Although the precise date of many of Shakespeare?s plays is in doubt, his dramatic career is generally divided into four periods: (1) the period up to 1594, (2) the years from 1594 to 1600, (3) the years from 1600 to 1608, and (4) the period after 1608. Because of the difficulty of dating Shakespeare?s plays and the lack of conclusive facts about his writings, these dates are approximate and can be used only as a convenient framework in which to discuss his development. In all periods, the plots of his plays were frequently drawn from chronicles, histories, or earlier fiction, as were the plays of other contemporary dramatists.
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Shakespeare?s first period was one of experimentation. His early plays, unlike his more mature work, are characterized to a degree by formal and rather obvious construction and by stylized verse.
Chronicle history plays were a popular genre of the time, and four plays dramatizing the English civil strife of the 15th century are possibly Shakespeare?s earliest dramatic works (see England: The Lancastrian and Yorkist Kings). These plays, Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III (1590?-1592?) and Richard III (1593?), deal with evil resulting from weak leadership and from national disunity fostered for selfish ends. The four-play cycle closes with the death of Richard III and the ascent to the throne of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, to which Elizabeth belonged. In style and structure, these plays are related partly to medieval drama and partly to the works of earlier Elizabethan dramatists, especially Christopher Marlowe. Either indirectly (through such dramatists) or directly, the influence of the classical Roman dramatist Seneca is also reflected in the organization of these four plays, especially in the bloodiness of many of their scenes and in their highly colored, bombastic language. The influence of Seneca, exerted by way of the earlier English dramatist Thomas Kyd, is particularly obvious in Titus Andronicus (1594?), a tragedy of righteous revenge for heinous and bloody acts, which are staged in sensational detail.
Shakespeare?s comedies of the first period represent a wide range. The Comedy of Errors (1592?), a farce in imitation of classical Roman comedy, depends for its appeal on mistaken identities in two sets of twins involved in romance and war. Farce is not as strongly emphasized in The Taming of the Shrew (1593?), a comedy of character. The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594?) concerns romantic love. Love?s Labour?s Lost (1594?) satirizes the loves of its main male characters as well as the fashionable devotion to studious pursuits by which these noblemen had first sought to avoid romantic and worldly ensnarement. The dialogue in which many of the characters voice their pretensions ridicules the artificially ornate, courtly style typified by the works of English novelist and dramatist John Lyly, the court conventions of the time, and perhaps the scientific discussions of Sir Walter Raleigh and his colleagues.
Shakespeare?s second period includes his most important plays concerned with English history, his so-called joyous comedies, and two of his major tragedies. In this period, his style and approach became highly individualized. The second-period historical plays include Richard II (1595?), Henry IV, Parts I and II (1597?), and Henry V (1598?). They encompass the years immediately before those portrayed in the Henry VI plays. Richard II is a study of a weak, sensitive, self-dramatizing but sympathetic monarch who loses his kingdom to his forceful successor, Henry IV. In the two parts of Henry IV, Henry recognizes his own guilt. His fears for his own son, later Henry V, prove unfounded, as the young prince displays a responsible attitude toward the duties of kingship. In an alternation of masterful comic and serious scenes, the fat knight Falstaff and the rebel Hotspur reveal contrasting excesses between which the prince finds his proper position. The mingling of the tragic and the comic to suggest a broad range of humanity subsequently became one of Shakespeare?s favorite devices.
Outstanding among the comedies of the second period is A Midsummer Night?s Dream (1595?), which interweaves several plots involving two pairs of noble lovers, a group of bumbling and unconsciously comic townspeople, and members of the fairy realm, notably Puck, King Oberon, and Queen Titania. Subtle evocation of atmosphere, of the sort that characterizes this play, is also found in the tragicomedy The Merchant of Venice (1596?). In this play, the Renaissance motifs of masculine friendship and romantic love are portrayed in opposition to the bitter inhumanity of a usurer named Shylock, whose own misfortunes are presented so as to arouse understanding and sympathy. The character of the quick-witted, warm, and responsive young woman, exemplified in this play by Portia, reappears in the joyous comedies of the second period.
The witty comedy Much Ado About Nothing (1599?) is marred, in the opinion of some critics, by an insensitive treatment of its female characters. However, Shakespeare?s most mature comedies, As You Like It (1599?) and Twelfth Night (1600?), are characterized by lyricism, ambiguity, and beautiful, charming, and strong-minded heroines like Beatrice. In As You Like It, the contrast between the manners of the Elizabethan court and those current in the English countryside is drawn in a rich and varied vein. Shakespeare constructed a complex orchestration between different characters and between appearance and reality and used this pattern to comment on a variety of human foibles. In that respect, As You Like It is similar to Twelfth Night, in which the comical side of love is illustrated by the misadventures of two pairs of romantic lovers and of a number of realistically conceived and clowning characters in the subplot. Another comedy of the second period is The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599?), a farce about middle-class life in which Falstaff reappears as the comic victim.
Two major tragedies, differing considerably in nature, mark the beginning and the end of the second period. Romeo and Juliet (1595?), famous for its poetic treatment of the ecstasy of youthful love, dramatizes the fate of two lovers victimized by the feuds and misunderstandings of their elders and by their own hasty temperaments. Julius Caesar (1599?), on the other hand, is a serious tragedy of political rivalries, but is less intense in style than the tragic dramas that followed it.
Shakespeare?s third period includes his greatest tragedies and his so-called dark or bitter comedies. The tragedies of this period are considered the most profound of his works. In them he used his poetic idiom as an extremely supple dramatic instrument, capable of recording human thought and the many dimensions of given dramatic situations. Hamlet (1601?), perhaps his most famous play, exceeds by far most other tragedies of revenge in picturing the mingled sordidness and glory of the human condition. Hamlet feels that he is living in a world of horror. Confirmed in this feeling by the murder of his father and the sensuality of his mother, he exhibits tendencies toward both crippling indecision and precipitous action. Interpretation of his motivation and ambivalence continues to be a subject of considerable controversy.
Othello (1604?) portrays the growth of unjustified jealousy in the protagonist, Othello, a Moor serving as a general in the Venetian army. The innocent object of his jealousy is his wife, Desdemona. In this tragedy, Othello?s evil lieutenant Iago draws him into mistaken jealousy in order to ruin him. King Lear (1605?), conceived on a more epic scale, deals with the consequences of the irresponsibility and misjudgment of Lear, a ruler of early Britain, and of his councillor, the Duke of Gloucester. The tragic outcome is a result of their giving power to their evil children, rather than to their good children. Lear?s daughter Cordelia displays a redeeming love that makes the tragic conclusion a vindication of goodness. This conclusion is reinforced by the portrayal of evil as self-defeating, as exemplified by the fates of Cordelia?s sisters and of Gloucester?s opportunistic son. Antony and Cleopatra (1606?) is concerned with a different type of love, namely the middle-aged passion of Roman general Mark Antony for Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Their love is glorified by some of Shakespeare?s most sensuous poetry. In Macbeth (1606?), Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of a man who, led on by others and because of a defect in his own nature, succumbs to ambition. In securing the Scottish throne, Macbeth dulls his humanity to the point where he becomes capable of any amoral act.
Unlike these tragedies, three other plays of this period suggest a bitterness stemming from the protagonists? apparent lack of greatness or tragic stature. In Troilus and Cressida (1602?), the most intellectually contrived of Shakespeare?s plays, the gulf between the ideal and the real, both individual and political, is skillfully evoked. In Coriolanus (1608?), another tragedy set in antiquity, the legendary Roman hero Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus is portrayed as unable to bring himself either to woo the Roman masses or to crush them by force. Timon of Athens (1608?) is a similarly bitter play about a character reduced to misanthropy by the ingratitude of his sycophants. Because of the uneven quality of the writing, this tragedy is considered a collaboration, quite possibly with English dramatist Thomas Middleton.
The two comedies of this period are also dark in mood and are sometimes called problem plays because they do not fit into clear categories or present easy resolution. All?s Well That Ends Well (1602?) and Measure for Measure (1604?) both question accepted patterns of morality without offering solutions.
The fourth period of Shakespeare?s work includes his principal romantic tragicomedies. Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare created several plays that, through the intervention of magic, art, compassion, or grace, often suggest redemptive hope for the human condition. These plays are written with a grave quality differing considerably from Shakespeare?s earlier comedies, but they end happily with reunions or final reconciliations. The tragicomedies depend for part of their appeal upon the lure of a distant time or place, and all seem more obviously symbolic than most of Shakespeare?s earlier works. To many critics, the tragicomedies signify a final ripeness in Shakespeare?s own outlook, but other authorities believe that the change reflects only a change in fashion in the drama of the period.
The romantic tragicomedy Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1608?) concerns the painful loss of the title character?s wife and the persecution of his daughter. After many exotic adventures, Pericles is reunited with his loved ones.In Cymbeline (1610?) and The Winter?s Tale (1610?), characters suffer great loss and pain but are reunited. Perhaps the most successful product of this particular vein of creativity, however, is what may be Shakespeare?s last complete play, The Tempest (1611?), in which the resolution suggests the beneficial effects of the union of wisdom and power. In this play a duke, deprived of his dukedom and banished to an island, confounds his usurping brother by employing magical powers and furthering a love match between his daughter and the usurper?s son. Shakespeare?s poetic power reached great heights in this beautiful, lyrical play.
Two final plays, sometimes ascribed to Shakespeare, presumably are the products of collaboration. A historical drama, Henry VIII (1613?) was probably written with English dramatist John Fletcher (see Beaumont and Fletcher), as was The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613?; published 1634), a story of the love of two friends for one woman.
Until the 18th century, Shakespeare was generally thought to have been no more than a rough and untutored genius. Theories were advanced that his plays had actually been written by someone more educated, perhaps statesman and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Southampton, who was Shakespeare?s patron. However, he was celebrated in his own time by English writer Ben Jonson and others who saw in him a brilliance that would endure. Since the 19th century, Shakespeare?s achievements have been more consistently recognized, and throughout the Western world he has come to be regarded as the greatest dramatist ever.
SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM (1564-1616), was an English playwright and poet. He is generally considered the greatest dramatist the world has ever known and the finest poet who has written in the English language. Shakespeare has also been the world’s most popular author. No other writer’s plays have been produced so many times or read so widely in so many countries. Many reasons can be given for Shakespeare’s broad appeal. But his fame basically rests on his understanding of human nature. Shakespeare understood people as few other artists have. He could see in a specific dramatic situation the qualities that relate to all human beings. He could thus create characters that have meaning beyond the time and place of his plays. Yet his characters are not symbolic figures. They are remarkably individual human beings. They struggle just as people do in real life, sometimes successfully and sometimes with painful and tragic failure. Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays, which have traditionally been divided into comedies, histories, and tragedies. These plays contain vivid characters of all types and from many walks of life. Kings, pickpockets, drunkards, generals, hired killers, shepherds, and philosophers all mingle in Shakespeare’s works. In addition to his deep understanding of human nature, Shakespeare had knowledge in a wide variety of other subjects. These subjects include music, the law, the Bible, military science, the stage, art, politics, the sea, history, hunting, woodcraft, and sports. Yet as far as scholars know, Shakespeare had no professional experience in any field except the theater. Shakespeare was born to what today would be called middle-class parents. His birthplace was the small market town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Shortly after he married at the age of 18, Shakespeare apparently left Stratford to seek his fortune in the theatrical world of London. Within a few years, he had become one of the city’s leading actors and playwrights. By 1612, when he seems to have partially retired to Stratford, Shakespeare had become England’s most popular playwright. His influence on languageShakespeare has had enormous influence on culture throughout the world. His works have helped shape the literature of all English-speaking countries and of such countries as Germany and Russia. Shakespeare also contributed greatly to the development of the English language. He freely experimented with grammar and vocabulary and so helped prevent literary English from becoming fixed and artificial. Shakespeare’s influence on language has not been limited to writers and scholars. Many words and phrases from Shakespeare’s plays and poems have become part of our everyday speech. They are used by millions of people who are unaware that Shakespeare created them. For example, Shakespeare originated such familiar phrases as fair play, a foregone conclusion, catch cold, and disgraceful conduct. As far as scholars can tell, Shakespeare also invented such common words as assassination, bump, eventful, and lonely. Many people can identify lines and passages as Shakespeare’s even though they have never seen or read one of his plays. Examples include “To be, or not to be,” “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” and “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” Shakespeare’s genius as a poet enabled him to express an idea both briefly and colorfully. In his tragedy Othello, for example, he described jealousy as “the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” In the tragedy King Lear, Shakespeare described a daughter’s ingratitude toward her father as “sharper than a serpent’s tooth.” His influence on cultureBesides influencing language and literature, Shakespeare has affected other aspects of culture in the English-speaking world. His plays and poems have long been a required part of a liberal education. As a result, Shakespeare’s ideas on such subjects as heroism, romantic love, and the nature of tragedy have helped shape the attitudes of millions of people. His brilliant portrayals of historical figures and events have also influenced our thinking. For example, many people visualize Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra as Shakespeare portrayed them, not as they have been described in history books. Even historians themselves have been influenced by Shakespeare’s greatness. Shakespeare lived in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a period known as the Elizabethan Age. Historians consider the Elizabethan Age as a peak of English culture. But one can question whether the period would seem so important if Shakespeare had not lived and worked in it. Shakespeare’s widespread influence reflects his astonishing popularity. His plays have been a vital part of the theater in the Western world since they were written more than 300 years ago. Through the years, most serious actors and actresses have considered the major roles of Shakespeare to be the supreme test of their art. Shakespeare’s plays have attracted large audiences in big, sophisticated cities and in small, rural towns. His works have been performed on the frontiers of Australia and New Zealand. They were part of the cultural life of the American Colonies and provided entertainment in the mining camps of the Old West. Today, there are theaters in England, the United States, and Canada dedicated to staging some of Shakespeare’s works yearly. Shakespeare’s plays appeal to readers as well as to theatergoers. His plays–and his poems–have been reprinted and translated countless times. Indeed, a publishing industry flourishes around Shakespeare, as critics and scholars examine every aspect of the man, his writings, and his influence. Each year, hundred of books and articles appear on Shakespearean subjects. Thousands of scholars from all over the world gather in dozens of meetings annually to discuss topics related to Shakespeare. Special libraries and library collections focus upon Shakespeare. Numerous motion pictures have been made of his plays. Composers have written operas, musical comedies, and instrumental works based on his stories and characters. The world has admired and respected many great writers. But only Shakespeare has generated such varied and continuing interest–and such constant affection. Shakespeare’s life During the Elizabethan Age, the English cared little about keeping biographical information unrelated to affairs of the church or state. In addition, playwriting was not a highly regarded occupation, and so Elizabethans saw little point in recording the lives of mere dramatists. However, a number of records exist that deal with Shakespeare’s life. They include church registers and accounts of business dealings. Although these records are few and incomplete by modern standards, they provide much information. By relating these records to various aspects of Elizabethan history and society, scholars have filled in the gaps in the factual account of Shakespeare’s life. As a result, they provide a reasonably clear and dependable biography of the playwright.
The queen herself was the symbol of the glory of England. To her people Elizabeth I stood for beauty and greatness. Historians do not agree on her greatness or her flaws, but to her subjects, she was Gloriana, as Edmund Spenser portrayed her in ‘The Faerie Queene’ (see Elizabeth I; Spenser).
During her reign the country grew in wealth and power, despite plagues and other calamities. The queen’s freedom was no greater than that of all Englishwomen. Like her, they talked, joked, and even cursed like men. (Women do exactly this in Shakespeare’s comedies.)
Moralists felt it necessary to preach against the lowering of morals, the oppression of the poor, and the greediness of the nobles. England, however, was still Merrie England. It had the best inns and the richest and most varied foods in Europe. Its people were the best clothed and housed.
Shakespeare’s knowledge of men and his poetic skill combined to make him the greatest of playwrights. The world has finally made up its mind about this greatness. Many people spend their lives studying Shakespeare.
His plots alone show that Shakespeare was a master playwright. He built his plays with care. He seldom wrote a speech that did not forward the action, develop a character, or help the imagination of the spectator. The plays should be read twice. The first reading should be a quick one, to get the story. The second, more leisurely, reading should bring out details. The language itself should be studied. It has great expressiveness and concentrated meaning. An edition with good explanatory notes is helpful.
Many of Shakespeare’s plots are frankly farfetched. He belonged to an age which was romantic and poetic. People still had the power to make believe. They did not go to the theater to see real life. They wanted to be carried away to other times and places or to a land of fancy. The imaginative reader today loves him for the same reason. There were really no such places as his Bohemia or Illyria or Forest of Arden, though the names were real. He has never been equaled in the invention of supernatural creatures–ghosts, witches, and fairies.
Yet Shakespeare’s art is realistic in the sense that it is true to life. His plots, as in ‘King Lear’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and ‘The Tempest’, may seem fantastic. Actually, they are powerfully and eternally true.
Shakespeare’s people are alive and three-dimensional. They live in the mind as warmly as close friends. His best portrayals are those of his great heroes. Yet even his minor characters are almost as good. For example, he created in his plays more than 20 young women, all about the same age, of the same station in life, and with the same social background. They are as different, however, as any 20 girls in real life. The same can be said of his old women, men of action, churchmen, kings, villains, dreamers, fools, and country people
Shakespeare has a magic of speech and fancy which can be felt but not described. His tolerance and sympathy are great and his mind is healthy. No one else has his wide variety, his warmth, his clear-cut vision of evil, and his high regard for heroism.
He believes that man can overcome the evil in himself. He says “we are mixtures of good and evil.” His people have astonishing reality. Like real people, they can be great and yet foolish, bad and yet likable, good and yet faulty. He believes that the world is made up of all kinds of people. He finds fools, criminals, and madmen fascinating. Shakespeare’s people are painted larger than life. They have superhuman energy and grandeur. They stand for mankind in its greatest passions and powers, for good or for evil.
1. Because they were there:
One would think, with all this talk about “historicism,” “cultural materialism,” “cultural poetics,” “social construction,” and so on, that the ethical substrate of Shakespeare’s plays would be the prime focus of Shakespeare scholarship, especially when you consider that the interpretation of plays consists mainly of judging the behavior of characters. How can you say, for example, “Cordelia should have humored King Lear” unless you know the early modern ethical parameters governing the situation? One would assume that an unwaivable prerequisite for study of Shakespeare’s plays would be a thorough grounding in the moral medium out of which they grew. But although overwhelming amounts of ethical material exist – lots of it on Plain Dealing with monarchs – Shakespeare scholars pay little or no attention to it, and in default of the ethical facts rely on the norms of the very late twentieth century. An incredible oversight has been committed, and I hope that this web site will help to set the record straight.
Our ignorance of early modern morals is even less forgivable, given the heroic labors of Professor Ruth Kelso, who years ago assembled two monumental bibliograpies pertaining to the Doctrine of the English Gentleman (1929, reprinted 1964) and The Doctrine for the Lady (1956), in which she lists some 1500 early modern vernacular titles bearing on proper conduct. Our blindness is even harder to understand when one recognizes that the wisdom of these books, according to Professor Kelso, originates in only four ancient authors: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca. It happens that these philosophers are the fountains of Stoicism in the Western World, teaching that human society depends on every member practicing such virtues as courage, constancy, generosity, and temperance. Something like Stoicism always seems to silently take charge whenever people are forced to cooperate in order to survive, as with tribes of hunters and gatherers, street gangs, refugees from foreign lands, and E. Annie Proulx’s destitute Newfoundlanders in The Shipping News. It may just be the most natural mode of human association. Readers of Tom Wolfe’s recent novel A Man In Full may see exactly how far away from Stoicism USA today is.
Since Plato and Aristotle were not well known outside the academy in Shakespeare’s time, and Cicero and Seneca were easily available in vernacular translations, the fastest way to get acquainted with Elizabethan morals is to consult the other two philosophers on Professor Kelso’s short list: Cicero and Seneca. The now more famous Stoics, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus were also hidden away in Greek and did not reach the general public until the nineteenth th century.
The most striking feature of Shakespeare is his command of language. It is all the more astounding when one not only considers Shakespeare’s sparse formal education but the curriculum of the day. There were no dictionaries; the first such lexical work for speakers of English was compiled by schoolmaster Robert Cawdrey as A Table Alphabeticall in 1604. Although certain grammatical treatises were published in Shakespeare’s day, organized grammar texts would not appear until the 1700’s. Shakespeare as a youth would have no more systematically studied his own language than any educated man of the period.
Despite this, Shakespeare is credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with the introduction of nearly 3,000 words into the language. His vocabulary, as culled from his works, numbers upward of 17,000 words (quadruple that of an average, well-educated conversationalist in the language). In the words of Louis Marder, “Shakespeare was so facile in employing words that he was able to use over 7,000 of them?more than occur in the whole King James version of the Bible?only once and never again.”
Shakespeare’s English, in spite of the calamitous cries of high school students everywhere, is only one linguistic generation removed from that which we speak today. Although the Elizabethan dialect differs slightly from Modern English, the principles are generally the same. There are some (present day) anomalies with prepositional usage and verb agreement, and certainly a number of Shakespeare’s words have shifted meanings or dropped, with age, from the present vocabulary. Word order, as the language shifted from Middle to Early Modern English, was still a bit more flexible, and Shakespeare wrote dramatic poetry, not standard prose, which gave some greater license in expression. However, Elizabethan remains a sibling of our own tongue, and hence, accessible.
This facility with language, and the art with which he employed its usage, is why Shakespeare is as relevant today as he was in his own time.