Dramatist, poet, actor; b. Stratford-on-Avon, April 1564; d. there, April 23, 1616. The facts of Shakespeare's life, preserved in authentic records, are considerable. Unfortunately he left no diaries or personal letters nor did he attract the notice of gossips or note takers, so that all attempts to write an intimate life must rely on guesswork.
The Biographical Record
The records show that he was the son of John Shakespeare, yeoman and glover, a leading citizen of Stratford, and of Mary Arden of Wilmcote, whose family were staunch Catholic gentlefolk. William was baptized April 26, 1564.
According to Nicholas Rowe (1674–1718), who published the first short biography in 1709, Shakespeare was educated at the Stratford grammar school. The masters of the school during and after his boyhood—all graduates
of Oxford—were Walter Roche, 1569 to 1571; Simon Hunt, 1571 to 1575 (when he went overseas to Douai and was later admitted into the Society of Jesus in 1578); Thomas Jenkins, 1575 to 1579; John Cottam, 1579 to 1581; and Alexander Aspinall, 1581 to 1624. At Elizabethan grammar schools, boys were subjected to an elaborate memory training in Latin (and to a lesser degree in Greek) and read a fair selection of the greater classics. All this fostered in brighter boys a keen interest in language and its use as well as a general knowledge of classical mythology and history.
On Nov. 28, 1582, a license was issued by the Bishop of Worcester to "William Shagspere" to marry "Anne Hathwey" of Stratford after one reading of the banns. According to the inscription on her gravestone, Anne Shakespeare died on Aug. 6, 1623, aged 67 years, and was thus eight years older than her husband. Their three children were baptized in Stratford church—Susanna on May 26, 1583, and Hamnet and Judith (twins) on Feb. 2, 1585. Nothing is certainly known of Shakespeare's early manhood; traditions that he was forced to flee Stratford for stealing deer from Sir Thomas Lucy, the local magnate, and that he was for some time a schoolmaster in the country are disputed and unverifiable but may have some foundation in fact.
Actor and Playwright. From 1592 onward the outline of Shakespeare's life is clear. He had become an actor and playwright in London. On March 3, 1592, Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose playhouse, noted in his account book the first performance of "harey the vj" (presumably I Henry VI ), which was the most successful play of the season. Shakespeare was now attracting attention. In August he was venemously attacked by Robert Greene in A Groatsworth of Wit (published posthumously). His first poem, Venus and Adonis, was entered for printing on April 18, 1593, with a signed dedication to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare also dedicated The Rape of Lucrece in May
1594. By the end of the year he was a leading sharer in the Lord Chamberlain's company of players, and was mentioned with Richard Burbage and William Kempe as receiving payment for court performances during the Christmas holidays. Shakespeare's son Hamnet was buried Aug. 11, 1596. In October a grant of arms was issued by the College of Heralds to Shakespeare's father, whereby father and son were entitled to call themselves gentlemen. In November, Shakespeare and others were quarrelling with one William Wayte who craved a surety of the peace against them. This record was discovered and published by Leslie Hotson in 1931, but no details of the affair have come to light. On May 4, 1597, Shakespeare was able to purchase for £60 a large house known as New Place in the center of Stratford.
Established Dramatist. By 1598, Shakespeare's reputation as a dramatist was established. Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia: Wits' Treasury (a book of commonplaces entered for printing Sept. 7, 1598) added a "comparative discourse" of English poets in which Shakespeare was mentioned more often than any other writer, as poet and writer of comedy and tragedy. Meres also recorded the names of 12 of Shakespeare's plays: Two Gentlemen of Verona, Comedy of Errors, Love's Labour's Lost, Love's Labour's Won (apparently lost), A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, King John, Titus Andronicus, and Romeo and Juliet. In September 1598, Shakespeare acted a part in Jonson's Every Man in His Humor. At the end of the year he, with six other members of the Chamberlain's Company, shared in the expense of erecting the new Globe playhouse on the bankside. On May 1, 1602, he bought 107 acres of arable land in Stratford for £320.
Queen Elizabeth I died on March 24, 1603. Her successor, James I, soon after arriving in London, appointed the Chamberlain's Company to be his own players—The King's Men, as they were henceforward known—and in the license of appointment, Shakespeare's name stands second. Thereafter the King's Men prospered; in the new reign they acted at court four times as often as under the old Queen. About this time Shakespeare was boarding in the house of Christopher Mountjoy, a Huguenot tiremaker, near St. Olave's Church in Cripplegate. Mountjoy's daughter married an apprentice named Stephen Bellot, and Shakespeare aided the negotiations. In 1612, Bellott sued his father-in-law for failing to provide his daughter with the promised portion. Shakespeare was a principal witness in the case. On July 24, 1605, Shakespeare was able to invest £440 in the right to tithes in and about Stratford, which yielded him an income of £60 a year; and in March 1613, he bought for £140 a dwelling house erected over the gatehouse of the old Blackfriars monastery in the city of London.
Final Years. The last years of Shakespeare's life were spent at Stratford, and his name is several times mentioned in local records. On March 25, 1616, he made his will, a lengthy document of three large parchment sheets, now preserved in Somerset House, London. He died on April 23, 1616, and was buried on the 25th in the chancel of the church at Stratford. Soon afterward a tablet with a memorial bust within an ornate arch was erected on the north wall overlooking the grave. A far more important memorial was provided in 1623 when Heminge and Condell, surviving members of the original Chamberlain's Company, sponsored the publication of 36 of Shakespeare's plays in one large volume known as the First Folio. It preserved 22 plays that would otherwise have perished.
These and other similar records show that William Shakespeare was born at Stratford-on-Avon, married at 18, and after a manhood spent no one knows how and where, became a successful dramatist in London; that he prospered and invested his gains; that he died and was buried in his native town (to the great profit of subsequent inhabitants). The lack of heroic or romantic anecdotes has proved so disappointing to some that they have even denied that William Shakespeare of Stratford was indeed the author of his own plays—a doubt which no reputable scholar has ever endorsed.
During Shakespeare's lifetime, 16 of his plays were printed (and reprinted) separately in quarto form; of these some were issued without any author's name. (Those editions in which Shakespeare's name is given on the title page are marked with an asterisk.) Titus Andronicus, 1594 (reprinted 1600, 1611); Richard II, 1597 (reprinted 1598* twice, 1608*, 1615*); Richard III, 1597 (reprinted 1598*, 1602*, 1605*, 1612*); Romeo and Juliet, 1597 (a pirated text, 1599—good text, reprinted 1609); Love's Labour's Lost, 1598*; Henry IV, pt. I, 1598 (reprinted 1599*, 1604*, 1608*, 1613*); Henry IV, pt. II, 1600*; Henry V, 1600 (corrupt pirated text reprinted 1602); The Merchant of Venice, 1600*; A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1600*; Much Ado about Nothing, 1600*; The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1602* (corrupt pirated text); Hamlet, 1603* (corrupt pirated text), 1604* (complete text, reprinted 1611*); King Lear, 1608*; Troilus and Cressida, 1609*; Pericles, 1609* (reprinted 1611*), not included in the Folio.
Shakespeare came to the theater at just the right time. The Theater—the first playhouse erected in London solely for plays—had been built in 1576; theater-going was increasingly popular; professional actors had gained competence and were prospering; and although the art of drama had not yet fully matured, most of the major problems of play writing had been resolved. Shakespeare's immediate predecessors—especially Marlowe and Kyd—were learning how to construct a plot with a theme, how to create character, and to write effective dramatic speeches and quick, lively dialogue. Moreover, the London theater was just becoming a national institution that, as never before or since, expressed the feelings of a nation. In addition, Shakespeare had to earn his living by writing plays that would please mixed audiences, so that he was not tempted to appeal solely either to the intellectuals or to the groundlings. Ben Jonson quipped that Shakespeare had little Latin and less Greek, but this could be an advantage. When Shakespeare wanted a metaphor or a simile, he was less inclined to borrow from the classics or the commonplace book; instead he used those direct experiences that came to him through his five senses, with the result that his words have a unique and permanent vitality.
Shakespeare's working life falls into four periods of activity, broken by intervals when the playhouses were shut because of outbreaks of the plague in London. These occurred in 1592 to 1594, 1603, and 1609 to 1611. In each period there were notable developments in his dramatic skill and technique.
The First Period—to 1594. To the period before 1594 belong the three parts of Henry VI, which begins with the funeral of Henry V and ends with the murder of the saintly but ineffectual Henry VI by Richard of Gloucester. Their general theme is the anarchy that befell England during the Wars of the Roses (1455–85) when the descendants of Edward III fought each other for the throne—a theme very close to Englishmen of the 1590s who feared that the death of Elizabeth I without an acknowledged heir would again lead to a disputed succession and general anarchy. In this period Shakespeare also wrote The Taming of the Shrew (a recasting of an old play), The Comedy of Errors (another version of Plautus's comedy of mistaken identities, The Twin Menechmi ), The Two Gentlemen of Verona (a romantic story of the treachery of Proteus toward his friend Valentine), and the brilliant society play Love's Labour's Lost (which abounds in witty topicalities, most of which are now unintelligible). He also wrote one tragedy, Titus Andronicus, an accumulation of horrors—rape, mutilation, murder, and unwitting cannibalism—one of his most popular plays.
In all these early plays Shakespeare showed considerable facility with words and a conscious concern with literary art: alliteration, wordplay, puns, variety of meter, rhetorical devices of every kind, and an excess of elaborate, obvious poetic imagery used more for its own sake than to illumine meaning. At first Shakespeare was the clever amateur showing off his skill in entertaining an audience rather than a serious dramatist.
The Second Period—1594 to 1603. After the plague of 1592 to 1594, the playing companies were reorganized and Shakespeare became a full sharer in the Chamberlain's company. In Romeo and Juliet, his first great play (and the finest drama produced in English to that time), he had become a serious professional writer who saw significance behind the story, for the theme of the tragedy is not only the useless deaths of two passionate young lovers but the futility of family hatred. Similarly, in Richard III, which concluded the story of the Wars of the Roses with the death of Richard and the establishment of the Tudor dynasty, Shakespeare concentrated on the character of a man morally warped by physical deformity. Evil deeds bring inevitable retribution. In The Merchant of Venice he first showed complete mastery of dramatic technique. Shakespeare had considerable understanding of Shylock's wrongs and in the trial scene he touched, though not very deeply, on the fundamental issue of justice versus mercy.
About the same time as Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare had returned to history in Richard II to show how the civil wars started; some two or three years later he wrote the two parts of Henry IV, which are concerned partly with the education of Prince Hal but even more with the disreputable adventures of Sir John Falstaff, the greatest comic character in English drama. Shakespeare ended the series with Henry V, the portrait of a great soldier-king. In these plays Shakespeare revealed deep understanding of the lonely responsibility, everlasting anxiety, and ruthlessness essential to a successful ruler of men. He also stressed the moral that, in dethroning the anointed King Richard II, Henry of Bolingbroke was the direct cause of the long agonies of the Wars of the Roses.
To this second period also belong the three most popular comedies: Much Ado about Nothing, which combines the romantic story of the wronging of Hero and the realistic comedy of how Benedick the vowed bachelor and Beatrice the sworn manhater are tricked into love; As You Like It, a pastoral romance with a considerable vein of mockery; and Twelfth Night, another story of the mistakes caused by twins, but so exquisitely wrought that it is the most frequently acted of all Shakespeare's comedies. The Merry Wives of Windsor, though still actable, is not one of the greater comedies; the attempt to show Falstaff in love (by royal command of Queen Elizabeth) was beyond anyone's powers, for Falstaff is essentially a man's man. In 1599, Shakespeare wrote also the Roman tragedy of Julius Caesar, a straight, competent dramatization of the story told in Plutarch's Lives; Antony's speech delivered at Caesar's funeral showed that Shakespeare had a full understanding of the arts of demagogy. Hamlet, the most fascinating and most controverted play ever written, and Othello, the best constructed of all the tragedies, were written at the turn of the century, as was Troilus and Cressida, a bitter comment on false and romantic notions of love, honor, and war.
The art of drama had advanced very rapidly in the last years of the old queen, and Shakespeare now had rivals, chief among them Jonson, Marston, Chapman, and Dekker. Playgoers had become keen, critical, and sophisticated in their demands. At the accession of James I in March 1603, the prospects of Shakespeare's company improved, especially after the king had made them his own players; but in May the worst outbreak of plague for many years again interrupted play going until the end of the year.
The Third Period—1603 to 1616. In the third period, Shakespeare's first play was the "dark comedy" Measure for Measure; it reflects the newer moods of the public but is not one of his best. In it he states a stark problem in ethics—whether Claudio's life should be saved at the price of Isabella's chastity—but offers no other solution than darkling assignations, substituted lovers and heads, and a melodramatic happy ending. The play has, however, continued to intrigue modern critics.
The Tragedy of King Lear, the deepest of all the tragedies, was written in 1605–06. In it Shakespeare offers a vision of how the good is powerless against absolute evil, and how, ultimately, man can but "endure his going hence even as his coming hither." Macbeth was written about the same time; it dramatizes a story of ambition and murder and the subsequent degeneration of Macbeth and his ruthless wife. There are some signs that the play was written in haste to please King James. In both Lear and Macbeth the language is difficult because of its excessive concentration of phrase and image; the thought has become too overwhelming for clearly logical expression. Antony and Cleopatra followed, continuing the story of Antony to his ruin through his fatal passion for Cleopatra, a play which Shakespeare obviously wrote with zest; it abounds in his finest dramatic verse.
The last of the tragedies was Coriolanus, a political play in which the balance of antipathy (rather than of sympathy) is held evenly between the arrogance of a proud patrician and the opportunism of the tribunes of the people; but the major theme is the dominance of Volumnia over the son whom she has so disastrously molded. The last of the series was Timon of Athens, probably never finished, in which the misanthropy that had been accumulating in Shakespeare's plays reached its depth. By this time (1609) the taste of playgoers was turning from serious drama to the more facile kind of tragicomedy popularized by the two young dramatists Beaumont (1584–1616) and Fletcher (1579–1625).
Another long interruption occurred between 1609 and 1611. When Shakespeare resumed playwriting, his themes and methods changed. The next four plays were the comedies of the "final period." Shakespeare was only part author of Pericles; Cymbeline, a fantastic mingling of a story by Boccaccio of a bet on the chastity of a faithful wife and dubious Romano-British history, was dubbed by Dr. Johnson "unresisting imbecility." In The Winter's Tale, a dramatization of a story by Greene, the fatal suspicion of Leontes that his wife Hermione has committed adultery with his friend Polixenes is finally purged when the son of Polixenes is betrothed to Hermione's long-lost daughter Perdita.
The last of the comedies was The Tempest, which some regard as the finest and greatest of the poetic dramas. Shakespeare's last surviving play, Henry VIII (in which he may have collaborated with Fletcher), was a return to English history. As an oblique comment on the Reformation in England and its causes, the play is enigmatic, for, as the events are shown, the author's sympathies are all with Katherine, Henry's much wronged wife and Queen. To Shakespeare's contemporaries, for whom the Reformation was still a vital issue, the play would have been most remarkable for what it left unsaid.
Shakespeare also wrote two long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and The Sonnets. Venus and Adonis (1593) tells how the goddess Venus hotly but vainly wooed the love of young Adonis, who was slain by a wild boar. The poem was regarded by contemporaries as lascivious; it was very popular. The Rape of Lucrece is a versifying of the sad story of how Lucrece, treacherously outraged by Tarquin, killed herself to redeem her lost honor. The Sonnets (published in 1609, but probably written in the 1590s) are mostly written to a beautiful young man. If they are autobiographical, they reveal a story of Shakespeare's relations with a young man of better fortune than himself, of quarrels and rivals, of the theft of the poet's mistress by the young friend, of reconciliation. A small group of the sonnets is addressed to the faithless mistress—the Dark Lady. Various candidates for the post of the young man have been proposed, of whom the two favorites are Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke; but for neither is the evidence as yet conclusive.
Shakespeare has been claimed by Catholics, Anglicans, Puritans, and agnostics. For the Anglican claim, it can be pointed out that he and his children were all baptized in the Anglican church at Stratford, in which he was also buried. In his plays he echoes the English Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. But he shows equally a considerable knowledge of Catholic teaching, doctrine, and practice; and there is good evidence that his father, John Shakespeare, was a zealous Catholic, for in 1592 his name appears in a list of 42 who were reported to the Bishop of Worcester as "recusants."
His Father's "Will." More significant is a little-known document called "John Shakespeare's Will." The original, long since destroyed, was found hidden in the tiles of his house in Henley Street at Stratford. A transcript was made by a local antiquary, John Jordan, and published in The Gentleman's Magazine in 1783. The document was accepted as genuine by Edmund Malone, who reprinted it in his edition of Shakespeare's works in 1790. The will is a profession of the Catholic faith in the form of a spiritual testament in 14 clauses, each beginning with "I, John Shakespeare." The testator declares that at the time of writing he may die unprepared by any sacrament, and if so he prays that he may be spiritually anointed. This form of spiritual testament was drawn up by St. Charles borromeo and was especially designed for times of religious persecution. Versions are known in Spanish, Italian, and the Swiss dialect. It is a sign of John Shakespeare's steadfastness that he hid rather than burnt so dangerous a document, especially after the troubles that befell his wife's family in 1583–84.
The senior member of the Arden family at that time was Edward Arden of Park Hall, who maintained a priest, Hugh Hall, to say Mass. In 1583, when the mission of St. Edmund campion was still disturbing the Privy Council, Edward Arden's son-in-law, John Somerville, oppressed by private and religious troubles, went out of his mind, eluded his family, and made for London where he was heard to utter wild threats against the life of Elizabeth. As a result the whole family was involved in a charge of high treason. Edward Arden was condemned to death and executed by quartering at Smithfield on Dec. 26, 1584. His wife and Hall were also condemned. Mrs. Arden was subsequently pardoned; the priest and Somerville died in prison. Edward Arden was a cousin of Shakespeare's mother. Shakespeare was 20 at this time. In Warwickshire the chief agent in the persecution of the Ardens was that Sir Thomas Lucy who, according to the legends of Shakespeare's early manhood, was the cause of his flight from Stratford. When Shakespeare reemerged from obscurity, he dedicated his Venus and Adonis to the young Earl of Southampton, whose family was Catholic.
Catholic Sympathies. It is thus likely that Shakespeare was brought up in a Catholic home, but there is no evidence that he practiced the faith in his maturity. His sympathies in the plays—so far as the plays can be used as evidence—are generally Catholic. His priests, such as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, Friar Francis in Much Ado, the priest in Twelfth Night, are grave, patient, well-meaning men whom everyone respects. In Measure for Measure, the Duke, for worthy motives, disguises himself as a friar, and even hears confessions—an action which no one seemed to question.
The few Protestant ministers who appear in the plays are less admirable. Sir Hugh Evans in The Merry Wives is amusing; Sir Nathaniel in Love's Labour's Lost is a worthy man and a good bowler though an indifferent actor; in As You Like It, Sir Oliver Martext is a poor specimen. It is also relevant that in his version of King John, Shakespeare wiped out the hearty anti-Catholic propaganda of the old play he recast. In Hamlet there are several instances of Catholic doctrine and sentiment. The Ghost of Hamlet's father, for example, comes back from Purgatory (and not, as was more usual with returned ghosts in Elizabethan dramas, from a classical Hades), whither he was suddenly dispatched "unhouseled, disappointed, unanealed"—without absolution, preparation or Extreme Unction; but to Hamlet, death is a consummation devoutly to be wished only if it leads to the annihilation of a dreamless sleep. Hamlet himself is more interested in man than in God.
While the early plays are sprinkled with Christian sentiments, orthodox and often quite conventional, the later plays, especially the tragedies, seem to indicate that Shakespeare had lapsed into an almost Greek belief in fate. Finally in The Tempest where—if ever—Shakespeare speaks out of part through Prospero, he sees the universe dissolving to leave not a rack—a wisp of cloud—behind.
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Until further evidence is available, the question of Shakespeare's religious convictions and practice must remain unsolved. There is no record that he ever suffered for his faith either in purse or in person; unlike his father or Ben Jonson, he is not known to have been delated as a recusant or fined for failure to attend the services of the state Church. Nevertheless there is the flat statement of Archdeacon Richard Davies (d. 1708), a Warwickshire antiquary, that "he died a papist."
Bibliography: The bibliography of Shakespeare is enormous and increases yearly by more than 200 items. The best general guide is f. w. bateson, ed., The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, 5 v. (Cambridge, Eng. 1940–57). New work is recorded annually in Year's Work in English Studies (London 1919–), Shakespeare Survey (Cambridge, Eng. 1948–), and Shakespeare Quarterly (New York 1950–). The following is but a very short selection. General and reference. e. k. chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 v. (Oxford 1930) includes all relevant records and documents concerning Shakespeare. j. bartlett, A New and Complete Concordance … to the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare (London 1894, 1896, 1922, 1927,1937). c. m. ingleby, The Shakespeare Allusion-Book, ed. j. j. munro, 2 v. (London 1932). t. w. baldwin, William Shakespere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, 2 v. (Urbana, Ill. 1944) comprehensive account of Elizabethan education. h. granville-barker and g. b. harrison, eds., A Companion to Shakespeare Studies (New York 1934). Stage conditions. e. k. chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 v. (Oxford 1923). w. w. greg, ed., Henslowe's Diary, 2v. (London 1904–08); Henslowe Papers, idem. (London 1907). j.c. adams, The Globe Playhouse (Cambridge, Mass. 1942). c. w. hodges, The Globe Restored (London 1953). a. harbage, Shakespeare's Audience (New York 1941). Sources of the plays. g. bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (New York 1957–) in progress; 4 v. issued. Study of the text. w. w. greg, The Shakespeare First Folio: Its Bibiographical and Textual History (Oxford 1955). Shakespeare's religion. (Catholic), h. mutsch man, Shakespeare and Catholicism (New York 1952). (Protestant). e. i. fripp, Shakespeare, Man and Artist, 2 v. (London 1938), very full about Shakespeare's Stratford background. Criticism. The best of the early criticism is included in d. n. smith, ed., Shakespeare Criticism (London 1916), beginnings to Carlyle. Of the established critics, the most important are: s. t. coleridge, Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, ed. t. m. raysor, 2 v. (London 1930). w. haz litt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (London 1917). e. dowden, Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (London 1875). a. c. bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (New York 1904). h. granville-barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, 5 series (London 1923–1947). Representative of modern approaches are g.w. knight, The Wheel of Fire (London 1930). e. e. stoll, Shakespeare Studies (New York 1927). c. f. e. spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery, and What It Tells Us (New York 1936). r. b. heilman, This Great Stage (Baton Rouge 1948). e. jones, Hamlet and Oedipus (Garden City, N.Y. 1949). w. clemen, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (Cambridge, Mass. 1951). Annotated texts. s. johnson, ed. The Plays of William Shakespeare, 8 v. (London 1765). h. h. furness, ed., A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (Philadelphia 1871–). u. ellis-fermor, ed., The Arden Shakespeare (new ed. Cambridge, Mass. 1951–). a. quiller-couch and j. d. wilson, eds., The New Shakespeare (New York 1921–). g. b. harrison, ed., Shakespeare: The Complete Works (New York 1952). g. m. pinciss, Forbidden Matter: Religion in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Newark, Del.; London; and Cranbury, N.J., 2000). s. marx, Shakespeare and the Bible (Oxford and New York 2000). h. fisch, The Biblical Presence in Shakespeare, Milton, and Blake: A Comparative Study (Oxford and New York 1999). d. d. waters, Christian Settings in Shakespeare's Tragedies (Rutherford, N.J.; London; and Cranbury, N.J. 1994). r.w. battenhouse, ed., Shakespeare's Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary. (Bloomington, Ind. 1994). j. dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Durham, N.C. 2nd ed.,1993). r. r. reed, Crime and God's Judgment in Shakespeare (Lexington, Ky. 1984).
[g. b. harrison]
April 23, 1564
Stratford-upon-Avon, England April 23, 1616
"What a piece of work is man!… The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"
Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2.
The English playwright, poet, and actor William Shakespeare is generally considered the greatest of English writers and one of the most extraordinary creators in human history. The crucial fact about his career is that he was a popular dramatist at a time when drama (a composition in verse or prose depicting conflicts through dialogue) was flourishing in England. Audiences drawn from a wide range of social classes were eager to reward his talents. Shakespeare's entire life was committed to the public theater, and he seems to have written nondramatic poetry only when enforced closings of the theater made writing plays impractical. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the portrayal of the emotional states that are essential to human life, such as falling in love, knowing the need for friendship and loyalty, going through midlife crisis, growing old, and facing the approach of death. Possessing an unusual talent with words, he addressed the weighty issues of human existence in words that continue to enchant audiences and readers. Shakespeare is today the most quoted author in the English language.
Few facts known about early life
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a market town of about fifteen hundred inhabitants, in Warwickshire, England. According to christening records at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, he was baptized on April 26, 1564. His date of birth is assumed to have been April 23. Historians know little about Shakespeare's early life. His father, John, was the son of Richard Shakespeare, a farmer in Snitterfield, a village four miles north of Stratford. When Richard died in 1561, he left a modest estate. William's mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of Richard's prosperous landlord, Robert Arden of Wilmcote, another nearby village. John therefore increased his fortunes by a good marriage. Some time before 1552, John and Mary moved to Stratford, where John became a prominent citizen. One of the several houses he owned, located on Henley Street in the village, is considered the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Out of relatively few remaining timbers, the house was reconstructed and now serves as a tourist center.
The house was both a home for the Shakespeare family and a place of business for John. He cured animal skins for making gloves and other leather goods, which he sold at his shop. He also dealt in wool, grain, malt, and other farm produce. A successful merchant, John held several civic offices. At various times he served as ale taster (inspector of bread and malt, a grain used in brewing ale), burgess (member of the town's governing body), affeerer (one who levies fines), city treasurer, alderman (member of the town legislature), and high bailiff (the equivalent of mayor). By 1578, however, John Shakespeare had begun to encounter the financial difficulties that were to plague him until his death in 1601. For instance, he had to mortgage his wife's property, and he was required to pay heavy fines. Although solid evidence is lacking, historians have speculated that he was in trouble because he remained a Roman Catholic at a time when Catholics were being persecuted in England.
William most likely learned to read and write either at home or in a "petty" (elementary) school. Around the age of seven he probably enrolled at King's New School in Stratford, where students were required to follow a set routine. Latin study began at 6:00 or 7:00 A. M. and continued until 5:00 P. M. , with short breaks for eating and recreation. Strict discipline was maintained, often with corporal, or physical, punishment. In this school William would have read ancient Latin works by such authors as Ovid, Virgil, Plautus, and Terrance. He never attended a university. Instead, in November 1582, at age eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway (c. 1556–1623), a Stratford woman who was eight years older than he. They had a daughter, Susanna, six months later. They were evidently required to obtain a special license allowing them to marry after only one reading of banns, or official announcements in church of an upcoming wedding. Banns were usually read three times, so that any interested party could raise objections. In this case there was only one reading because Anne was pregnant and needed to marry as soon as possible. In addition, banns could not be read during the Advent season (the period beginning four Sundays prior to Christmas). Therefore the family and friends of the bride-to-be were required to sign a bond, or promise of payment, of up to forty pounds (an amount of British money) in case it was needed to reimburse a bishop (church official) who allowed the marriage to take place. William and Anne may not have been happy together, but they did have two other children, twins named Hamnet and Judith, in 1585.
Possibly, Shakespeare's early and hasty marriage cut off any plans he may have had for a university education. His father's financial difficulties also meant that no money was available for further education. Whatever the case—and historians have no evidence that he planned to attend one of the universities in England—Shakespeare had to rely on his own resources to support a family. There are few records for the years of his late teens and early twenties. In the late 1700s scholars speculated that he became a schoolmaster for a time. Another suggestion is that he served an apprenticeship (training period) in Stratford in his father's trade. These would have been likely choices for a person of Shakespeare's background, but there is no reliable proof of his having pursued either course. It is certain, however, that by 1592 he was in London, evidently without his family, and he had quickly gained a reputation as a playwright and actor.
Charged with plagiarism
In 1592 Robert Greene (c. 1558–1592), a dramatist and writer, singled out Shakespeare for a remarkable attack. Greene wrote Greene's Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance (1592), in which he warned fellow dramatists Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), Thomas Nash (1567–1601), and George Peele (1556–1596) to beware of the ingratitude of a fickle public. He lashed out at a certain unnamed new play-wright—easily identifiable as Shakespeare—whose plays were becoming more popular than those of established London playwrights. The reference to "Shake-scene" is a clue that the "upstart crow" was Shakespeare, whom Greene accused of gaining public favor by plagiarizing, or copying, works of the successful dramatists of the time—that is, beautifying himself with their feathers. Scholars note that Greene's attack was clearly the envious reaction of an older playwright dismayed at the appearance of a bright new star in the London theater world. By this time Shakespeare had written a few plays, and it is known that his historical play, Henry VI, had been a great hit, possibly as early as 1589. In fact, one line in Henry VI is "O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide," which Greene repeated nearly verbatim, and another clue that he was targeting Shakespeare.
The incident over the charge of plagiarism not only confirms that Shakespeare was active in the London theatrical scene in 1592, but it also gives a character sketch of him. Greene's attack brought an apology from Henry Chettle (c. 1560–1607), a dramatist who had assisted in the printing of Greene's Groatsworth of Wit. Chettle published Kind Heart's Dream (1592), in which he insisted he had had no part in the matter. He went on to say that so fine a person as Shakespeare should not have been singled out for criticism. Chettle described Shakespeare as being courteous and an excellent playwright and actor. Furthermore, Shakespeare is judged to be upright by persons of social dignity and morality. A special talent is the great facility and swiftness with which he composed his works. All this, in Chettle's view, shows Shakespeare's honesty and his superior skills as a dramatist.
Shakespeare's earliest literary efforts were two nondramatic poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and Rape of Lucrece (1594). They were published with dedications to Anthony Bacon, earl of Southampton, who may have been Shakespeare's patron, or financial supporter. Quite possibly Shakespeare wanted to be a nondramatic poet like Edmund Spenser(c. 1552–1599; see accompanying box). For instance, writing poetry was more prestigious than playwriting. Also, he evidently cared enough about his early poems to personally tend to their publication, whereas he never bothered to have his plays printed.
Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599) ranks as the foremost English poet of the sixteenth century. His best-known work was the unfinished epic poem The Faerie Queene. (An epic poem is one that portrays events over a long period of time.) Along with William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, he is considered one of the great figures of the English Renaissance. Spenser was working as a government official when he began writing poetry. He made his literary debut with The Shepherd's Calendar in 1579. In this work he adopted a variety of poetic forms—dirges, complaints, paeans—and attempted to enrich the English poetic vocabulary with foreign terms and archaic, or outdated, and dialect (distinctive to a region) words. The following year he was named secretary to Arthur Grey de Wilton (1536–1593), the new lord deputy of Ireland. Spenser moved to Ireland, where he remained for the rest of his life, except for brief trips to England.
In 1589 Spenser published the first three books of The Faerie Queene, with an elaborate dedication to Elizabeth I (1533–1603), queen of England. Spenser's plan was to compose twelve books, each concerned with one of the twelve moral virtues as classified by ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 b.c.). In turn, each of these virtues was to be embodied in a knight. Spenser's style is distinctively his own in The Faerie Queene. For his verse form he created the Spenserian stanza, which has since often been imitated in English literature. Composed of nine lines, the Spenserian stanza contains eight lines of iambic pentameter (five metrical feet, or units of one syllable followed by one long syllable) and concludes with a line of iambic hexameter (six metrical feet, or units of one short syllable followed by one long syllable) called the Alexandrine. The Faerie Queene met with much acclaim.
In 1594 Spenser married Elizabeth Boyle. His sonnet series "Amoretti" and the love poem "Epithalamion" give a poetic account of his courtship and marriage. "Epithalamion" is regarded as one of the greatest love poems in English. Spenser published three more books of The Faerie Queene in 1595. Two cantos, or parts, of a seventh book were published in 1609, but most of what he wrote in the years before his death has been lost. Spenser died in London in 1598. He was buried near other poets in Westminster Abbey.
Did he actually write the plays?
Since the nineteenth century, literary scholars have debated whether Shakespeare actually wrote the plays and poems attributed to him. Many note that he was a commoner without a university education, and he left no manuscripts or correspondence. Moreover, they argue, William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon may have been barely literate. The few signatures in his own handwriting—including the one on his last will and testament—are shaky, and his name is spelled in various ways. Therefore, could a country boy from Stratford, educated (if at all) only through what we would now call high school, have produced such brilliant studies of kings and aristocrats?
Many candidates have been put forward as the author of the plays. Those who present the case against Shakespeare are the anti-Stratfordians. They are given this title because they acknowledged that Shakespeare of Stratford did exist as an actor but they deny that he was a writer. The first candidate-of-choice of the anti-Stratfordians is the scientific theorist Francis Bacon (1561–1626; see entry). Others include Anthony Bacon, earl of Southampton; Charles Blout (c. 1562–1606), earl of Devonshire; Christopher Marlowe; and, most recently, Edward de Vere (1560–1604), seventeenth earl of Oxford. This last person has been a favorite candidate because he did in fact write verse, and he served for many years as a courtier, or member of court, under the queen of England, Elizabeth I. Oxford was also involved in various controversies that sound at times like plots from some of Shakespeare's plays. In addition, Oxford was the son-in-law of William Cecil (1520–1598), Lord Burghley, whom critics and scholars regard as a model for the character of Polonius in Shakespeare's famous tragedy Hamlet. Like Polonius, Burghley was a cautious, overly quarrelsome, and pompous statesman, or politician. A major problem with Oxford's being the true author, however, is that he died in 1604, before the dates that most scholars give to the chief plays of Shakespeare's later career.
One theory is that Oxford or one of the other candidates may have written the plays and then allowed Shakespeare to take credit for them. But why would these writers wish to see their great plays ascribed to an ordinary actor? The answer from the anti-Stratfordian side is that playwriting brought very little glory, much like script writing for the film industry or television today. It may have been profitable, but it was beneath the dignity of the English ruling class. Aristocrats and gentry of the time did indeed scorn commercial publication of the verses they turned out only as a pastime. Therefore, the argument goes, Oxford could have written the plays and then used Shakespeare as a "front man" in order to avoid the embarrassment of being associated with the theater world. One version of this view is that Oxford wanted to remain anonymous during his lifetime and then be revealed as the true author of the great plays centuries after his death. The problem with this argument is that a number of people would have had to participate secretly in such a complex endeavor—not only Oxford and Shakespeare himself but also others such as his fellow actors and Ben Jonson, who knew Shakespeare all his adult life.
Those who argue that Shakespeare was the true author raise several points in his defense. First, they say, it is necessary to consider whether university training and experience at court would have been necessary to enable him to write the plays and poems. They note that although English university education in the sixteenth century was directed mainly at preparing young men for the ministry, some professional writers of the Renaissance period did go to a university. (The Renaissance was a cultural revolution that began in Italy in the mid-1300s. It was initiated by scholars called humanists who promoted the human-centered values of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanist ideals were soon influencing the arts, literature, philosophy, science, religion, and politics in Italy. During the early fifteenth century, innovations of the Italian Renaissance began spreading into the rest of Europe and reached a peak in the sixteenth century.) Among them were Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, and Ben Jonson. Others like Thomas Dekker (1572–1632), George Chapman (1559–1634), Anthony Mundy (c. 1560–1633), and William Shakespeare seemingly did not. It is also important to consider that drama was flourishing in England during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Many professional writers were needed to turn out a continuous stream of high-quality plays that satisfied the tastes of audiences. The plays therefore had to be well crafted and profitable. Unlike Oxford and other noblemen, professional writers such as Shakespeare had a need for financial success, both to express themselves and to make a living. Thus, Shakespeare's supporters argue, this fact should exclude anyone from the noble class as being the true author, since aristocrats would not have devoted their lives to writing for commercial gain.
Joins Lord Chamberlain's Men
Shakespeare arrived in London at a crucial time, when new forms of drama were emerging in England. As the dominant city in the country, London was the center of this new and flourishing drama. In 1576 James Burbage (1531–1597), a former furniture maker, had built a theater at Shoreditch, northeast of the city. It was called the Theatre, perhaps because there were no others. There was plenty of dramatic activity at inn yards, churches, and mansions, but not in permanent theater buildings. Burbage and his colleagues built their theater outside the city to be free of authorities, who tended to be suspicious of theater activity as subversive (anti-government), ungodly, and unhealthy. Richard Burbage (c. 1567–1619), James's son, became Shakespeare's lifelong friend and the leading actor in his major tragedies, such as Richard III, Hamlet, and Othello. Some of Shakespeare's early plays may have been performed at the Theatre, though it is not known what acting company or companies he may have joined before 1594. That year his name appeared on a list of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a company that performed chiefly at the Theatre in Shoreditch.
The Theatre appears to have been octagonal (eight-sided) or otherwise many-sided in design, with a seating capacity for perhaps three thousand spectators. More prosperous audience members sat in wooden galleries, while the less well-to-do stood in the "yard" in front of a large rectangular stage. The stage measured about 43 by 27 feet (13 by 8 meters). This platform stood 5 feet (1.5 meters) or so above the floor of the yard. Backstage was a "tiring house" where the actors attired themselves and made their entrances and exits through two or three doors. A gallery above the doors in the tiring house wall may have accommodated well-to-do spectators at times but could also be used for acting scenes. The main stage had a least one trap door in it, and probably supported two pillars that held up a roof partly covering the stage. The roof could also represent "heavens" from which descents and ascents were made by means of machinery, such as ropes and pulleys. The Theatre was dismantled in 1599 by the Lord Chamberlain's Men after a dispute with the landlord. It was then reassembled on the south side of the Thames River as the famous Globe Theater. The Globe was recreated in the late twentieth century on a location near the original site.
Achieves innovations in drama
Shakespeare began his professional life in a theater such as that just described. His first known play was probably The Comedy of Errors (1590), a comedy (play based on humor) with a complex plot involving two sets of identical twins. This was followed by a romantic comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1591), that tells stories of a faithful girl who educates her fickle lover, a girl dressed as a boy, and happy marriages at the end. Love's Labour's Lost (1593), another romantic comedy, deals with the attempt of three young men to withdraw from the world and women for three years to study in their king's "little Academe." The men quickly abandon their plans, however, when a group of young ladies comes to lodge nearby. His first chronicle plays were Henry VI (1592) and Richard III (1594). These dramas dealt with the tumultuous events of English history between the death of King Henry V in 1422 and the accession of Henry VII in 1485. At the time they marked the most ambitious attempt in English theater to present epic drama (a play that portrays events over a long period of time). Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus (1593), reveals similar ambition. Though the modern reader or viewer may think the play is simply a chamber of horrors—the plot is full of mutilations and murders—Shakespeare succeeded in outdoing other English playwrights in the lurid tradition of the revenge play (drama in which the main character seeks revenge on someone who has wronged him). For twenty more years he continued to master and perfect all of these forms—comedy, history, and tragedy—as one of the most productive and brilliant playwrights in history.
Perfects the sonnet
During much of 1593 and 1594 English theaters were closed down because of the plague, a widespread outbreak of disease. Shakespeare therefore turned to writing nondramatic poetry to make a living. Again he excelled in his chosen craft by producing Venus and Adonis and the tragic Rape of Lucrece. Both poems carry the sophisticated techniques of Elizabethan narrative verse to their highest point, drawing on Renaissance mythological and symbolic traditions. Shakespeare's most famous poems were his 154 sonnets (published in 1609). They are considered the supreme English examples of the sonnet form, which was introduced by the Italian poet Petrarch (1304–1374; see entry) at the beginning of the Renaissance and was now in vogue throughout Europe. Shakespeare used the fourteen-line sonnet, with its fixed rhyme scheme, to express emotions and ideas ranging from the frivolous to the tragic. The sonnets are dedicated to "Mr. W. H.," whose identity remains a mystery. Scholars also cannot determine whether there was a real-life "dark lady" or an unfaithful friend, who are the subjects of a number of the poems.
After the theaters reopened in 1594, Shakespeare returned to writing plays because he had been writing poetry only to make money. He became the principal writer for the Lord Chamberlain's Men. In addition to performing as a regular actor, he was a "sharer," or partner, in the group of artist-managers who ran the entire operation. For the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare produced a steady outpouring of plays. Among them were the comedies The Taming of the Shrew (1594), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595), The Merchant of Venice (1596), Much Ado about Nothing (1598), and The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599). In the year 1600 alone he wrote As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. Shakespeare's only tragedies of the period are among his most familiar plays: Romeo and Juliet (1596), Julius Caesar (1599), and Hamlet (1601). Continuing his interest in the chronicle, Shakespeare wrote King John (1596), Richard II (1595), the two-part Henry IV (1597), and Henry V (1599). At the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign he wrote works that are often called his "problem plays." For example, All's Well That Ends Well (1602) is a romantic comedy that presents sexual relations between men and women in a harsh light. The tragicomic (a combination of tragedy and comedy) Measure for Measure (1604) suggests that modern urban hopelessness was settling on London.
Writes great tragedies
When King James I (1566–1625; ruled 1603–25) took the throne of England in 1603, he became the patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The name of the company was then changed to the King's Men. During the next five years Shakespeare wrote fewer but perhaps even finer plays: Othello (1604), King Lear (1605), Macbeth (1606), Antony and Cleopatra (1607–08), and Coriolanus (1607–08). Each in its own way is a drama of alienation (being withdrawn from or outside society), which continues to be relevant to the lives of people in the twenty-first century. These tragedies present an astonishing series of worlds different from one another, in language that exceeds anything Shakespeare had done before. He also created some of his most complex and vivid characters and used a variety of new structural techniques.
A final group of plays took a turn in a new direction. Commonly called the "romances," Pericles (1607), Cymbeline (1609), The Winter's Tale (1611), and The Tempest (1611) were tragicomedies, which had been growing popular since the early years of the century. Shakespeare turned this fashionable mode into high art. The Winter's Tale is considered one of his best plays, while The Tempest is the most popular. After completing The Tempest, Shakespeare retired to Stratford. In 1613 he returned to London to compose Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. He died in 1616, at age fifty-two. Shakespeare's work has continued to seem to each generation like its own most precious discovery. His value to his own age is suggested by the fact that, in 1623, two fellow actors gathered his plays together and published them in a form known as the Folio edition. Without their efforts, since Shakespeare was not interested in publication, many of the plays would not have survived.
For More Information
Dommermuth-Costa, Carol. William Shakespeare. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 2002.
Garfield, Leon. Shakespeare Stories II. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1995.
The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells, editors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
The Riverside Shakespeare. G. Blakemore Evans and others, editors. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Thrasher, Thomas. William Shakespeare. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 1999.
Shakespeare Resource Center. [Online] Available http://www.bardweb.net/, April 5, 2002.
"Shakespeare, William." Internet Editions. [Online] Available http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Annex, April 5, 2002.
"Shakespeare, William." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/find/Concise.asp?z=1&pg=2&ti=761562101, April 5, 2002.
BORN: April 23, 1564 ? Stratford-upon-Avon, England
DIED: April 23, 1616 ? Stratford-upon-Avon, England
English playwright; poet
Considered the greatest playwright in the English language and one of the greatest writers in the world, William Shakespeare created a body of work that has remained unparalleled for its poetic brilliance and its depth of understanding. His long poems and sonnets are among the best in the English language. But his masterpieces are his plays, which communicated the vast complexity of human experience through characters that were more real than literature had ever known.
"Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."
More than any writer before him, Shakespeare created individual characters with deep and conflicted inner lives, who recognized their capacities to act and to change. As poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), quoted by Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, wrote, Shakespeare created "forms more real than living men." Audiences from Shakespeare's time onward have related to the psychological and emotional issues explored in his work, which continues to be read and performed throughout the world more than four centuries later.
Early life and family
Born in the small but prosperous town of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, William Shakespeare was the son of glovemaker John Shakespeare and his wife, Mary Arden. John Shakespeare, a farmer's son, had earned success in his trade and held various government positions in the town. Mary Shakespeare, of a slightly higher social class, was the daughter of a local landowner. William was the oldest of six children. He had three younger brothers and two younger sisters; one sister died in childhood.
Few facts are available about Shakespeare's early life. It is most likely that he, like other Stratford children, attended the local grammar school, the King's New School. Here students learned Latin, logic, and rhetoric (the art of constructing formal arguments). It was a rigorous course of study that familiarized students with the works of ancient Roman writers such as Ovid (43 bce–17 ce) and Virgil (70–19 bce).
Though many of the most outstanding Elizabethan poets and playwrights studied at university, there is no record of Shakespeare having done so. In 1582, at age eighteen, he married a slightly older local woman, Ann Hathaway (c. 1556–1623). She gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, six months later. The couple had twins—a boy, Hamnet, and a girl, Judith—in 1585. Hamnet died at age eleven, but his sister survived. Judith had one daughter, Elizabeth, who was Shakespeare's last descendant; she died in 1670. Though Shakespeare lived most of his adult life in London, he maintained close ties to Stratford and returned to live there after retiring from writing plays.
Joins London theater world
Nothing is known about Shakespeare's activities between 1585 and 1592. By 1592, however, he was known in London; playwright and critic Robert Green (c. 1560–1592) wrote a jealous attack that year dismissing him as an upstart. This suggests that Shakespeare had already begun to establish a literary reputation. By 1594 he was acting with and writing plays for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a theater company for which he was also a managing partner. Their playhouse, The Theater, was located in Shoreditch, just north of London. Most of the city's local leaders were Puritans, or strict Protestants. Because the Puritan leaders disapproved of many popular entertainments such as plays and gambling, they banned theaters from operating within the city proper. Thus, theaters were built outside the city walls. Despite the fact that they were not considered entirely respectable, theaters were extremely popular. Plays drew large audiences and often attracted disreputable characters such as pickpockets. The Theater was the most popular playhouse in London. Its principal actor, Richard Burbage (c. 1567–1619), is credited with doing more than any of his contemporaries to increase respect for the theater profession.
Shakespeare began writing for the stage at a time when English theater was entering an exciting new era. Playwrights were experimenting with new forms, incorporating elements of classical (ancient Greek and Roman) and Renaissance literature into their work. (The Renaissance was the era beginning around 1350 in Europe, in which scholars turned their attention to classical Greek and Latin learning and shifted to a more rational [based on reason rather than spiritual belief or church authority] approach to philosophy, religion, and science.) Earlier plays were generally unsophisticated pieces; they dramatized moral issues or religious stories or presented bawdy (sexually suggestive) comedy. But Elizabethan plays emphasized tragedy, and featured tragic heroes as serious, complex figures. Elizabethan playwrights were also exploring the possibilities of dramatic verse. Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593; see entry), for example, was the first to demonstrate the power of blank verse, a type of poetry with regular meter (the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables) but no rhyme, in stage dialogue. Shakespeare went on to take dramatic blank verse to brilliant new heights, with language filled with puns, complex metaphors, and rich imagery. (Puns are a deliberate confusion of similar-sounding words usually for humorous effect; metaphors are comparisons made between two seemingly unrelated subjects.)
Scholars disagree as to the exact dating of Shakespeare's thirty-seven plays, many of which were not published until after his death. According to a chronology accepted by many historians, Shakespeare's first plays were his history cycle, Henry VI, Part One, Henry VI, Part Two, Henry VI, Part Three, and Richard III, which date from 1589 to 1593. These works conformed to the traditional genre of chronicle, or history, plays that were quite popular in Elizabethan times. (History plays are plays about historical figures and events.) But Shakespeare's works far surpassed previous examples of this type of play, which merely presented a sequence of events. Shakespeare provided a larger shape for his cycle of plays. Together, they made the story the Tudor dynasty, or period of reign by a particular ruling family, from which Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry)
Plays in Shakespeare's time were performed outdoors and attracted large audiences. Public theaters, like the Theater or the Globe, were large wooden structures that were roughly circular. The galleries along the sides were covered, but most of the structure, including the large raised stage which projected about halfway into the theater, was unroofed. All of the actors were males; younger men or boys played the roles of women characters. No scenery was used. This allowed for unhindered movement on stage, with plenty of room for the battle scenes and swordfights that were an exciting part of many plays.
Among the leading theaters in Elizabethan London were the Swan, the Rose, and the Globe. The Globe was built in 1599 after its owners, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were forced to find a new location for their popular theater in north London, the Theater. They had the Theater dismantled and reassembled on the south bank of the River Thames in Southwark, and named the new building the Globe Theater. Shakespeare, a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, wrote exclusively for them and most of his greatest plays were performed at the Globe.
The Globe, which opened with a performance of Shakespeare's Henry V, could accommodate an audience of about three thousand people, and individuals from all walks of life attended plays there. The least expensive ticket allowed people to stand in the yard, at the base of the stage. These spectators, called "groundlings," were often uneducated or even illiterate, but they enjoyed Shakespeare's plays as much as the more educated theatergoers did. It was not uncommon for audiences to bring food and drink into the theater, and even throw food at the stage when they disliked a performance.
The Globe burned down in 1613, after material from a cannon that was shot off during a performance of Henry VIII set fire to the gallery roof, which was made of thatch (thick straw). Its owners rebuilt it and it reopened later that year. By the 1640s, however, the Puritan faction had succeeded in shutting down theaters in London. The Globe was torn down in 1644 and housing was built on its site. A replica of the famous theater now stands on or near its location in south London.
was descended, into an epic story. Each of the four plays in this cycle was an integral part of the whole.
Henry TV, Part One, generally considered Shakespeare's finest history play, was probably written around 1596. It takes as its subject the Scottish rebellion against Henry IV (1366–1413), who had earlier usurped the English throne from Richard II (1367–1400). To many scholars, the most interesting dynamics in the play occur between the king's son, Prince Hal, and his comrade, Sir John Falstaff. Indeed, Falstaff—who exudes intense joy—is generally considered to be Shakespeare's finest comic character.
Shakespeare's earliest comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, and The Taming of the Shrew, also date from around 1592 to 1593. Titus Andronicus, his first tragedy, was written around 1593. The playwright used an extensive range of influences in these works, from English folklore to classical plays and Italian Renaissance literature.
Shakespeare's more mature plays from the 1590s include the comedies A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and As You Like It. In these works Shakespeare demonstrated increasing stylistic sophistication. His use of blank verse became more complex, and his dialogue became more rich, dynamic, and effective.
The middle period: 1594–1600
In 1599 the Lord Chamberlain's Men built the Globe Theater on the south bank of the Thames River. Many of Shakespeare's greatest plays were written in the first ten years of the company's residence at the Globe, and they were first performed there. Examples include the tragedies Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear; and the comedies Twelfth Night, All's Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure. These later comedies, noted for their darker tone, are sometimes called the "problem plays." Less reliant on elements of traditional comedy, they explore serious themes and are far less cheerful than the earlier comedies.
Among Shakespeare's major tragedies, scholars often cite Hamlet as the greatest. Based on a legend from Denmark, it follows some conventions of the genre known as revenge tragedy, which was immensely popular. As the term suggests, revenge tragedies concerned the theme of vengeance for a past wrong—usually murder. Like typical revenge tragedies, Hamlet ended with a stage scattered with bloody corpses. But Shakespeare's work rose far above the standard plays of this genre, largely because he invested the character of Hamlet, a young man who seeks to avenge his father's death, with such complex human feeling.
When Hamlet learns that his father had been killed by Hamlet's uncle, now married to Hamlet's mother, the young prince is tormented by intense and contradictory emotions. He struggles with his conscience and his personality about what action to take. Indeed, in his famous soliloquy (a speech intended only for the audience to hear, as if the character is speaking aloud to himself), he wonders whether to commit suicide, endure his sorrows, or fight them: "To be, or not to be, that is the question—/ Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them." According to Bloom, Hamlet is the most fully human of Shakespeare's characters and is, except for Jesus Christ, the most-referenced figure in Western culture.
Macbeth, based on the history of an ancient Scottish king, Duncan, is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy. Its theme is the danger of unrestrained ambition. Macbeth, a Scottish noble, meets three witches who predict that he will become king. Though he had been King Duncan's loyal general, Macbeth now wishes to fulfill the prophecy. His wife urges him to go along with her plan to murder the king while he is staying in their castle. Though at first he worries about committing such an immoral act, Macbeth stabs the king to death and seizes the throne. Increasingly concerned that his enemies will rise against him, Macbeth slaughters many innocents before he is killed in battle. One of the most notable features of the play is the character of Lady Macbeth, who is more bloodthirsty and cold-hearted than her husband.
Shakespeare based King Lear on an old English legend. In Shakespeare's version, Lear, an old man, needs to decide how to divide up his kingdom among his daughters. He demands that they demonstrate their love for him. He fails to recognize that his two older daughters, who pretend affection, care only about getting the inheritance. By contrast, his youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to play her sisters' game because she recognizes it is insincere. Lear, however, is blind to the truth and banishes her. He realizes his mistake too late, after Cordelia dies. In the play's most powerful scene, the man who was once a great king is now ragged and in despair, wandering over the moors carrying Cordelia's lifeless body.
In Othello a jealous husband is driven to murder when his trusted general, Iago, suggests that Othello's wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful. Othello cannot see that Iago hates him and wishes to destroy him. He goes along with Iago's scheme to demonstrate proof of Desdemona's betrayal, and finally kills her. The play's subtitle, "The Moor of Venice," refers to the fact that Othello is a black African; his wife is white. Shakespeare uses black-white imagery throughout the play, especially in Iago's speeches, which demonstrate the villain's crude racism and contempt for women.
In 1603 James I (1566–1625; see entry) granted the Lord Chamberlain's Men a royal patent, and the company changed its name to the King's Men. This royal support helped to increase the status of theater professionals. James enjoyed plays, and the company performed at court several times a year. The King's Men also performed at an indoor private venue in London, the Blackfriars Theater.
The later period: 1600–1608
The plays that Shakespeare wrote in the final years of his career are sometimes classified as romances. They conform less closely to conventional genres of comedy or tragedy, mixing elements from several genres within one work. The major plays from this period date from between about 1607 and 1613, and they include Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest.
The Winter's Tale is considered one of Shakespeare's finest plays. It begins as a tragedy but then shifts to pastoral comedy, or a comedy about country life. Leontes, king of Bohemia, irrationally suspects his friend, Polixenes, of having an affair with Leontes's wife. He orders Polixenes killed and orders the wife, Hermione, thrown into prison where she gives birth to a daughter. Leontes orders this child to be killed as well, but instead she is adopted by shepherds. Polixines, too, escapes. Sixteen years later the action shifts and the tragic actions are resolved, often through wondrous events.
The Tempest is Shakespeare's best-known play from this late period, and some scholars consider it his farewell to the theater, since he retired soon after producing it. Magic plays a prominent part in the play, which concerns a powerful sorcerer, Prospero, whose brother stole his kingdom and set him adrift at sea with his baby daughter. They are saved by an enchantress, and live on a remote island for several years. Discovering that this untrustworthy brother will be passing near the island on a ship, Prospero conjures a storm that makes his brother a castaway on the island. After much romantic plotting and scheming with his servant, the strange and demonic creature Ariel, Prospero sees to it that kingdoms and relationships are restored to their proper order.
From 1593 to 1594 London theaters were closed because of plague in the city. (The plague was a disease that killed nearly one-fourth of the city's population.) Needing income, Shakespeare wrote two long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, for his patron, or financial supporter, the earl of Southampton. These works are considered masterpieces of Elizabethan narrative poetry. (A narrative poem is a poem that tells a story.)
Shakespeare's best-known poems, however, are his sonnet sequence, probably also composed around this time but not published until 1609. Sonnets are fourteen-line poems written in iambic pentameter—ten syllables in each line, with the emphasis on the second syllable in each word or phrase. The sonnet sequence, in which individual poems are arranged to develop a particular theme or argument, had been made popular by Philip Sidney (1554–1586; see entry). Shakespeare's contribution to the genre established him as one of the finest poets in the English language.
The 154 poems of Shakespeare's sonnet sequence form an extended dialogue between the poet or speaker and two mysterious characters: a "friend" who appears to be a young man, and a "dark lady." The poems consider themes of beauty, friendship, love, and death, often expressing conflicting feelings within a single poem. They are considered masterpieces that, alone, would have established Shakespeare's reputation as a poetic genius.
Last years: 1608–1616
Shakespeare's career was quite successful. He earned a comfortable income from his plays and from his share in the profits of the theater company. In 1596 his father had obtained the right to have a coat-of-arms (a symbol representing a family), and Shakespeare inherited this after his father's death in 1601. The playwright was also granted the right to call himself a gentleman—a distinguished achievement in an age that often considered actors to be disreputable.
In 1597 Shakespeare purchased a large house, New Place, in Stratford. This became his family home. Over the years he invested in additional property in Stratford. He retired there around 1611, and lived quietly with his family. He died there on his birthday, April 23, 1616, at age 52. He was buried at Holy Trinity Church.
Was Someone Else Shakespeare?
While most critics and historians believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was the writer of the plays now credited to him, many others over the years have doubted it. Most point to the limited education Shakespeare received in Stratford and note the vast knowledge displayed by the author of the plays. Some find evidence that the plays were written from the perspective of a member of the aristocracy, not the son of a glove maker. Others point to the lack of any reference to a playwright from Stratford in the documents of the era. These skeptics have suggested other authors for the plays, primarily the scientist and writer Francis Bacon (1561–1626; see entry), Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley (Earl of Derby; 1561–1642), and Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford; 1550–1604). Most such claims have been discredited, however.
Shakespeare's work was so admired in his own time that, in 1623, two actors compiled his plays and published them in the First Folio. This volume contained thirty-six plays, including Henry VIII, on which he collaborated with playwright John Fletcher (1579–1625). The First Folio did not contain Pericles, which is not accepted by most scholars as Shakespeare's work.
Actors, audiences, and readers through the centuries have continued to find new excitement in Shakespeare's work. As his contemporary Ben Jonson (1572–1637) wrote in a preface to the First Folio, Shakespeare "was not of an age, but for all time!"
For More Information
Ackroyd, Peter. Shakespeare: The Biography. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2005.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
Braunmuller, A. R. and Stephen Orgel, eds. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
Charney, Maurice. All of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Fraser, Russell. Shakespeare: The Later Years. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
――――――. Young Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.
Prefatory Material to the First Folio, 1623. http://shakespeare.palomar.edu/Folio1.htm#Beloved (accessed on July 11, 2006).
Shakespeare Homepage. http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/content/view/10/10/ (accessed on July 11, 2006).
Shakespeare Online. http://www.shakespeare-online.com/index.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).
Shakespeare Resource Center. http://www.bardweb.net/ (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"William Shakespeare." Classic Literature Library. http://william-shakespeare.classic-literature.co.uk/ (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"William Shakespeare." Poets.org. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/122 (accessed on July 11, 2006).
CareerIn 1592, the playwright Robert Greene alluded to another writer who ‘with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hide … is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey’. The allusion to 3 Henry VI (1. 4. 137) and the PUN on his name make it clear that Shakespeare was already in 1592 a prominent, if controversial, figure on the London theatrical scene. Within a few years, his pre-eminence was beyond controversy: in 1598, Francis Meres gave Shakespeare pride of place among the English dramatists he listed in Palladis Tamia, praising the ‘sugred’ sonnets and naming twelve plays composed in ‘Shakespeares fine filed phrase’.
The plague forced the closing of London theatres from 1592 to 1594, years in which Shakespeare's non-dramatic Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece appeared. When the theatres reopened, Shakespeare wrote new plays, acted in some of Ben Jonson's, and, according to some traditions, in several of his own. He also became a partowner of his theatrical troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's company. In the five years or so following, according to the conventional chronology, Shakespeare wrote eleven plays, the early sonnets, and The Lover's Complaint. His increasing success enabled him to buy Stratford's second-largest house in 1597, when he was 33, and he continued to buy property in the town and in London as well until at least 1613.
Shakespeare's company opened the Globe theatre in 1599. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, and her successor James I pronounced Shakespeare's troupe his servants under the name the King's Men. The company often performed at court and, in 1608, took over the Blackfriars, a private indoor theatre. Shakespeare had written fewer plays since 1601, and seems to have stopped acting after 1607, perhaps because he was spending more time in Stratford. In 1613, he wrote his last play, probably in collaboration with Fletcher; in the same year, the Globe theatre burned down.
WorksShakespeare's works do not survive in manuscript, and the copies that printers used were apparently not always his: some came from actors' reconstructions, some from the theatre company's prompt-books. Both scribes and printing-house compositors made occasional further alterations in the course of transmitting Shakespeare's text, including linguistic details such as punctuation, spelling, and grammatical inflections. Many of his works appeared in small separate editions known as ‘quartos’ during his lifetime; dates on the title page, or in the Stationers' Register, along with lists like Meres's, outline the chronology of Shakespeare's career. Some at least of the sonnets were already in circulation when Meres mentioned them over a decade before their 1609 publication, and some of the plays may likewise have been written and presented earlier than their publication. Several of the plays did not appear until the posthumous collected Folio edition of 1623, so the following chronology, though it reflects the preponderance of modern opinion, remains uncertain:
(1) Early works written before Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain's company in 1594: 1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece.(2) Works written between 1594 and the opening of the Globe in 1599: Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, Midsummer Night's Dream, King John, Merchant of Venice, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, the early sonnets, and The Lover's Complaint.(3) Works written between 1599 and the acquisition of Blackfriars in 1608: As You like It, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That End's Well, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, the later sonnets, and The Phoenix and the Turtle.(4) The last plays, written between 1608 and the burning of the Globe in 1613: Pericles, Cymbeline, A Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Henry VIII.
LanguageThe phrase ‘Shakespeare's language’ has come to mean both the state of English around 1600 and Shakespeare's use of it. Both are topics in the following discussion of orthography, pronunciation and rhyme, syntactic structure, vocabulary and word-formation, linguistic variety, rhetoric, and pragmatics. In it, all the citations are from Richard II in the Quarto first edition (Q) of 1597, and comparisons with the Folio (F) of 1623. This concentration of examples from one play makes it easier to follow the passages cited, and gives an idea of the frequency of the features. Though no play embodies the full range of Shakespeare's linguistic ideas and practices, Richard II is notably concerned with the powers, limits, and dangers of language.
OrthographyThe original editions of Shakespeare's works look very different from present-day orthography. They used no apostrophe for possessives; the occasional capitals on common nouns were more frequent in F than Q (for example, violl Q, Vyall F); and the letters v and u varied according to position rather than sound: v stood for both the v- and u-sounds when initial, and u stood for both when medial. Similarly, i stood for both i and j initially (Iohn). Other non-substantive variants included silent final -e (robbes 1. 3. 173 Q, robs F); this -e remains in conservative spellings like the surname Clarke.
Pronunciation and rhymeThe printed page best preserves features of vocabulary and structure; it preserves features of sound worst. Early editions of Shakespeare spelled the vowel in band and bond (5. 2. 65, 67) indifferently, and made no distinction between the consonants in words like Murders (1. 2. 21) and Murthers (3. 2. 40). Presumably, the spellings represented indistinguishable pronounciations. Q has my owne (1. 1. 133) but thine owne (1. 2. 35); where Q has my honour (1. 1. 191) and thy oth (1. 3. 14), F has mine honour and thine oth. The changes show that the matter of this historical -n before a vowel received editorial attention, but variations within Q indicate that the attention was not uniform. However, sit (1: 2. 47) in F differs from set in Q because the two words were commonly confused in the late 16c.
A rhyme such as John of Gaunt's when/againe (1. 1. 162–3) contrasts with the Duchess of York's againe/twaine (5. 3. 131–2), perhaps opportunistically making use of two current pronunciations, both still heard today. But the rhymes teare (verb)/feare (1. 1. 192–3) and beare/heere (5. 5. 117–18) reflect consistent pronunciation in both cases, as does pierce/rehearse (5. 3. 125–6) in Q, where F has the spelling pearce (from Old French percer) and the -ea- in rehearse looks back to a time when it was pronounced like the -ea- in bear. So too happie hauens (1. 3. 276) is a pun depending on a pronunciation of heavens implied by the -ea- spelling as in bear. Much of the variation in spelling concerns the long vowels, which the Great Vowel Shift had left uncertain: for yeeres (1. 3. 159) in Q, F has yeares; but both have yeeres in line 171.
Syntactic structureThe structure of Shakespeare's EARLY MODERN ENGLISH is unlike present-day English. It seems familiar, however, because it is often studied, so its older features are overlooked, at least until they begin to cause difficulty. These features are, notably: word order; the polarity of adjectives and verbs; transitivity; subject–verb concord; negation and the use of do; relative pronouns and conjunctions; verb inflection; personal pronouns; and strong and weak verbs.
Word order.The sentence My natiue English now I must forgo (1. 3. 159–60) inverts typical English subject–verb–object word order from SVO to OSV, but is not ambiguous, because I is clearly the subject. However, there is structural ambiguity in The last leaue of thee takes my weeping eie (1. 2. 74): is leaue or eie the subject of takes? Shakespeare sometimes used the VS(O) order with the subjunctive verb for conditional clauses: Holde out my horse (2. 1. 300) means If my horse holds out, and Put we our quarrell (1. 2. 6) is a hortative order equivalent to Let us put our quarrel to the will of heauen…
Polarity.It bootes thee not to be compassionate (1. 3. 174) seems odd in part because compassionate now means showing compassion; for Shakespeare, it meant seeking compassion, and so the sentence translates as ‘It won't help you to seek pity’. Similar instances of change in syntactic polarity are pittiful = showing pity (5. 2. 103), fall = let fall (3. 4. 104), remember (1. 3. 269) = remind, and learne (4. 1. 120) = teach.
Transitivity.A related feature is change in transitivity: inhabit (4. 1. 143) and frequent (5. 3. 6) are intransitive, while Staies for ‘awaits’ (1. 3. 3) and part for ‘part from’ (3. 1. 3) are transitive. The construction Me thinkes is impersonal, but Shakespeare could also write I bethinke me and I had thought.
Concord.His management of subject–verb agreement sometimes varied because the subject might be construed as either singular or plural: this newes, these newes (3. 4. 82, 100). Hence, Reproch and dissolution hangeth ouer him (2. 1. 258) is a singular verb following a double subject conceived of as a single entity.
Negation and the use of ‘do’.Negatives like I slewe him not (1. 1. 133) avoid do, while we do not vnderstand (5. 3. 122) employs it; both are common in Shakespeare. The same is true of negative imperatives: Call it not patience (1. 2. 29), but doe not so quickly go (1. 2. 64). Multiple negations that retain negative sense are also common, though the Folio ‘corrects’ some of these: Nor neuer looke vpon each others face, / Nor neuer write, regreete, nor reconcile (1. 3. 185–6) Q becomes Nor euer looke … Nor euer write … or reconcile in F. Like negatives, questions can be formed with or without do: Why dost thou say (3. 4. 77), what saist thou (1. 1. 110).
Do also has an abundance of other uses: manage (How shal we do for money: 2. 2. 104); verb substitute (let vs share thy thoughts as thou dost ours: 2. 1. 273); idiomatically with right or wrong (to do him right: 2. 3. 137); idiomatically with have (I haue to do with death: 1. 3. 65); finish (my life is done: 1. 1. 183); with emphatic stress (Yes … It doth containe a King: 3. 3. 24–5).
Relative pronouns.Shakespeare will omit a relative pronoun for the subject of the clause where modern English omits it only for the object: neare the hate of those loue not the King (2. 2. 127), or use intricate subordination: Hath causd his death, the which if wrongfully, / Let heauen reuenge (1. 2. 39–40). He was no stickler for the use of that and which in restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, respectively: the hollow crowne / That roundes but this flesh which wals about (3. 2. 160–1, 167). He also used a variety of subordinating conjunctions: for (1. 1. 132) meaning ‘as for’, for that meaning ‘because’ (1. 1. 129) and ‘in order that’ (1. 3. 125), for-because (5. 5. 3) and for why (5. 1. 46), both meaning ‘because’.
The endings -s and -th.The third-person singular indicative ending in Shakespeare's verbs could be either -s, as now, or the older -th. No meaning attached to the choice, so one line might include both: Greefe boundeth where it falls (1. 2. 58) F. But the forms of do and have were almost invariably doth and hath. The subjunctive mood, marked in the third-person singular present by the absence of a -s or -th ending, is often used in place of an auxiliary like may or let, and sometimes in combination with them: O set my husbands wronges on Herefords speare, / That it may enter butcher Mowbraies breast: / Or if misfortune misse the first carier, / Be Mowbraies sinnes so heauy in his bosome / That they may breake his foming coursers backe (1. 2. 47–51).
Pronouns.Shakespeare's English included the second-person pronouns you or ye and thou. Historically, they were plural and singular respectively, but you had come to be used as a formal or honorific alternative for the singular. In Richard II, some usages conform to this pattern: the Queen calls the gardener thou in 3. 4 and he calls her you in her presence; after she leaves he changes to a compassionately familiar thou. Likewise, the King regularly calls the disputants, his subjects, thou in the singular and you in the plural. Generally, they call him the respectful you, as Mowbray does at the beginning of his ‘protest’ speech (1. 3. 154–73); but by the end of the speech he has switched to thou. The change could arise from Mowbray's growing anguish, but other alternations between the two forms occur: in 1. 2, John of Gaunt usually calls the Duchess of Gloucester you (but thee: 1. 2. 57), while she consistently calls him thou; in 5. 5, the Groom calls the King thou, but the Keeper uses you.
Shakespeare's English lacked the possessive its; he sometimes used the uninflected it, sometimes the historical neuter possessive his: what a Face I haue, / Since it is Bankrupt of his Maiestie (4. 1. 266–7) F.
Strong and weak verbs.Among Shakespeare's weak verbs, the spelling often shows that the suffix -ed is not syllabic: learnt 1. 3. 159, casde 1. 3. 163. The suffix after t or d is, however, regularly syllabic: blotted. Both pronunciations accord with modern practice; unlike it, however, are words like fostered, which had three syllables. His strong verbs occasionally take unfamiliar forms in the past: for example, spake (5. 2. 12). Some forms of strong past participles are identical with the simple past: broke (5. 5. 43–8) F (broken 2. 2. 59 Q is extra-metrical, and F has broke), shooke (4. 1. 163) F, spoke (1. 1. 77) Q (spoken F). Others are archaic: holp (5. 5. 62), eate (5. 5. 85), writ (4. 1. 275) F.
Vocabulary and word-formationShakespeare's vocabulary is sometimes estimated at c.20,000 words. For it, he drew on Renaissance technical terms, derivations, compounds, archaisms, polysemy, etymological meanings, and idioms. Richard II abounds in technical terms, often words with specialized meanings distinct from their everyday use: in That knowes no touch to tune the harmonie (1. 3. 165) touch means ‘fingering’ and to tune means ‘to play’. Suitably to the subject of the play, many technical terms are from the law or chivalry.
Conversion.Shakespeare is noted for verbal conversion such as grace me no grace, nor vnckle me no vnckle (2. 3. 86). Other examples include the verbs converted from nouns refuge (5. 5. 26), twaine (5. 3. 132), priuiledge (1. 1. 120), and dog them at the heeles (5. 3. 137).
Derivation.Shakespeare was also fecund with derviations, words created by the addition of a suffix, often in a new part of speech: the verb ‘partialize’ (1. 1. 120), from the adjective ‘partial’, a Shakespeare original as a transitive verb. In addition, every Shakespeare play makes concentrated use of some lexical field. Whereas in Coriolanus it is a lexical set centring on ‘breath’, ‘voice’, and ‘vote’, in Richard II it is a morphological set centring on privatives beginning with un-, like vnfurnisht wals, / Vnpeopled offices, vntrodden stones (1. 2. 68–9). Some of these appear nowhere else in Shakespeare, like vndeafe, vnhappied, and vnkingd.
Compounding.Lines like My oile-dried lampe, and time bewasted light (1. 3. 221) show Shakespeare's fondness for compounds: here, compounds formed on past participles. They are most often nouns, like beggarfeare (1. 1. 189), or adjectives, like the cluster Egle-winged pride / Of skie-aspiring and ambitious thoughts, / With riuall-hating enuy (1. 3. 129–31).
RhetoricShakespeare was familiar with paradox and other figures of traditional rhetoric, for example chiasmus in Banisht this fraile sepulchre of our flesh, / As now our flesh is banisht (1. 3. 196–7); the last taste of sweetes is sweetest last (2. 1. 13); Deposing thee before thou wert possest, / Which art possest now to depose thy self (2. 1. 107–8). The last example also contains paronomasia; here, the pun is on possessed meaning both having come into possession and unreasonably determined. Richard comments on Gaunt's onomastic word-play, Can sicke men play so nicely with their names? (2. 1. 84), but Gaunt has already juggled inspire and expire (2. 1. 31–2), and urged his son to Call it a trauaile that thou takst for pleasure (1. 3. 262), playing on travel and travail. Even in prison, Richard replies to the salutation Haile roiall Prince with Thankes noble peare: / The cheapest of vs is ten grotes too deare (5. 5. 67–8), the royal being a coin worth ten groats more than a noble.
See AUREATE DICTION, DIALOGUE, KRIO, LYLY, MULCASTER, PROSE, QUOTATION, RHETORICAL QUESTION.
Shakespeare, William (1564–1616)
SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM (1564–1616)
SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM (1564–1616), English playwright, poet, and actor. Shakespeare is universally recognized as the foremost writer in the English language to date. The thirty-seven plays associated with his name, including the major tragedies Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, and his romances and comedies, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream among them, have been translated into many languages and have crossed all kinds of cultural divide. His poetry, in particular his intricately woven and fiercely passionate love sonnets, have stirred the senses of reader and critic alike for generations past and will do so for generations to come.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England, and he was probably educated in the 1570s at the free grammar school there known as the King's New School. His father, John Shakespeare, has been described as a glover or whittawer, which means someone who works with animal skins. Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, was from a noted local family, the daughter of Robert Arden, John Shakespeare's landlord. At some point, perhaps in 1568 when his father was high bailiff (mayor) of the town and responsible for Stratford's entertainment, Shakespeare must have first seen actors perform as traveling players visiting on tour.
In about 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a rich yeoman's daughter. The marriage was undertaken during a notable downturn in the affairs of Shakespeare's father. Having been a respected and confident town official during Shakespeare's earliest years—initiating an application for gentry status in 1576, for example—during 1586 John Shakespeare's alderman status was withdrawn. Although controversy surrounds the possible reasons for Shakespeare's marriage to a woman who was eight years his senior, three children were produced from the marriage. Susanna was the first-born in 1583 with a pair of twins produced in 1585—a son, Hamnet, who died in childhood, and a daughter, Judith.
LONDON ACTOR, PLAYWRIGHT, AND POET
Whether Shakespeare had to leave Stratford for some reason, or whether he joined a visiting touring company such as the Queen's Men, we first hear of him as a London playhouse personality seven years after the birth of the twins. This is when he is mentioned in a pamphlet called A Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance (1592) written by a writer and playwright named Robert Greene. This text was written while the writer knew that he was dying, and in it he urged his fellow well-educated peers, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, and George Peele, to forsake the stage. "For there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers," Greene wrote, "that with his 'Tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide' supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you, and [ . . . ] is in his own conceit the only Shakescene in a country." We know this allusion is directed toward Shakespeare, not only because of the play on his name and profession as a "Shake-scene," but also because of the misquotation from one of his Henry VI plays: "O Tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide!" (Part III, act 1, scene 4, line 138).
By this time, scholars believe that the player Shakespeare had not only embarked on his English history cycle with the three Henry VI plays, but had also presented the highly successful if violent Titus Andronicus as well. In this play a woman is raped, has both her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and a queen unknowingly eats her own children, baked in a pie. However, in a matter of a few years Shakespeare was also provably capable of writing the extraordinarily poised and tragic Romeo and Juliet. Here two young lovers, divided by their families' antagonism to one another, meet, marry, and die while speaking the most beautiful words of love written for the English stage.
By 1595, Shakespeare, as a sharer member of the acting company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men, was entitled to a portion of the company's takings. This status was acquired through his investment in things for the company like costumes, playbooks, and props. However, there is some evidence to show that Shakespeare wanted to be perceived more as a serious poet than as either an actor or a playwright. In 1593 and 1594 he published his two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, both dedicated to his supposed patron Henry Wroithesley, 3rd earl of Southampton. This period also marks the time when it is believed he had begun his 154 sonnets, published as a collection in 1609, with Southampton a candidate for the "Fair Youth" to whom the first 126 possibly allude. The fourteen-line sonnet, quietly evolving in form since its first emergence in fourteenth-century Italy, had reached England through poet-courtiers such as Sir Thomas Wyatt and the earl of Surrey earlier in the sixteenth century. In the hands of Shakespeare, many sonnet conventions were challenged, questioning the poetic expectation of comparing one's lover to nature, for example. "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" is the bold opening of Number 130, for example. Thus Shakespeare chose to use the sonnet to engage, not only with the passions and intellect of the person to whom the sonnet is addressed, but even with poetry itself. It is interesting that Greene chose to mark out Shakespeare's verse as his primary objection to him as an "upstart." Shakespeare indeed wrote much of his drama in blank verse, the flexible iambic pentameter form of unrhymed poetry, again used by Henry Howard, the earl of Surrey, and taken on by dramatists such as Christopher Marlowe. However, Shakespeare's energy when approaching his plays did not hold back on inventiveness and variety. The blank verse form reached its apotheosis with Shakespeare, but a few of his early plays contain sonnet moments too. The Prologue to Romeo and Juliet, given by the Chorus, is a sonnet, and later in this lovers' play, one is interwoven through the dialogue when the protagonists first speak together (act 1, scene 5, lines 90–113).
By the turn of the seventeenth century, the Lord Chamberlain's Men had rebuilt their Shoreditch amphitheater (called the "Theater") as the Globe on London's Bankside (the south bank of the Thames). They were now the most well established of the city's playing companies. By this time Shakespeare had begun to write his heavyweight tragedies for them, beginning with Hamlet published in 1603. If Titus Andronicus was violent, and Romeo and Juliet tragically romantic, Hamlet was Shakespeare's play concerned with the human mind. The eponymous prince of Denmark, whose father's ghost tells him how he was murdered by Hamlet's uncle, sets out on a course of revenge, while at the same time, as the philosopher prince studying at Wittenburg University, he questions life and death and any decision involving them. Shakespeare is creative with the revenge tragedy form, using the vengeful mindset of the main character to explore highly philosophical questions. 'What a piece of work is man!' (act 2, scene 2, lines 293–300) and 'To be, or not to be, that is the question' (act 3, scene 1, lines 58–90) are two lines from speeches of profound mental depth. Hamlet is the most widely quoted and most investigated of Shakespeare's plays, attracting a phenomenal amount of scholarly study, just as much because of the questions it poses as because of the answers it fails to give.
THE JACOBEAN SHAKESPEARE
In 1603, after the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of James I, the company were renamed the King's Men, acquiring royal patronage status. In 1608 they also acquired a new, small, more select playhouse known as the Blackfriars that was to be used alongside the Globe, the public playhouse. Shares in this venture, which company members were given, were very lucrative acquirements for the actors—including Shakespeare. This period marked the writing of plays such as Othello, first performed 1603–1604 and published in the 1620s, King Learof 1606, published in 1608, and Macbeth, again c. 1606 but first published in the collected First Folio of Shakespeare's works of 1623. The plot lines and characters of these tragedies continued to demonstrate the extraordinary range of Shakespeare's mind as he dealt with, for example, jealousy and deception in Othello ; madness, mercy, and true filial love in King Lear ; and the dangers of encouraged ambition in Macbeth. In about 1613, however, at the peak of his writing powers, Shakespeare was to give up his career on London's stage.
SHAKESPEARE THE STRATFORD MAN
By 1616, Shakespeare had returned to Stratford and the substantial home called New Place that he had bought for his family. It was there that he was to die in 1616 of a fever, reputedly after a rowdy visit from his friend and colleague Ben Jonson. He died where he began, therefore, not in London where he made his name, but in the Stratford of his birth. Back in 1596, gentry status had finally been achieved for his family, and the payee for this was likely to have been William. He died, therefore, not only rich, but respected and esteemed in his community, to become later in the minds of many the man most associated with the finest use of poetic English.
In the historical context of his day-to-day existence as an actor and a companyman, Shakespeare's significant output as a dramatic writer can be interpreted as simple good business sense that resulted in his family's bettered status at home. By writing good plays he drew audiences to playhouses in which he had financial interests. Shakespeare's plays did not, in fact, belong to him, but were the property of his company. Despite evidence that Shakespeare was involved in the printing of his poetry, there is no proof of authorial concern with the printed publication of his plays. His dramas were only collected as serious "works" seven years after his death in 1623 for what we now know as Shakespeare's "First Folio," put together by his fellow actors. A man of extraordinary talent, however, at a time when there were no rulebooks for the English language or its lexicon, his contribution to what we now perceive as beauty through dramatic story and words is inestimable.
See also Beaumont and Fletcher ; Drama: English ; English Literature and Language ; Jonson, Ben ; Marlowe, Christopher .
Shakespeare, William. The First Folio of Shakespeare. Norton facsimile, prepared by Charlton Hinman. 2nd ed. New York and London, 1996.
——. The Norton Shakespeare. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York and London, 1997. Based on the Oxford Edition.
——. Shakespeare's Sonnets. Edited by Stephen Booth. New Haven, 1997.
Dobson, Michael, and Stanley Wells, eds. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford, 2001.
Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage, 1574–1642. 3rd ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.
Jones, Peter, ed. Shakespeare, the Sonnets: A Casebook. London, 1977.
Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare's Language. New York, 2001.
Schoenbaum, S. Shakespeare's Lives. Rev. ed. Oxford and New York, 1991.
BORN: 1564, Stratford-upon-Avon, England
DIED: 1616, Stratford-upon-Avon, England
NATIONALITY: British, English
GENRE: Poetry, drama
Romeo and Juliet (1595–1596)
King Lear (1605)
The Tempest (1611)
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.
Early Work Shakespeare's first plays, the three parts of the Henry VI history cycle, were presented in 1589–1591. 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.
Publication History 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.
Shakespeare's Comedies 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 (1593–1594), 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 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.
Shakespeare's Sonnets 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
Dramatic Influences 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.
Historical Epic 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 Tragedies 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.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Shakespeare's famous contemporaries include:
Queen Elizabeth (1533–1603): Known as the Virgin Queen because she never married, this queen of England and Ireland gave her country a long and stable reign.
Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593): English playwright, translator, and poet; known for his blank verse, he is considered the chief Elizabethan playwright before Shakespeare.
Ben Jonson (1572–1637): English playwright, actor, and poet; known for his satirical works, such as Volpone.
Galileo Galilei (1564–1642): Italian astronomer and physicist who was forced by the Inquisition to recant some of his knowledge of science, such as that the Earth revolves around the sun, as it went against a literal interpretation of the Bible.
The Sonnets John Benson's Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare. 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.
Responses to Literature
- Many people believe that Shakespeare's sonnets are thinly veiled autobiographical writings. Does it matter to you if a poem or song reflects the artist's own life? Why or why not? Why would an author use this method of writing?
- William Shakespeare's plays were highly popular in his day and critically praised. Are there any film-makers or directors today with a similar reputation? Do you think they will remain equally popular as time goes by?
- Shakespeare's history plays, in which he traced the lives of the British monarchy, were inspired by current political events. Pretend that you are going to write a play about some part of American history, based on recent events. Write two or three paragraphs outlining what your play would be about, using specifics, and what prompted your choice.
- Shakespeare based some of his plays on classical myths. Choose a myth of your own by researching online or in your library, and rewrite it in contemporary terms.
- Because Shakespeare came from an ordinary background, some critics do not believe that he wrote the plays he is known for. Research both sides of the argument at the Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable (www.shakespeareauthorship.org/) and How We Know That Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare (http://shakespeareauthorship.com/howdowe.html.). Write an essay comparing and contrasting the arguments for each side. Which do you find most convincing?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
William Shakespeare's plays have appealed to audience throughout the centuries and are still influential and relevant today. Here are some contemporary adaptations of his works:
The Merchant of Venice (2004), a movie directed by Michael Radford. This close adaptation of Shakespeare's play stars Al Pacino as Shylock, portraying the character as a tragic hero rather than a villain.
Shakespeare in Love (1998), a movie directed by John Madden. Winning multiple Academy Awards and making no claim to historical accuracy, this film follows Will Shakespeare as he falls in love with Viola, a noble-woman who longs to act.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999), a movie directed by Gil Junger. This movie adapts The Taming of the Shrew, setting it in an American high school.
West Side Story (1961), a movie directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Considered a Broadway classic, this musical translates Romeo and Juliet into the story of doomed love between members of rival New York City gangs.
Andrews, John F. William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence. New York: Scribner, 1985.
Champion, Larry S. The Essential Shakespeare: An Annotated Bibliography of Major Modern Studies. New York: G. K. Hall, 1986.
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, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
Schoenbaum, S. William Shakespeare: Records and Images. London: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Whitaker, Virgil K. The Mirror up to Nature: The Technique of Shakespeare's Tragedies. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1965.
Berger, Harry. “Miraculous Harp: A Reading of Shakespeare's Tempest.” Shakespeare Studies 5 (1969): 253–83.
Bowers, Fredson. “Hamlet as Minister and Scourge.” PMLA 70 (September 1955): 740–49.
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.
Levin, Harry. “The Primacy of Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Quarterly 26 (Spring 1975): 99–112.
Absolute Shakespeare. Absolute Shakespeare. Retrieved May 25, 2008, from http://absoluteshakespeare.com/.
Bernini Communications. Open Source Shakespeare. Retrieved May 25, 2008, from http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/.
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.
The English playwright, poet, and actor William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is generally acknowledged to be the greatest of English writers and one of the most extraordinary creators in human history.
The most crucial fact about William Shakespeare's career is that he was a popular dramatist. Born 6 years after Queen Elizabeth I had ascended the throne, contemporary with the high period of the English Renaissance, Shakespeare had the good luck to find in the theater of London a medium just coming into its own and an audience, drawn from a wide range of social classes, eager to reward talents of the sort he possessed. His entire life was committed to the public theater, and he seems to have written nondramatic poetry only when enforced closings of the theater made writing plays impractical. It is equally remarkable that his days in the theater were almost exactly contemporary with the theater's other outstanding achievements—the work, for example, of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and John Webster.
Shakespeare was born on or just before April 23, 1564, in the small but then important Warwickshire town of Stratford. His mother, born Mary Arden, was the daughter of a landowner from a neighboring village. His father, John, son of a farmer, was a glove maker and trader in farm produce; he had achieved a position of some eminence in the prosperous market town by the time of his son's birth, holding a number of responsible positions in Stratford's government and serving as mayor in 1569. By 1576, however, John Shakespeare had begun to encounter the financial difficulties which were to plague him until his death in 1601.
Though no personal documents survive from Shakespeare's school years, his literary work shows the mark of the excellent if grueling education offered at the Stratford grammar school (some reminiscences of Stratford school days may have lent amusing touches to scenes in The Merry Wives of Windsor). Like other Elizabethan schoolboys, Shakespeare studied Latin grammar during the early years, then progressed to the study of logic, rhetoric, composition, oration, versification, and the monuments of Roman literature. The work was conducted in Latin and relied heavily on rote memorization and the master's rod. A plausible tradition holds that William had to discontinue his education when about 13 in order to help his father. At 18 he married Ann Hathaway, a Stratford girl. They had three children (Susanna, 1583-1649; Hamnet, 1585-1596; and his twin, Judith, 1585-1662) and who was to survive him by 7 years. Shakespeare remained actively involved in Stratford affairs throughout his life, even when living in London, and retired there at the end of his career.
The years between 1585 and 1592, having left no evidence as to Shakespeare's activities, have been the focus of considerable speculation; among other things, conjecture would have him a traveling actor or a country schoolmaster. The earliest surviving notice of his career in London is a jealous attack on the "upstart crow" by Robert Greene, a playwright, professional man of letters, and profligate whose career was at an end in 1592 though he was only 6 years older than Shakespeare. Greene's outcry testifies, both in its passion and in the work it implies Shakespeare had been doing for some time, that the young poet had already established himself in the capital. So does the quality of Shakespeare's first plays: it is hard to believe that even Shakespeare could have shown such mastery without several years of apprenticeship.
Shakespeare's first extant play is probably The Comedy of Errors (1590; like most dates for the plays, this is conjectural and may be a year or two off), a brilliant and intricate farce involving two sets of identical twins and based on two already-complicated comedies by the Roman Plautus. Though less fully achieved, his next comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1591), is more prophetic of Shakespeare's later comedy, for its plot depends on such devices as a faithful girl who educates her fickle lover, romantic woods, a girl dressed as a boy, sudden reformations, music, and happy marriages at the end. The last of the first comedies, Love's Labour's Lost (1593), is romantic again, dealing with the attempt of three young men to withdraw from the world and women for 3 years to study in their king's "little Academe," and their quick surrender to a group of young ladies who come to lodge nearby. If the first of the comedies is most notable for its plotting and the second for its romantic elements, the third is distinguished by its dazzling language and its gallery of comic types. Already Shakespeare had learned to fuse conventional characters with convincing representations of the human life he knew.
Though little read and performed now, Shakespeare's first plays in the popular "chronicle," or history, genre are equally ambitious and impressive. Dealing with the tumultuous events of English history between the death of Henry V in 1422 and the accession of Henry VII in 1485 (which began the period of Tudor stability maintained by Shakespeare's own queen), the three "parts" of Henry VI (1592) and Richard III (1594) are no tentative experiments in the form: rather they constitute a gigantic tetralogy, in which each part is a superb play individually and an integral part of an epic sequence. Nothing so ambitious had ever been attempted in England in a form hitherto marked by slapdash formlessness.
Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus (1593), reveals similar ambition. Though its chamber of horrors— including mutilations and ingenious murders—strikes the modern reader as belonging to a theatrical tradition no longer viable, the play is in fact a brilliant and successful attempt to outdo the efforts of Shakespeare's predecessors in the lurid tradition of the revenge play.
When the theaters were closed because of plague during much of 1593-1594, Shakespeare looked to nondramatic poetry for his support and wrote two narrative masterpieces, the seriocomic Venus and Adonis and the tragic Rape of Lucrece, for a wealthy patron, the Earl of Southampton. Both poems carry the sophisticated techniques of Elizabethan narrative verse to their highest point, drawing on the resources of Renaissance mythological and symbolic traditions.
Shakespeare's most famous poems, probably composed in this period but not published until 1609, and then not by the author, are the 154 sonnets, the supreme English examples of the form. Writing at the end of a brief, frenzied vogue for sequences of sonnets, Shakespeare found in the conventional 14-line lyric with its fixed rhyme scheme a vehicle for inexhaustible technical innovations—for Shakespeare even more than for other poets, the restrictive nature of the sonnet generates a paradoxical freedom of invention that is the life of the form—and for the expression of emotions and ideas ranging from the frivolous to the tragic. Though often suggestive of autobiographical revelation, the sonnets cannot be proved to be any the less fictions than the plays. The identity of their dedicatee, "Mr. W. H.," remains a mystery, as does the question of whether there were real-life counterparts to the famous "dark lady" and the unfaithful friend who are the subject of a number of the poems. But the chief value of these poems is intrinsic: the sonnets alone would have established Shakespeare's preeminence among English poets.
Lord Chamberlain's Men
By 1594 Shakespeare was fully engaged in his career. In that year he became principal writer for the successful Lord Chamberlain's Men—one of the two leading companies of actors; a regular actor in the company; and a "sharer," or partner, in the group of artist-managers who ran the entire operation and were in 1599 to have the Globe Theater built on the south bank of the Thames. The company performed regularly in unroofed but elaborate theaters. Required by law to be set outside the city limits, these theaters were the pride of London, among the first places shown to visiting foreigners, and seated up to 3,000 people. The actors played on a huge platform stage equipped with additional playing levels and surrounded on three sides by the audience; the absence of scenery made possible a flow of scenes comparable to that of the movies, and music, costumes, and ingenious stage machinery created successful illusions under the afternoon sun.
For this company Shakespeare produced a steady outpouring of plays. The comedies include The Taming of the Shrew (1594), fascinating in light of the first comedies since it combines with an Italian-style plot, in which all the action occurs in one day, a more characteristically English and Shakespearean plot, the taming of Kate, in which much more time passes; A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595), in which "rude mechanicals," artisans without imagination, become entangled with fairies and magic potions in the moonlit woods to which young lovers have fled from a tyrannical adult society; The Merchant of Venice (1596), which contributed Shylock and Portia to the English literary tradition; Much Ado about Nothing (1598), with a melodramatic main plot whose heroine is maligned and almost driven to death by a conniving villain and a comic subplot whose Beatrice and Benedick remain the archetypical sparring lovers; The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599), held by tradition to have been written in response to the Queen's request that Shakespeare write another play about Falstaff (who had appeared in Henry IV), this time in love; and in 1600 the pastoral As You Like It, a mature return to the woods and conventions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Twelfth Night, perhaps the most perfect of the comedies, a romance of identical twins separated at sea, young love, and the antics of Malvolio and Sir Toby Belch.
Shakespeare's only tragedies of the period are among his most familiar plays: Romeo and Juliet (1596), Julius Caesar (1599), and Hamlet (1601). Different from one another as they are, these three plays share some notable features: the setting of intense personal tragedy in a large world vividly populated by what seems like the whole range of humanity; a refusal, shared by most of Shakespeare's contemporaries in the theater, to separate comic situations and techniques from tragic; the constant presence of politics; and—a personal rather than a conventional phenomenon—a tragic structure in which what is best in the protagonist is what does him in when he finds himself in conflict with the world.
Continuing his interest in the chronicle, Shakespeare wrote King John (1596), despite its one strong character a relatively weak play; and the second and greater tetralogy, ranging from Richard II (1595), in which the forceful Bolingbroke, with an ambiguous justice on his side, deposes the weak but poetic king, through the two parts of Henry IV (1597), in which the wonderfully amoral, fat knight Falstaff accompanies Prince Hal, Bolingbroke's son, to Henry V (1599), in which Hal, become king, leads a newly unified England, its civil wars temporarily at an end but sadly deprived of Falstaff and the dissident lowlife who provided so much joy in the earlier plays, to triumph over France. More impressively than the first tetralogy, the second turns history into art. Spanning the poles of comedy and tragedy, alive with a magnificent variety of unforgettable characters, linked to one another as one great play while each is a complete and independent success in its own right—the four plays pose disturbing and unanswerable questions about politics, making one ponder the frequent difference between the man capable of ruling and the man worthy of doing so, the meaning of legitimacy in office, the value of order and stability as against the value of revolutionary change, and the relation of private to public life. The plays are exuberant works of art, but they are not optimistic about man as a political animal, and their unblinkered recognition of the dynamics of history has made them increasingly popular and relevant in our own tormented era.
Three plays of the end of Elizabeth's reign are often grouped as Shakespeare's "problem plays," though no definition of that term is able successfully to differentiate them as an exclusive group. All's Well That Ends Well (1602) is a romantic comedy with qualities that seem bitter to many critics; like other plays of the period, by Shakespeare and by his contemporaries, it presents sexual relations between men and women in a harsh light. Troilus and Cressida (1602), hardest of the plays to classify generically, is a brilliant, sardonic, and disillusioned piece on the Trojan War, unusually philosophical in its language and reminiscent in some ways of Hamlet. The tragicomic Measure for Measure (1604) focuses more on sexual problems than any other play in the canon; Angelo, the puritanical and repressed man of ice who succumbs to violent sexual urges the moment he is put in temporary authority over Vienna during the duke's absence, and Isabella, the victim of his lust, are two of the most interesting characters in Shakespeare, and the bawdy city in which the action occurs suggests a London on which a new mood of modern urban hopelessness is settling.
Promptly upon his accession in 1603, King James I, more ardently attracted to theatrical art than his predecessor, bestowed his patronage upon the Lord Chamberlain's Men, so that the flag of the King's Men now flew over the Globe. During his last decade in the theater Shakespeare was to write fewer but perhaps even finer plays. Almost all the greatest tragedies belong to this period. Though they share the qualities of the earlier tragedies, taken as a group they manifest new tendencies. The heroes are dominated by passions that make their moral status increasingly ambiguous, their freedom increasingly circumscribed; similarly the society, even the cosmos, against which they strive suggests less than ever that all can ever be right in the world. As before, what destroys the hero is what is best about him, yet the best in Macbeth or Othello cannot so simply be commended as Romeo's impetuous ardor or Brutus's political idealism (fatuous though it is). The late tragedies are each in its own way dramas of alienation, and their focus, like that of the histories, continues to be felt as intensely relevant to the concerns of modern men.
Othello (1604) is concerned, like other plays of the period, with sexual impurity, with the difference that that impurity is the fantasy of the protagonist about his faithful wife. Iago, the villain who drives Othello to doubt and murder, is the culmination of two distinct traditions, the "Machiavellian" conniver who uses deceit in order to subvert the order of the polity, and the Vice, a schizophrenically tragicomic devil figure from the morality plays going out of fashion as Shakespeare grew up. King Lear (1605), to many Shakespeare's masterpiece, is an agonizing tragic version of a comic play (itself based on mythical early English history), in which an aged king who foolishly deprives his only loving daughter of her heritage in order to leave all to her hypocritical and vicious sisters is hounded to death by a malevolent alliance which at times seems to include nature itself. Transformed from its fairy-tale-like origins, the play involves its characters and audience alike in metaphysical questions that are felt rather than thought.
Macbeth (1606), similarly based on English chronicle material, concentrates on the problems of evil and freedom, convincingly mingles the supernatural with a representation of history, and makes a paradoxically sympathetic hero of a murderer who sins against family and state—a man in some respects worse than the villain of Hamlet.
Dramatizing stories from Plutarch's Parallel Lives, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus (both written in 1607-1608) embody Shakespeare's bitterest images of political life, the former by setting against the call to Roman duty the temptation to liberating sexual passion, the latter by pitting a protagonist who cannot live with hypocrisy against a society built on it. Both of these tragedies present ancient history with a vividness that makes it seem contemporary, though the sensuousness of Antony and Cleopatra, the richness of its detail, the ebullience of its language, and the seductive character of its heroine have made it far more popular than the harsh and austere Coriolanus. One more tragedy, Timon of Athens, similarly based on Plutarch, was written during this period, though its date is obscure. Despite its abundant brilliance, few find it a fully satisfactory play, and some critics have speculated that what we have may be an incomplete draft. The handful of tragedies that Shakespeare wrote between 1604 and 1608 comprises an astonishing series of worlds different from one another, created of language that exceeds anything Shakespeare had done before, some of the most complex and vivid characters in all the plays, and a variety of new structural techniques.
A final group of plays takes a turn in a new direction. Commonly called the "romances," Pericles (1607), Cymbeline (1609), The Winter's Tale (1611), and The Tempest (1611) share their conventions with the tragicomedy that had been growing popular since the early years of the century. Particularly they resemble in some respects plays written by Beaumont and Fletcher for the private theatrical company whose operation the King's Men took over in 1608. While such work in the hands of others, however, tended to reflect the socially and intellectually narrow interests of an elite audience, Shakespeare turned the fashionable mode into a new kind of personal art form. Though less searing than the great tragedies, these plays have a unique power to move and are in the realm of the highest art. Pericles and Cymbeline seem somewhat tentative and experimental, though both are superb plays. The Winter's Tale, however, is one of Shakespeare's best plays. Like a rewriting of Othello in its first acts, it turns miraculously into pastoral comedy in its last. The Tempest is the most popular and perhaps the finest of the group. Prospero, shipwrecked on an island and dominating it with magic which he renounces at the end, may well be intended as an image of Shakespeare himself; in any event, the play is like a retrospective glance over the plays of the 2 previous decades.
After the composition of The Tempest, which many regard as an explicit farewell to art, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, returning to London to compose Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1613; neither of these plays seems to have fired his imagination. In 1616, at the age of 52, he was dead. His reputation grew quickly, and his work has continued to seem to each generation like its own most precious discovery. His value to his own age is suggested by the fact that two fellow actors performed the virtually unprecedented act in 1623 of gathering his plays together and publishing them in the Folio edition. Without their efforts, since Shakespeare was apparently not interested in publication, many of the plays would not have survived.
Alfred Harbage, ed., The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (1969), is a sound one-volume text with useful introductions and bibliographies. For editions of individual plays the New Arden Shakespeare, in progress, is the best series. The authoritative source for biographical information is Sir Edmund K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (2 vols., 1930). Reliable briefer accounts are Marchette G. Chute's highly readable Shakespeare of London (1949) and Gerald E. Bentley, Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook (1961).
The body of Shakespeare criticism is so large that selection must be arbitrary. Augustus Ralli, A History of Shakespeare Criticism (2 vols., 1932), is a guide through the thickets of the past. Ronald Berman, A Reader's Guide to Shakespeare's Plays (1965), provides helpfully annotated bibliographies. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, edited by Terence Hawkes (1959), offers invaluable and influential criticism by a great romantic poet, and A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth (1904), remains one of the indispensable books. Twentieth-century criticism can be sampled in Leonard F. Dean, Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism (1957; rev. ed. 1967), and Norman Rabkin, Approaches to Shakespeare (1964). Other noteworthy studies include G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespeare's Tragedy (1930; 5th rev. ed. 1957); Derek A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare (1938; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1968); Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (1939); Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (1946-1947), edited by M. St. Clare Byrne (4 vols., 1954); John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies (1957; 2d ed. 1962); C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (1959); L.C. Knights, Some Shakespearean Themes (1959); Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (1967); and Stephen Booth, An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets (1969).
Studies of the theaters are in C. Walter Hodges, The Globe Restored: A Study of the Elizabethan Theatre (1953), and A.M. Nagler, Shakespeare's Stage (1958); and of the staging, in Bernard Beckerman, Shakespeare at the Globe, 1599-1609 (1962). The standard account of the audience is Alfred Harbage, Shakespeare's Audience (1941). The best account of early Renaissance drama is in Frank P. Wilson and Bonamy Dobrée, eds., Oxford History of English Literature, vol. 4 (1969). Oscar J. Campbell and Edward G. Quinn, eds., The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966), is a compendious handbook. □
For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, death— which modern society has sanitized and rendered largely invisible—was a brutally conspicuous presence. Early modern London, whose gates were decorated with the boiled heads of traitors and criminals, was a place in which public executions formed a regular staple of entertainment, where the corpses of condemned persons were available for public dissection, and where the fragility of life was repeatedly brought home by devastating epidemics of plague that swept away tens of thousands of citizens at a stroke. Magnificent pageantry might adorn the funeral processions of royalty and nobles; but every church in the kingdom contained a charnel house whose stench of putrefaction acted as a constant reminder of the grim facts of mortality. Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the drama of the period should be much possessed by death and preoccupied by the struggle to tame its apocalyptic menace.
"Death," Hamlet declares in the most famous of all his soliloquies, "is a consummation / Devoutly to be wished" (Hamlet, 3.1.62). He seeks to persuade himself that dying is no mere ending, but marks the fulfilment and perfection of mortal life. Behind his words lie centuries of consolatory writing, from the classical philosophy of the Stoics, for whom the encounter with death was the ultimate proving ground of wisdom and virtuous living, to the Christian ars moriendi, with its merciful translation to a better state. The prospect of mortality is seldom so reassuring for Shakespeare's characters, however; more typical than the calm resolve of Hamlet's final moments is the panorama of decay in the graveyard, with its parade of identically grinning skulls and the parables of levelling indifference they excite in the Prince's imagination: "Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till 'a find it stopping a bunghole?" (5.1.202–3).
In Measure for Measure it is the gross material realities of death, as much as its metaphysical uncertainties, that inspire Claudio's terror as he awaits execution:
Aye, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod. . . .
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling —'tis too horrible!
( Measure for Measure, 3.1.117–27)
This is what it means to be, like Cordelia in Lear's despairing phrase, "dead as earth" (King Lear, 5.6.262). Claudio's apparent imperviousness to the salvific promises of religion, and his existential vertigo at the prospect of annihilation, give his speech a distinctly modern feel; but underlying his horror, as it underlies the sardonic humor of Hamlet and the gravediggers, is a historically specific anxiety about the social menace of death, its arbitrary cancellation of the entire system of differences on which the profoundly hierarchical order of Renaissance society depended; for the dead in Claudio's vision are consigned to an utterly chaotic condition, as "lawless and incertain" as the restless imaginings it inspires.
Such anxieties are traceable everywhere in early modern culture. They are especially apparent in iconic representations of universal mortality, like the Dance of Death, whose grinning cadavers sweep off representatives of every rank to their common end; or the Triumph of Death, in which the corpses of monarch and peasant, merchant and pauper lie promiscuously heaped together beneath the chariot wheels of King Death. But they also motivated the lavish pomp of heraldic obsequies and the increasingly worldly extravagance of the memorials crowding the aisles of parish churches and cathedrals. "Never," marveled Francis Bacon, "was the like number of beautiful and costly tombs and monuments erected in sundry churches in honourable memory of the dead" (Bacon 1861, p. 158).
If this fantastic elaboration of funeral art can be explained as a defiant reaction to the leveling assaults of death—especially in the recurrent epidemics of plague whose cartloads of corpses were stripped of all individual dignity—it also offered a secular answer to a crisis in the management of mourning created by the Protestant denial of Purgatory. The consequent abolition of the vast medieval industry of intercession deprived the living of any power to assist the dead. Haunted like Hamlet by the Ghost's importunate "Remember me!" (Hamlet, 1.5.91), the bereaved had now to rely on the ambiguous consolations of memory and art—hence Hamlet's distress at the scanted mourning rituals allowed his father, or Laertes' rage at Ophelia's "maimed rites," and his bitter resentment of the "obscure funeral" and "hugger mugger" burial of Polonius, "No trophy, sword, or hatchment o'er his bones" (5.1.219; 4.5.84, 214–215); hence, too, Hamlet's dying insistence on the need for Horatio to remain behind, as a kind of "living monument" to "tell my story" (5.1.297; 5.2.349). The ending of Hamlet, with its self-conscious wordplay on "stage" and "audience" (5.2.378, 387, 396), itself constitutes an elaborate demonstration of the power of dramatic story and theatrical art to overcome the power of death.
The rivalry of art and death is, of course, a recurrent theme in the literature of the period—never more powerfully treated than in Shakespeare's Sonnets. At the heart of the sequence is a group of powerful lyrics in which the poet, performing his superb variations on a well-known trope from the Roman poet Horace ("exegi monumentum aere perennius, " Carmina, 3.30), sets the monumental claims of poetry against the ravages of Death and his thieving ally, Time. Death is a leveling "churl" (Sonnet 32) or "wretch" (Sonnet 74) who renders his victims "base" (Sonnet 74) by consigning them to anonymous "dust" (Sonnet 32) and the degrading ministrations of "vilest worms" (Sonnet 71); while his "mortal rage" (Sonnet 64) reduces even the loftiest memorials to "unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time" (Sonnet 55). Yet Shakespeare insists that his own "powerful rhyme," by its capacity to outlast death, can confer the immortality to which "the gilded monuments / Of princes" vainly aspire (Sonnet 55). It is this that enables the poet, despite his humble status, to assert a kind of parity with the beloved patron to whom his lyrics are addressed. The poet's mortal remains, consigned to the indifference of a common grave, may be "too base" to be remembered by his aristocratic "friend"; yet he can claim both immortality and a kind of equality by virtue of the "gentle verse" that memorializes his beloved's fame (Sonnets 74, 81).
The Sonnets create a kind of stage on which "the eyes of all posterity" can witness the spectacle of the patron's fame: "'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity / Shall you pace forth" (55); and the touch of swagger in "pace" recalls the postures of heroic self-assertion with which so many protagonists of Renaissance tragedy confront their deaths. So Macbeth, defying the chaotic "wrack" of the apocalyptic storm that he himself has invoked, prepares to die "with harness on [his] back" (Macbeth, 5.5.50–51); or Othello reasserts his martial Venetian identity by transforming his suicide into a re-enacted triumph over the Turkish enemy; or Coriolanus calls on the Volscian mob to "cut me to pieces" with an insolent reminder of his conquest of Corioles ("Alone I did it. 'Boy'!" (Coriolanus, 5.6.115).
But even in the bleak world of King Lear, where the force of undifferentiation is so overwhelmingly felt as to allow no room for such egotistic self-assertion ("Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?" 5.3.307–308), theatrical convention nevertheless contrives to impose a consolatory show of order upon the final panorama of desolation: The concluding stage direction, "Exeunt with a dead march," is a reminder of the extent to which Renaissance tragedy with its "industrious scenes and acts of death" (King John, 2.1.376) self-consciously mimicked the arts of funeral. The dressing of the tragic stage in black hangings, like those that adorned both churches and great houses in time of funeral; the use of black costumes; the display of hearses, tombs, and monuments as stage properties; and the convention of ending the play with a funeral procession—all these served as reminders that tragedy was conceived above all as the drama of death. But because the obsequies of the great, organized with lavish attention to the prerogatives of rank by the College of Heralds, were imagined (like coronations and royal progresses) as a species of "triumph," the incorporation of funeral pomps in tragedy also symbolized the power of art to challenge the universal monarchy of death.
The tragic catastrophe enacted the human confrontation with death's arbitrary cancellation of meaning; and through its displays of agony, despair, and ferocious self-assertion, early modern audiences were encouraged to rehearse vicariously their own encounter with death. Thus tragedy served, in a fashion that was inseparable alike from its didactic pretensions and its entertaining practice, both as an instrument for probing the painful mystery of ending and as a vehicle of resistance to the leveling assaults of death; for even as it paraded the emblems of undifferentiation, tragedy offered to contain the fear of mortality by staging fantasies of ending in which the moment of dying was transformed by the arts of performance into a supreme demonstration of distinction. That is why Cleopatra carefully stages her death in a royal monument. Claiming her suicide as that which "shackles accidents and bolts up change" (Antony and Cleopatra, 5.2.6) through her double metamorphosis into spiritualized "fire and air" and eternizing "marble" (Antony and Cleopatra, 5.2.240, 289), the queen's language makes an exceptionally powerful connection between the bravura of her own performance and the dramatist's triumphant art.
Almost every tragedy of the period ends in a funeral procession of some kind, and this conventional expectation allowed playwrights to create striking theatrical effects by displacing the pageantry of death into other parts of the dramatic structure. Thus the national discord, which is the subject of Henry VI, is signaled as much by the disconcertingly abrupt obsequies of Henry V that open its action, as by the unpromising royal betrothal (a parody of comic ending) with which it concludes; while in Titus Andronicus the process of political and social disintegration is measured by the gap between the pompous interment of Titus's sons in the first act and the grotesque mock funeral of Tamora's sons, their heads encased in pastry "coffins," in Act 5.
Even more striking disruptions of convention could be achieved by transposing episodes of death and funeral into comedy—like the soberfaced travesty of burial rites which the repentant Claudio must perform at Hero's family monument in Much Ado About Nothing, or the mock deaths on which the plots of late romances like Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale depend. While the menace of death is always restrained by the expectation of a happy ending, such details are sufficient to remind the audience that the domains of folly and mortality are never quite as far apart as the symmetrically opposed masks of tragedy and comedy might at first suggest.
At one level, indeed, comedy—as the critic Marjorie Garber and others have shown—is deeply preoccupied with mortality, its action involving a symbolic expulsion of death from the stage world. But this comic victory is a fragile one, always vulnerable to some crack in the veneer of comic artifice. The concluding nuptials of Love's Labours Lost (a play that begins with a meditation on "brazen tombs" and the "disgrace of death") are suddenly arrested by the entrance of Marcade, like a blackclad summoner from the Dance of Death; Falstaff's parade of comic immortality never recovers from the moment when his mistress, Doll, "speaks like a death's head" (Henry the Fourth, Part 2, 2.4.31); and even A Midsummer Night's Dream follows the ludicrous mock deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe with the sinister frisson of Puck's chanting—"[Now] the screech-owl, screeching loud / Puts the wretch that lies in woe / In remembrance of a shroud" (5.1.376–378)—before Oberon and Titania reappear to summon the fairy dance of exorcism and blessing in which the play ends.
The latest of all Shakespeare's comic performances, the tragicomic Two Noble Kinsmen, written with John Fletcher, seems to concede the ultimate impotence of the comic triumph over death, ending as it does with a melancholy prospect of wedding overhung by funeral: "Journey's end in lovers meeting," Feste the clown had sung in Twelfth Night (2.3.43); but the lovers' reunion that resolves the accidents of plot in this final play only fulfills the prophecy of the mourning Queens in the "funeral solemnity" that concluded Act I: "This world's a city full of straying streets, / And death's the market-place where each one meets" (2.1.15–16).
See also: Greek Tragedy; Operatic Death; Theater and Drama
Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death, translated by Helen Weaver. London: Allen Lane, 1981.
Bacon, Francis. "Certain Observations Made upon a Libel Published This Present Year 1592." In James Spedding ed., The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon, Vol. 1. London: Longman, 1861.
Calderwood, James L. Shakespeare and the Denial of Death. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.
Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Garber, Marjorie. " 'Wild Laughter in the Throat of Death': Darker Purposes in Shakespearean Comedy." New York Literary Forum nos. 5–6 (1980):121–126.
Gittings, Clare. Death, Burial and the Individual in Early Modern England. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Neill, Michael. Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
Neill, Michael. " 'Feasts Put Down Funerals': Death andRitual in Renaissance Comedy." In Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry eds., True Rites and Maimed Rites. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Spinrad, Phoebe. The Summons of Death on the Renaissance Stage. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986.
Watson, Robert. The Rest Is Silence: Death As Annihilation in the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Born: April 23, 1564
Died: April 23, 1616
English dramatist and poet
The English playwright, poet, and actor William Shakespeare was a popular dramatist. He was born six years after Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) ascended the throne, in the height of the English Renaissance. He found in the theater of London a medium just coming into its own and an audience eager to reward talents of the sort he possessed. He is generally acknowledged to be the greatest of English writers and one of the most extraordinary creators in human history.
William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a wealthy landowner from a neighboring village. His father, John, was a maker of gloves and a trader in farm produce. John also held a number of responsible positions in Stratford's government and served as mayor in 1569.
Though no personal documents survive from Shakespeare's school years, he probably attended the Stratford grammar school and studied the classics, Latin grammar and literature. It is believed that he had to discontinue his education at about thirteen in order to financially help his father. At eighteen he married Ann Hathaway. They had three children, Susanna, Hamnet, and Judith.
There are no records of Shakespeare's activities between 1585 and 1592. Some have speculated (guessed) that he was a traveling actor or a country schoolmaster. The earliest surviving mention of his career in London, England, is a jealous attack by Robert Greene, a playwright, which indicates that Shakespeare had already established himself in the capital. It is hard to believe that even Shakespeare could have shown the mastery evident in his plays without several years of apprenticeship (the period of time a person works to learn a skill).
Three early comedies demonstrate that Shakespeare had learned to fuse conventional characters with convincing representations of the human life he knew. Shakespeare's first play is probably The Comedy of Errors (1590). Most acknowledge it as a brilliant and intricate farce (a humorous piece of work with a story unlikely to happen in real life) involving two sets of identical twins. The plot of his next comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1591) revolves around a faithful girl who educates her fickle (inconsistent) lover. It has romantic woods, a girl dressed as a boy, sudden changes, music, and happy marriages at the end. The last of the first comedies, Love's Labour's Lost (1593), deals with three young men who attempt to withdraw from the world and women for three years to study in their king's school. They quickly surrender to a group of young ladies who come to live nearby.
Early history plays and first tragedy
Though little read and performed today, Shakespeare's first plays in the popular history genre (particular style) are equally ambitious and impressive. Henry VI (1592), which is performed in three parts, and Richard III (1594) form an epic (story of heroic figures). They deal with the tumultuous (disorderly, agitating) events of English history between the death of Henry V (1387–1422) in 1422 and Henry VII (1457–1509) assuming the throne in 1485, which began the period of stability maintained by Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603). Nothing so ambitious as this monumental sequence had ever before been attempted in an English play.
Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus (1593), reveals similar ambition. It is recognized as a brilliant and successful piece in the tradition of the revenge play where someone tries to punish someone for a wrong that was done.
The theaters were closed because of plague (a bacteria-caused disease that spreads quickly and can cause death) during much of 1593 and 1594. At this time Shakespeare wrote two narrative poems for the Earl of Southampton. Both the seriocomic (both happy and sad) Venus and Adonis and the tragic Rape of Lucrece are based on the Renaissance traditions of myth and symbolism.
Shakespeare's most famous poems are the 154 sonnets. They were probably composed in this period but were not published until 1609. Sonnets are fourteen-line poems with a fixed rhyme scheme. Though they often suggest autobiographical revelation (the discovery or realization in oneself), the sonnets cannot be proved to be any less fictional than the plays.
The Lord Chamberlain's Men
In 1594 Shakespeare became principal writer for the successful Lord Chamberlain's Men in London. This was one of the two leading companies of actors. He also became a regular actor in the company and a partner in the group of artist-managers who ran it. The company performed regularly in unroofed but elaborate theaters that seated up to three thousand people. The actors performed on a huge platform stage equipped with additional levels for performances. The audience sat on three sides or stood on the ground in front of the stage. In 1599 this group had the Globe Theater built on the south bank of the Thames River.
Shakespeare produced many plays for the company. They include the comedies The Taming of the Shrew (1594) about the taming of an ill-tempered, scolding woman and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595), in which fairies and magic potions in moonlit woods become entangled with young lovers who escape from a cruel society. These were followed by The Merchant of Venice (1596), Much Ado about Nothing (1598), The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599), and As You Like It (1600).
Shakespeare's tragedies of the period are among his most familiar plays: Romeo and Juliet (1596), Julius Caesar (1599), and Hamlet (1601). Although very different from each other, they share the setting of intense personal tragedy in a large world vividly populated by what seems like the whole range of humanity. Like most of his contemporaries in the theater, Shakespeare used the same techniques in writing comedies as tragedies. Politics are constantly present, and what is best in the protagonist (hero) is what does him in when he finds himself in conflict with the world.
Shakespeare, continuing his interest in the historical play, wrote King John (1596). Despite its one strong character it is a relatively weak play. His other epics range from Richard II (1595), through the two parts of Henry IV (1597), to Henry V (1599). These four plays pose disturbing questions about politics, particularly the difference between the man capable of ruling and the man worthy of doing so. They are not optimistic about man as a political animal.
The "problem plays"
Several plays produced at the end of Elizabeth's reign are often grouped as Shakespeare's "problem plays." They are not easily categorized as either tragedies or comedies. All's Well That Ends Well (1602) is a romantic comedy with qualities that seem bitter to many critics because it presents romantic relations between men and women in a harsh light. Troilus and Cressida (1602), is a brilliant, sardonic (skeptically humorous), and disillusioned piece on the Trojan War. Measure for Measure (1604) focuses on the link between political power and romantic desire.
King's Men and the late tragedies
Upon ascending to the throne in 1603, King James I (1566–1625) bestowed his patronage upon the Lord Chamberlain's Men, so that the flag of the King's Men now flew over the Globe. During his last decade in the theater Shakespeare was to write fewer but perhaps even finer plays. Almost all the greatest tragedies belong to this period, and they share several qualities. The heroes are dominated by passions that make their moral (having to do with right and wrong) status increasingly ambiguous (not clearly one thing or another) and their freedom increasingly constricted. In the end, what destroys the hero is what is best about him. Like the histories, the late tragedies continue to be felt as intensely relevant to the concerns of modern men.
Othello (1604) is concerned with trust and betrayal. In King Lear (1605) an aged king foolishly deprives his only loving daughter of her heritage in order to leave everything to her hypocritical (only pretending to have morals) and vicious sisters. Macbeth (1606) concentrates on the problems of evil and freedom. It mingles the supernatural with history, and makes a sympathetic hero of a murderer who sins against family and state.
Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus (both written in 1607 and 1608) embody Shakespeare's bitterest images of political life. Antony and Cleopatra sets the temptation of romantic desire against the call to Roman duty. Coriolanus pits a protagonist (hero) who cannot live with hypocrisy (pretending to believe in something) against a society built on it. Both of these tragedies present ancient history with a vividness (intensity) that makes it seem contemporary.
A final group of plays takes a turn in a new direction. Pericles (1607), Cymbeline (1609), The Winter's Tale (1611), and The Tempest (1611) have a unique power to move and are in the realm of the highest art. The Tempest is the most popular and perhaps the finest of the group. In it Prospero and his daughter are shipwrecked on an island inhabited by supernatural creatures. Prospero rules the island with magic, but renounces (gives up) magic at the end. After the composition of The Tempest Shakespeare retired to Stratford. He returned to London to compose Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1613. Neither seems to have fired his imagination. He died in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 23, 1616, at the age of fifty-two.
Shakespeare's work has continued to seem to each generation like its own most precious discovery. His value to his own age is suggested by the fact that two fellow actors performed the virtually unprecedented (never done before) act in 1623 of gathering his plays together and publishing them in the Folio edition. Without their efforts, since Shakespeare was apparently not interested in publication, many of the plays would not have survived.
For More Information
Gollob, Herman. Me and Shakespeare: Adventure with the Bard. New York: Doubleday, 2002.
Schoenbaum, S. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Southworth, John. Shakespeare, The Player: A Life in the Theatre. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2000.
Shakespeare wrote approximately 42 plays, in a range of genres and styles, which occupy the principal place in the canon of English literature and which are the subject of a considerable theatrical and critical industry (as well as of substantial tourist revenue). Quotations from Shakespeare remain an often unwitting part of everyday speech; productions of his plays remain hugely popular, both in theatres and in the cinema; his style and verse techniques have come to define ‘literariness’; and his history plays in particular are, for many people, the only source of information readily available for a considerable period of medieval history.
His earliest plays are mostly comedies and histories—The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew are probably the very earliest—for a variety of companies and theatres. He wrote the first play (The First Part of the Contention, generally better known as 2 Henry VI) in the four-play cycle known as the ‘first tetralogy’ in 1591, completing it with the best known of his earlier histories, Richard III, the following year. These plays emerged from a rapidly changing culture fascinated by historiography and particularly by the function of history in the analysis of current affairs. Shakespeare drew on contemporary histories of England, notably Holinshed's Chronicles, for accounts of the events he dramatized, but he rarely left his source (already the product of careful selection, omission, and collaboration) unaltered. His portrayals of kings—most notably of Richard III—have bequeathed a fixed, but often wholly inaccurate, sense of their historical personalities.
The first tetralogy preceded Shakespeare's attachment to the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1594; it was for that company, and for their first playhouse, the Theatre, that he wrote the ‘second tetralogy’, his most popular group of history plays—Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, and Henry V—which turned back to the period immediately prior to that delineated in the earlier histories to plot the rise to power of Henry Bolingbroke and the accession to the throne of his son, Henry V. Both tetralogies attest to the lasting impact on English society of the Wars of the Roses (which had occupied much of the previous century) and to the need of the Tudor dynasty, only relatively recently established, to mythologize and legitimize its claim to power. The historiographical focus of the plays shifts: where the earlier histories had adopted a wave-like, cyclical structure and a providentialist outlook— principal characters emerging and fading in succession, attention devoted to overarching issues of causation— the later histories focus on the character of the young Henry V, edging away from providential history and depicting a world in which ‘miracles are ceas'd; | And therefore we must needs admit the means | How things are perfected’ (Henry V, i. i. 67–9). As Phyllis Rackin notes, Shakespeare's Prince Hal ‘anticipates the Tudors in using the resources of theatrical role-playing to produce the perfect image of royal authority that he could not inherit from the ambiguous genealogy that left him the throne’.
The move to the new Globe theatre in 1598–9 marked a new phase in Shakespeare's writing career and the demise of the Shakespearian history play ‘proper’. The common assumption is that, as it became clearer that civil war was not likely to follow the death of the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, the plays' function as lightning rods for succession anxiety gradually diminished. For the Globe, Shakespeare turned to other genres, writing his mature comedies (As You Like It and Twelfth Night) and his major tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth), as well as his later tragicomedies or romances (Pericles, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest)—these latter plays affected also by the company's acquisition of an additional playhouse, the smaller, indoor Blackfriars theatre—and putting his Holinshed aside.
But his Jacobean plays none the less exhibit a strong consciousness of their cultural and historiographical function. The Lord Chamberlain's Men had become the King's Men at James I's accession, and played regularly at court. King Lear and Macbeth, for example, by depicting dark alternatives, acknowledge the role of James I in reunifying Britain, and both Lear and Cymbeline delve far back into mythical British history in search of complex political resonances. Shakespeare's penultimate (and collaborative) play, Henry VIII, or All is True—echoing another underestimated Shakespearian history, the energetically ambivalent King John—offers a complex, and not wholly complimentary, picture of the status of history and of ‘truth’ in the mid-Jacobean period, representing a vacillating, casually adulterous Henry, a cruel, machiavellian Wolsey, and a haughty yet sympathetic Catherine of Aragon, and culminating in the birth and christening of the baby Elizabeth and a prophecy from Cranmer that implies a certain frustration with the direction of James's policies, foreign and ecclesiastical.
Shakespeare wrote at a unique period in the history of the British theatre—for the range of his audiences, for the cultural resonance of theatrical institutions—and his plays cannot fairly be dismissed as ‘mere’ fiction or entertainment. It is a commonplace of current literary criticism that Shakespearian drama both responded to and shaped public perspectives on history and politics at a time of considerable, and hugely productive, cultural anxiety, ‘shaping fantasies’ for a developing nation state.
Greenblatt, S. J. , Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford, 1988);
Rackin, P. , Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca, NY, 1990);
Shakespeare, William , The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford, 1986), pp. xiii–xl;
Shakespeare Survey, 38 (Cambridge, 1985), a review of criticism of Shakespeare's history plays.