Who Was William Shakespeare? - An Introduction tothe Life and Works
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More About This Title Who Was William Shakespeare? - An Introduction tothe Life and Works


A new study of Shakespeare’s life and times, which illuminates our understanding and appreciation of his works.

  • Combines an accessible fully historicised treatment of both the life and the plays, suited to both undergraduate and popular audiences
  • Looks at 24 of the most significant plays and the sonnets through the lens of various aspects of Shakespeare’s life and historical environment
  • Addresses four of the most significant issues that shaped Shakespeare’s career:  education, religion, social status, and theatre
  • Examines theatre as an institution and the literary environment of early modern London
  • Explains and dispatches conspiracy theories about authorship


Dympna Callaghan is William L. Safire Professor of Modern Letters at Syracuse University and President of the Shakespeare Association of America, 2012–13. She is the editor of the Arden Shakespeare Language and Writing Series and coeditor, with Michael Dobson, of the Palgrave Shakespeare Studies series. Her publications include Shakespeare Without Women (2000), The Taming of the Shrew: A Norton Critical Edition (2009), Shakespeare’s Sonnets (2007), The Impact of Feminism in English Renaissance Culture (2006), and Romeo and Juliet: Texts and Contexts (2003).


Note on the Text ix

Acknowledgments xi

Part I The Life 1

1 Who was William Shakespeare? 3

2 Writing 23

3 Religion 47

4 Status 61

5 Theatre 79

Part II The Plays 97

6 Comedies: Shakespeare’s Social Life 99

The Comedy of Errors 99

The Taming of the Shrew 108

Love’s Labour’s Lost 119

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 125

The Merchant of Venice 132

Much Ado About Nothing 138

As You Like It 146

Twelfth Night, Or What You Will 153

Measure for Measure 159

7 English and Roman Histories: Shakespeare’s Politics 177

Richard II 177

1 Henry IV 182

Henry V 192

Richard III 198

Julius Caesar 204

Coriolanus 210

8 Tragedies: Shakespeare in Love and Loss 223

Romeo and Juliet 223

Hamlet 232

Othello 241

King Lear 252

Macbeth 260

Antony and Cleopatra 266

9 Romances: Shakespeare and Theatrical Magic 277

The Winter’s Tale 277

The Tempest 284

Index 295


“[A] highly readable introduction to the Life and Works, in the best tradition of that ancient and worthy genre. It is furthermore a piece of New Historical criticism at its sober best … With such impressive scholarly credentials, [Callaghan] is more than well equipped to provide original and perceptive introductions to Shakespeare’s life and works. But this is no mere mechanical life-and-works primer, like the dozens already available on the market and on college bookshop shelves … This [is a] substantial work of criticism, presented as an introduction to Shakespeare the man and his work, but amounting to considerably more than mere introduction. Dympna Callaghan meets admirably the challenge she set herself in the bold question of the title: who was William Shakespeare? For she shows us very well indeed who he was – and is – and why.”(Cercles, 1 June 2014)

Featured in Times Literary Supplement - 25 October 2013

"Dympna Callaghan's lucid and well-structured textbook allows students to see the plays in their context." (Times Literary Supplement, 25 October 2013)

"The book should interest readers who are curious about Shakespeare's life and the social and political history of England. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers." (Choice,  1 August 2013)


“This is a great introduction to Shakespeare and his plays for undergraduates, in particular.  Dympna Callaghan writes lucid, lively prose, and she explains complex historical points clearly.  There is no mystification here, and students should find this an inviting guide to Shakespeare as a dramatist embedded in a particular historical moment.”—Jean Howard, Columbia University

“This is a thoroughly excellent book which deserves to be widely read by scholars, students and the general public”—Andrew Murphy, University of St Andrews

“In ‘Who Was William Shakespeare?’ one of our leading Shakespearean critics goes back to the fundamentals of Shakespearean scholarship, and rethinks the entire Shakespeare canon in the light of the world and the life from which it was fashioned. This is a book for anyone, expert or otherwise, who has ever marvelled at Shakespeare’s plays and wondered about the experiences and the assumptions that inform them.” —Michael Dobson, University of Birmingham