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William Shakespeare drew upon elements of classical literature to create distinctly English forms of poetry and drama. His work was hardly limited to strict classical idioms, however; he successfully utilized a much broader range of literary sources than any of his contemporaries. Moreover, his extraordinary linguistic abilities—his gift for complex poetic imagery, mixed metaphor, and brilliant puns—combined with a penetrating insight into human nature, are widely recognized as the makings of a unique literary genius. Over the centuries Shakespeare’s works have obtained an unparalleled critical significance and exerted an unprecedented influence on the development of world literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Family and Early Life
William Shakespeare was probably born on April 23, 1564, though the precise date of his birth is uncertain. He was the eldest of the five children of John Shakespeare, a tradesman, and Mary Arden Shakespeare, the daughter of a gentleman farmer. It is thought that Shakespeare attended the local grammar school, where the main course of instruction was in Latin. There is no evidence that he attended college.
In 1582, he married Ann Hathaway of Stratford; they would have three children together. Shakespeare’s life from this date until 1592, when he became known as a dramatist, is not well documented.
Shakespeare’s first plays, the three parts of the Henry VI history cycle, were presented in 15891591. He also wrote a pair of narrative poems directly modeled after Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). These works, which acknowledged the contemporary fashion for poems written with mythological themes, were immensely successful, and established Shakespeare as a poet of the first rank.
Success as Actor and Playwright
Shakespeare further enhanced his reputation as a professional actor and playwright when he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a well-regarded acting company formed in 1594. The success of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men is largely attributable to the fact that after joining the group in 1594, Shakespeare wrote for no other company. In 1603, shortly after his accession to the throne, James I granted the Lord Chamberlain’s Men a royal patent, and the company’s name was changed to the King’s Men to reflect the king’s direct patronage.
Surviving records of Shakespeare’s business transactions indicate that he benefited financially from his long career in the theater. By 1610, with his fortune made and his reputation as the leading English dramatist unchallenged, he appears to have largely retired to Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616. He was buried in the chancel of Trinity Church in Stratford.
The publication history of Shakespeare’s plays is extremely complex and the subject of much scholarly debate. The earliest collected edition of his dramas, known as the First Folio, was compiled by two fellow actors and published posthumously in 1623. The First Folio, which classifies the dramas into distinct genres of comedy, history, and tragedy, contains thirty-six of the thirty-seven plays now believed to be written by Shakespeare. Of the works included, thirteen had never before been published.
The “early” comedies, as the name implies, are among the first works Shakespeare wrote. The plays in this group, such as The Comedy of Errors (1592-1594), The Taming of the Shrew (15931594), and Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594-1595), generally adhere closely to established comedic forms. The “romantic” comedies, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-1596), The Merchant of Venice (1596-1597), As You Like It (1599), and Twelfth Night (1601-1602), display a consistency in style and subject matter and focus on themes of courtship and marriage. As a group, the “romantic” comedies comprise his most popular and critically praised comedies.
Shakespeare’s “dark” comedies, including All’s Well That Ends Well (1602-1603) and Measure for Measure (1604), are characterized by marked seriousness in theme, somberness in tone, and strange, shifting narrative perspectives. This group, which also includes The Tempest (1611), is characterized by an emphasis on themes of separation and loss. These plays typically include a wandering journey that ultimately results in a reunion amid a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Shakespeare’s History Plays
The most immediate “source” of the English history play in Shakespeare’s time appears to have been the heightened sense of national destiny that came in the wake of the British Royal Navy’s seemingly God-sent victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. Eight of the ten history plays collectively trace the English monarchy from the fourteenth century to the sixteenth century. They are commonly grouped in two tetralogies: The first contains the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III (1592-1593); the second, depicting chronologically earlier events but written later in Shakespeare’s career, includes Richard II (1595), the two parts of Henry IV (1596-1598), and Henry V (1599). This last work presents the king as the triumphant leader of his people in a glorious battle against the French. Within the history plays Shakespeare demonstrated his capacity for investing plot with extraordinary dramatic tension, and demonstrated his flair for original characterization through the use of subtle, ironic language.
Shakespeare’s tragedies, like his comedies, are commonly divided into separate though related categories, the “Roman” tragedies and the “great” tragedies. The Roman plays drew their inspiration from histories of classical antiquity. The major tragedies of this type, Julius Caesar (1599) and Antony and Cleopatra (1606-1607), explore the themes of political intrigue and personal revenge and are distinguished by their clear, poetic discourse and ironic representation of historical incidents.
The four great tragedies are Hamlet (1600-1601), regarded by many critics as Shakespeare’s finest work, King Lear (1605), Macbeth (1606), which explores the issue of regicide, and Othello (1604), a story of domestic intrigue set in the Venetian Republic. In these works Shakespeare characteristically presents the fall of the heroes in terms that suggest a parallel collapse of all human values or a disordering of the universe itself.
Although frequently judged by critics to be of a lesser rank than the great tragedies, Romeo and Juliet (1595-1596) remains one of the most frequently performed of Shakespeare’s dramas.
The Sonnets are also considered a central work in the Shakespeare canon. Shakespeare’s sonnets are arranged in a narrative order. They consist of a series of metaphorical dialogues between the poet and two distinct personalities: Sonnets 18 to 126 are addressed to a fair young man, or “Friend,” and are concerned with the themes of beauty, friendship, and immortality; Sonnets 127 to 154 are addressed to a ”Dark Lady” who is described as sensual, coarse and promiscuous. Their brilliant versification and subtle analysis of human emotion are together regarded as the work of a unique poetic genius. Consequently, scholars often place the Sonnets on an equal level with Shakespeare’s dramas.
Works in Literary Context
Shakespeare’s approach to drama was eclectic. He appropriated stylistic elements from Roman classicism (specifically comedy as defined by Plautus and Terence and tragedy by Seneca), medieval morality plays, French popular farce, and Italian drama such as the improvised comedic forms of the commedia dell’arte. Shakespeare’s use of these sources was not purely imitative, however; he experimented with traditional forms in an original way. Of the three genres, the comedies reveal the closest affinity to the themes of Italian Renaissance literature. If Shakespeare’s earliest efforts in the dramatization of history derived from his response to the political climate of his day, his first experiments in comedy seem to have evolved from his reading in school and from his familiarity with the plays of such predecessors on the English stage as John Lyly, George Peele, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe.
King Lear is structurally without parallel in the Shakespearean canon. Written in the tradition of the Old Testament book of Job, which focuses on proving the presence of spiritual grace in the presence of evil, King Lear has been thought by many to evoke more existential terror than all of Shakespeare’s other tragedies combined. The experiences of Lear can be seen as comparable to that of another long-suffering king, the protagonist in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus.
Tracing the monarchy in his history plays gave Shakespeare a theme of epic proportions, similar to the subject matter in ancient Greece and Rome that had inspired such classical authors as Homer and Virgil in narrative genres and Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Seneca in dramatic genres. It accorded with the biblical treatment of human destiny that Shakespeare’s age had inherited from earlier generations, an approach to historical interpretation that had been embedded in such didactic entertainments as the morality play (allegorizing the sin, suffering, repentance, and salvation of a typical member of mankind) and the mystery play (broadening the cycle to a dramatization of the whole of human history according to the Bible). As with the earlier English history plays, Richard II and the three Henry plays that followed derived in large measure from the 1587 second edition of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In all probability, they were also influenced by, and possibly even inspired by, the 1595 publication of Samuel Daniel’s Civil Wars.
The Sonnet Form
Like the dramas, the sonnets are patterned after a literary model widely imitated in Shakespeare’s age: the sonnets of Petrarch. The sonnet sequence was a highly self-conscious form. The sonnet speaker was an example—partly to be repudiated, partly to be admired, partly to be emulated—whose eloquence permitted him to articulate the stages of some emotional or personal crisis. Shakespeare’s speaker, however much he may recall King David of the biblical Psalms, Ovid, Horace, or Petrarch, is steeped in the English tradition. Readers in 1609 would have noticed similarities between Shakespeare and poets such as Sir Philip Sidney, Samuel Daniel, Edmund Spenser, Thomas Watson, and Michael Drayton.
Works in Critical Context
The four great tragedies display the greatest intensity of tragic pathos of all Shakespeare’s dramas. Scholars have suggested that such vividly portrayed upheavals reflect a generalized anxiety among Shakespeare’s contemporaries that underlying social, political, and religious tensions would upset the hierarchical order of the Elizabethan world.
Romeo and Juliet was the subject of little scholarship or critical attention in the decades after Shakespeare’s death. Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of his experience viewing a production of the play on March 1, 1662: ”Thence my wife and I by coach, first to see my little picture that is a drawing, and thence to the Opera, and there saw ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the first time it was ever acted; but it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life, and the worst acted that ever I saw these people do, and I am resolved to go no more to see the first time of acting, for they were all of them out more or less.” The play has been criticized for its dependence on coincidence and on causes external to the protagonists for the conditions that bring about the tragic outcome— an emphasis implicit in the play’s repeated references to fortune and the stars. Critics have also encountered difficulty in their attempts to reconcile the purity of Romeo and Juliet’s devotion to each other with the play’s equal insistence that their relationship is a form of idolatry, ultimately leading both lovers to acts of desperation that audiences in Shakespeare’s time would have considered far more consequential than do most modern audiences. But it is not for its revenge elements that most of us remember Romeo and Juliet, but for the lyricism with which Shakespeare portrays the beauty and idealism of love at first sight.
John Benson’s Poems: Written by Wil. Shakespeare. Gent (1640) was part of an attempt to ”canonize” Shakespeare, collecting verses into a volume that could be sold as a companion to the plays. However, this met with little success; the fashion for sonnets was long over. For the next century and a half, they were regularly excluded from editions of Shakespeare. After 1780, however, Edmond Malone published a critical edition of the Sonnets based on Thorpe’s quarto, and included a detailed introduction and commentary. Ten years later he included them in his great edition of the Plays and Poems, thus, the sonnets became “literature” in the heyday of the romantic poets and the new vogue for literary biography. Thereafter, they were assumed to be highly personal writings.
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- Fineman, Joel. Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
- Kay, Dennis. William Shakespeare: His Life, Works, and Era. New York: Morrow, 1992.
- Prior, Moody E. The Drama of Power: Studies in Shakespeare’s History Plays. Evanston, 1ll.: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
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- Young, David. Something of Great Constancy: The Art of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966.
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- Castaldo, Annalisa. ”A Text of Shreds and Patches: Shakespeare and Popular Culture.” West Virginia Shakespeare And Renaissance Association Selected Papers (SRASP) 20, 1997.
- Coghill, Nevill. ”The Basis of Shakespearian Comedy: A Study in Medieval Affinities.” Essays & Studies 3 (1950): 1-28.
- Hardison, Jr., O. B. ”Myth and History in King Lear.” Shakespeare Quarterly 26 (Summer 1975): 227-42.
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- Gray, Terry A. Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet. Retrieved May 25, 2008, from http://shakespeare.palomar.edu/. Last updated on May 22, 2008.
- Shakespeare Resource Center. Shakespeare Resource Center. Retrieved May 25, 2008, from http:// www.bardweb.net/. Last updated on May 22, 2008.
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