The English dramatist and poet William Shakespeare was the author of the most widely admired and influential body of literature by any individual in the history of Western civilization. His work includes 36 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 narrative poems. Knowledge of Shakespeare is derived from two sources: his works and those remains of legal and church records and contemporary allusions through which scholars can trace the external facts of his life. The poetry of the English Renaissance between 1580 and 1660 was the result of a remarkable burst of energy.
It is, however, the drama of the same period that stands ighest in popular estimation. The works of its greatest author, William Shakespeare, have achieved worldwide renown. In the earlier Middle English period there had been, within the church, a gradual spread of dramatic representation of such important events as the angel’s announcement of the resurrection to the women at the tomb of Christ. The Renaissance drama proper rose from this late medieval base by a number of different stages ending about 1580.
A large number of comedies, tragedies, and examples of intermediate types were produced for London theaters between that year and 1642, hen the London theaters were closed by order of the Puritan Parliament. Like so much nondramatic literature of the Renaissance, most of these plays were written in an elaborate verse style and under the influence of classical examples, but the popular taste, to which drama was especially susceptible, required a flamboyance and sensationalism largely alien to the spirit of Greek and Roman literature.
Only the Roman tragedian Lucius Annaeus Seneca could provide a model for the earliest popular tragedy of blood and revenge, The Spanish Tragedy (1594) of Thomas Kyd. Kyd’s skillfully managed, omplicated, but sensational plot influenced in turn later, psychologically more sophisticated revenge tragedies, among them Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A few years later Christopher Marlowe, in the tragedies Tamburlaine, Part I (1590), and Edward II (1594), began the tradition of the chronicle play of the fatal deeds of kings and potentates.
Marlowe’s plays, such as Dr. Faustus (1604) and The Jew of Malta (1633), are remarkable primarily for their daring depictions of world-shattering characters who strive to go beyond the normal human limitations as the Christian medieval ethos had onceived them; these works are written in a poetic style worthy in many ways of comparison to Shakespeare’s. Elizabethan tragedy and comedy alike reached their true flowering in Shakespeare’s works.
Beyond his art, his rich style, and his complex plots, all of which surpass by far the work of other Elizabethan dramatists in the same field, and beyond his unrivaled projection of character, Shakespeare’s compassionate understanding of the human lot has perpetuated his greatness and made him the representative figure of English literature for the whole world. His comedies, of which perhaps the best are As You Like It (1599? ) and Twelfth Night (1600? ), depict the endearing as well as the ridiculous sides of human nature.
His great tragedies— Hamlet (1601? ), Othello (1604? ), King Lear (1605? ), Macbeth (1606? ), and Antony and Cleopatra (1606? )—look deeply into the springs of action in the human soul. His earlier dark tragedies were imitated in style and feeling by the tragedy author John Webster in The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1613-1614). In Shakespeare’s last plays, the so-called dramatic romances, including The Tempest (1611? ), he sets a mood of uiet acceptance and ultimate reconciliation that was a fitting close for his literary career.
These plays, by virtue of their mysterious, exotic atmosphere and their quick, surprising alternations of bad and good fortune, come close also to the tone of the drama of the succeeding age. The publication of Shakespeare’s two fashionably erotic narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and of his Sonnets (published 1609, but circulated previously in manuscript form) established his reputation as a gifted and popular poet of the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century).
The Sonnets describe he devotion of a character, often identified as the poet himself, to a young man whose beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless dark lady with whom the poet is infatuated. The ensuing triangular situation, resulting from the attraction of the poet’s friend to the dark lady, is treated with passionate intensity and psychological insight. Shakespeare’s modern reputation, however, is based primarily on the 38 plays that he apparently wrote, modified, or collaborated on.
Although generally popular in his time, these plays were frequently little esteemed by his educated contemporaries, who onsidered English plays of their own day to be only vulgar entertainment. Shakespeare’s professional life in London was marked by a number of financially advantageous arrangements that permitted him to share in the profits of his acting company, the Chamberlain’s Men, later called the King’s Men, and its two theaters, the Globe Theatre and the Blackfriars. His plays were given special presentation at the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I more frequently than those of any other contemporary dramatist.
It is known that he risked losing royal favor only once, in 1599, hen his company performed “the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II” at the request of a group of conspirators against Elizabeth. In the subsequent inquiry, Shakespeare’s company was absolved of complicity in the conspiracy. After about 1608, Shakespeare’s dramatic production lessened and it seems that he spent more time in Stratford, where he had established his family in an imposing house called New Place and had become a leading local citizen.
He died in 1616, and was buried in the Stratford church. Because of the difficulty of dating Shakespeare’s plays and the lack of conclusive acts 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. First Period 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 ramatizing 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 ramatists, 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 retensions 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.
Second Period 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 inds 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 omantic 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.
Third Period 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 ondition. 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 nto mistaken jealousy in order to ruin him.
King Lear (1605? ), conceived on a more epic scale, deals with the consequences of the irresponsibility and misjudgment of Lear, a ruler of early Britain, and of his councilor, the Duke of Gloucester. The tragic outcome is a result of 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 pportunistic 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 temming 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 f 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. Fourth Period The fourth period of Shakespeare’s work includes his principal romantic tragicomedies. Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare created several plays that, hrough the power of magic, art, compassion, or grace, often suggest 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 ashion 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 rreunited 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.