William Shakespeare

November 6, 2012 1:51 pm
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English playwright and poet, recognized in much of the world as the greatest of all dramatists. Hundreds of editions of his plays have been published, including translations in all major languages. Scholars have written thousands of books and articles about his plots, characters, themes, and language. He is the most widely quoted author in history, and his plays have probably been performed more times than those of any other dramatist.

There is no simple explanation for Shakespeare’s unrivaled popularity, but he remains our greatest entertainer and perhaps our most profound thinker. He had a remarkable knowledge of human behavior, which he was able to communicate through his portrayal of a wide variety of characters. He was able to enter fully into the point of view of each of his characters and to create vivid dramatic situations in which to explore human motivations and behavior. His mastery of poetic language and of the techniques of drama enabled him to combine these multiple viewpoints, human motives, and actions to produce a uniquely compelling theatrical experience.
II
LIFE
For someone who lived almost 400 years ago, a surprising amount is known about Shakespeare’s life. Indeed we know more about his life than about almost any other writer of his age. Nonetheless, for the life of the greatest writer in the English language, there are still significant gaps, and therefore much supposition surrounds the facts we have. He composed his plays during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 to 1603, and during the early part of the reign of her closest relative, James VI of Scotland, who took England’s throne as James I after Elizabeth’s death in 1603. During this period England saw an outpouring of poetry and drama, led by Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Christopher Marlowe, that remains unsurpassed in English literary history (see English Literature).
A
Early Years
Although the exact date of Shakespeare’s birth is unknown, his baptism on April 26, 1564, was recorded in the parish register of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, a prosperous town in the English Midlands. Based on this record and on the fact that children in Shakespeare’s time were usually baptized two or three days after birth, April 23 has traditionally been accepted as his date of birth.
The third of eight children, William Shakespeare was the eldest son of John Shakespeare, a locally prominent glovemaker and wool merchant, and Mary Arden, the daughter of a well-to-do landowner in the nearby village of Wilmcote. The young Shakespeare probably attended the Stratford grammar school, the King’s New School, which educated the sons of Stratford citizens. The school’s rigorous curriculum was based largely on the study of Latin and the major classical writers. Shakespeare’s writings show that he was well acquainted with the Latin poet Ovid as well as other Latin works, including comedies by Terence and Plautus, two much-admired Roman playwrights.
As his family’s eldest son, Shakespeare ordinarily would have been apprenticed to his father’s shop after he completed grammar school, so that he could learn and eventually take over the business. We do not have any evidence that he did so, however. According to one late 17th-century account, he was apprenticed instead to a butcher because of declines in his father’s financial situation, but this claim is no more convincing that a number of other claims. A potentially reliable source, William Beeston, the son of an actor and theater manager who would certainly have known Shakespeare, claimed that Shakespeare had been “a schoolmaster in the country.” Recently, some scholars have been intrigued by a letter from 1581 from a prominent landowner, Alexander Hoghton, recommending a William Shakeshafte to Sir Thomas Hesketh. Some believe that Shakeshafte is Shakespeare, working perhaps as a schoolmaster for the Hoghtons, a Catholic family in Lancashire. However, no absolutely reliable historical records remain to provide information about Shakespeare’s life between his baptism and his marriage.
On November 27, 1582, a license was issued to permit Shakespeare’s marriage, at the age of 18, to Anne Hathaway, aged 26 and the daughter of a Warwickshire farmer. (Although the document lists the bride as “Annam Whateley,” the scribe most likely made an error in the entry.) The next day a bond was signed to protect the bishop who issued the license from any legal responsibility for approving the marriage, as William was still a minor and Anne was pregnant. The couple’s daughter, Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583, and twins—Hamnet and Judith who were named for their godparents, neighbors Hamnet and Judith Sadler—followed on February 2, 1585.
Sometime after the birth of the twins, Shakespeare apparently left Stratford, but no records have turned up to reveal his activity between their birth and his presence in London in 1592, when he was already at work in the theater. For this reason Shakespeare’s biographers sometimes refer to the years between 1585 and 1592 as “the lost years.” Speculations about this period abound. An unsubstantiated report claims Shakespeare left Stratford after he was caught poaching in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy, a local justice of the peace. Another theory has him leaving for London with a theater troupe that had performed in Stratford in 1587.
B
Arrival in London
Shakespeare seems to have arrived in London about 1588, and by 1592 he had attained sufficient success as an actor and a playwright to attract the venom of an anxious rival. In his Groat’s Worth of Wit, English dramatist Robert Greene sneers at “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, 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, being an absolute Johannes factotum [jack of all trades], is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.” The pun on Shakespeare’s name and the parody in the quotation of a line from Henry VI leave no doubt of Greene’s target. Shortly after this remark, Shakespeare’s first publications appeared.
Shakespeare’s poetry rather than his plays reached print first: Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594. These two fashionably erotic narrative poems were probably written to earn money as the theaters were closed from the summer of 1592 to the spring of 1594 because of plague, and Shakespeare’s normal source of income was thus denied him. Even so, the two poems, along with the Sonnets, established Shakespeare’s reputation as a gifted and popular poet. Shakespeare dedicated the two poems to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton. Scholars disagree on whether the dedications are evidence of a close relationship between Shakespeare and Southampton. Literary dedications were designed to gain financial support from wealthy men interested in fostering the arts, and it is probable that Southampton rewarded Shakespeare for his two poems. Both poems became best-sellers—The Rape of Lucrece appearing in eight editions by 1632, Venus and Adonis in a remarkable 16 editions by 1636—and both were widely quoted and often imitated.
The Sonnets were not published until 1609, but as early as 1598, a contemporary, Francis Meres, praised Shakespeare as a “mellifluous and honey-tongued” poet equal to the Roman Ovid, praising in particular his “sugared sonnets” that were circulating “among his private friends.” The 154 sonnets describe the devotion of a character, often identified as the poet himself, to a young man whose beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless dark lady with whom the poet is infatuated. The sonnets are prized for their exploration of love in all its aspects. Sonnet 18, which begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” ranks among the most famous love poems of all time. See also Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
C
Actor and Playwright
Shakespeare’s reputation today is, however, based primarily on the 38 plays that he wrote, modified, or collaborated on. Records of Shakespeare’s plays begin to appear in 1594, when the theaters reopened with the passing of the plague that had closed them for 21 months. In December of 1594 his play The Comedy of Errors was performed in London during the Christmas revels at Gray’s Inn, one of the London law schools. In March of the following year he received payment for two plays that had been performed during the Christmas holidays at the court of Queen Elizabeth I by his theatrical company, known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The receipt for payment, which he signed along with two fellow actors, reveals that he had by this time achieved a prominent place in the company. He was already probably a so-called sharer, a position entitling him to a percentage of the company’s profits rather than merely a salary as an actor and a playwright. In time the profits of this company and its two theaters, the Globe Theatre, which opened in 1599, and the Blackfriars, which the company took over in 1608, enabled Shakespeare to become a wealthy man.
It is worth noting that Shakespeare’s share in the acting company made him wealthy, not any commissions or royalties from writing his plays. Playwriting was generally poorly paid work, which involved providing scripts for the successful theater business. His plays would have belonged to the acting company, and when they did reach print they then belonged to the publisher. No system of royalties existed at that time. Indeed, with the exception of the two narrative poems he published in 1593 and 1594, Shakespeare never seems to have bothered about publication. The plays that reached print did so without his involvement. The only form of “publication” he sought was their performance in the theater.
The theater served Shakespeare’s financial needs well. In 1597 he bought New Place, a substantial three-story house in Stratford. With the opening of the splendid Globe Theatre in 1599, Shakespeare’s fortunes increased and in 1602 he bought additional property: 43 hectares (107 acres) of arable land and 8 hectares (20 acres) of pasture north of the town of Stratford and, later that year, a cottage facing the garden at New Place. In 1605 he bought more property in a neighboring village. His financial activities can be traced, and his final investment is the purchase of a house in the Blackfriars district of London in 1613.
Shakespeare wrote nearly all of his plays from 1590 to 1611, when he retired to New Place. A series of history plays and joyful comedies appeared throughout the 1590s, ending with As You Like It and Twelfth Night. At the same time as he was writing comedy, he also wrote nine history plays, treating the reigns of England’s medieval kings and exploring realities of power still relevant today. The great tragedies—including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth—were written during the first decade of the 1600s. All focus on a basically decent individual who brings about his own downfall through a tragic flaw. Scholars have theorized about the reasons behind this change in Shakespeare’s vision, and the switch from a focus on social aspects of human activity to the rending experience of the individual. But no one knows whether events in his own life or changes in England’s circumstances triggered the shift, or whether it was just an aesthetic decision. Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, had died in 1596 at the age of 11, his father died in 1601, and England’s popular monarch, Elizabeth I, died in 1603, so it is not unreasonable to think that the change in Shakespeare’s genre and tone reflects some change in his own view of life prompted by these events. In his last years working as a playwright, however, Shakespeare wrote a number of plays that are often called romances or tragicomedies, plays in which the tragic facts of human existence are fully acknowledged but where reassuring patterns of reconciliation and harmony can be seen finally to shape the action.
Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I more frequently than those of any other dramatist of that time. Shakespeare risked losing royal favor only once, in 1599, when his company performed “the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II” at the request of a group of conspirators against Elizabeth. In the subsequent inquiry, Shakespeare’s company was absolved of any knowing participation in the conspiracy. Although Shakespeare’s plays enjoyed great popularity with the public, most people did not consider them literature. Plays were merely popular entertainments, not unlike the movies today.
D
Last Years
After about 1608 Shakespeare began to write fewer plays. For most of his working life he wrote at least two plays a year; by 1608 he had slowed usually to one a year, even though the acting company continued to enjoy great success. In 1608 the King’s Men, as his company was called after King James took the throne, began to perform at Blackfriars, an indoor theater that charged higher prices and drew a more sophisticated audience than the outdoor Globe. An indoor theater presented possibilities in staging and scenery that the Globe did not permit, and these can be recognized in the late plays.
In 1613 fire destroyed the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII. Although the Globe was quickly rebuilt, Shakespeare’s association with it—and probably with the company—had ended. Around the time of the fire, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, where he had established his family and become a prominent citizen. Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna had married John Hall, a doctor with a thriving practice in Stratford, in 1607. His younger daughter, Judith, married a Stratford winemaker, Thomas Quiney, in 1616.
Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616—the month and day traditionally assigned to his birth—and was buried in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. He had made his will the previous month, “in perfect health and memory.” The cause of his death is not known, though a report from the Holy Trinity’s vicar in the 1660s claims that he “died of a fever … contracted after a night of drinking with Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, friends and fellow writers.”
Shakespeare left the bulk of his estate to his daughter Susanna and the sum of 300 pounds to his daughter Judith. The only specific provision for his wife was their “second-best bed with the furniture [linens],” although customary practice allowed a widow one-third of the estate. Shakespeare also left money for “the poor of Stratford,” and remembered the three surviving original members of his acting company, Richard Burbage, John Heminges, and Henry Condell, with small grants to buy memorial rings.
Shakespeare’s wife, Anne, died on August 6, 1623. She lived long enough to see a monument to her husband erected in Holy Trinity Church, but she died just before the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, the more lasting monument to his memory. Soon after her death, Susanna and John Hall moved into New Place, where they lived until their deaths, his in 1635 and hers in 1649. Their daughter, Elizabeth Hall, died childless in 1670. Judith Quiney had three sons, but none lived long enough to produce heirs, and she died in 1662. Thus, by 1670, the line of Shakespeare’s descendants had reached its end.
III
PUBLICATION
So far as is known, Shakespeare had no hand in the publication of any of his plays and indeed no interest in the publication. Performance was the only public forum he sought for his plays. He supplied the scripts to the Chamberlain’s Men and the King’s Men, but acting companies of that time often thought it bad business to allow their popular plays to be printed as it might give other companies access to their property. Some plays, however, did reach print. Eighteen were published in small, cheap quarto editions, though often in unreliable texts. A quarto resembled a pamphlet, its pages formed by folding pieces of paper in half twice.
For none of these editions did Shakespeare receive money. In the absence of anything like modern copyright law, which recognizes an author’s legal right to his or her creation, 16th- and 17th-century publishers paid for a manuscript, with no need to enquire about who wrote it, and then were able to publish it and establish their ownership of the copy. Fortunately for posterity, two fellow actors and friends of Shakespeare—Heminges and Condell—collected 36 of his plays, 18 of them never before printed, and published them in a handsome folio edition, a large book with individual pages formed by folding sheets of paper once. This edition, known as the First Folio, appeared in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death.
The First Folio divided Shakespeare’s plays into three categories: comedies, histories, and tragedies. These categories are used in this article, with the addition of a fourth category: tragicomedies, a term that modern critics have often used for the late plays, which do not neatly fit into any of the three folio categories.
IV
THE COMEDIES
Shakespeare’s comedies celebrate human social life even as they expose human folly. By means that are sometimes humiliating, even painful, characters learn greater wisdom and emerge with a clearer view of reality. Some of his early comedies can be regarded as light farces in that their humor depends mainly upon complications of plot, minor foibles of the characters, and elements of physical comedy such as slapstick. The so-called joyous comedies follow the early comedies and culminate in As You Like It. Written about 1600, this comedy strikes a perfect balance between the worlds of the city and the country, verbal wit and physical comedy, and realism and fantasy.
After 1600, Shakespeare’s comedies take on a darker tone, as Shakespeare uses the comic form to explore less changeable aspects of human behavior. All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measuretest the ability of comedy to deal with the unsettling realities of human desire, and these plays, therefore, have usually been thought of as “problem comedies,” or, at very least, as evidence that comedy in its tendency toward wish fulfillment is a problem.
A
Early Comedies
Shakespeare remained busy writing comedies during his early years in London, until about 1595. These comedies reflect in their gaiety and exuberant language the lively and self-confident tone of the English nation after 1588, the year England defeated the Spanish Armada, an invasion force from Spain. The comedies in this group include The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
A1
The Comedy of Errors
Shakespeare based the plot of The Comedy of Errors, a farce performed in 1594, on classical comedies by Plautus. It was published for the first time in the First Folio of 1623. The play, Shakespeare’s shortest, depends for its appeal on the mistaken identities of two sets of twins both separated in their youth. The comedy ends happily with the reunion of both sets of twins, after a bewildering series of confusions. Shakespeare makes his play more complex than Plautus’s by the addition of the second set of twins, twin servants to the twin brothers of the main action, and the play displays the young Shakespeare’s formal mastery of the comic form and anticipates themes and techniques of his later plays.
A2
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which appears as the second comedy in the First Folio, was probably first performed about 1594. Shakespeare’s first attempt at romantic comedy, it concerns two friends, Proteus and Valentine, and two women, Julia and Sylvia. The play traces the relations of the four, until the two sets of lovers are happily paired off: Proteus with Julia, and Valentine with Sylvia. Much of the humor in the play comes from a clownish servant, Launce, and his dog, Crab, described as “the sourest-natured dog that lives.” Shakespeare probably wrote the part of Launce for comic actor Will Kemp.
A3
The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew (1593?) was first published in the First Folio in 1623. This comedy contrasts the prim and conventional Bianca, who grows willful and disobedient over the course of the play, with the shrewish Katherine, who is finally tamed by Petruchio, her suitor and, finally, husband. Yet Katherine and Petruchio are clearly well matched in style and temperament, and Katherine’s speech at the end on the importance of obedience may be delivered with an obvious sense of how far this is from what she believes or even from what Petruchio really wants. Kiss Me Kate (1948), a musical based on The Taming of the Shrew, proved popular on stage, as did a motion-picture version of Shakespeare’s play in 1967 with actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. However, unless the action is played with its possible ironies clearly apparent, audiences today will likely find the play’s ostensible values difficult to take, especially the belief in the need to tame a wife.
A4
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Love’s Labour’s Lost was first published in 1598 and was the first published play to have “By W. Shakespeare” on its title page. The play’s slight action serves as a peg on which to hang a glittering robe of wit and poetry. It satirizes the loves of its main male characters as well as their fashionable devotion to studious pursuits. The noblemen in the play have sought to avoid romantic and worldly entanglements by devoting themselves in their studies, and they voice their pretensions in an artificially ornate style, until love forces them to recognize their own self-deceptions. The play’s title anticipates its unconventional ending: The women refuse to marry at the end, demanding a waiting period of 12 months for the men to demonstrate their reformation. “Our wooing does not end like an old play,” says Berowne; “Jack hath not Jill.”
B
Middle Comedies
Although very different in tone, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice from the mid-1590s provide evidence of Shakespeare’s growing mastery of the comic form and his willingness to explore and test its dramatic possibilities. A Midsummer Night’s Dreamrepresents Shakespeare’s first outstanding success in the field of romantic comedy. The Merchant of Venice is in its main plot another example of a romantic comedy, but the presence of Shylock disrupts the comic action, haunting the place even after he has disappeared from it.
B1
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, first performed probably in 1594 or 1595 and first published in 1600, presents a happy blend of fantasy and realism, and may have been intended for performance at an aristocratic wedding. The comedy weaves together a number of separate plots involving three different realms: one inhabited by two pairs of noble Athenian lovers; another by members of the fairy world—notably, King Oberon, Queen Titania, and the mischievous Puck; and the third by a group of bumbling and unconsciously comic townspeople who seek to produce a play for wedding celebrations. These three worlds are brought together in a series of encounters that veer from the realistic to the magical to the absurd and back again in the space of only a few lines. In Act III, for example, Oberon plays a trick on Titania while she sleeps, employing Puck to anoint her with a potion that will cause her to fall in love with the first creature she sees on waking. As it happens, she opens her eyes to the sight of Bottom the weaver, adorned by Puck with an ass’s head. Yet the comic episode of the Queen of the Fairies “enamored of an ass” echoes the play’s more profound concerns with the nature of love and imagination.
B2
The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice, first published in 1600 though seemingly written in 1596 or 1597, shares the lyric beauty and fairy-tale ending of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.But the strong characterization of the play’s villain, a Jewish moneylender named Shylock, shadows the gaiety. Shakespeare drew the main plot from an Italian story in which a crafty Jew threatens the life of a Christian merchant. Its composition may have arisen from a desire by Shakespeare’s acting company to stage a play that could compete with The Jew of Malta (1589?), a tragedy by English dramatist Christopher Marlowe, performed by a rival company, the Admiral’s Men. In the play Shakespeare sets motifs of masculine friendship and romantic love in opposition to the bitterness of Shylock, whose own misfortunes are presented so as to arouse understanding and even sympathy. While this play reflects European anti-Semitism of the time (although Jews had been banished from England in 1290 and were not formally readmitted until 1656), its exploration of power and prejudice also promote a critique of such bigotry. As Shylock says, confronted by the double standards of his opponents:

He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, and what’s his reason?—I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

(Act III, scene 1)

C
Mature Comedies
The romantic plays Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Twelfth Nightare often characterized as joyous comedies because of their generally happy mood and sympathetic characters. Written around 1599 and 1600, they represent Shakespeare’s triumph in the field of high comedy. These mature comedies revolve around beautiful, intelligent, and strong-minded heroines, a type anticipated by the quick-witted heiress Portia in The Merchant of Venice.Nothing quite like these plays appears in earlier English drama, and Shakespeare never wrote anything like them in later years. They present a contrast to the satiric comedy that was coming into fashion at the time, and many critics believe they demonstrate not only Shakespeare’s mastery of his art but also his congenial temperament in the sympathy he reveals toward his characters.
C1
Much Ado About Nothing
The witty comedy Much Ado About Nothing, written about 1599 and first published the following year, concerns two pairs of lovers. In the play’s main plot, the war hero Claudius is deceived into believing Hero has been unfaithful and calls off their wedding, until he is forced to recognize his error and take her as his wife. The subplot, a “merry war” of words and wit between Beatrice and Benedick, has long delighted audiences. Although the two outwardly dislike each other, the audience soon comprehends the real affection between the two. One of the play’s most popular characters is the bumbling village constable Dogbery, who finally exposes the plot that has deceived Claudio. In 1993 a film version was released, starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.
C2
As You Like It
In As You Like It, written about 1599 but not published until the 1623 First Folio, Shakespeare draws a rich and varied contrast between the strict code of manners at the court and the relative freedom from such structure in the countryside. Yet it also satirizes popular pastoral plays, novels, and poems of the time. Those popular but sentimental works presented rural life as idyllic and its inhabitants as innocents not yet corrupted by the world. In Shakespeare’s play the rural world is far from perfect, and the characters are not always what they appear. Rosalind and Celia have disguised themselves as men when they flee the court for the forest, but other characters not disguised are self-deceived. In the forest, however, true identities are re-established. A number of love matches mark the conclusion, and the play ends in a parade of lovers marching two-by-two, like “couples coming to the Ark.” Even the melancholy Jacques, who remains outside the play’s concluding harmonies, expresses his benevolent hopes for the lovers, as the comic logic promises all “true delights.”
C3
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Merry Wives of Windsor, written probably in 1599 but first published in 1602, is Shakespeare’s only comedy of middle-class life. The “merry wives,” Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, outwit Shakespeare’s greatest comic invention, Sir John Falstaff, who had first appeared in Henry IV. Falstaff’s unsuccessful efforts to seduce the two wives and their comic revenge upon him make up the main plot of the play. The comedy also includes the story of Anne Page, who is wooed by two inappropriate lovers, but who finally is united with Fenton, the man she loves. According to an early 18th-century tradition The Merry Wives of Windsor was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I, who wished to see “Falstaff in love” following his comic appearance in both of the Henry IV plays.
C4
Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night is the most mature of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies and one that recalls his own earlier plays. It was written probably in 1601 and was published for the first time in the Folio of 1623. We know it was performed in the winter of 1602 at the Middle Temple, one of London’s law schools. It is a play of great emotional range, from farcical misunderstandings (based on a set of separated twins, as in The Comedy of Errors) to poignant moments in which a woman in disguise must serve the man she loves (as in Two Gentlemen of Verona). The play ends with lovers happily paired, but with the ambitious Malvolio isolated (like Jacques in As You Like It or Shylock in The Merchant of Venice) and swearing to “be revenged upon the whole pack of you.”
The comedy may have been written specifically for presentation at a festival of Twelfth Night, which occurs 12 nights after Christmas Eve and was once a time for mirth and merrymaking, marking the end of the Christmas revels. The play’s outrageous antics, especially for Sir Toby Belch, reflect in spirit the outrageous behavior permitted at Twelfth Night celebrations during the Middle Ages. Yet there is a darker side to Twelfth Night. Not only is Malvolio unreconciled to the community at the end, but Sir Andrew, Antonio, and the clown, Feste, all stand apart from the final celebrations, and Feste’s final song reminds the audience of how far our day-to-day world is from the idealization of comedy.
D
Problem Comedies
Three plays—All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure for Measure—written soon after the mature comedies are usually called by modern critics “problem plays,” a term first coined for them in 1896. The problem comedies touch on complex and often unpleasant themes and contain characters whose moral flaws are graver and more difficult to change than the shortcomings of the characters in the farces or the joyous comedies. Little of the light-hearted humor of the earlier comedies, nor the easy satisfactions of their endings, appears in these plays. They are, however, emotionally rich and dramatically exciting, and have become increasingly successful on stage and stimulating to readers.
D1
All’s Well That Ends Well
All’s Well That Ends Well, written about 1603 but not published until the 1623 Folio, adheres to the conventional pattern for comedy, as its title promises, ending with the reunion of a separated couple. But the reunion is deeply troubled and troubling. The callow, cowardly, and ungenerous Bertram is finally successfully paired with Helena, but they have reached that point through a process that has humiliated each. He immediately flees to Italy, and she must trick him to consummate the marriage. At the end they accept each other, but the ending is appropriately hedged with conditionals: “All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,/ The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.” The stability of even this muted resolution is itself unsettled by the King’s offer to Diana, a young woman Bertram has tried to seduce, to choose a husband for herself. At best this offer reveals how little the King has learned and at worst it threatens to start the dispiriting action all over again.
D2
Troilus and Cressida
Critics always have had trouble classifyingTroilus and Cressida (written about 1602) as a tragedy, a history, or a comedy. In many ways it qualifies as all three, and its earliest readers did not seem to know what kind of play it was. The editors of the First Folio placed the play at the beginning of the section of tragedies; the 1609 quarto titles the play The Famous Historie of Troylus and Cresesid; and the prefatory note in that edition considers the play one of Shakespeare’s comedies and worthy of comparison with the best of the classical comic playwrights. Some critics believe that Troilus somewhat resembles the satiric comedy in fashion at the time it was written. The play has two plots. The first, a dramatic version of the siege of Troy by Greek armies during the Trojan War, and the second, which gives the play its name, a rendering of the medieval legend of the doomed love between Troilus, son of the king of Troy, and Cressida, daughter of a Trojan priest who defects to the Greek side during the war. The legend inspired a number of other works, including the tragic poem Troilus and Criseyde (1385?) by Geoffrey Chaucer. Shakespeare’s play, however, brilliantly combines the two plots in a withering exploration of the realities of both chivalric honor and romantic love.
D3
Measure for Measure
Measure for Measure (written about 1604 but not printed until the 1623 Folio) raises complex questions about sex, marriage, identity, and justice but does not offer the comfort of easy solutions. Like the other problem plays, it stretches the normal limits of the comic form. In the play the Duke of Vienna sets out in disguise to test the virtue of his unruly subjects, and leaves a harsh deputy, Angelo, in charge. Although the deputy reveals himself a hypocrite and couples are successfully united at the end, the questions that the play raises remain unanswered. At the very end Isabella remains silent at the Duke’s proposal of marriage, leaving open the question of whether she is overcome with joy or with horror, whether the proposal promises future happiness or a mere recapitulation of Angelo’s earlier intimidations.
The play’s most likely source was Promos and Cassandra (1578), a two-part play by English author George Whetstone. Shakespeare’s additions and changes, however, create a far more disturbing play, which increasingly has found enthusiasm from critics and audiences in its anticipation of modern questionings: Can one find a middle ground between law and liberty? Is sexual desire constructive or transgressive(an overstepping of proper limits)? Can morality be legislated?
V
THE HISTORY PLAYS
History plays, sometimes known as chronicle plays (after the “chronicles” from which the plots were taken), were a highly popular form of drama in Shakespeare’s time. By 1623, every English monarch from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth I had been represented in a play, as the English past served as an important repository of plots for the dramatists of the burgeoning theater industry of Elizabethan England. The plays not only offered entertainment but also served many people as an important source of information about the nation’s past. In 1612 English dramatist Thomas Heywood claimed that such plays “instructed such as cannot read in the discovery of all our English Chronicles.”
The Elizabethans considered history instructive but did not always agree on the particular lessons it taught. Sometimes history was thought to be a branch of theology, the record of God’s providential guidance of events, and sometimes it was seen solely as the record of human motives and actions. Sometimes history was valued because it was an accurate record of the past, and sometimes because it provided examples of behavior to be imitated or avoided. History plays became increasingly popular after 1588 and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, so clearly the interest in English history reflected a growing patriotic consciousness.
Shakespeare wrote ten plays listed in the 1623 Folio as histories and differentiated from the other categories, comedies and tragedies, by their common origin in English history. Eight of Shakespeare’s history plays re-create the period in English history from 1399, when King Henry IV took the throne after deposing King Richard II, to the defeat of Richard III in battle in 1485. Henry IV was the first English king from the house of Lancaster. The history plays cover the conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York, known as the Wars of the Roses, from 1455 to 1485. The final event is the victory of Henry VII over Richard III in 1485, ending the rule of the York dynasty and beginning the Tudor dynasty. The eight plays devoted to this period, listed in the chronological order of the kings with the dates of their composition in parentheses, are Richard II (1597?); Henry IV, Parts I and II (1597?); Henry V (1598?); Henry VI, Parts I, II, andIII (1590-1592?); and Richard III (1592-1593?). As their dates indicate, Shakespeare did not write the plays in chronological order. He wrote the second half of the story first, and only later returned to the events that initiated the political problems.
The two remaining Shakespeare history plays are King John (1596?) and Henry VIII (1613?). King John, beginning soon after John’s coronation in 1199, was seemingly reworked from an anonymous, older play on the same subject. It treats the English king’s failed effort to resist the power of the pope, a theme of obvious relevance in England after the Protestant Reformation. Henry VIII, probably co-written with English dramatist John Fletcher, is a loosely connected pageant of events in Henry’s reign, ending with the prophecy of the birth of Elizabeth and her succession by King James.
Shakespeare’s main sources for the events of the history plays were the Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577; 2nd ed. 1586, which Shakespeare used) by Raphael Holinshed and Edward Hall’s Chronicle(1542). Although Shakespeare took situations from these and a few other historical sources, he selected only such facts as suited his dramatic purposes. Sometimes he ignored chronology and telescoped the events of years to fit his own dramatic time scheme. Above all, he used the power of his imagination and language to mold vivid and memorable characters out of the historical figures he found in his sources.
The overall theme of the history plays is the importance of a stable political order, but also the heavy moral and emotional price that often must be paid for it. Shakespeare dramatized the great social upheaval that followed Henry IV’s usurpation of the throne until the first Tudor king, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, restored peace and stability. In addition to chronicling the often violent careers of England’s great kings, Shakespeare’s history plays explore the extreme pressures of public life, the moral conflicts that kings and queens uniquely face, and the potential tragedy of monarchy.
A
Early Histories
The four plays that dramatize the Wars of the Roses, the turbulent period from 1422 to 1485, are possibly Shakespeare’s earliest dramatic works. These plays, Henry VI, Parts I, II, and IIIand Richard III, deal with disorder resulting from weak leadership and from national disunity fostered for selfish ends. Richard III, however, closes triumphantly with the death of Richard and the ascent to the throne of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty and grandfather of Queen Elizabeth. See also England: The Lancastrian and Yorkist Kings.
Although Shakespeare probably did not invent the genre of the history play, only a very few plays on English history had been written before he turned to it for his plots, and no contemporary playwright wrote more histories than his ten. Clearly Shakespeare learned from his few predecessors in English drama, especially Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe had initiated the early greatness of Elizabethan tragedy, placing a single monumental personality at the center of each of his major plays. By studying Marlowe’s style and energetic protagonists, Shakespeare learned in Richard III to construct a play around a complex, dominating personality. But Shakespeare is as interested in the sweep of history itself, as it catches up personalities in rhythms they are unable to predict or control.
A1
Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III
The three parts of Henry VI chronicle the troubled reign of that king, from the death of his father in 1422 to his own death in 1471. During that time England was all but torn apart by civil strife following the death of Henry V. Part I deals with wars in France, including combat with Joan of Arc, and had early success on stage, performed 15 times in 1592 alone. Parts II and III, revealing Henry VI as a weak and ineffectual king, treat England after it has lost its possessions in France and factionalism at home erupts into full-fledged civil war. Today, the Henry VIplays, if staged at all, are likely to be seen in condensed adaptations or conflations(combination of parts) as in English director John Barton’s Wars of the Roses in 1963 at Stratford-upon-Avon.
A2
Richard III
Richard III begins where Henry VI, Part III leaves off and completes the sequence begun with the Henry VI plays. It presents a fictionalized account of Richard III’s rise and fall, from the time he gains the crown through murder and treachery to his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field, which ends the Wars of the Roses and brings the Tudor dynasty to power. The story of Richard’s rise and fall derives from an account by English statesman Thomas More, written about 1513. As presented by Shakespeare, Richard is an eloquent, intelligent man, who is morally and physically deformed. Richard dominates the stage with a combination of wit and wickedness that has fascinated audiences and made the part a popular one among actors.
B
Later Histories
Shakespeare wrote his most important history plays in the period from 1596 to 1598, plays that reveal both his dramatic mastery and his deep understanding of politics and history. The so-called second tetralogy(four related works), consisting of Richard II, Henry IV, Parts Iand II, and Henry V, encompass the 23 years immediately prior to those portrayed in the Henry VI plays. The last three plays of the second tetralogy constitute Shakespeare’s supreme achievement in writing histories, focusing on the development of Prince Hal (in the two parts of Henry IV) into England’s greatest medieval hero—King Henry V.
B1
Richard II
Richard II is a study of a sensitive, self-dramatizing, ineffective but sympathetic monarch who loses his kingdom to his forceful successor, Henry IV. As a model for this play Shakespeare relied heavily on Marlowe’s chronicle play Edward II (1592?) with its focus on a personality ill-suited for the demands of rule. The play was a success on stage and in the bookstalls, but until 1608 the scene of Richard relinquishing his crown to Henry Bolingbroke, in Act 4, was omitted from the printed versions because it portrayed the overthrow of a monarch.
B2
Henry IV, Parts I and II
In the two parts of Henry IV, Henry recognizes his own guilt for usurping the throne from Richard and finds himself facing rebellion from the very families that had helped him to the throne. His son, Prince Hal, is, however, in many ways the focus of the plays, which trace the prince’s development from a seemingly wayward youth, enjoying the company and influence of the fat knight Falstaff and other drinking cronies, to the future king who proves triumphant in the play Henry V. Many critics consider Henry IV, Part I to be the most entertaining and dramatic of the Henry plays with its struggle between King Henry and his rebellious nobles, led by the volatile Hotspur. The king’s fears for his son prove unfounded when Prince Hal leaves the tavern to take his place on the battlefield, where his defeat of Hotspur in combat proves his readiness to assume the burdens of rule.
Shakespeare makes much use of comedy in the plays, particularly in the portrayal of the fat knight Falstaff, whose irrepressible wit has long been the major source of the plays’ remarkable popularity. The comedy, however, neither dominates nor is subordinated to the historical plot, but is brilliantly intermingled with it, commenting often witheringly on its actions and values. At the same the comedy insists that history is something more spacious than a mere record of aristocratic men and motives.
B3
Henry V
Henry V was the last history play that Shakespeare wrote, until he returned to the genre with his collaboration on Henry VIII late in his career. Henry V celebrates the great military and political achievements of the king in his victories over France, but also allows other angles of vision upon his accomplishments that may well raise doubts about their moral cost. While the Chorus speaks the lofty rhetoric of heroic idealization, the comic plot reveals a world of baser motive, which parallels and comments on the historical action. Henry Vmay well have been the first play performed at the Globe Theatre in the summer of 1599.
VI
THE TRAGEDIES
Shakespeare’s tragedies are among the most powerful studies of human nature in all literature and appropriately stand as the greatest achievements of his dramatic artistry. Attention understandably has focused on his unforgettable tragic characters, such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. Yet the plays also explore and extend the very nature of tragedy itself by discovering within it a structure that derives meaning precisely from its refusal to offer consolation or compensation for the suffering it traces.
A
Early Tragedies
Shakespeare wrote his first tragedies in 1594 and 1595. But he left the field of tragedy untouched for at least five years after finishing Romeo and Juliet, probably in 1595, and turned to comedy and history plays. Julius Caesar, written about 1599, served as a link between the history plays and the mature tragedies that followed.
A1
Titus Andronicus
The earliest tragedy attributed to Shakespeare is Titus Andronicus (published in 1594). In its treatment of murder, mutilation, and bloody revenge, the play is characteristic of many popular tragedies of the Elizabethan period (see Revenge Tragedy). The structure of a spectacular revenge for earlier heinous and bloody acts, all of which are staged in sensational detail, derives from Roman dramatist Seneca. It probably reached Shakespeare by way of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1589?). Shakespeare’s gory tragedy proved highly successful in Shakespeare’s time. But later audiences found the violent excesses of Titus Andronicus absurd or disgusting, and only recently has the play’s theatrical power been rediscovered. From the 1960s on, many directors and critics have recognized in the play’s daring exploration of violence concerns that go beyond the merely sensationalistic to address some of the deepest fears and preoccupations of the modern world.
A2
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet (1595?) is justly famous for its poetic treatment of the ecstasy of youthful love. The play dramatizes the fate of two lovers victimized by the feuds and misunderstandings of their elders and by their own hasty temperaments. Shakespeare borrowed the tragic story of the two young Italian lovers from a long narrative poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562) by English writer Arthur Brooke. Shakespeare, however, added the character of Mercutio, increased the roles of the friar and the nurse, and reduced the moralizing of Brooke’s work. The play made an instant hit; four editions of the play were published before the 1623 Folio, demonstrating its popularity. The play continues to be widely read and performed today, and its story of innocent love destroyed by inherited hatred has seen numerous reworkings, as, for example, in the musical West Side Story (1957) by American composer Leonard Bernstein.
A3
Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar was written about 1599 and first published in 1623. Though a serious tragedy of political rivalries, it is less intense in style than the tragic dramas that followed it. Shakespeare based this political tragedy concerning the plot to overthrow Julius Caesar on Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans by 1st-century Greek biographer Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives had first appeared in English in 1579, in a version produced by Thomas North from a French translation of the original. The North translation provided Shakespeare and his contemporaries with a great deal of historical material. Shakespeare followed Plutarch closely in Julius Caesar; little of incident or character appears in the play that is not found in the Lives as well, and he sometimes used North’s wording. Shakespeare’s play centers on the issue of whether the conspirators were justified in killing Caesar. How a production answers that question determines whether the conspirator Brutus is seen as sympathetic or tragically self-deceived.
B
Mature Tragedies
The tragedies Shakespeare wrote after 1600 are considered the most profound of his works and constitute the pillars upon which his literary reputation rests. Some scholars have tied the darkening of his dramatic imagination in this period to the death of his father in 1601. But in the absence of any compelling biographical information to support this theory, it remains only a speculation. For whatever reason, sometime around 1600 Shakespeare began work on a series of plays that in their power and profundity are arguably unmatched in the achievement of any other writer.
B1
Hamlet
Hamlet, written about 1601 and first printed in 1603, is perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous play. It exceeds by far most other tragedies of revenge in the power of its ethical and psychological imagining. The play is based on the story of Amleth, a 9th-century Danish prince, which Shakespeare encountered in a 16th-century French account by François Belleforest. Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells the story of the prince’s effort to revenge the murder of his father, who has been poisoned by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, the man who then becomes Hamlet’s stepfather and the king. The prince alternates between rash action and delay that disgusts him, as he tries to enact the revenge his father’s ghost has asked from him. The play ends in a spectacular scene of death: As Hamlet, his mother, his uncle, and Laertes (the lord chamberlain’s son) all lie dead, the Norwegian prince Fortinbras marches in to claim the Danish throne. Hamlet is certainly Shakespeare’s most intellectually engaging and elusive play. Literary critics and actors turn to it again and again, possibly succeeding only in confirming the play’s inexhaustible richness and the inadequacy of any single attempt finally or fully to capture it.
B2
Othello
Othello was written about 1604, though it was not published until 1622. It portrays the growth of unjustified jealousy in the noble protagonist, Othello, a Moor serving as a general in the Venetian army. The innocent object of his jealousy is his wife, Desdemona. In this domestic tragedy, Othello’s evil lieutenant Iago draws him into mistaken jealousy in order to ruin him. Othello is destroyed partly through his gullibility and willingness to trust Iago and partly through the manipulations of this villain, who clearly enjoys the exercise of evildoing just as he hates the spectacle of goodness and happiness around him. At the end of the play, Othello comes to understand his terrible error; but as always in tragedy, that knowledge comes too late and he dies by his own hand in atonement for his error. In his final act of self-destruction, he becomes again and for a final time the defender of Venice and Venetian values.
B3
King Lear
King Lear was written about 1605 and first published in 1608. Conceived on a grander emotional and philosophic scale than Othello, it deals with the consequences of the arrogance and misjudgment of Lear, a ruler of early Britain, and the parallel behavior of his councilor, the Duke of Gloucester. Each of these fathers tragically banishes the child who most has his interests at heart and places himself in the power of the wicked child or children. Each is finally restored to the loving child, but only after a rending journey of suffering, and each finally dies, having learned the truth about himself and the world, but too late to avert disaster. King Lear is arguably Shakespeare’s most shocking play; the scenes of Lear with his dead child and of Gloucester having his eyes struck out are horrible images of the world’s cruelty. But the play offers moving if ineffective examples of love and compassion: Even if these emotions are incapable of redeeming this world, they are discovered as infinitely precious in their very defeat.
B4
Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra was written about 1606 and first published in 1623. It deals with a different type of love than that in Shakespeare’s earlier tragedies, namely the middle-aged passions of the Roman general Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Their love, which destroys an empire, is glorified by some of Shakespeare’s most sensuous poetry. Antony and Cleopatra, like the other two plays that close Shakespeare’s tragic period—Timon of Athens and Coriolanus—depicts events from ancient history and draws on North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives. The action in the play shifts from Egypt to Rome to Greece and back to Egypt and includes a battle at sea. In the process the play contrasts the luxuriant atmosphere of Egypt with the strict military code of Rome, and the cold and calculating Roman general Octavius with the passionate but ill-advised Antony. The contrasts between Roman rigor and Egyptian luxury are at the heart of this play, which keeps them in provocative balance and offers “no midway/Twixt these extremes at all.”
B5
Macbeth
Macbeth was written about 1606 and first published in 1623. In the play Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of a man torn between an amoral will and a powerfully moral intellect. Macbeth knows his actions are wrong but enacts his fearful deeds anyway, led on in part by the excitement of his own wrongdoing. In securing the Scottish throne, Macbeth deadens his moral intelligence to the point where he becomes capable of increasingly murderous (and pointless) behavior, although he never becomes the monster the moral world sees. At all times he feels the pull of his humanity. Yet for Macbeth there is no redemption, only the sharp descent into a bleak pessimism. Human existence, as he sees it (or as he has made it, at least for himself), amounts to nothing:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

(Act V, scene 4)

B6
Coriolanus
Shakespeare’s last tragedies, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, both set in classical times, were written in 1607 and 1608 and first published in the 1623 Folio. Because their protagonists appear to lack the emotional greatness or tragic stature of the protagonists of the major tragedies, the two plays have an austerity that has cost them the popularity they may well merit. In Coriolanus Shakespeare adapts Plutarch’s account of the legendary Roman hero Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus to the tragedy of a man who is arrogant and rigid, even in his virtue “too noble for the world.” If Coriolanus in his integrity refuses to curry favor with the populace, he also reveals his contempt for the citizenry. The isolating pride of this great but flawed individual prevents him from finding any comfortable place in the community. Finally, he is banished from Rome, and he seeks revenge against the city. Eventually his wife, mother, and young son are sent to plead with him to spare Rome, an action that reveals the relatedness to his others he would deny. The play powerfully explores the conflicts between public and private life, between personal needs and those of the community, and between the pressures of individual honor and family ties and national ties.
B7
Timon of Athens
Timon of Athens, written about 1608 and first published in the 1623 Folio, is a bitter play about a character who reacts to the ingratitude he discovers by hating all of humanity. Through his generosity to friends and flatterers, Timon bankrupts himself and then finds these same people unwilling to assist him in his poverty. His withering misanthropy follows. As in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare explores the relationships between financial ties and ties of friendship. Shakespeare probably found some of the material for his play in Plutarch’s Lives, where anecdotes about Timon appear in the life of Marc Antony and the life of the Greek politician and general Alcibiades. He perhaps also found material in a dialogue, Timon, the Man-Hater, by the Greek writer Lucian, which had been adapted into an anonymous English play, Timon, and probably performed around 1602 in one of the London law schools, known as Inns of Court.
VII
THE LATE PLAYS
Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare created several experimental plays that have become known as tragicomedies or romances. These plays differ considerably from Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, being more radical in their dramatic art and showing greater concern with reconciliation among generations. Yet like the earlier comedies the tragicomedies end happily with reunions or renewal. Typically, virtue is sorely tested in the tragicomedies, but almost miraculously succeeds. Through the intervention of magic and art—or their emotional equivalent, compassion, or their theological equivalent, grace—the spectacular triumph of virtue that marks the ends of these plays suggests redemptive hope for the human condition. In these late plays, the necessity of death and sadness in human existence is recognized but located within larger patterns of harmony that suggest we are “led on by heaven, and crowned with joy at last,” as the epilogue of Periclesproposes.
A
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
The romantic tragicomedy Pericles, Prince of Tyrewas written in 1607 and 1608 and first published in 1609. It concerns the trials and tribulations of the title character, including the painful loss of his wife and the persecution of his daughter. After many exotic adventures, Pericles is reunited with his loved ones; even his supposedly dead wife is discovered to have been magically preserved. The play’s central themes are characteristic of the late plays. Pericles focuses particularly on the relationship between father and daughter, as do The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Its backdrop of the sea also recalls the setting of The Tempest, while its concern with separation and reunion is reminiscent of The Winter’s Tale. However, Pericles is innocent of any blame for the disruption of his family, unlike Leontes’s estrangement from his wife and daughter in The Winter’s Tale.
Although Pericles, Prince of Tyre was a great success in its own time, the play exists only in a somewhat corrupted text. It did not appear in the First Folio, and critics have long debated how much of it Shakespeare actually wrote. Some believe the play was a collaborative effort between Shakespeare and another author, usually thought to be George Wilkins. Pericles is based on a medieval legend, Apollonius, Prince of Tyre, which had many English retellings, from Confessio Amantis (Confessions of a Poet) by John Gower in the late 14th century to a prose novella by Laurence Twine written in the 1570s.
B
Cymbeline
Cymbeline was written about 1610 and first published in the 1623 Folio, where it appears as the last of the tragedies. Like the other late plays, Cymbeline responds to the fashion of the time for colorful plots and theatrical display. It is packed with adventure, plot reversals, and dramatic spectacle, and was perhaps intended to exploit the mechanical resources of Blackfriars, the new indoor theater of Shakespeare’s company. One stage direction instructs that “Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle he throws a thunderbolt.” This bit of staging was far better suited to the indoor theater than to the Globe, where the play was also performed.
The play has three interrelated plots: one concerns Imogen’s love for her husband, Posthumus, and his jealousy; another involves the long-lost sons of King Cymbeline; and the third concerns Britain’s challenge to the power of Rome. The three plots marvelously come together in the play’s astonishing conclusion, as characters move from error to truth, from skepticism to faith, and from hatred to love. Confusion and loss are replaced by clarity and gain, as families and nations are reunited and are again at peace. At the play’s end, the comic order is, as the Soothsayer says, “full accomplished.” King Cymbeline ruled at the time of Jesus Christ’s incarnation. If the Soothsayer’s words seem to the echo Christ’s “consummatum est”(it is finished), it may be because the achievement of harmony in the play offers a secular (worldly) reflection of the patterns of Christian salvation history.
C
The Winter’s Tale
The Winter’s Tale was written about 1610 and published for the first time in the 1623 Folio. In The Winter’s Tale, as in Cymbeline, characters suffer great loss and pain and families are driven apart, but by the end most of what has been lost has been regained. This poignant romance revolves around the estrangement of Leontes, King of Sicilia, from his wife and daughter. In a sudden fit of jealousy Leontes becomes convinced that his wife, Hermione, has been conducting an affair with his friend Polixenes. Believing the daughter she bears is not his own, he orders the child to be abandoned abroad. The first three acts deal with Leontes’s jealousy, his persecution of Hermione, the death of his son, Mamillius, the loss of his daughter, Perdita, and the recognition of his error and subsequent repentance. In the middle of the play a speech by Time marks the change of fortunes that lead to the reconciliation and renewal of the final scene, with its spectacular revelation that Hermione, long thought dead, in fact still lives. Shakespeare borrowed the plot for The Winter’s Tale from Pandosto, the Triumph of Time (1588), a romance in prose by English writer Robert Greene.
D
The Tempest
The Tempest, perhaps the most successful of the tragicomedies, was written about 1611 and published for the first time in the 1623 Folio. The play’s resolution suggests the beneficial effects of the union of wisdom and power. In this play Prospero is deprived of his dukedom by his brother and banished to an island. But he defeats his usurping brother by employing magical powers and furthering a love match between his daughter and the son of the king of Naples. At the play’s conclusion, Prospero surrenders his magical powers. In this surrender some critics have seen Shakespeare’s own relinquishment of the magic of the theater. In spite of the appealing sentimentality of this idea, The Tempest was not Shakespeare’s last play, and it is worth remembering that Prospero gives up his magic only to return to the responsibilities of rule he had previously ignored.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

(Act IV, scene 1)

The Tempest is without doubt reflective in tone, especially on the end of life, in its concerns with remembrance and forgiveness, the loss and limitation of power, and the need for the reconciliation of the past, present, and future.
VIII
LATE COLLABORATIONS
Although The Tempest probably was Shakespeare’s final solo creation, he is thought to have continued to work as a collaborator on several plays, including Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. The historical drama Henry VIII, also known as All Is True, was probably written about 1613 with English dramatist John Fletcher, and first published in the 1623 Folio. It dramatizes events from Henry’s reign leading to the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth I, presenting an implied history of the Reformation in a series of scenes on the fall from greatness of some characters (the Duke of Buckingham, Catherine of Aragón, and Thomas Cardinal Wolsey) and the rise of others (Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer). At the end of a performance at the Globe on June 29, 1613, the theater’s thatched roof caught fire and the building burned to the ground.
The Two Noble Kinsmen, probably the last play Shakespeare wrote, was written jointly with John Fletcher about 1613. Both men’s names appear on the first published edition in 1634. Scholars generally attribute to Shakespeare most of acts one and five and to Fletcher the bulk of the play’s middle. The play tells of the competition of two friends, Palamon and Arcite, for the love of one woman, Emilia. She is the sister of Hippolyta, who was queen of the Amazons and wife of the Greek hero Theseus. The story is taken from The Knight’s Tale,part of Chaucer’s influential 14th-century masterpiece The Canterbury Tales.
IX
LITERARY QUALITIES OF THE PLAYS
Everyone loves a good story, and Shakespeare was one of the very best storytellers. Most of Shakespeare’s stories have an almost universal appeal, an appeal often lacking in the plays of his contemporaries, who clung more closely to the tastes and interests of their own day. An even greater achievement is Shakespeare’s creation of believable characters. His people are not the exaggerated types or allegorical abstractions found in many other Elizabethan plays. They are instead men and women with the mingled qualities and many of the inconsistencies of life itself. The very richness of Shakespeare’s language continues to delight, and it is always amazing to be reminded how many common words and phrases have their origin in Shakespeare’s art. His poetic and theatrical artistry has created plays that continue to attract readers and theatergoers, and he properly remains one of our own age’s most popular playwrights.
A
Shakespeare’s Characters
Shakespeare’s characters emerge in his plays as distinctive human beings. Although some of the characters display elements of conventional dramatic types such as the melancholy man, the braggart soldier, the pedant, and the young lover, they are nevertheless usually individualized rather than caricatures or exaggerated types. Falstaff, for example, bears some resemblance to the braggart soldiers of 16th-century Italian comedy and to representations of the character Vice in medieval morality plays, but his vitality and inexhaustible wit make him unique. Hamlet, one of the most complex characters in all literature, is partly a picture of the ideal Renaissance man, and he also exhibits traits of the conventional melancholic character. However, his personality as a whole transcends these types, and he is so real that commentators have continued for centuries to explore his fascinating mind.
The women in Shakespeare’s plays are vivid creations, each differing from the others. It is important to remember that in Shakespeare’s time boy actors played the female parts. Actresses did not appear in a Shakespeare play until after the restoration of Charles II to the English throne in 1660 and the introduction of French practices such as women actors. It says much about the talent of the boy actors of his own day that Shakespeare could create such a rich array of fascinating women characters. Shakespeare was fond of portraying aggressive, witty heroines, such as Kate of The Taming of the Shrew, Rosaline of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing. However, he was equally adept at creating gentle and innocent women, such as Ophelia in Hamlet, Desdemona in Othello,and Cordelia in King Lear. His female characters also include the treacherous Goneril and Regan in King Lear, the iron-willed Lady Macbeth, the witty and resourceful Portia in Merchant of Venice, the tender and loyal Juliet, and the alluring Cleopatra.
Shakespeare’s comic figures are also highly varied. They include bumbling rustics such as Dogberry and Verges in Much Ado About Nothing, tireless punsters like the Dromios in The Comedy of Errors,pompous grotesques like Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost, elegant wits like Feste in Twelfth Night, cynical realists like Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and fools who utter nonsense that often conceals wisdom, such as Touchstone in As You Like It and the Fool in King Lear.
Shakespeare drew his characters with remarkable insight into human character. Even the most wicked characters, such as Iago in Othello, have human traits that can elicit understanding if not compassion. Thus, Macbeth’s violent end arouses pity and awe rather than scornful triumph at a criminal’s just punishment for his deeds. The characters achieve uniqueness through their brilliantly individualized styles of speech. Shakespeare’s understanding of the human soul and his mastery of language enabled him to write dialogue that makes the characters in his plays always intelligible, vital, and memorable.
B
Shakespeare’s Attitudes
Shakespeare’s philosophy of life can only be deduced from the ideas and attitudes that appear frequently in his writings, and he remained always a dramatist, not a writer of philosophical or ethical tracts. Nonetheless, the tolerance of human weakness evident in the plays tends to indicate that Shakespeare was a broad-minded person with generous and balanced views. Although he never lectured his audience, sound morality is implicit in his themes and in the way he handled his material. He attached less importance to noble birth than to an individual’s noble relations with other people. Despite the bawdiness of Shakespeare’s language, which is characteristic of his period, he did not condone sexual license. He accepted people as they are, without condemning them, but he did not allow wickedness to triumph. The comments of Shakespeare’s contemporaries suggest that he himself possessed both integrity and gentle manners.
It should be remembered that even though Shakespeare was a poet “for all time,” as his friend Ben Jonson said, he nevertheless was necessarily a product of his own era and shared many beliefs of the time. These beliefs are different from our own, and some of them may now seem strange and even unenlightened. Although Shakespeare anticipated many modern ideas and values, in other ways he does not rise above the ideas and values of his own time. As the history plays indicate, he accepted the idea of monarchy and had little interest in, or even concept of, participatory democracy. Although many of his women characters are assertive and independent, the plays still have them subordinate their energy to the logic of the male-dominated household. It is also likely that Shakespeare believed in ghosts and witches, as did many people of his time, including King James I.
C
Shakespeare’s Stagecraft
Shakespeare brilliantly exploited the resources of the theaters he worked in. The Globe Theatre held an audience of 2,000 to 3,000 people. Like other outdoor theaters, it had a covered, raised stage thrusting out into the audience. The audience stood around the three sides of the stage in an unroofed area called the pit. Covered galleries, where people paid more money to sit, rose beyond the pit. Performances took place only during daylight hours, and there was little use of lighting. Few props were used, and little scenery. Costumes, however, were elaborate. Language created the scene, as in this passage from The Merchant of Venice:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here we will sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.

Act V, scene 1 

D
Shakespeare’s Language
In Shakespeare’s time English was a more flexible language than it is today. Grammar and spelling were not yet completely formalized, although scholars were beginning to urge rules to regulate them. English had begun to emerge as a significant literary language, having recently replaced Latin as the language of serious intellectual and artistic activity in England. Freed of many of the conventions and rules of modern English, Shakespeare could shape vocabulary and syntax to the demands of style. For example, he could interchange the various parts of speech, using nouns as adjectives or verbs, adjectives as adverbs, and pronouns as nouns. Such freedom gave his language an extraordinary plasticity, which enabled him to create the large number of unique and memorable characters he has left us. Shakespeare made each character singular by a distinctive and characteristic set of speech habits.
Just as important to Shakespeare’s success as the suppleness of the English language was the rapid expansion of the language. New words were being coined and borrowed at an unprecedented rate in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare himself had an unusually large vocabulary: about 23,000 different words appear in his plays and poetry, many of these words first appearing in print through his usage. During the Renaissance many new words enriched the English language, borrowed from Latin and from other European languages, and Shakespeare made full use of the new resources available to English. He also took advantage of the possibilities of his native tongue, especially the crispness and energy of the sounds of English that derives in large measure from the language’s rich store of monosyllabic(one-syllable) words.
The main influences on Shakespeare’s style were the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the homilies (sermons) that were prescribed for reading in church, the rhetorical treatises that were studied in grammar school, and the proverbial lore of common speech. The result was that Shakespeare could draw on a stock of images and ideas that were familiar to most members of his audience. His knowledge of figures of speech and other devices enabled him to phrase his original thoughts concisely and forcefully. Clarity of expression and the use of ordinary diction partly account for the fact that many of Shakespeare’s phrases have become proverbial in everyday speech, even among people who have never read the plays. It is also significant that the passages most often quoted are usually from plays written around 1600 and after, when his language became more subtle and complex. The phrases “my mind’s eye,” “the primrose path,” and “sweets to the sweet” derive from Hamlet. Macbeth is the source of “the milk of human kindness” and “at one fell swoop.” From Julius Caesar come the expressions “it was Greek to me,” “ambition should be made of sterner stuff,” and “the most unkindest cut of all.”
Shakespeare wrote many of his plays in blank verse—unrhymed poetry in iambic pentameter, a verse form in which unaccented and accented syllables alternate in lines of ten syllables. In Shakespeare’s hand the verse form never becomes mechanical but is always subject to shifts of emphasis to clarify the meaning of a line and avoid the monotony of unbroken metrical regularity. Yet the five-beat pentameter line provides the norm against which the modifications are heard. Shakespeare sometimes used rhymed verse, particularly in his early plays. Rhymed couplets occur frequently at the end of a scene, punctuating the dramatic rhythm and perhaps serving as a cue to the offstage actors to enter for the next scene.
As Shakespeare’s dramatic skill developed, he began to make greater use of prose, which became as subtle a medium in his hands as verse. Although prose lacks the regular rhythms of verse, it is not without its own rhythmical aspect, and Shakespeare came to use the possibilities of prose to achieve effects of characterization as subtle as those he accomplished in verse. In the early plays, prose is almost always reserved for characters from the lower classes. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, the weaver Bottom speaks in prose to the fairy queen Titania, but she always responds in the verse appropriate to her position. Shakespeare, however, soon abandoned this rigid assignment of prose or verse on the basis of social rank. Although The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only play written almost entirely in prose, many plays use prose for important effects. Examples include Ophelia’s mad scenes in Hamlet, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene in Macbeth, and Falstaff’s wonderful comedy in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.
X
THE SONNETS
Although Shakespeare is today best known for his plays, his sonnets still rank among the world’s best-loved poems. Shakespeare’s sonnets were published for the first time as a collection in 1609, although two (numbers 138 and 144) had previously been printed in a volume of Elizabethan verse called The Passionate Pilgrim (1599). The 1609 collection of sonnets was dedicated to “Mr. W.H.,” the “only begetter of these . . . sonnets.” The dedication was signed by “T.T.,” (Thomas Thorpe, the publisher). Thorpe may have secured a copy of the poems that had been circulating among Shakespeare’s friends, or he may somehow have obtained Shakespeare’s own manuscripts. In addition to 154 sonnets, the volume contained “A Lover’s Complaint.” In this poem, too-little read today, a woman tells a herdsman the story of her seduction and later abandonment by her lover. The presence of a “Complaint” in a book of sonnets was a well-recognized practice, and Shakespeare’s sonnets and “The Lover’s Complaint” were undoubtedly intended to be read together.
The first 126 sonnets are apparently addressed to a handsome young nobleman, presumably the author’s patron. The poems express the writer’s selfless but not entirely uncritical devotion to the young man. The next 28 sonnets are written to a “dark lady,” whom the poet seemingly cannot resist. Another figure in the sequence is the “rival poet.” Scholars have spent much time trying to identify the specific figures the sonnets address, but it is unlikely that the sonnets are so personal. More likely, the sonnet offered Shakespeare a structure for experiments in lyric verse that enabled him to play with familiar conventions of feeling and poetry. Although no systematic narrative develops in the sonnets, there is a thematic link between the “young man” group and the “dark lady” group. The youth and the mistress betray the poet, and at one point the author berates the young man for stealing the dark lady from him. Miscellaneous sonnets treat various other themes, most notably the rending effects of time and the eternalizing possibilities of art.
The form of the poems is an English variation of the traditional fourteen-line sonnet. The lines, which each have ten syllables, are arranged into three quatrains, or groups of four lines, and a final couplet (two successive lines that rhyme). The rhyme scheme of the sonnets is abab, cdcd, efef, gg. A theme is developed and elaborated in the quatrains, and a concluding thought is presented in the couplet. Sonnet 116 is typical of the form and excellence of the poems.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O, no, it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The poet himself prophesied in Sonnet 55: “Not marble nor the gilded monuments Of princes shall outlive this pow’rful rime.” The appreciation of the sonnets’ power and beauty by successive generations confirms this prophecy. Shakespeare’s sonnets continue to be read and enjoyed, and they remain among the greatest poetic achievements in the English language.
XI
SHAKESPEARE TEXTS AND SCHOLARSHIP
So far as is known, Shakespeare had no hand in the publication of any of his plays. In any event, he did not own his plays once he had supplied the scripts to the theatrical company. Except when the plague closed the London theaters, acting companies normally did not consider it in their own interest to allow their popular plays to be printed. However, in whatever manner they reached their publishers, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays were printed during his lifetime in pamphlets (known as quartos, from the format in which they were printed), which sold for sixpence. Publishers secured these plays in various ways, some perhaps from the acting company, and some from lines taken down in shorthand during performances or reconstructed from memory by actors. The plays that reached print, therefore, had various degrees of reliability, but what is of interest is that Shakespeare seemed not to care one way or the other.
A
The Folios
Fortunately for posterity, John Heminges and Henry Condell, friends and colleagues of Shakespeare in the Lord Chamberlain’s and King’s companies, collected 36 of the plays now accepted as Shakespeare’s and published them in a handsome folio edition in 1623. This volume preserved 18 plays that had never before been printed. Heminges and Condell promised that they were offering all the plays “cured and perfect of their limbs,” that is, purged of the errors that marred the early editions. The First Folio nevertheless contains many imperfections resulting from misreading of the manuscripts and inevitable printer’s errors, and their claim of accuracy is little more than advertising for the volume. Yet without the efforts of Heminges and Condell, 18 of the plays that we know as Shakespeare’s would not have been preserved.
The demand for Shakespeare’s works was sufficiently great to warrant the printing of the Second Folio in 1632. The Third Folio edition, printed in both 1663 and 1664, included, in its second printing, Pericles,which had been omitted from the previous editions, and six other plays that are not regarded by modern editors as Shakespeare’s. These are The London Prodigal, The History of Thomas Lord Cromwell, Sir John Oldcastle, The Puritan Widow, A Yorkshire Tragedy, and The Tragedy of Locrine. In 1685 the Fourth Folio appeared, which also included the unauthenticated plays. With each reprinting of Shakespeare’s works some corrections were made but new errors were introduced in spelling and punctuation, and the final text became more removed from the original work.
B
18th-Century Editions
The first edition of Shakespeare’s plays with an editor’s name attached was prepared by dramatist and poet Nicholas Rowe and printed in 1709. Rowe based his six-volume edition on the Fourth Folio, with almost no comparison with other editions. He added the first biography of Shakespeare and attached a list of characters to each play. The folios had supplied such lists for only a few plays. Rowe also divided the plays into acts and scenes according to 18th-century practice.
The next edition (6 vols., 1723-1725) was prepared by English poet Alexander Pope, who did some slight comparison of texts, relegated some passages he considered inauthentic to the bottom of pages, and arbitrarily omitted others. Although he frequently rewrote Shakespeare’s lines, mainly to make the verse regular, Pope offered some valuable restorations of readings, rearranged passages as verse that were incorrectly printed as prose in the early texts, and rejected the six spurious plays that had been added to the Third Folio.
English writer Lewis Theobald’s seven-volume edition of 1733 was the earliest systematic restoration of Shakespeare’s texts. Many of Theobald’s emendations, or textual corrections, are still accepted by scholars. Among the other important 18th-century editions was that of English writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, published in eight volumes in 1765. Johnson’s edition was notable chiefly for its sensible interpretations and critical evaluations of Shakespeare as a literary artist. Also important was literary scholar Edmund Malone’s ten-volume edition published in 1790, which was the most trustworthy text printed to that time. The first American edition, published in Philadelphia in 1795 and 1796, was a reprinting of Johnson’s text.
C
19th-Century Editions
In 1807, English editors Henrietta and Thomas Bowdler first published The Family Shakespeare. Bowdler announced that it “has been my study to exclude . . . whatever is unfit to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies” and that he had endeavored to omit “words and expressions which are of a nature as to raise a blush on the cheek of modesty.” The term bowdlerized has subsequently been applied to any text from which passages have been removed to suit notions of propriety.
Among the more scholarly Shakespeare collections of the 19th century were a handsomely illustrated edition (1838-1842) of Charles Knight and the first Cambridge edition (1863-1866), edited by W. G. Clark, J. Glover, and W. A. Wright. The one-volume reprint of the Cambridge text, known as the Globe edition, was until recently the most widely accepted text of the works ever distributed, and it was in this form that Shakespeare first became a playwright belonging to the world.
The most ambitious editions undertaken have been the various variorum editions, which collect and reprint the corrections and comments of earlier critics and editors. (The word variorum comes from the Latin phrase “cum notis variorum,” meaning “with the notes of various people.”) The First and Second variorums (1803 and 1813) were edited by Isaac Reed. The Third Variorum (21 vols., 1821) was prepared by James Boswell, son of Samuel Johnson’s biographer, and was based on Edmund Malone’s text. Like the preceding variorums, it contained a vast amount of biographical and critical matter. In 1871 American scholar H. H. Furness began the New Variorum Shakespeare, a project that has been continued to the present and is the most comprehensive of all editions of Shakespeare. The Modern Language Association of America has sponsored the New Variorum Shakespeare since 1936.
D
20th-Century Editions
Scholars of the 20th century had the advantage not only of the exhaustive work done by editors of the past but also of new bibliographical techniques. They also had at their disposal a vast amount of information on the theatrical and printing conditions of Shakespeare’s time, on Elizabethan handwriting, and on the historical background. Furthermore, they were less hampered by the belief of many earlier editors that Shakespeare was incapable of writing in imperfect meter or of using indelicate expressions.
American scholars W. A. Neilson and George Lyman Kittredge each compiled a single-volume collection of Shakespeare’s complete works in 1936 and 1942, respectively. From the 1960s and 1970s on, many university presses and other publishers brought out their own editions of Shakespeare, including paperback editions. The best of the modern editions of individual plays are generally thought to be the Arden Shakespeare, the Oxford Shakespeare, and the New Cambridge Shakespeare editions. For the collected works, the Riverside Shakespeare and the Norton Shakespeare are arguably the best editions.
Shakespeare plays began to appear on the Internet during the 1990s. The University of Virginia has posted electronic versions of the First Folio and the Globe edition on its Web site, http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/shakespeare/. Other Websites dedicated to the plays are sponsored by the University of Victoria in Canada (http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (http://classics.mit.edu/Shakespeare/).
E
The Authorship Controversy
With the exception of Homer, about whom nothing definite is known, Shakespeare is the only major writer in the world’s history whose authorship has been so widely disputed. Since the 18th century, scores of books have been written to prove that Shakespeare’s works were written by another person or persons. Dozens of candidates have been proposed, including writers such as Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, George Peele, and John Lyly; a multitude of titled men, including the earls of Rutland and Derby, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Francis Bacon, and the Earl of Oxford; and even Queen Elizabeth I.
The first systematic theory doubting Shakespeare’s authorship was set forth by William Henry Smith, who in 1856 published a book declaring that Sir Francis Bacon was the real author of the plays. In the same year, an American schoolteacher named Delia Bacon (no relation to Francis Bacon) wrote an article and then a book supporting Bacon’s authorship, and later she conceived the notion of the dual authorship of Sir Walter Raleigh and Bacon. For a long time, Bacon was the leading candidate of the anti-Shakespeareans, but Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is now the most popular nominee. He was first proposed by an English schoolmaster with an unfortunate last name, J. Thomas Looney, in 1920. Christopher Marlowe, whose candidacy also has been strongly advocated, was first named by American writer Wilbur Zeigler in 1892 as one of a group of possible authors of the plays.
Skepticism as to Shakespeare’s authorship has arisen for a number of reasons. Some critics have claimed that too little is known about the man from Stratford for him to be the author of these great plays. But it is important to remember that far less is known about most other writers and public men of the time. Other critics have said that what is known about Shakespeare is incompatible with the sort of man who could have written the works. Still others have argued that the lack of surviving manuscripts of the plays indicates a mystery concerning the author’s identity. In general, however, resistance to the notion that a glover’s son from Stratford wrote the plays we attribute to Shakespeare comes from a form of snobbery. We know Shakespeare did not go to university and he was not educated at court, so it has seemed to some impossible that he could have written the wonderful works ascribed to him.
The biography of Shakespeare that Rowe included with his edition of the works in 1709 may have added to the skepticism. Rowe painted a very respectable background for Shakespeare and made sweeping assumptions from the known facts. In addition, a number of traditional although unsubstantiated stories about Shakespeare, such as that of his deer poaching, came to be accepted as true, and other legends accumulated. On the basis of these, some skeptics decided that Shakespeare was an ignorant butcher’s boy from an uncultured background who could not have written anything significant, let alone great literary masterpieces that show intimate knowledge of aristocratic manners. The misconceptions about Shakespeare were compounded in the 19th century, when he acquired a reputation for vast learning and virtual omniscience.
For a more balanced evaluation of Shakespeare’s knowledge and education, it is necessary to take into account the facts of his background. His native Stratford was a prosperous market town with one of the best grammar schools in England. Shakespeare’s father held official positions, which would indicate that he must have been an ambitious man who would hardly have denied his son the free education to which he was entitled at the grammar school. Most scholars familiar with the Elizabethan age believe that the works display exactly the sort of knowledge that Shakespeare could have obtained in the Stratford grammar school.
A number of scholars have closely studied the book-learning exhibited in the works. They have concluded that even the mythological allusions, which have sometimes been cited as proof of the author’s wide classical reading, are no more numerous or obscure than those used by other writers. Moreover, these allusions come from relatively few literary sources or popular traditions. Nor is there evidence in the works of precise knowledge of the scientific and philosophical trends of the day. As most modern scholars see it, the author revealed in the works was a keenly sensitive and intelligent man whose reading was inspired by wide curiosity, but that, unlike Sir Francis Bacon, he was not a learned man of scientific bent.
The claim that the plays display Shakespeare’s intimate knowledge of the customs and manners of nobility and royalty is illusory. The plays show kings speaking in regal tones when the dramatic situation calls for emphasis on the dignity of royalty. In other scenes, however, they speak as ordinary human beings, in keeping with the emotional situation in which the action places them. In any case, Shakespeare played at court many times before Queen Elizabeth and King James and had an official position as one of James’ servants as a member of the King’s Men. It would not, therefore, have been difficult for him to become familiar with aristocratic life and manners.
The fact that Shakespeare’s manuscripts have vanished is not surprising in the light of Elizabethan practices. Very few play manuscripts from the period have survived. Plays were not considered literature, and play scripts would not have had much value, except to the acting company. In any case, once a playwright sold a script to an acting company, it was no longer the author’s property. The manuscripts in the playhouse were undoubtedly preserved for as long as they were usable, but afterward they were probably used as scrap paper. The manuscripts supplied by Heminges and Condell for the printing of the 18 previously unpublished plays in the First Folio would most likely have been returned to the acting company after the book was in print. The Second, Third, and Fourth folios are printed from the text of the First Folio, rather than from manuscripts. When Parliament ordered the closing of London’s playhouses in 1642, many companies sold their assets, including play manuscripts. In addition, many manuscripts must have perished in the great fire that swept London in 1666. Thus, it would be unusual if the manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays had survived.
Those who seek another author for Shakespeare’s works believe that distinction of birth and education is a necessary qualification for writing great literature. Yet it is the quality of imaginative genius rather than a display of learning that distinguishes the creator of these plays. The miracle is not that a man of Shakespeare’s background wrote them, but that any human imagination produced creations of such enduring power and beauty.
XII
LITERARY REPUTATION
Shakespeare achieved his reputation as perhaps the greatest of all dramatists after his death. Although his contemporary Ben Jonson declared him “not of an age, but for all time,” early 17th-century taste found the plays of Jonson himself, or Thomas Middleton or Beaumont and Fletcher, equally worthy of praise. Shakespeare’s reputation began to eclipse that of his contemporaries some 150 years after his death. He was always popular but until the mid-18th century his reputation was not, as it would become, unrivaled. Although his works were regularly staged in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, theater companies hardly treated his plays with reverence. When they performed the plays, they most often used versions rewritten for the fashions of the age, “purged”—as their adaptors maintained—of their coarseness and absurdities. These alterations could be significant. In the version of King Lear that dominated the stage from 1681 until 1823, Lear and his daughter Cordelia are left alive at the end, transforming a tragedy into a tragicomedy (and reproducing what the historical source material suggests about their fates). While these adaptations seem odd to us today, it was this practice of adapting Shakespeare that kept his plays in the repertory while those of Jonson, Middleton, and others remained on the shelf.
Shakespeare began to assume the role of England’s national poet during the first half of the 18th century. This process reached its culmination with the installation of a memorial statue in Westminster Abbey in 1741 and the celebration of a festival in 1764 to commemorate the bicentenary of his birth. During the 19th century the romantic movement did much to shape both Shakespeare’s international reputation and the view of his achievement that has persisted ever since. Particularly important were the lectures on Shakespeare by English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the writings of German romantic poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Romantic authors claimed Shakespeare as a great precursor of their own literary values. They celebrated his work as an embodiment of universal human truths and an unequalled articulation of the human condition in all its nobility and variety.
The views of the romantic movement have in many ways been cemented during the 20th century. Institutions such as the Folger Shakespeare Library, established in the United States in 1932, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, founded in Britain in 1961, have ensured that Shakespeare’s work remains a central icon of Western culture. Festival productions of the plays began in 1870 at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon. The present theater, built in 1932 after the original was burned, is the Stratford home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. It may itself be rebuilt as part of a redevelopment plan scheduled for completion in 2008. The annual Shakespeare Festival of Stratford, Ontario, presented its first Shakespeare plays in 1953. New York City has held an outdoor Shakespeare in Central Park festival since 1957. A reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe was erected on London’s South Bank and opened in 1997. By the early 2000s, numerous British, Canadian, and American towns and cities held annual Shakespeare festivals.
As Polish literary critic Jan Kott noted in the title of a 1965 work, Shakespeare is “our contemporary.” At the very least, we strive to make him so. Shakespeare plays are performed today all over the globe, not only in English-speaking countries but in lands and in languages Shakespeare never dreamed of.
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