Introduction to William Shakespeare

This lesson encourages you to explore the timeless themes, characters, and poetic language in works by William Shakespeare.


The other author in Stepanov's recommended short canon, which he did not cover in his "Civilizing the Barbarians" course, was William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's identity is widely debated among scholars and experts. Some believe that a "William Shakespeare" (sometimes spelled "Shakspere") from Stratford-upon-Avon is the true author of the plays and poems attributed to the famous Shakespeare. Others propose that the writer behind the famous works used the name "William Shakespeare" (sometimes hyphenated as Shake-speare) as a pen name. Among those in this camp, some believe the true author was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, while others suggest it was the author Francis Bacon or the playwright Christopher Marlowe. There are also theories that suggest Shakespeare was a group of writers. Due to the mystery of his true identity, little can be definitively said about Shakespeare's personal life. Regardless, the enduring legacy of his works speaks for itself. Rather than focusing on the biographical details of Shakespeare's life, it is more important to appreciate the timeless themes, characters, and poetic language that can be found in his plays and sonnets.

An excellent introductory lecture on Shakespeare's writing is available from Dr. Tim McGee, who teaches high school literature courses to students in grades 9-12, including AP English. If you enjoy Dr. McGee's style, you can find hundreds more lectures of great authors and great works on his YouTube channel and on his website,

In the lecture titled, "AP, Intro to Shakespeare, Part 1," McGee reintroduces his senior AP high school class to the study of Shakespeare. Students in his class may have begun their study of Shakespeare in their 9th grade (freshman) year, but now he is able to provide a deeper introduction to a more mature group of students.

In this lecture, McGee delves directly into the study of Shakespeare by first providing some historical facts about Shakespeare's work. He discusses Shakespeare's role as an Elizabethan playwright during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and how her patronage of the theater and emphasis on education played a significant role in the development of Elizabethan drama and the shaping of Shakespeare's work. Then, McGee provides a detailed introduction to the low-brow and high-brow audiences that Shakespeare was writing for. Throughout the lecture, McGee cites examples from some of Shakespeare's most popular plays. McGee's primary examples will come from the play Hamlet, which is believed to have been produced on stage for the first time in 1600.

Next, McGee shares the presence of the debates about the specifics of Shakespeare's life and the creation of his work. He imagines how if we were to travel back in time to 1600 and tell Shakespeare that by our time he would be considered the greatest writer in the history of any language, Shakespeare would likely have laughed at you. McGee says that Shakespeare did not write for fame, but rather for money, and understood that his plays were meant to be watched, not read.

McGee calls Shakespeare's low-brow audience the Groundlings because they could not afford seats and had to stand on the ground to watch the performance. To please the Groundlings, Shakespeare included plenty of audience-pleasing elements such as blood and guts, dirty jokes, and swearing. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, the play opens with a monumental fight and a scene where one of the actors is covered in blood. Similarly, in Hamlet, the play opens with a ghost that is sure to freak out the audience. In every single Shakespeare play, there is some element of blood and guts. Citing another example from Romeo and Juliet, McGee discusses how the two families, the Capulets and the Montagues, are fighting in the first place due to dirty sex jokes.

Next, McGee discusses how modern audiences can easily miss certain elements in Shakespeare's plays, as the references and language used may be unfamiliar to them. For example, in the play Hamlet, there is a reference to a "nymph" when Hamlet calls Ophelia a nymph. To us today, this may mean nothing, but in Shakespeare's time, a nymph was a beautiful model from the waist up and a hideous serpent snake from the waist down. She would swim in the waters and ask sailors to jump into the ocean where they would make love to them and then drown them. This reference, and others like it from Shakespeare's time, can be lost on modern audiences. McGee assures his listeners that the nymph reference would have been quite shocking and powerful in Shakespeare's time. For another example, in the play Macbeth, Shakespeare invents the phrase "cutthroat" to refer to a murderer. In modern times, we think of "cutthroat" as a type of trout, but before it was the name of a fish, it was the name of an assassin.

One way to avoid missing references like these, which McGee doesn't mention in his lecture, is to read Shakespeare using the "No Fear Shakespeare" series. This series provides the full original text of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets side-by-side with translations into modern English. This allows readers to understand the text in its original form while also having access to a more modern interpretation. This can be incredibly helpful for those who are not familiar with the language and references used in Shakespeare's works. Additionally, No Fear Shakespeare includes notes and explanations that give context to certain words, phrases and references that may be unfamiliar to modern readers. Overall, using this series can be an effective tool for understanding and engaging with Shakespeare's plays in a deeper way.

After McGee talks about how Shakespeare attracted low-brow audiences to his plays, he transitions over to discuss how he also attracted high-brow audiences and how Shakespeare's fame and position in the Western Canon came about due to his ability to please both groups. McGee stresses that Shakespeare is considered an important figure in literature today because of the second audience he wrote for, the philosophic audience, the intellectual audience, and the thinking audience. Shakespeare's plays are known for asking important questions about life and sometimes providing complex, contradictory answers. This is why we study Shakespeare today, to analyze the ways in which he asks these important questions and to understand the ways in which he answers them. Additionally, understanding the Socratic nature of Shakespeare's work and the ways in which he asks questions about existence is essential to fully understanding the plays. It is important to remember that if you come to the plays of Shakespeare looking for all the answers, you will be sorely disappointed, but if you come to the plays of Shakespeare ready to analyze the ways in which Shakespeare asks important questions about life and existence, you will gain a deeper understanding of the plays.

In conclusion, studying Shakespeare can be a challenging task as his plays were not written for us and the language used can be difficult to understand. McGee advises students to overcome the challenge of studying Shakespeare by inverting the traditional approach of reading the plays first and watching the performances later. Instead, he suggests starting out with a plot summary to understand the story, then watching a performance to gain insight into how professional actors interpret the lines, and only then returning to read the play, pausing to make observations along the way. McGee says this approach will help you understand the plays better and appreciate the nuances in Shakespeare's language. Additionally, try using resources such as the "No Fear Shakespeare" series, which provides the original text alongside modern translations. Using these suggestions, you may begin to scratch the surface of Shakespeare's literary genius and there is much more to be discovered. Hopefully, you can use this introduction to inform your study of Shakespeare and enjoy his plays for the rest of your life.

Watch Tim McGee's "AP, Intro to Shakespeare, Part 1":