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 political rivalries.
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.