Shakespeare, William (1564-1616), the supreme English poet and playwright, recognized in much of the world as the greatest of all dramatists.
A complete, authoritative account of Shakespeare's life is lacking; much supposition surrounds relatively few facts. His day of birth is traditionally held to be April 23; it is known he was baptized on April 24, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. The third of eight children, he was the eldest son of John Shakespeare, a locally prominent merchant, and Mary Arden, daughter of a Roman Catholic member of the landed gentry. He was probably educated at the local grammar school. As the eldest son, Shakespeare ordinarily would have been apprenticed to his father's shop so that he could learn and eventually take over the business, but according to one account he was apprenticed to a butcher because of reverses in his father's financial situation. According to another account, he became a schoolmaster. That Shakespeare was allowed considerable leisure time in his youth is suggested by the fact that his plays show more knowledge of hunting and hawking than do those of other contemporary dramatists. In 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a farmer. He is supposed to have left Stratford after he was caught poaching in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy, a local justice of the peace. Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway produced a daughter in 1583 and twins—a boy and a girl—in 1585. The boy did not survive. Shakespeare apparently arrived in London about 1588 and by 1592 had attained success as an actor and a playwright. Shortly thereafter, he secured the patronage of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton. The publication of Shakespeare's two fashionably erotic narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and of his Sonnets (published 1609, but circulated previously in manuscript) established his reputation as a gifted and popular Renaissance poet. The Sonnets describe the devotion of a character, often identified as the poet himself, to a young man whose beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless dark lady with whom the poet is infatuated. The ensuing triangular situation, resulting from the attraction of the poet's friend to the dark lady, is treated with passionate intensity and psychological insight. However, Shakespeare's modern reputation is based mainly on the 38 plays that he apparently wrote, modified, or collaborated on. Although generally popular in his day, these plays were frequently little esteemed by his educated contemporaries, who considered English plays of their own day to be only vulgar entertainment. Shakespeare's professional life in London was marked by a number of financially advantageous arrangements that permitted him to share in the profits of his acting company, the Chamberlain's Men, later called the King's Men, and its two theaters, the Globe Theatre and the Blackfriars. His plays were given special presentation at the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I more frequently than those of any other contemporary dramatists. It is known that he risked losing royal favor only once, in 1599, when his company performed “the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II” at the request of a group of conspirators against Elizabeth. They were led by Elizabeth's unsuccessful court favorite, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and by the earl of Southampton. In the subsequent inquiry, Shakespeare's company was absolved of complicity in the conspiracy. After about 1608, Shakespeare's dramatic production lessened and it seems that he spent more time in Stratford. There he had established his family in an imposing house called New Place, and had become a leading local citizen. He died on April 23, 1616, and was< buried in the Stratford church.
Although the precise date of many of Shakespeare's plays is in doubt, his dramatic career is generally divided into four periods: (1) the period up to 1594, (2) the years from 1594 to 1600, (3) the years from 1600 to 1608, and (4) the period after 1608. Because of the difficulty of dating Shakespeare's plays and the lack of conclusive facts about his work, these dates are approximate and can be used only as a convenient way to talk about his development. In all periods, the plots of his plays were frequently drawn from chronicles, histories, or earlier fiction, as were the plays of other contemporary dramatists.
Shakespeare's first period was one of experimentation. His early plays, unlike his more mature work, are characterized to a degree by formal and rather obvious construction and often stylized verse. Four plays dramatizing the English civil strife of the 15th century are possibly Shakespeare's earliest dramatic works. Chronicle history plays were a popular genre of the time. These plays, Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III (1590?-1592?) and Richard III (1593?), deal with the evil results of weak leadership and of national disunity fostered for selfish ends. The cycle closes with the death of Richard III and the ascent to the throne of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, to which Elizabeth belonged. In style and structure, these plays are related partly to medieval drama and partly to the works of earlier Elizabethan dramatists, especially Christopher Marlowe. Either indirectly through such dramatists or directly, the influence of the classical Roman dramatist Seneca is also reflected in the organization of these four plays, in the bloodiness of many of their scenes, and in their highly colored, bombastic language. Senecan influence, exerted by way of the earlier English dramatist Thomas Kyd, is particularly obvious in Titus Andronicus (1594?), a tragedy of righteous revenge for heinous and bloody acts, which are staged in sensational detail. Shakespeare's comedies of the first period represent a wide range. The Comedy of Errors (1592?), an uproarious farce in imitation of classical Roman comedy, depends for its appeal on the mistakes in identity between two sets of twins involved in romance and war. Farce is not so strongly emphasized in The Taming of the Shrew (1593?), a comedy of character. The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594?) depends on the appeal of romantic love. In contrast, Love's Labour's Lost (1594?) satirizes the loves of its main male characters as well as the fashionable devotion to studious pursuits by which these noblemen had first sought to avoid romantic and worldly ensnarement. The dialogue in which many of the characters voice their pretensions ridicules the artificially ornate, courtly style typified by the works of the English novelist and dramatist John Lyly, the court conventions of the time, and perhaps the scientific discussions of Sir Walter Raleigh and his cohorts.
Shakespeare's second period includes his most important plays concerned with English history, his so-called joyous comedies, and two major tragedies. In this period, his style and approach became highly individualized. The second-period historical plays include Richard II (1595?), Henry IV, Parts I and II (1597?), and Henry V (1598?). They cover the span immediately before that of the Henry VI plays. Richard II is a study of a weak, sensitive, self-dramatizing, but sympathetic monarch who loses his kingdom to his forceful successor, Henry IV. In the two parts of Henry IV, Henry recognizes his own guilt. His fears for his own son, later Henry V, prove unfounded, as the young prince displays an essentially responsible attitude toward the duties of kingship. In an alternation of masterful comic and serious scenes, the fat knight Falstaff and the rebel Hotspur reveal contrasting excesses between which the prince finds his proper position. The mingling of the tragic and the comic to suggest a broad range of humanity became one of Shakespeare's favorite devices.
Outstanding among the comedies of the second period is A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595?). Its fantasy-filled insouciance is achieved by the interweaving of several plots involving two pairs of noble lovers, a group of bumbling and unconsciously comic townspeople, and members of the fairy realm, notably Puck, King Oberon, and Queen Titania. Subtle evocation of atmosphere, of the sort that characterizes this play, is found also in the tragicomedy The Merchant of Venice (1596?). The Renaissance motifs of masculine friendship and romantic love in this play are portrayed in opposition to the bitter inhumanity of a usurer named Shylock, whose own misfortunes are presented so as to arouse understanding and sympathy. The type of quick- witted, warm, and responsive young woman exemplified in this play by Portia reappears in the joyous comedies of the second period.
The witty comedy Much Ado About Nothing (1599?) is marred, in the opinion of some critics, by an insensitive treatment of its female characters. However, Shakespeare's most mature comedies, As You Like It (1599?) and Twelfth Night (1600?), are characterized by lyricism, ambiguity, and the attraction of beautiful, charming, and strong-minded heroines like Beatrice. In As You Like It, the contrast between the manners of the Elizabethan court and those current in the English countryside is drawn in a rich, sweet, and varied vein. Shakespeare constructed a complex pattern between different characters and between appearance and reality. He used this pattern to comment on a variety of human foibles. In that respect, As You Like It is similar to Twelfth Night, in which the comical side of love is illustrated by the misadventures of two pairs of romantic lovers and of a number of realistically conceived and clowning characters in the subplot. Another comedy of the second period is The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599?); this play is a farce about middle-class life in which Falstaff reappears as the comic victim. Two major tragedies, differing considerably in nature, mark the beginning and the end of the second period. Romeo and Juliet (1595?), famous for its poetic treatment of the ecstasy of youthful love, dramatizes the fate of two lovers victimized by the feuds and misunderstandings of their elders and by their own hasty temperaments. On the other hand, Julius Caesar (1599?) is a serious tragedy of political rivalries, less intense in style than the tragic dramas that followed.
Shakespeare's third period includes his greatest tragedies and his so-called dark or bitter comedies. The tragedies of this period are the most profound of his works and those in which his poetic idiom became an extremely supple dramatic instrument capable of recording the passage of human thought and the many dimensions of given dramatic situations. Hamlet (1601?), his most famous play, goes far beyond other tragedies of revenge in picturing the mingled sordidness and glory of the human condition. Hamlet feels that he is living in a world of horror; confirmed in this feeling by the murder of his father and the sensuality of his mother, he presents a pattern of crippling indecision and precipitous action. The interpretation of his motivation and ambivalence continues to be the subject of considerable controversy.
Othello (1604?) portrays the growth of unjustified jealousy in the protagonist, Othello, a Moor serving as a general in the Venetian army. The innocent object of his jealousy is his wife, Desdemona. In this tragedy, Othello's evil lieutenant Iago draws him into mistaken jealousy in order to ruin him. King Lear (1605?), conceived on a more epic scale, deals with the consequences of the irresponsibility and misjudgment of Lear, a ruler of early Britain, and of his councilor, the duke of Gloucester. The tragic outcome is a result of giving power to their evil offspring, rather than to their good offspring. Lear's daughter Cordelia displays a redeeming love that makes the tragic conclusion a vindication of goodness, though a bleak resolution because Cordelia dies. This conclusion is reinforced by the portrayal of evil as self-defeating, exemplified by the fates of Cordelia's sisters and of Gloucester's opportunistic son. Antony and Cleopatra (1606?) is concerned with a different type of love, namely the middle-aged passion of the Roman general Mark Antony for the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Their love is glorified by some of the most sensuous poetry written by Shakespeare. In Macbeth (1606?), Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of a great and basically good man who, led on by others and because of a defect in his own nature, succumbs to ambition. In getting and retaining the Scottish throne, Macbeth dulls his humanity to the point where he becomes capable of any amoral act. Three other plays of this period suggest a bitterness lacking in these tragedies because the protagonists do not seem to possess greatness or tragic stature. In Troilus and Cressida (1602?), the most intellectually contrived of Shakespeare's plays, the gulf between the ideal and the real, both individually and politically, is skillfully evoked. In Coriolanus (1608?), another tragedy taking place in antiquity, the legendary Roman hero Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus is portrayed as unable to bring himself either to woo the Roman masses or to crush them by force. Timon of Athens (1608?) is a similarly bitter play about a character reduced to misanthropy by the ingratitude of his sycophants. Because of the uneven quality of the writing, this tragedy is considered a collaboration, quite possibly with Thomas Middleton.
The two comedies of this period also are dark in mood. These plays are sometimes called “problem plays” because they do not fit into clear categories or present easy resolution. All's Well That Ends Well (1602?) and Measure for Measure (1604?) are both plays that question accepted patterns of morality without offering the comfort of solutions.
The fourth period of Shakespeare's work comprises his principal romantic tragicomedies. Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare created several plays that, through the intervention of magic, art, compassion or grace, often suggest redemptive hope for the human condition. These plays are written with a grave quality differing considerably from his earlier comedies, but they end happily with a reunion or final reconciliation. The tragicomedies depend for part of their appeal upon the lure of a distant time or place, and all seem more obviously symbolic than most of his earlier works. To many critics, the tragicomedies signify a final ripeness in Shakespeare's own outlook, but other authorities believe that the change reflects only a change in fashion in the drama. The romantic tragicomedy Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1608?) concerns the title character's painful loss of his wife and the persecution of his daughter. After many exotic adventures, Pericles is reunited with his loved ones. In Cymbeline (1610?) and The Winter's Tale (1610?), characters suffer great loss and pain, but are reunited. Perhaps the most successful product of this particular vein of creativity, however, is what may be Shakespeare's last complete play, The Tempest (1611?), in which the resolution suggests the beneficial effects of the union of wisdom and power. In this play a duke, deprived of his dukedom and banished to an island, confounds his usurping brother by employing magical powers and furthering a love match between his daughter and the usurper's son. Shakespeare's poetic power reached great heights in this beautiful, lyrical play. Two final plays, sometimes ascribed to Shakespeare, presumably are the products of collaboration. A historical drama, Henry VIII (1613?) was probably written with the English dramatist John Fletcher, as was The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613?; published 1634), a story of the love of two noble friends for one woman.
Until the 18th century Shakespeare was generally thought to have been no more than a rough and untutored genius. Theories were advanced that his plays had actually been written by someone more educated, perhaps the statesman and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon or the earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron. However, he was celebrated in his own time by English writer Ben Jonson and others who saw in him a brilliance that would survive the ages. From the 19th century on, Shakespeare's achievement has been more consistently recognized. Throughout the Western world he is held to be the greatest dramatist ever. His plays communicate a profound knowledge of the wellsprings of human behavior as revealed in his masterful characterizations of a wide gamut of humanity. The skillful use of poetic and dramatic means to create a unified aesthetic effect out of a multiplicity of vocal expressions and actions is recognized as an achievement unequaled in other literature. Finally, Shakespeare's employment of poetry within the plays to express the deepest levels of human motivation in relation to individual, social, and universal situations is considered one of the most astounding accomplishments of the human intellect.
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