Shakespeare, William 1564–1616 English Writer
English playwright William Shakespeare is known throughout the world as one of the greatest writers who ever lived. His plays cover a wide range of dramatic forms, including comedy, tragedy, and history. One of Shakespeare's greatest skills was his ability to portray every possible emotional state. His works deal with the essential elements of human life, such as love, friendship, growing old, and facing the approach of death.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a market town in central England. His father, John, kept a large home from which he ran a business manufacturing gloves and other leather goods. As a man of wealth and social position, he held several positions in local government. Later in life, however, Shakespeare's father seems to have lost much of his fortune. Some scholars believe his troubles sprang from his unwillingness to abandon the Catholic faith when England became a Protestant nation.
William probably attended the King's New School in Stratford, which emphasized the study of Latin. As a student there Shakespeare would have read the works of such ancient Roman authors as Virgil, Ovid, and Seneca. The influence of these writers appears in several of Shakespeare's plays. At the age of 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years older than himself. Their first child was born about six months later, and within two years, the couple had three children. Scholars are unsure how he supported his family for the next eight years. However, they do know that by 1592 Shakespeare had moved to London, apparently leaving his wife and children behind in Stratford, and taken up a career as an actor and a playwright. An angry review by an older playwright offers the first clear record of Shakespeare's presence in London.
Shakespeare achieved his first dramatic success with his history play The First Part of King Henry the Sixth, perhaps as early as 1589. He also wrote poetry during his early years in London. His two major non-dramatic poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, appeared in print in 1593 and 1594. The author dedicated both of these works to the Earl of Southampton, who may have been an important patron* for the young poet.
Shakespeare arrived in London during a bright period in English theater. A new form of drama was taking shape that mixed the native drama of England with the classical style of ancient Greece and Rome. English playwrights began to borrow characters from classical sources, such as young lovers, old misers, and boastful soldiers. The blend of classical and English traditions gave new life and versatility to English theater. Drama also took its place at the center of national debate, as both Catholics and Protestants made it a weapon in their battles of words.
Records show that in 1594 Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men, an acting company that performed mostly at a London playhouse known simply as the Theatre. The building was probably in the shape of an octagon and could seat about 3,000 spectators. At one end stood a large rectangular stage with a trap door, partially covered by a roof supported by two pillars. This building was eventually taken apart and rebuilt on the south side of the Thames River as the famous Globe Theater, the one most associated with Shakespeare's name.
Shakespeare spent at least 19 years writing for the theater. In that time he produced dozens of plays, along with a variety of long and short poems. His works remain popular centuries after his death, providing enjoyment for viewers and readers, as well as inspiration for writers, around the world.
Comedies. Shakespeare's early comedies show strong signs of classical influence. For example, The Comedy of Errors follows the conventions* of ancient drama by taking place entirely in one city over the course of a single day. Shakespeare based this play loosely on an ancient Roman work by Plautus called The Twins. Shakespeare's comedy The Taming of the Shrew also borrows from Plautus. Its secondary plot features several classical character types, including the young lovers, the anxious father, and the clever servant. However, the play's main plot, about a sharp-tongued woman and the husband who "tames" her, comes from an old English ballad*. This play illustrates the blend of classical and English influences popular in the drama of this period.
Shakespeare began to break away from the classical style in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The plot centers on two young lovers who face a series of obstacles to their union—the opposition of their parents, separation, rivalry, misunderstandings, narrow escapes, and sudden changes of heart—plot elements that are hardly typical of classical drama. Shakespeare's next romantic comedy, Love's Labor's Lost, also steers away from classical conventions in its plot about courtship and misunderstanding between the sexes.
Shakespeare's distinctive comic form emerged in the late 1590s, beginning with A Midsummer Night's Dream. He completely abandoned the classical mode by weaving together several plots: the troubles of four lovers who seek shelter in the forest, the quarrels of the king and queen of the fairies, and the antics of a group of laborers preparing to stage a play for the wedding of their duke. Through this mixture of stories, Shakespeare examined the experience of love from several different angles. The play is also anti-classical in its blend of human characters and otherworldly spirits.
Shakespeare gave his comedy a darker note in The Merchant of Venice. The central figure in the play is Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who threatens the life of a Christian merchant. This comedy narrowly escapes turning into a tragedy thanks to the cleverness of the heroine, Portia. Yet this play also features more traditional comic elements in its secondary plot, a love story about the courtship of Portia and her husband, Bassanio. This blend of straightforward comedy and the threat of tragedy appears again in Much Ado About Nothing. The first plot features a misunderstanding between two lovers that nearly destroys the heroine; the other is a joyful comedy about a man and a woman whose bitter rivalry masks a deep affection.
Several of Shakespeare's comedies feature a woman in male disguise. This device was particularly amusing in Shakespeare's time, when all actors were male, and thus the woman dressed as a man was really a boy dressed as a woman. Such "breeches parts" play an important role in two of Shakespeare's most famous comedies, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Disguised as men, the heroines of these two plays become friends with the young men with whom they eventually fall in love. Thus, their marriages are founded on a basis of deep friendship and trust.
Histories. The English history play was a fairly new genre* in Shakespeare's time, and Shakespeare did more than any other writer to give it a distinct form. His first four history plays—the three parts of Henry VI, followed by Richard III—revolve around a prolonged civil war that divided England in the 1400s. Shakespeare's play cycle reveals the brutal chaos of civil war, yet it ends in triumph with the crowning of Henry VII, the grandfather of Elizabeth I. This work helped establish the history play as a truly English form of drama that owed nothing to the classical tradition.
Shakespeare produced another series of major history plays in the late 1590s. This time, he dealt with an earlier conflict in English history, in which Henry Bolingbroke deposed* Richard II in 1399 and took the throne as Henry IV. The play Richard II centers on this transfer of power, but the next three plays—Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V—focus on the figure of King Henry's son, Prince Hal, who will later rule as Henry V. While Henry IV struggles with military and political rivals, he must also face his growing concern about his wayward son. The prince spends most of his time in the tavern with his friend John Falstaff, a drunken, thieving old knight who is hardly a fitting companion for a prince. Torn between this friendship and his duty to his stern father, Hal must eventually abandon his careless ways and take his rightful place as England's king. In the cycle's final play, Henry V, the new king triumphs over his political enemies and leads the British to victory against the French at the famous battle of Agincourt (1415).
Tragedies. Shakespeare did little work in the tragedy genre during the 1590s. His famous Romeo and Juliet (ca. 1595), though tragic, resembles a comedy in many ways, with its focus on comic wooing in the first half. In 1599, however, Shakespeare began work on a series of tragedies that have earned a place among the greatest plays ever written in the English language. In his four major tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth—Shakespeare focused on the darkest human emotions: sexual jealousy, conflict within marriage, and the fears that come with old age.
Hamlet is a "revenge play" about a prince whose murdered father returns as a ghost to demand that his son avenge his death. The focus of the play is not the act of revenge, but the effect his father's command has on the prince's mind. He questions the ghost's reality, his own strength, and the concept of human happiness. The play ends with a stage littered with corpses, a reminder of the harsh struggle Hamlet leaves behind.
The title character of Othello is a tragic hero in the classical sense: a good man with one fatal flaw that drives him into a destructive action. As a black man living in European society, Othello appears to doubt that his young, beautiful, white wife truly loves him. The villain, Iago, plays on the hero's jealous insecurity. His cunning lies about the unfaithfulness of Othello's wife lure the hero into murder.
In King Lear, the lead character is a king driven into madness by his two ungrateful daughters. To an extent, he is also a tragic hero whose fatal flaw is insecurity. His obsessive need for assurances of love leads him to banish his one faithful daughter, Cordelia. The cruelty he suffers at the hands of his other children leads him to understand the injustice in the world, hinting at the idea that true wisdom comes about only through pain and despair.
Shakespeare's Macbeth involves the murder of a king and the unnatural forces it releases. Macbeth is tempted into his terrible crime by his own ambition, his wife's challenges that he prove his manhood, and the twisted prophecies of three witches who promise that he will one day be king. Their prediction unleashes Macbeth's darker nature and leads him toward his inevitable doom.
While he was producing these famous plays, Shakespeare also created several tragedies set in ancient Greece and Rome. In Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare examined the themes of honor and duty, political struggle, and just rule through the lens of Roman history. In Timon of Athens he portrayed a generous man who becomes bitter and angry when his friends desert him after he loses his fortune.
Problem Plays and Romances. Between 1601 and 1605 began to experiment with dramatic forms, producing three plays scholars refer to as the "problem" plays. While these pieces appear to be comedies, they also contain darker elements more suitable to tragedy. Within their troubled world, morality is unclear and happiness uncertain. For example, in Measure for Measure, a judge seeks to abuse his position to seduce a woman in exchange for sparing her brother's life. He then attempts to cover up his action by killing her brother anyway. Even the supposedly good characters in this play are curiously flawed. The sister, who is about to become a nun, agrees to trick the wicked judge by sending another woman to take her place in his bed.
A similar "bed trick" occurs in All's Well that Ends Well, which features a young gentleman so eager to avoid marriage that he runs away from his wife. She wins him back only by sneaking into his bed. These twisted stories, with their unclear moral standards, clearly test the boundaries of comedy. The third problem play, Troilus and Cressida, actually crosses the line into tragedy. Cressida proves unfaithful to her lover, Troilus, and Troilus's brother Hector dies a brutal death at the hands of an enemy soldier.
In his final years of writing (1606–1613), Shakespeare turned to a new form, the romance. Like his problem plays, these pieces blend sorrow and joy, but their overall mood is one of hope and wonder. The first two romances, Pericles and Cymbeline, focus on the joyous reunion of a father and daughter after a long separation. The father-daughter bond also plays a strong role in Shakespeare's other romances, which add an element of fantasy and magic. The Winter's Tale concerns a king who wrongly accuses his wife of being unfaithful. His jealousy leads to her apparent death and to the loss of his infant daughter, whom he orders banished because he believes she is not his child. Yet these characters reappear miraculously in the play's second half.
The Tempest, commonly seen as Shakespeare's last complete play, focuses on the strong bond between an aging magician, Prospero, and his daughter Miranda, a girl on the edge of womanhood. Cast away on an island with no other humans, the two have lived for years in the company of two supernatural creatures—the beastlike Caliban and the delicate Ariel—whom Prospero has enslaved. This plot hints at a variety of issues, from the justice of colonial rule to the burden of artistic creation.
Other Works. Along with his plays, Shakespeare created a great number of poems. In addition to his longer verses, he wrote more than 150 sonnets*. These short poems deal largely with two major relationships in the poet's life. The first is his friendship with a young man, whose forgetfulness and ungratefulness are a source of pain for the author. The other is a love-hate affair with a mysterious woman known as the Dark Lady, who is as unfaithful to the poet as she is to her own husband. The sonnets also discuss other emotions the author has faced: jealousy of other writers, concerns about aging, the desire for fame, and the fear of losing his skill with words.
For centuries Shakespeare's insights and words have influenced other important writers, from the late Renaissance poet John Milton to the modern American author William Faulkner. His works have spread throughout the globe, and his famous phrases have also found their way into the everyday speech of countless generations of readers. As the English playwright George Bernard Shaw once observed: Shakespeare has a word for everything.
- * patron
supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer
- * convention
established practice, custom
- * ballad
narrative poem, often of folk origin and intended to be sung, consisting of simple stanzas and usually having a recurrent refrain
- * genre
- * depose
to remove from high office, often by force
The Authorship Question
Over the centuries, many readers have wondered whether a middle-class writer with no university training could have produced such great works as Shakespeare's. Some have suggested that his plays were actually the work of a nobleman who used Shakespeare's name to conceal his identity. Several people have been suggested as the true author, including Sir Frances Bacon and Edward de Vere, the earl of Oxford. However, other readers point out that for the "real" Shakespeare to hide his identity would have required a truly massive cover-up. They see the desire to assign Shakespeare's works to a noble author as a matter of simple snobbery.
- * sonnet
poem of 14 lines with a fixed pattern of meter and rhyme
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