Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of 52. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.

Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life, but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else--Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates--but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.

In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.

1 Henry VI was probably written in 1592. One of Shakespeare's history plays, this work concerns the events following the death of Henry V, covering the origins of the War of the Roses and the loss of Britain's territories in France. The genre of the history play held a particular fascination for the English public in the 1590s and helped create a sense of a collective national memory. (See Analysis for more details on the history play.) Patriotic sentiment probably ran particularly high in the years following 1588, when the English repulsed an attack by the invading Spanish Armada. The history play drew upon such sentiments. 1 Henry VI, in particular, appears to reference the specific event of the English campaign in France, led by Queen Elizabeth's charismatic nobleman Essex. The play's depiction of 15th-century noblemen attacking the city of Rouen would certainly have called to mind Essex's 1592 efforts at Rouen to aid the French in quashing a Protestant uprising.

Shakespeare wrote two other plays about the reign of Henry VI, 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI. Interestingly, the second two plays were published first, and some believe them to have been written first, as well, though no one knows whether the Shakespearean plays' order of publication actually reflects their order of composition. The Henry VI plays figure among Shakespeare's first forays into the genre of history play, and they were followed by plays tracing the years after Henry VI's death and the ensuing civil wars over succession. Only later in his career did Shakespeare look back to the events prior to Henry VI's kingship, including that of his father Henry V (see Shakespeare's Henry V).

Shakespeare probably made use of contemporary chronicles of the 15th century and the struggles during these years between the Yorks and the Lancasters in the War of the Roses. Raphael Holingshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland seem a particularly likely source for many of his history plays.

Some scholars theorize that Thomas Nashe authored portions of 1 Henry VI; some believe Shakespeare himself wrote only the scene in the Temple Garden and the battle scenes in which Talbot and his son meet their death. Other scholars believe Shakespeare wrote the whole play, adding that the playwright would not likely have collaborated with other authors so early in his career.