Blessed are you, whose worthiness gives scope,
Being had, to triumph; being lack'd, to hope.
The Collected Works of Shakespeare
The Shakespearean Insulter
Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet
The English dramatist and poet William Shakespeare was the author of the most widely admired
and influential body of literature by any individual in the history of Western civilization.
His work comprises 36 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 narrative poems. Knowledge of Shakespeare is
derived from two sources: his works and those remains of legal and church records and
contemporary allusions through which scholars can trace the external facts of his life.
Shakespeare was baptized in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, on Apr. 26, 1564. He is buried in the same church, where a memorial records his death on Apr. 23, 1616. In 1623 his colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell created memorial by publishing Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, the collection of his plays now known as the First Folio.
The third of eight children, he was probably educated at the local grammar school. As the eldest son, Shakespeare ordinarily would have been apprenticed to his father's shop so that he could learn and eventually take over the business, but according to one account he was apprenticed to a butcher because of declines in his father's financial situation. According to another account, he became a schoolmaster.
In 1582 Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a farmer. He is supposed to have left Stratford after he was caught poaching in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy, a local justice of the peace. Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway had a daughter in 1583 and twins—a boy and a girl—in 1585. The boy did not survive.
In 1593-94 Shakespeare published two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The circumstances surrounding another nondramatic work, the Sonnets of Shakespeare, are less clear. Scholars are not certain how long before their unauthorized publication (1609) they were written, whether they were all written in the same period, or whether the order in which they appeared was of Shakespeare's design. Because the Sonnets are the only works in which Shakespeare may plausibly be thought to write from a frankly autobiographical impulse, they have exercised a fascination beyond even their extraordinary value as poetry.The Sonnets describe the devotion of a character to a young man whose beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless dark lady with whom the poet is infatuated. The ensuing triangular situation, resulting from the attraction of the poet's friend to the dark lady, is treated with passionate intensity and psychological insight.
Shakespeare wrote his plays for performance, not publication, and apparently took no part in their printing. Nineteen plays appeared in individual quarto volumes before appearing in the First Folio. Some were printed from texts reconstructed from memory by the actors, whereas others were supplied to the printer by the company. Shakespeare's indifference to publication creates problems in dating and establishing accurate texts for the plays.
Shakespeare's earliest plays, performed between 1588 and 1593, already show the range of his formal dramatic interests. They foreshadow his mature accomplishments and reveal some of the sources on which he drew for inspiration. His first tragedy, Titus Andronicus (c. 1592-1594), was influenced by the emphasis on extreme psychological states and the rhetorically ornate manner of the Roman playwright Lucius Annaeus Seneca; the influence of Ovid is also felt. Popular in its own day, Titus is now often denigrated; its treatment of physical and moral outrage, however, is recalled even in the mature King Lear. For the three parts of Henry VI (c. 1588) and for Richard III (c. 1593) he drew on histories of England by Edward Hall (1548) and Raphael Holinshead (1587).
The Comedy of Errors (c. 1588-1593) is indebted to the Roman playwright Plautus; with characteristic exuberance, Shakespeare added a second pair of identical twins to the pair in his source. This early play shows a consummate technical ability, and some of its basic concerns--the dispersal and reunion of a family, time's destructive passage and its potential for renewal, imagery of ocean water, strange lands, and voyages--persist into his last play, The Tempest. A pervasive source for ideas and language in all his plays was the Bible, a work familiar to most of his audience.
Shakespeare returned to the histories of England between 1595 and 1600 to write four plays--Richard II (1595), Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (1597 and 1598), and Henry V (1599)--that tell an earlier part of the history. Richard II is a study of a weak, sensitive, self-dramatizing but sympathetic monarch who loses his kingdom to his forceful successor, Henry IV. In the two parts of Henry IV, Henry recognizes his own guilt. His fears for his own son, later Henry V, prove unfounded, as the young prince displays a responsible attitude toward the duties of kingship. In an alternation of masterful comic and serious scenes, the fat knight Falstaff and the rebel Hotspur reveal contrasting excesses between which the prince finds his proper position. The mingling of the tragic and the comic to suggest a broad range of humanity subsequently became one of Shakespeare's favorite devices.
Shakespeare continued to alternate the writing of comedy and tragedy, although comedy is relatively more prominent in the last decade of the 16th century--Love's Labor's Lost (1594), The Merchant of Venice (1596), A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night--and tragedy after 1599--Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus (c. 1608). In The Merchant of Venice, the Renaissance motifs of masculine friendship and romantic love are portrayed in opposition to the bitter inhumanity of a usurer named Shylock, whose own misfortunes are presented so as to arouse understanding and sympathy. A Midsummer Night's Dream interweaves several plots involving two pairs of noble lovers, a group of bumbling and unconsciously comic townspeople, and members of the fairy realm, notably Puck, King Oberon, and Queen Titania. As You Like It and Twelfth Night are characterized by lyricism, ambiguity, and beautiful, charming, and strong-minded heroines like Beatrice. In As You Like It, the contrast between the manners of the Elizabethan court and those current in the English countryside is drawn in a rich and varied vein. Shakespeare constructed a complex orchestration between different characters and between appearance and reality and used this pattern to comment on a variety of human foibles. In that respect, As You Like It is similar to Twelfth Night, in which the comical side of love is illustrated by the misadventures of two pairs of romantic lovers and of a number of realistically conceived and clowning characters in the subplot.
Hamlet, perhaps his most famous play, exceeds by far most other tragedies of revenge in picturing the mingled sordidness and glory of the human condition. Hamlet feels that he is living in a world of horror. Confirmed in this feeling by the murder of his father and the sensuality of his mother, he exhibits tendencies toward both crippling indecision and precipitous action. Interpretation of his motivation and ambivalence continues to be a subject of considerable controversy. Othello portrays the growth of unjustified jealousy in the protagonist, Othello, a Moor serving as a general in the Venetian army. The innocent object of his jealousy is his wife, Desdemona. In this tragedy, Othello's evil lieutenant Iago draws him into mistaken jealousy in order to ruin him. King Lear, conceived on a more epic scale, deals with the consequences of the irresponsibility and misjudgment of Lear, a ruler of early Britain, and of his councillor, the Duke of Gloucester. The tragic outcome is a result of their giving power to their evil children, rather than to their good children. Lear's daughter Cordelia displays a redeeming love that makes the tragic conclusion a vindication of goodness. This conclusion is reinforced by the portrayal of evil as self-defeating, as exemplified by the fates of Cordelia's sisters and of Gloucester's opportunistic son. Antony and Cleopatra is concerned with a different type of love, namely the middle-aged passion of Roman general Mark Antony for Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Their love is glorified by some of Shakespeare's most sensuous poetry. And in Macbeth, Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of a man who, led on by others and because of a defect in his own nature, succumbs to ambition. In securing the Scottish throne, Macbeth dulls his humanity to the point where he becomes capable of any amoral act.
Shakespeare's interest in experimentation resulted in a group of plays (c. 1601-1604) that do not fit neatly into either category: Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure. These plays--and, in some critical accounts, others, including Hamlet or The Merchant of Venice--have been called problem plays because they do not present easy resolution. All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure both question accepted patterns of morality without offering solutions.
Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare created several plays that, through the intervention of magic, art, compassion, or grace, often suggest redemptive hope for the human condition. These plays are written with a grave quality differing considerably from Shakespeare's earlier comedies, but they end happily with reunions or final reconciliations. These so-called tragicomedies depend for part of their appeal upon the lure of a distant time or place, and all seem more obviously symbolic than most of Shakespeare's earlier works. To many critics, the tragicomedies signify a final ripeness in Shakespeare's own outlook, but other authorities believe that the change reflects only a change in fashion in the drama of the period.
The romantic tragicomedy Pericles, Prince of Tyre (c. 1608) concerns the painful loss of the title character's wife and the persecution of his daughter. After many exotic adventures, Pericles is reunited with his loved ones. In Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale (both c. 1610), characters suffer great loss and pain but are reunited. Perhaps the most successful product of this particular vein of creativity, however, is what may be Shakespeare's last complete play, The Tempest (c. 1611), in which the resolution suggests the beneficial effects of the union of wisdom and power. In this play a duke, deprived of his dukedom and banished to an island, confounds his usurping brother by employing magical powers and furthering a love match between his daughter and the usurper's son. Shakespeare's poetic power reached great heights in this beautiful, lyrical play.
Shakespeare's achievement was manifold. He developed dramatic techniques for conveying a sense of his character's psychological identities; his are the first "modern," and enduringly the most vivid, dramatic characters. His language, by turns dense and supple, extended the range of possibilities for prose and verse. In verse he perfected the dramatic blank-verse line explored also by his contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd.
The richness of Shakespeare's imagination, and the subtlety with which he revealed the implications of thought and action, have made his plays endlessly amenable to reinterpretation by succeeding generations. The history of Shakespeare criticism and of Shakespeare in the theater is therefore an important part of the cultural history of the modern world. During the early 17th century he was appreciated as a great entertainer, although thought deficient in refinement compared to Ben Jonson. His supposed artlessness was regarded as a virtue during the 18th century, the period in which the first attempts to establish good printed texts were made. Notable editions include those by Nicholas Rowe (1709), Alexander Pope (1723), Lewis Theobald (1733), and Edward Capell (1768). Samuel Johnson's edition (1765) includes his incisive preface and notes. During the 19th century, romantic poets and critics were especially attracted to Shakespeare's psychologically complex characters. German scholarship and criticism, such as that of Schlegel, complemented the work of the English romantics, notably that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. No one school of thought dominates 20th-century Shakespeare criticism, but interest in Shakespeare as a poet, which leads to close study of his language, complements interest in his plays as living works for the stage.
References: 1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.
Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, Copyright 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation.