Shakespeare: Quotes, Facts, Insults, and Debates
Who was Shakespeare? There’s been a heated debate for years about whether William Shakespeare actually wrote all the plays and sonnets that have been attributed to him. Some critics claim the plays and sonnets were actually written by Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon, Ben Johnson, William Stanley, Edward de Vere, or one of more than sixty other possibilities. Some even believe that Shakespeare’s wife did the writing and creating. If you’re a casual enjoyer of Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets, you might not care a whit as to who actually penned these great works of literature. As a big fan of the Bard, however, it’s important to me. That’s why I’ve done extensive research on the topic of whether the man known as William Shakespeare is the real author of some of the best known literary works in the world. Along with the Shakespeare facts, I’ve applied some good ol’ common sense to a few of the arguments used by the anti-Stratfordian group. I’ll share my thoughts with you here and counter some of the most popular arguments about Shakespeare, along with a few facts about Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.
Where was Shakespeare born?
When Was Shakespeare Born
Shakespeare’s age at the time the plays appeared is one part of the debate. Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in the village of Stratford-upon-Avon. Historians disagree about which play was written first, but many believe it was Henry VI, Part One, perhaps written as early as 1589 and soon followed by the other parts of Henry VI, along with Richard III. Other critics, perhaps in the majority, think Two Gentlemen of Verona was the first play written, in 1590. This group believes that Henry VI wasn’t written until 1591. Either way, Shakespeare would have been 25 or 26 years old at the time. Some critics claim that a writer that young couldn’t have written such masterpieces. I think this is an empty argument. Look at other great writers who were as young or even younger than Shakespeare when they created some of their greatest works.
Take Christopher Marlowe, for example. He and Shakespeare were born the same year, and both became famous playwrights and poets. Marlowe wrote one of his most popular plays, Tamburlaine the Great, before 1587, which meant he had to have been younger than 23 years old at the time. And Tamberlaine wasn’t his first play. Another of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and fellow playwright and poet, Ben Johnson, was only 25 when he began his serious writing career.
For the anti-Stratfordians who site Shakespeare’s youth as evidence that he wouldn’t have been capable of such word mastery, how do they explain the poets of English romanticism? Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads in 1798, when Wordsworth was 28 and Coleridge was 26 – and these two men laid the very foundation for romanticism! And what about the second generation of English romantic poets – Byron, Shelley, and Keats? They were all very young when they wrote some of their most famous verse. John Keats, one of my favorite poets, died at the age of 25, and at the time of his death, some of his poems had already been in publication for at least four years. Keats wrote the beautiful “Ode on a Grecian Urn” when he was just 23 years old.
William Shakespeare Education
A William Shakespeare education wouldn't be valued much by today's standards. Some anti-Stratfordians reason that the works attributed to William Shakespeare had to have been penned by an educated man – one who had attended college. Shakespeare didn’t go to college. As a boy, he most likely attended a grammar school near his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, named King’s New School, where he would have been instructed in Latin, logic, and classical literature. Because Shakespeare lacked a college education, some other writers of the day referred to him as an “upstart,” and the Bard was even attacked in print for being uneducated.
A closer look into Shakespeare’s plays, however, reveals the work of someone without a college education. The great literary critic, Dr. Samuel Johnson, believed that the Bard’s writing genius came not from formal education, but from his “vigilance of observation and accuracy of distinction, which books and precepts cannot confer.”
Shakespeare got much of his “education” on the streets of London and at the theaters, where one of his first London jobs was holding horses for play attendees. He met scores of people there, and probably based many of his characters on real people with whom he had come in contact. His quick wit and command of language got him noticed by several playwrights, who invited him to help with their plays. It was evident to even casual observers that the young man had intelligence, creativity, and a way with words, even if he didn’t possess an academic degree. Also, it’s important to realize that there’s evidence in some of Shakespeare’s plays that they weren’t written by a man who had a college education. Several historical mistakes and anachronisms can be found – ones that probably wouldn’t have been made by a college-educated writer.
Shakespeare Was a Commoner
Some of the anti-Stratfordians don’t believe a commoner would have been capable of writing such masterpieces. I’ve often wondered if this nineteenth century theory isn’t some holdover from the neoclassical period, when literature was written by and for the upper class. Shakespeare wasn’t a member of the upper class. His father was a butcher, a glove maker, and a local government official, and later, due to his son’s fame, he was granted a coat of arms and William was given the title of “Master” or “Mr.”
But how does William Shakespeare’s commoner status help prove that he didn’t pen his plays and sonnets? Just take a look at other famous writers who came from humble beginnings: Christopher Marlowe, Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe, Chaucer, and my all-time favorite poet, Thomas Hardy. During Shakespeare’s time, England was pretty much locked into a rigid class system, and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for social or financial mobility. Many members of the upper class and the nobility didn’t believe it possible for a commoner to possess or express lofty thoughts. Shakespeare totally knocked that idea on its ear, so to speak, and the high-browed citizens were perplexed.
How Many Plays Did Shakespeare Write?
William Shakespeare probably wrote or co-wrote forty plays, and in his lifetime, no one doubted his authorship - that began in the nineteenth century. Although the Shakespeare debate started in the 1800s, it has enjoyed a vigorous resurgence lately because of the Anonymous movie. The Anonymous film, a 2011 release, suggests that William Shakespeare was a fraud and that his plays were actually written by the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. According to the script, de Vere was Queen Elizabeth’s lover, and they had a son together. Because of his position, the only way the nobleman could have his works published was to do so under another’s name or as an anonymous author. William Shakespeare, an illiterate actor, claims the works as his creations. The queen threatens to kill the son she had with Edward de Vere unless de Vere agrees to never claim authorship of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. The belief by some that the Earl of Oxford wrote the Shakespearean plays is genuine. Referred to as the Oxfordian theory, this idea first emerged in 1920.
Shakespeare Plays List
A list of Shakespeare plays is easy to find, but I thought I’d include one here, anyway, along with little tidbits of information I’ve gleaned over the years. Did you know that live performances of Shakespeare's plays included music and songs? I read that some of Will's songs were big hits back in his day.
Whenever I see such a list, I’m always amazed that one man could create such an impressive body of works with so many different themes, characters, and plots. Shakespeare’s plays are generally categorized as comedies, tragedies, and history plays, but not all the plays are so easy to categorize. Some literary scholars use more specific terms, including tragicomedies, romantic comedies, and problem plays. In my Shakespeare plays list, I’m mostly sticking to the basics.
All’s Well That Ends Well – a comedy, written in 1605
Antony and Cleopatra – a tragedy, written between 1603 and 1607
As You Like It – a comedy, written in 1599 or 1600
Comedy of Errors – a comedy, probably penned in 1594 and first published in 1623. This is Shakespeare’s shortest play.
Coriolanus – a tragedy, written between 1605 and 1608
Cymbeline, King of Britain – a tragedy, probably produced in 1611
Hamlet – a tragedy, written in 1603-1604. This is Shakespeare’s longest play.
Henry IV, Part I – history play, probably written in 1597
Henry IV, Part II – history play, written between 1596 and 1599
Henry V – history play, probably written in 1599
Henry VI, Part I – history play, written in 1591, often considered Shakespeare’s first successful production.
Henry VI, Part II – history play, written in 1591
Henry VI, Part III – history play, written in 1591
Henry VIII – history play, written with John Fletcher, probably in 1613.
Julius Caesar – a tragedy, written in 1599
King John – history play, written around 1595 and published in 1623
King Lear – a tragedy, written between 1603 and 1606. A revision was published in 1623.
Love’s Labour’s Lost – a comedy, written around 1595 and first published in 1598.
Macbeth – a tragedy, written between 1603 and 1607, probably first performed in 1611. This is often considered Shakespeare’s darkest play.
Measure for Measure – a comedy, written in 1603-1604
Merchant of Venice – a comedy, written between 1596 and 1598
Merry Wives of Windsor – a comedy, probably written around 1596 and published in 1602
Midsummer Night’s Dream – a comedy, written between 1590 and 1596
Much Ado About Nothing – a comedy, written around 1598
Othello – a tragedy, written around 1603
Pericles, Prince of Tyre – a comedy, probably written in 1607, with George Wilkins.
Richard II – history play, written around 1595
Richard III – history play, probably written in 1592
Romeo and Juliet – a tragedy, written between 1591 and 1595; first published in 1597.
The Taming of the Shrew – a comedy, probably written between 1590 and 1592
The Tempest – a comedy, written in 1610-1611. Many historians believe it was Shakespeare’s last play.
The Two Noble Kinsmen – a tragicomedy, written with John Fletcher and published in 1634
Timon of Athens – a tragedy, perhaps written as early as 1605, maybe with Thomas Middleton.
Titus Andronicus - a tragedy, written between 1588 and 1593, perhaps with George Peele.
Troilus and Cressida – a tragedy, written in 1602
Twelfth Night – a comedy, written around 1601
Two Gentlemen of Verona – a comedy, written around 1590; often considered to be Shakespeare’s first play.
Winter’s Tale – a comedy, probably written in 1610 but not published until 1623
I once collected Shakespeare quotes as others might collect stamps or teacups. He had an insight into human nature that I find completely refreshing, and this insight is just as applicable today as it was four centuries ago. Man’s basic nature has not changed, and many Shakespeare quotes are still used today, in titles of books, poems, songs, stories, and movies. Many of our common sayings also come from the words of Shakespeare. Below are some of the best Shakespeare quotes, in my opinion.
“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” King Lear
“This above all: to thine own self be true.” Hamlet
“How many fond fools serve mad jealousy!” Comedy of Errors
“You pay a great deal too dear for what’s given freely.” Winter’s Tale
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on…” The Tempest
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Henry VI, Part II
“There’s beggary in love that can be reckoned.” Antony and Cleopatra
“Tis neither here nor there.” Othello
“Out of the jaws of death.” Taming of the Shrew
“He hath eaten me out of house and home.” Henry IV, Part II
“Everyone can master a grief but he that has it.” Much Ado About Nothing
“The game is up.” Cymbeline
“Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.” Romeo and Juliet
“Kiss me, Kate, we shall be married o’ Sunday.” Taming of the Shrew
“I will wear my heart upon my sleeve…” Othello
“I am dying, Egypt, dying.” Antony and Cleopatra
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Macbeth
“He will give the devil his due.” Henry IV, Part I
“Off with his head!” Richard III
“I have not slept one wink.” Cymbeline
“A man can die but once.” Henry IV, Part II
“My salad days, when I was green in judgment.” Antony and Cleopatra
“Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back.” King John
“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” Merchant of Venice
“Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” Macbeth
“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” Macbeth
“The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on.” Henry VI, Part III
“Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!” King John
“Nothing will come of nothing.” King Lear
“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.” Measure for Measure
“The better part of valour is discretion.” Henry IV, Part I
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Henry IV, Part II
“I’ll not budge an inch.” Taming of the Shrew
“Service is no heritage.” All’s Well That Ends Well
“Lovers ever run before the clock.” Merchant of Venice
“Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it…” Macbeth
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” As You Like It
“As he was valiant, I honor him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.” Julius Caesar
“You have witchcraft in your lips.” Henry V
“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Hamlet
“An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.” Richard III
“Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye, not uttered by base sale of chapmen’s tongues.” Love’s Labour’s Lost
“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” Merchant of Venice
“I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” King Lear
“Though she be but little, she is fierce!” Midsummer Night’s Dream
“Now is the winter of our discontent…” Richard III
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven…” Merchant of Venice
“The common curse of mankind – folly and ignorance.” Troilus and Cressida
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Twelfth Night
“I am one who loved not wisely but too well.” Othello
“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” The Tempest
“All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” Macbeth
“The course of true love never did run smooth.” Midsummer Night’s Dream
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Hamlet
“Your wit’s too hot, it speeds too fast, ‘twill tire.” Love’s Labour’s Lost
“Get thee to a nunnery.” Hamlet
“But for my own part, it was Greek to me.” Julius Caesar
“Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” Cymbeline
“I cannot tell what the dickens his name is.” Merry Wives of Windsor
“But love is blind, and lovers cannot see.” Merchant of Venice
“Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” As You Like It
“Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under ‘t.” Macbeth
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” Julius Caesar
“The play’s the thing…” Hamlet
“To be wise and love, exceeds man’s might.” Troilus and Cressida
“…let slip the dogs of war.” Julius Caesar
“We have seen better days.” Timon of Athens
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend…” Hamlet
“Having nothing, nothing can he lose.” Henry VI, Part III
“True is it that we have seen better days.” As You Like It
“For death remembered should be like a mirror, who tells us life’s but breath, to trust it error.” Pericles
“Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.” Richard II
“For you and I are past our dancing days.” Romeo and Juliet
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.” Hamlet
“Why, then the world’s mine oyster.” Merry Wives of Windsor
“All that glitters is not gold.” Merchant of Venice
“Brevity is the soul of wit.” Hamlet
“Press not a falling man too far!” Henry VIII
“For ever and a day.” As You Like It
“So wise so young, they say, do never live long.” Richard III
“Love is a smoke and is made with the fume of sighs.” Romeo and Juliet
“This is the short and the long of it.” Merry Wives of Windsor
“Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues we write in water.” Henry VIII
“If music be the food of love, play on.” Twelfth Night
“I will speak daggers to her, but use none.” Hamlet
“Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay; the worst is death, and death will have his day.” Richard II
“The devil can site scripture for his purpose.” Merchant of Venice
“Men are mad things.” The Two Noble Kinsmen
“Tempt not a desperate man.” Romeo and Juliet
“Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss.” Pericles
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” As You Like It
“Love sought is good, but given unsought is better.” Twelfth Night
“Men’s vows are women’s traitors.” Cymbeline
Shakespeare insults are often witty, and they can be fun in the right situations. Ol' Will had a wonderful sense of humor, although it could be biting at times. Years ago, when I was teaching British Literature, a co-worker gave me a book of Shakespeare insults. She knew how much I liked Will’s works, and the collection provided me with lots of smiles. Below are some of my favorites. You can use these to insult people, and many of your victims won’t even understand that you’re trying to offend them!
“Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade.” Measure for Measure
“Thou art a Castilian king urinal!” The Merry Wives of Windsor
“Beg that thou may have leave to hang thyself.” Merchant of Venice
“You talk greasily, your lips grow foul.” Love’s Labour’s Lost
“The wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease.” Merry Wives of Windsor
“He that depends upon your favours swims with fins of lead, and hews down oaks with rushes.” Coriolanus
“Certainly, there is no truth in him.” As You Like It
“Wedded be thou to the hags of hell.” Henry VI, Part II
“You are not worth another word, else I’d call you knave.” All’s Well That Ends Well
“I do desire we may be better strangers.” As You Like It
“What a brazen facde varlet art thou.” King Lear
“You are rough and hairy.” The Winter’s Tale
“Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born to signify thou came to bite the world.” Henry VI, Part III
“O braggart vile and damned furious wight!” Henry V
“Put thy face between his sheets and do the office of warming pan.” Henry V
“Thou odiferous stench, sound rottenness.” King John
“This woman’s an easy glove, my lord, she goes off and on at pleasure.” All’s Well That Ends Well
“Men from children nothing differ.” Much Ado About Nothing
“Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.” King Lear
“Your heart is crammed with arrogance, spleen and pride.” Henry VI, Part III
“Thy bones are hollow, impiety has made a feast of thee.” Measure for Measure
“What a fool art thou, a rampaging fool, to brag and stamp and square.” King John
“There’s many a man hath more hair than wit.” Comedy of Errors
“Go shake your ears.” Twelfth Night
“Go forward, and be choked by thy ambition.” Henry VI, Part I
“Destroy your sight with a new gorgon.” Macbeth
“Base dunghill villain and mechanical, I’ll have thy head.” Henry VI, Part II
“Down, down to hell and say I send thee thither.” Henry VI, Part III
“What hempen homespun have we swaggering here.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“They have a plentiful lack of wit.” Hamlet
“I’ll pray a thousand prayers for your death.” Measure for Measure
“Slave, souless villain, dog! O rarely base!” Antony and Cleopatra
“Be packing.” Henry VI, Part I
“Out of my door, you witch, you hag, you baggage, you polecat, you ronyon!” Merry Wives of Windsor
“Thou halfpenny purse of wit, thou pigeon egg of discretion.” Love’s Labour’s Lost
“He’s a disease that must be cut away.” Coriolanus
“Four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one.” Much Ado About Nothing
“If thou art changed to aught, tis to an ass.” Comedy of Errors
“What a drunken knave the sea was to cast thee in our way.” Pericles
“You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” Julius Caesar
“More of your conversation would infect my brain.” Coriolanus
“Thou damned tripe visage rascal.” Henry IV, Part II
“Temp not too much the hatred of my spirit, for I am sick when I do look on thee.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“Go thou and fill another room in hell.” Richard II
“If your peevish chastity, which is not worth a breakfast in the cheapest country under the cope, shall undo a whole household, let me be gelded like a spaniel.” Pericles
“You are a tedious fool.” Measure for Measure
“You rise to play and go to bed to work.” Othello
“You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.” Much Ado About Nothing
“He hath out-villain’d villainy so far that the rarity redeems him.” All’s Well That Ends Well
“A fusty nut with no kernel.” Troilus and Cressida
“Hang yourself, you muddy conger.” Henry IV, Part II
“I was seeking for a fool when I found you.” As You Like It
“There’s small choice in rotten apples.” Taming of the Shrew
“Do thou amend thy face, and I’ll amend my life.” Henry IV, Part I
“Thou cream-faced loon.” Macbeth
“If I owe you anything, I shall pay you in cudgels.” Henry V
“You are as a candle, the better part burnt out.” Henry IV, Part II
“You are the must chaff, and you are smelt above the moon.” Coriolanus
“Thy tongue outvenoms all the worms of Nile.” Cymbeline
“Away, you three-inch fool.” Taming of the Shrew
“We leak in your chimney and your chamber lye breeds fleas like a loach.” Henry IV, Part I
“Thou are a flesh-monger, a fool and a coward.” Measure for Measure
“What a disgrace it is to me that I should remember your name.” Henry IV, Part II
“Thou art unfit for any place but hell.” Richard III
“There is neither honesty, manhood, or good fellowship in thee.” Henry IV, Part I
“Away! Thou art poison to my blood.” Cymbeline
“Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat.” Romeo and Juliet
“Frailty, thy name is woman.” Hamlet
“My wife’s a hobbyhorse!” Winter’s Tale
“A fiend like thee might bear my soul to hell.” Twelfth Night
“Were I like thee, I would throw away myself.” Timon of Athens
“Out, you mad headed ape.” Henry IV, Part I
“Thou has no more brain than I have in mine elbows.” Troilus and Cressida
“Foul spoken coward, that thunder with thy tongue, and with thy weapon nothing dares perform.” Titus Andronicus
“A plague on both your houses.” Romeo and Juliet
“He has not so much brain as earwax.” Troilus and Cressida
“Out of my sight, thou dost infect mine eyes.” Richard III
“Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!” Henry IV, Part I
“What strange fish has made his meal on thee.” The Tempest
“Would thou were clean enough to spit on.” Timon of Athens
“Your brain is as dry as the remainder biscuit after voyage.” As You Like It
“I’ll beat thee, but I should infect my hands.” Timon of Athens
“Thou art like a toad; ugly and venomous.” As You Like It
“Thou art as fat as butter.” Henry IV, Part I
“Thy mother’s name is ominous to children.” Richard III
“If you spend word for word with me, I shall make your wit bankrupt.” Two Gentlemen of Verona
In today’s modern world, Shakespeare is known mostly for his plays. In his day, however, his poems were more popular. During Shakespeare’s writing career, a plague epidemic struck Europe, and it hit London especially hard. From a population of around 200,000, there were over 10,000 deaths resulting from bubonic plague. Public entertainment was extremely popular at the time, and theaters were crowded with citizens representing all socio-economic groups. As a safety precaution, all the theaters were closed in 1593, so the playwrights were out of work for a year or so. Shakespeare used the opportunity to compose narrative poems, including “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece.” The poems were well received by the public.
Literary historians aren’t sure when Shakespeare wrote his sonnets, but most agree that he probably penned them through much of his career, even though they weren’t published until 1609. There are 154 Shakespeare sonnets, in all. Interestingly, the first group of sonnets, 1-126, were written about a handsome young man and the speaker’s love for him. Whether this love was romantic in nature or just a strong friendship, we’ll probably never be sure. Sonnets 127-152 are about a mysterious dark lady, perhaps Shakespeare’s mistress. The last two Shakespearean sonnets concern neither the young man or the dark lady. Instead, they’re basically English renditions of Greek poetry.
I’m a fan of Shakespeare sonnets, and so is my oldest daughter. In fact, she had Sonnet 116 recited at her wedding. I think this is my favorite of all Shakespeare sonnets. You can read it below:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come,
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks.
But bears it our even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
I understand how some people would have a hard time believing that a single individual was capable of creating so many outstanding plays and poems. I, however, am fully convinced that it happened. I think some of the most convincing evidence that William Shakespeare did actually write the plays and sonnets that have always been attributed to him come from the Bard’s contemporaries. He’s mentioned as a playwright, an actor, and/or a poet by famous men like Ben Johnson, Leonard Digges, John Heminges, Francis Meres, John Davies of Hereford, John Stow, and others.
In the Shakespeare debate, Ben Johnson is especially important here. Johnson was a controversial yet respected writer, and he had much influence. He left behind notes about his friendship with William Shakespeare. In these notes, Johnson says he loves Shakespeare as a person, but he criticizes some of the playwright’s works and cites mistakes made by Shakespeare in some of his plays. Ben Johnson knew William Shakespeare personally – as an actor and as a writer. Johnson would have been "in the know," so to speak, and he would have no reason to lie about The Elizabethan writing scene. I think that alone is pretty darn good evidence that we already know who the real Shakespeare was.
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