By Paul Bleier
William Shakespeare was a supreme English poet and playwright,
universally recognized as the greatest of all the dramatists.
A complete, authoritative account of Shakespeare’s life is lacking; much
supposition surrounds relatively few facts. His day of birth is traditionally
held on April 23, and he was baptized on April 24, 1564. He was the third of
eight children, and was the eldest son of John Shakespeare. He was probably
educated in a local grammar school. As the eldest son, Shakespeare would of
taken over his father’s business, but according to one account, he became a
butcher because of reverses in his father’s financial situation. According to
another account, he became a school master. That Shakespeare was allowed
considerable leisure time in his youth is suggested by the fact that his plays
show more knowledge of hunting and hawking than do those of other dramatists.
In 1582, he married Anne Hathaway. He is supposed to have left Stratford after
he was caught poaching in a deer park.
Shakespeare apparently arrived in London about 1588 and by 1592 had
attained success as a playwright. The publication of Venus and Adonis, The Rape
of Lucrece and of his Sonnets established his reputation as a poet in the
Renaissance manner. Shakespeare’s modern reputation is based mainly on the 38
plays he wrote, modified, or collaborated on.
Shakespeare’s professional life in London was marked by a number of
financially advantageous arrangements that permitted him to share in the profits
of his acting company, the Chamberlain’s Men, and its two theaters, the Globe
and the Blackfriars. His plays were given special presentation at the courts of
Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. After about 1608, Shakespeare’s dramatic
production lessened and he spent more time in Stratford. There he established a
family in and imposing house, the New Place, and became a leading local citizen.
He died on April 23, 1616, and was buried in the Stratford church.
Although the precise date of many of Shakespeare’s plays is in doubt, his
dramatic career is divided into four periods: (1) the period up to 1594, (2)
the years from 1594 to 1600, (3) the years from 1600 to 1608, (4) the period
after 1608. In all periods, the plots of his plays were frequently drawn from
chronicles, histories, or earlier fiction.
Shakespeare’s first period was one of experimentation. His early plays are
characterized to a degree of superficial construction and verse. Some of the
plays from the first period my be no more than retouchings of earlier works by
others. Four plays dramatizing the English civil strife of the 15th century are
possibly Shakespeare’s earliest dramatic works. These plays, Henry VI, Parts I,
II, III, and Richard III, deal with the evil results of weak leadership.
Shakespeare’s comedies of the first period represent a wide range. The Comedy
of Errors depends on its appeal on the mistakes in identity between two sets of
twins involved in romance and war. The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of
Verona, and Love’s Labour’s Lost are all comedies and satires.
Next, Shakespeare’s second period includes his most important plays about
English history. The second period historical plays include Richard II, Henry
IV, Parts I and II, and Henry V. These plays deal with English kings who lose
their power to their successors. Outstanding among the comedies of the second
period is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is fantasy filled and is achieved by the
interweaving of several plots involving two pairs noble lovers, a group of
bumbling townspeople, and members of the fantasy realm. Another comedy is The
Merchant of Venice which is characterized by friendship and romantic love. The
witty comedy Much Ado About Nothing is marred by an insensitive treatment of its
main character. Shakespeare’s most mature comedies, As You Like It, and Twelfth
Night, are characterized by a hilarious and kindly charm that depends upon the
attraction of lovely heroines. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy about
middle-class life which contains a comic victim of the middle-class. One of the
two tragedies of this period is Romeo and Juliet. It is famous for its poetic
treatment of youthful love, and dramatizes the fate of two lovers victimized by
feuds of their elders. The other, Julius Caesar, is a serious tragedy of
Shakespeare’s third period includes his greatest tragedy and his dark or
bitter comedies. The tragedies of this period are the most profound of his
works. Hamlet goes far beyond other tragedies of revenge in picturing the
mingled sordidness and glory of the human condition. Othello the growth of
unjustified jealously in the protagonist. King Lear deals with the consequences
of the irresponsibility and misjudgment of an early ruler of Britain and his
councillor. The tragic outcome is the result of their giving power to their evil
offspring rather that their good offspring. Antony and Cleopatra with a
different type of love, namely, the middle-aged passion of the Roman general
Mark Antony for the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. In Macbeth, Shakespeare depicts
the tragedy of a basically good man, who led on by others, succumbs to ambition.
In getting and retaining the Scottish throne, Macbeth dulls his humanity to the
point where he becomes capable of committing any enormity. Three other plays of
this period suggest a bitterness lacking in these tragedies because the
protagonists do not seem to possess greatness or tragic stature. In Troilus and
Cressida The gulf between the ideal and the real, both individually and
politically, is evoked. In Coriolanus, the Roman hero is portrayed as unable to
bring himself either to woo the Roman masses or to crush them by force. Timon
of Athens is a similarly bitter play about a character reduced to nothing by
ingratification. The two comedies of this period are also dark in mood. Of
these, All’s Well That Ends Well is less significant that Measure for Measure
which suggests a picture f morality in Christian terms.
Finally, the fourth period of Shakespeare’s work comprises his principles
tragedies. Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare created several plays
suggestive of a mood of final resignation in the human lot. These plays differ
greatly than his other comedies, but ending happily with a reunion or final
reconciliation. The romantic tragicomedy Pericles, Prince of Tyre concerns the
character’s painful loss of his wife and the persecution of his daughter. After
many adventures, Pericles is reunited with his loved ones. In Cymbeline and The
Winter’s Tale, domestic complication are resolved by restoring loved ones. The
most successful product of his creativity is his last complete play, The Tempest,
in which the resolution suggests the beneficial effects of the union of wisdom
and power. Two final plays include a historical drama, Henry VIII, and The Two
Noble Kinsmen, a story of two noble friends for one woman.
Hence, from a poor family, Shakespeare emerged as a great playwright. The
odds were against him, but he rose to the occasion and wrote over 38 plays which
made him famous throughout the world. He is still considered to be the best
playwright that ever lived.