Shakespeare: Known and Unknown

First Folio of William Shakespeare's plays at the Victoria & Albert Museum
By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World via Wikimedia Commons

William Shakespeare is the most famous writer in the English language. He lived more than 400 years ago, but people still read his poetry and plays today. Christy VanArragon and Colin Lowther look at Shakespeare’s life.

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Voice 1  

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Christy VanArragon.

Voice 2  

And I’m Colin Lowther. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1

A guard stands alone on the outer walls of a castle. It is very dark. A bright torch burns above him. But it does not give enough light. He cannot see through the darkness. He shivers with the cold. He holds a long spear. It has a sharp metal point at the end. But he cannot keep this weapon still, as a guard should. He is supposed to be a brave soldier. But the cold and dark of this night make him afraid. Suddenly, there is a noise to his right. He turns and waves his weapon wildly about.

Voice 2  

The guard shouts, “Who is there?” But it is only his friend, Francisco. Both are soldiers of Claudius, King of Denmark. And both are frightened. Perhaps they saw something frightening. Perhaps they saw a ghost!

Voice 1  

Of course, there never was a King Claudius of Denmark. Francisco, and the soldier are not real people. This is the first part of a very famous play, called Hamlet. Today’s Spotlight is on its writer, William Shakespeare.

Voice 2  

William Shakespeare is possibly the most famous writer of the English language. Many people who speak English have heard or read his plays. Some learn the words to his sonnets, special poems with 14 lines. There are celebrations of his work all around the world. Some actors only act in his plays. To many people Shakespeare is no longer a man. William Shakespeare has become a legend. He is like the heroes in his plays.

Voice 1  

Shakespeare wrote his plays and poems 400 years ago, in the early 1600s. He was popular during his life. But few writers are still popular after so many years! However, after more than 400 years, we do not know very much about Shakespeare. Bill Bryson is a writer. He wrote a book about Shakespeare’s life. In his book, he said,

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“There remains much we do not know about William Shakespeare. We do not know, for example, exactly how many plays he wrote. We cannot even tell in what order he wrote them.”

Voice 2  

No one has much information about Shakespeare, but we do know some facts. He was born in 1564 at a place called Stratford-upon-Avon, England. He married a woman named Anne Hathaway when he was 18 years old. Some years after that, he left Stratford. He moved to London. There he joined a theatre group called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He began as an actor. But he also wrote plays. Soon, he and his friends became very popular. They performed especially for Queen Elizabeth, who ruled England. Shakespeare even wrote a play especially for the next ruler, James the First. This play was called Macbeth.

Voice 1  

Shakespeare’s first plays were about English history. For example, Henry the 5th is about a war between the French and the English. But Shakespeare also wrote very funny plays, called comedies. His most famous plays are tragedies, like Hamlet. These plays deal with difficult situations, with love, desire, and revenge. Often they do not end happily. In Hamlet, the hero kills his father’s murderer. But he, and many people he cares about, die in the process.

Voice 2  

Shakespeare died in 1616 at Stratford-upon-Avon. In 52 years, he wrote about 38 plays, and hundreds of poems. Shakespeare was popular when he was alive. But after he died, something unexpected happened. People continued to perform Shakespeare’s plays. At that time, most people did not read, but they remembered his beautiful language. Instead of forgetting about him, people decided they had not seen enough of Shakespeare! Shakespeare never disappeared. Today, people enjoy Shakespeare’s plays all around the world. Shakespeare lovers visit his hometown. They even go to visit where he was buried.

Voice 1  

People who want to read one of Shakespeare’s plays have to understand a very special kind of English. Shakespeare’s English was not like the English people speak today. He used words that people do not use today. For example, the words ‘orgulous’ and ‘impeticos’! Even many native English speakers do not understand him. This may also be because he invented many words.

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The English language is very different now, but this is partly because of William Shakespeare. His writing influenced the English language. People still use his words and sayings. Hephzibah Anderson of BBC Culture says,

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“During Shakespeare’s 52 years on earth he expanded the English language in ways that are difficult to estimate. Without him, our words would be just so different. He gave us special ways of expressing hope and depression, sadness and anger.  Even if you have never read his work, you may have used his words. It is very difficult to avoid.”

Voice 1  

Shakespeare is not just important to English speakers. Today, people perform his plays in nearly every language. And he is just as important in other cultures. Germany has a long history of performing Shakespeare’s plays. Heinrich Heine was a German writer. He lived in the early 1800s. He said,

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“The Germans have understood Shakespeare better than the English.”

Voice 2  

Some cultures use Shakespeare’s stories, but do not use his words.  They write them again, but in different times or places. Akira Kurosawa was a famous Japanese film maker. He filmed his own versions, or adaptations, of Shakespeare’s plays. But instead of the history of England, he made them about the history of Japan. He also added elements of an ancient Japanese theatre to his film, called Noh. The result is a mixture. People can recognize Shakespeare. But they can also see that the films are from Kurosawa.

Voice 1  

There is probably not just one reason why Shakespeare remains so popular through the world. Some say it is because of the beautiful language that he uses. Others say it is because he is an important part of English history. By now his work is part of English tradition. But perhaps it is because Shakespeare understood human life. He wrote about situations that affect all people at any time and place. He wrote about families, about conflict, and about love. It has been over 400 years since he was born. But when people watch his plays, it is as if the world has not changed. There are parts of his writing that readers will always understand. And in this, he needs no translation.

Voice 2  

The writer of this program was Dan Christmann. The producer was Bruce Gulland. The producer was Luke Haley. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted and voiced by Spotlight. You can find our programs on the internet at This program is called ‘Shakespeare: Known and Unknown.’

Voice 1  

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

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Have you heard of Shakespeare? Have you seen any of his plays? If you could see one of his plays, which one would it be?


Kaleb Kolaibi's avatar
Kaleb Kolaibi
said on May 31, 2016

Shakespeare is the more famous writer and poet in the world.
Not only people who speaking English heard and read of Shakespeare, I heard of him from a long time (when I at school) and read of him by Arabic language. I read some of his work, especialy “Romio and Juliet”, “hamelt” and “othello”.

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on June 01, 2016

From: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To: spotlight programme
Subject: answer to the question above
Date: Wednesday 01, June 2016
São Paulo SP Brazil

Dear Christy VanArrangon, Colin Lowther, Dan Christmann, Bruce Gulland, and Luke Haley:

First of all, I want to thank you to produce this important article for us readers and learners of English. Thanks!
Yes, I have. No, I have never seen any of his plays. I would like to see any one of them his plays.

Yours regards,
Severino Ramos

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said on June 04, 2016

I know Shakespeare through his famous tragedy play named ROMEO and JIULET.It’s very emotional love story no one forget.I feel happy his play has been played in many place in the world until now.

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said on October 27, 2016

Hello everybody.
I’ve heard a lot about Shakespeare lately. He had been very interesting person,I think.
Few months ago I’ve read one of his plays which is called “Mackbeth”(the book in polish translation). I’d like to watch the performance based on this story , because I like plays with atmosphere like that(ghosts,witches and others ; ).
Thanks for very interesting article.

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Anchalee Puntula
said on October 08, 2019

Thank you for working

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said on October 08, 2019

I read some of Shakespeare’s writings, like Dream of a summer night, and Romeo and Juliet, but I never saw a play of him, performed in a theatre. I read a lot of sonnets, like the
Sonnet 29
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

I think is great Literature!

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said on October 08, 2019

I am Vietnamese. My country is very far from England. I also haven’t watched Shakespeare’s plays. But the name “Shakespeare” i know. He is really famous in Vietnam.