’s understanding of Shakespeare’s language. It also includes a section detailing Elizabethan England, The Globe Theatre, and Shakespeare’s will.

William Shakespeare Info: This website includes some interesting additions to the basic information on Shakespeare. There is a “William Shakespeare Site Map,” interesting facts, and even a section on the “First Folio,” which was published after Shakespeare’s death.

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Links to Every Single Shakespeare Work Online


All’s Well That Ends Well: Problems arise when Helena, after curing the king’s illness, is rewarded with a marriage to the unwilling Count Bertram.

As You Like It: The plot follows Rosalind, a young woman who escapes persecution from her father by traveling into The Forest of Arden with her cousin and the court jester.

The Comedy of Errors: The Comedy of Errors depicts two sets of twin brothers who reunite by chance after being separated at birth.

Cymbeline: Cymbeline is a play concerning the Celtic king of Britain, Cunobelinus, and is often categorized as a “romance.”

Love’s Labours Lost: The King of Navarre and his three nobles, after taking a vow of celibacy and dedicating themselves to their studies, must host a princess and her ladies at court.

Measure for Measure: Measure for Measure deals with the themes of pride and humility through the tale of Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna.

The Merry Wives of Windsor: This play centers on Sir John Falstaff, an aging knight in Elizabethan England, who embarrassingly attempts to court three beautiful daughters.

The Merchant of Venice: The Merchant of Venice follows Antonio, a merchant, and Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. The play is well known for its anti-Semitic tendencies.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: One of Shakespeare’s most performed plays, this comedy reveals the dangers of a love potion gone terribly wrong after four lovers escape into the forest.

Much Ado About Nothing: A week before their wedding, a bride and groom decide to play the role of matchmaker for their friends, Beatrice and Benedick.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Pericles, after correctly solving a riddle revealing Antiochus’ incestuous relationship, flees the city under threat of death and has many adventures.

Taming of the Shrew: The Taming of Shrew chronicles Petruchio’s courtship of Katerina, a stubborn and rebellious woman, while suitors line up to marry her beautiful sister, Bianca.

The Tempest: After being usurped by his brother, Antonio, Prospero and his daughter travel to an island where Prospero becomes a skilled sorcerer.

Troilus and Cressida: This play depicts two lovers, Troilus and Cressida, whose love affair occurs in the midst of the Trojan War.

Twelfth Night: The Twelfth Night is set in Illria, follows Viola, a woman who disguises herself as a young page and falls into a bizarre love triangle.

Two Gentlemen of VeronaTwo Gentlemen of Verona depicts Valentine, a young man who leaves Verona to expand his horizons.

Winter’s Tale : King Leonte begs his longtime friend, King Polixenes, to extend his stay in his kingdom, only to be overcome with paranoia that Polixenes and his wife are involved in an affair.


Henry IV, part I : Henry IV, part 1 , follows a period in the life of king Henry IV of England, commencing with the battle of Homildon in 1402 and concluding with the battle at Shrewsbury, where the rebels are defeated.

Henry IV, part 2 : Henry IV, part 2 begins where Henry IV, part 1 ended, detailing Prince Hal’s quest for the throne, hindered by Falstaff.

Henry V : Henry V , based on the life of Henry V of England, centers on the Battle of Agincourt (during The Hundred Years’ War).

Henry VI, part 1 : Henry VI, part 1 depicts the events leading up to the War of Roses and England’s loss of French territories.

Henry VI, part 2 : Henry VI, part 2 focuses on Henry VI’s difficulties with his group of disputing nobles and the inevitable armed conflict between them.

Henry VI, part 3 : Henry VI, part 3 chronicles the nations descent into chaos as the armed conflict between the nobles intensifies.

Henry VIII : Henry VIII’s favoritism for ruthless and powerful Cardinal Wolsey creates problems in the court.

King John : When Richard I the first is killed by Austria, his younger brother John claims the crown; however, Constance believes her son Arthur should be king.

Richard II : Richard II is called upon to act as a judge in a dispute between his cousin and Thomas Mowbray.

Richard III : Richard III, a self-described ugly hunchback, is intensely jealous of his brother’s ascension to the throne and is willing to go to extreme lengths for possession of the crown.


Antony and Cleopatra : This play explores the complex interactions between Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt, and Mark Antony, a triumvir of Rome, and follows the disintegration of the triumvirate (whose members include Mark Antony, Octavian, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus).

Coriolanus : Coriolanus, based on the life of the Rome leader Gaius Marcius Coriolanus , follows his military downfall and exile from Rome.

Hamlet : As one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated tragedies, this play chronicles Prince Hamlet’s quest for revenge against his uncle Claudius while exploring the theme of true and feigned madness.

Julius Caesar : Julius Caesar follows the conspiracy and assassination of Roman emperor Julius Caesar.

King Lear : King Lear goes mad after unevenly dividing his estate among his three daughters.

Macbeth : After hearing a prophecy told by three witches, Macbeth murders many friends in order to become the King of Scotland.

Othello : This play follows the relationship between Othello and his lover, Desdemona, which slowly disintegrates as deceitful Iago plants jealously in Othello.

Romeo and Juliet : Perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most widely read tragedies, Romeo and Juliet chronicles the doomed affair of two “star-crossed lovers,” Romeo and Juliet.

Timon of Athens : Timon of Athens tells the tale of a wealthy Athenian gentleman who falls into distress after carelessly giving away all of his wealth.

Titus Andronicus : Commonly known as Shakespeare’s goriest play, Titus Andronicus describes a bloody cycle of retribution between a Roman general and his foe Tamara, the Queen of Goths.


The Sonnets : The Sonnets consist of 154 poems dealing with a variety of themes like love, mortality, and beauty.

A Lover’s Complaint : The narrative poem describes a woman weeping at a river, and when the speaker inquires, she recounts the story of her former lover who abandoned her.

The Rape of Lucrece : The Rape of Lucrece is a narrative poem describing the story of Lucretia’s rape.

Venus and Adonis : Venus and Adonis , written in 1593, offers different interpretations on the nature of love.

A Funeral Elegy : The authorship of this poem, an elegy for William Peter, is debated due to the fact that it was signed only as “W.S.”

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Links to Resources that Give Notes/Info/Explanations of Shakespeare Plays

eNotes : eNotes has a complete study guide available for all of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. The study guides include basic summaries and character lists. The website also provides extensive essay help; criticisms, essays, suggested essay topics, and suggested essay outlines are available.

Shakespeare Central from Cliffnotes : Cliffnotes offers a summary, analysis, and the original text for most of Shakespeare’s plays. In addition, for each play there are links to critical essays, along with character analysis and a character map.

Shakespeare Help : For selected Shakespeare plays, Shakespeare Help provides students with a multitude of resources to aid in understanding the text. There are links to YouTube videos, PowerPoint presentations, text help websites, and even online quizzes.

Shakespeare Online : Shakespeare Online offers the full text of all of Shakespeare’s works, including links to explanatory articles, quotations, plot summaries, and text analysis. The website includes links to sonnets (with a paraphrase), related books, and a glossary of terms.

Sparknotes : Sparknotes has an entire section devoted to Shakespeare, titled “No Fear Shakespeare.” For his most popular works, the website provides a “modern day version” of the text to compare side-by-side with the original. In addition, the website also provides a general synopsis, detailed plot summaries, character and text analysis, and a list of themes and motifs.

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Shakespeare Festivals

Chicago Shakespeare Festival : As the winner of the Regional Theatre Tony Award, the Chicago Shakespeare Festival is renowned for its year-round performances of both classical and diverse cultural Shakespeare performances. Its education program, Team Shakespeare, helps bring performances to schools across the Midwest.

Colorado Shakespeare Festival : This festival was ranked as one of the top in the United States by TIME Magazine. The professional troupe makes their home at University of Colorado at Boulder and their outdoor performances continue all summer long (June 15 to Mid-August).

Oregon Shakespeare Festival : Launched in 1935, this festival in Ashland, Oregon runs late February through October. The Oregon Shakespeare festival has more than 730 performances in three different theaters annually and runs a large program for theatre education.

San Francisco Shakespeare Festival : The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival has been operating since 1983 as a non-profit theatre organization. They host an annual “Free Shakespeare in the Park” festival, theatre camps for students ages 7-18, and have a “Shakespeare on Tour” program that brings performances to schools around the state.

Shakespeare by the Sea : Shakespeare by the Sea offers a unique opportunity to see Shakespeare’s plays performed among the historic military buildings of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The festival is also located by Point Pleasant, which offers magnificent views of the Atlantic Ocean.

Shakespeare in Central Park : Shakespeare in Central Park has been up and running since 1955, with their summer park performance season going from June through August. Tickets for park performances (held at the outdoor Delacorte Theatre) remain free due to generous public donations.

Stratford Festival of Canada : Drawing an audience of more than 600,000 each year, The Stratford Festival usually offers 12 plays over a period from April to September. The company’s mission is to ” seek to bring classical and contemporary theatre alive for an increasingly diverse audience.”

Utah Shakespeare Festival : Located in Cedar City, Utah, the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s mission statement is to “present professional repertory theatre that illuminates the human condition and that propels us to artistic excellence.” It is one of the oldest Shakespeare festivals in the nation and won the 2000 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre.

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