Within the class system of Elizabethan England, William Shakespeare did not seem destined for greatness. He was not born into a family of nobility or significant wealth. He did not continue his formal education at university, nor did he come under the mentorship of a senior artist, nor did he marry into wealth or prestige. His talent as an actor seems to have been modest, since he is not known for starring roles. His success as a playwright depended in part upon royal patronage. Yet in spite of these limitations, Shakespeare is now the most performed and read playwright in the world.
Born to John Shakespeare, a glovemaker and tradesman, and Mary Arden, the daughter of an affluent farmer, William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon. At that time, infants were baptized three days after their birth, thus scholars believe that Shakespeare was born on April 23, the same day on which he died at age 52. As the third of eight children, young William grew up in this small town 100 miles northwest of London, far from the cultural and courtly center of England.
Shakespeare attended the local grammar school, King’s New School, where the curriculum would have stressed a classical education of Greek mythology, Roman comedy, ancient history, rhetoric, grammar, Latin, and possibly Greek. Throughout his childhood, Shakespeare’s father struggled with serious financial debt. Therefore, unlike his fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, he did not attend university. Rather, in 1582 at age 18, he married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior and three months pregnant. Their first child, Susanna, was born in 1583, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, came in 1585. In the seven years following their birth, the historical record concerning Shakespeare is incomplete, contradictory, and unreliable; scholars refer to this period as his “lost years.”
In a 1592 pamphlet by Robert Greene, Shakespeare reappears as an “upstart crow” flapping his poetic wings in London. Evidently, it did not take him long to land on the stage. Between 1590 and 1592, Shakespeare’s Henry VI series, Richard III, and The Comedy of Errors were performed. When the theaters were closed in 1593 because of the plague, the playwright wrote two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and probably began writing his richly textured sonnets. One hundred and fiftyfour of his sonnets have survived, ensuring his reputation as a gifted poet. By 1594, he had also written, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love’s Labor’s Lost.
Having established himself as an actor and playwright, in 1594 Shakespeare became a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of the most popular acting companies in London. He remained a member of this company for the rest of his career, often playing before the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare entered one of his most prolific periods around 1595, writing Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Merchant of Venice. With his newfound success, Shakespeare purchased the second largest home in Stratford in 1597, though he continued to live in London. Two years later, he joined others from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in establishing the polygonal Globe Theatre on the outskirts of London. When King James came to the throne in 1603, he issued a royal license to Shakespeare and his fellow players, organizing them as the King’s Men. During King James’s reign, Shakespeare wrote many of his most accomplished plays about courtly power, including King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. In 1609 or 1611, Shakespeare’s sonnets were published, though he did not live to see the First Folio of his plays published in 1623.
In 1616, with his health declining, Shakespeare revised his will. Since his only son Hamnet had died in 1596, Shakespeare left the bulk of his estate to his two daughters, with monetary gifts set aside for his sister, theater partners, friends, and the poor of Stratford. A fascinating detail of his will is that he bequeathed the family’s “second best bed” to his wife Anne. He died one month later, on April 23, 1616. To the world, he left a lasting legacy in the form of 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and two narrative poems.
When William Shakespeare died in his birthplace of Stratford-upon- Avon, he was recognized as one of the greatest English playwrights of his era. In the four centuries since, he has come to be seen as not only a great English playwright, but the greatest playwright in the English language. Reflecting upon the achievement of his peer and sometimes rival, Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare, “He was not of an age, but for all time.
Shakespeare’s Tragedies by Andrea Elliott and Mahvash Gandhi
William Shakespeare started writing tragedies because he thought the tragic plots used by other English writers were lacking artistic purpose and form. He used the fall of a notable person as the main focus in his tragedies. Suspense and climax were an added attraction for the audience. His work was extraordinary in that it was not of the norm for the time. A reader with even little knowledge of his work would recognize one of the tragedies as a work of Shakespeare.
A hero today is seen as a person who is idolized. Nowadays, a hero does not have to have wealth or certain political beliefs, but instead can be regarded as a hero for his/her actions and inner strength. However, in the plays of Shakespeare, the tragic hero is always a noble man who enjoys some status and prosperity in society but possesses some moral weakness or flaw which leads to his downfall. External circumstances such as fate also play a part in the hero’s fall. Evil agents often act upon the hero and the forces of good, causing the hero to make wrong decisions. Innocent people always feel the fall in tragedies, as well.
Shakespeare’s Comedies by Adam Dozier, Mayra Izurieta, Kyle Lazell, and Sarah Viar
William Shakespeare’s plays come in many forms. There are the histories, tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies. Among the most popular are the comedies, which are full of laughter, irony, satire, and wordplay.
Many times the question is asked: what makes a play a comedy instead of a tragedy? Comedies treat subjects lightly, meaning they don’t treat seriously such things as love. Shakespeare’s comedies often use puns, metaphors, and insults to provoke “thoughtful laughter.” The action is often strained by artificiality, especially elaborate and contrived endings. Disguises and mistaken identities are often very common.
The plot is very important in Shakespeare’s comedies. They are often very convoluted, twisted and confusing, and extremely hard to follow. Another characteristic of Shakespearean comedy is the themes of love and friendship, played within a courtly society. Songs often sung by a jester or a fool parallel the events of the plot. Also, foil and stock characters are often inserted into the plot.
Love provides the main ingredient for the plot. If the lovers are unmarried when the play opens, they either have not met or there is some obstacle in the way of their love. Examples of the obstacles these lovers go through are familiar to every reader of Shakespeare: the slanderous tongues which nearly wreck love in Much Ado About Nothing; the father insistent upon his daughter marrying his choice, as in A Midsummer Nights Dream; or the expulsion of the rightful Duke’s daughter in As You Like It.
Shakespeare uses many predictable patterns in his plays. The hero rarely appears in the opening lines; however, we hear about him from other characters. The hero does not normally make an entrance for a few lines, at least, if not a whole scene. The hero is also virtuous and strong, but he always possesses a character flaw.
In the comedy itself, Shakespeare assumes that we know the basic plot, and he jumps right into it with little or no explanation. Foreshadowing and foreboding are put in the play early and can be heard throughout the drama. All Shakespearean comedies have five acts. The climax of the play is always during the third act.
Shakespearean comedies also contain a wide variety of characters. Shakespeare often introduces a character and then discards him, never to be seen again in the balance of the play. Shakespeare’s female leads are usually described as petite, and often they assume male disguises. Often, foul weather parallels the emotional state of the characters.The audience is often informed of events before the characters, and when a future meeting is to take place it usually doesn’t happen immediately. Character names are often clues to their roles and personalities, such as Malvolio from Twelfth Night, and Bottom in A Midsummer Nights Dream.
Many themes are repeated throughout Shakespearean comedies. One theme is the never-ending struggle between the the forces of good and evil. Another theme is that love has profound effects, and that people often hide behind false faces.
The comedies themselves can be sub-categorized as tragicomedies, romantic comedies, comedies of justice, and simple entertaining comedies with good wholesome fun. Many of these plays remain popular favorites 400 years after they were written.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written in 1596. It has become one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies. It makes fun of everything from love at first sight to realistic staging. The play refers to “fair vestal throned by the west,” which was once thought to have been a polite acknowledgement of the Queen’s presence in the audience. The play was first printed in a quarto edition in 1600.
Much Ado About Nothing is a romantic comedy about a love relationship. It has a basic plot that’s more orthodox than those of most of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s about two strong personalities who see each other as combatants, rather than partners. The play exploits games of verbal punning and backchat between two reluctant lovers. Much Ado About Nothing first appeared in a quarto 1599.
Twelfth Night is the most intricate of Shakespeare’s great middle-period comedies. Written in 1601, it plays the familiar games of the time with boys playing girls who dress as boy pages. It is also filled with confusions of identity and memorable verbal put-downs. The play was not printed until the First Folio of 1623.
The Winter’s Tale is a late tragicomedy, written in 1609-1610. It ranges through sixteen years in time, marked by the choric figure of Time himself, and through a fantastic geographical and range from Sicily to Bohemia. Shakespeare took this story, which shows the healing and restorative power of love, from an old romance. The play was printed originally in the First Folio of 1623.
The Merry Wives of Windsor, written some time between 1597 and 1599, is the only comedy that Shakespeare set in his own time and country. For all the London scenes with Falstaff in the history plays, Shakespeare usually chose to set his comedies in a foreign land. The use of local settings was still very new in the plays of this time. The play is an exciting piece of work, full of eccentric characters and slapstick comedy. The play first appeared in a memorial version, written down largely from memory, in 1602. A better text appeared in the First Folio.
Even though William Shakespeare died many years ago, his works are still remembered and cherished. His plays are popular and are still performed all over the world. Shakespeare’s comedies are still loved and looked to as classics.