William Shakespeare, a name that needs no recognition, was the greatest dramatist of English literature. However, very few facts about his life are recorded, even that is also a guess and not certain. There is no authentic biography of Shakespeare available.
Shakespeare was born on 23rd April 1564 in Stratford, Warwickshire. Both his father, John Shakespeare and his mother, Mary Arden, were uneducated. In his early life, perhaps Shakespeare attained grammar school where he learnt some Latin and Greek. It is considered that he never went to high school and college. Nature was his teacher, and he had his deep insight through which he learned human nature. His works were mostly based on his imagination and his perception and experience of human life. When he was 14, due to his family’s economic crisis, he had to leave his school to do some job in order to support his family. It is not clear that what kind of job he had done. There is speculation that perhaps he was a school teacher or clerk of a lawyer.
Shakespeare was married to Anne Hathaway, 8 years older than him, in 1582. In 1587 he left his native place and moved to London. He lived there from 1587 to 1611 and, after retirement, came back to his native place Stratford. He died on 23rd April 1616.
In London, he started his career as a helper in the theatre where he used to see the horses of the royal man, but soon he became an actor in Burbage’s company. Only after 2 years, he started his work on writing plays. In starting, he worked with other writers and learnt the practical knowledge of writing. Then he started his writing with Love’s Labour Lost and other early and immature plays. Gradually he attained maturity in writing and wrote the greatest plays of English drama. Shakespeare also wrote poetry and sonnets.
His poetry Venus and Adonis, which was dedicated to Earl of Southampton, became very popular. For this, he got a big amount of money that he invested in theatres and became the shareholder of Globe and Blackfriars theatres. In 1597 Shakespeare purchased the largest and finest house in Stratford. Afterwards, he also added some more property to extend his land, and finally, after retirement in 1611, he left London and settled in his home town, Stratford. In the last years of his life, he wrote some plays that show a decline in his writings. He died on his birth anniversary on 23rd April 1616. Some lines mention on his tomb; I am giving below:
Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here;
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And crust be the that moves my bones.
Shakespeare’s tomb is considered a pilgrimage as thousands of his admirers come to Stratford to visit his tomb.
Shakespeare never collected his work for publishing. He never thought that his plays were the greatest plays ever written. He always wrote to satisfy the audience, which was his primary motive. He faced his contemporary audience, answered its needs, and contrived a drama that the court appreciates, and the public enjoys, despite the competition of the bear-gardens. After his death, Shakespeare’s two fellow players gathered his work in ‘folio‘ of 1623 and made it published. The folio is consists of thirty-six plays.
Works of Shakespeare
Shakespeare works were written between the years of 1588 to 1612. As he is the greatest dramatist of English literature, his highest achievement lies in the area of drama. However, Shakespeare has also written poems and sonnets, which have possessed a high place in the respective area. Shakespeare work’s life is divided into four periods.
- The First period (1588-1593) is known as the early and experiment period. The plays of this period include some comedies like the Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The historical plays of this period were Richard III, Richard II, Henry VI (three parts). The two other plays are Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus. In this period, Shakespeare also wrote two poems named Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucre. Shakespeare’s work of this period was immature as there was no depth of thought and imagination.
- The Second period (1594-1600) of Shakespeare’s work was the period of great comedies as well as the great historical, also called chronicle plays. The great comedies of this period were the Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. The historical plays of this period were Henry IV (part I and Part II), Henry V, and King John. Some other plays of this period were the Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor. In this period, Shakespeare’s improvement in his writing and his genius is shown in this period. We can trace Shakespeare’s humour in his great comedies. Through these works, Shakespeare’s deep knowledge about human life and nature is reflected.
- The Third period (1601-1607) of Shakespeare’s work was the period of his great tragedies as well as sombre or bitter comedies. In this period, Shakespeare’s genius was on the highest. His greatest masterpiece was written in this period. However, in this period, he reflects the darker, sad and evil side of human nature, but it shows the high level of maturity and intellect. He wrote the best plays of his life during this period. His greatest four tragedies are Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet and King Lear. In this period, he also wrote roman plays like Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. His sombre or bitter comedies of this period are All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida. Some other plays of this period were Coriolanus and Timon of Athens.
- The Fourth Period (1606-1612) is the last period of Shakespeare’s works life. In this period, he wrote romances and later comedies. After great tragedies, these plays are peaceful and philosophical. In Tempest, he told some philosophies about life. In contrary to tragedies, the evils are controlled and conquered by the good. This plays also shows the decline in Shakespeare’s work as there is loose construction and characterization. The drama of this period was Cymbeline, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, the Tempest and the unfinished Henry VIII. The Tempest was the best play of this period.
Apart from these dramas or plays, Shakespeare has also written non-dramatic poetry and sonnets. His two non-dramatic poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, both are narrative poems. Shakespeare wrote a total of 154 sonnets. His sonnets are basically autobiographical as all are written about his friend and about a dark lady who is her beloved but betrayed him for his friend.
Shakespeare’s historical plays
It is also an important group of plays written in the different periods of Shakespeare’s dramatic career. In his historical plays, Shakespeare covers the period of 350 years (1200-1550) of English history. According to Prof. Dowden, the theme of the historical plays is ‘How a man may fail and how a man may succeed in attaining a practical mastery of the world”. Chronologically these plays are Henry VI (part I, II and III), Richard III, Richard II, King John, Henry IV (part I and II), Henry V, Henry VIII. In these historical plays, Henry IV, part I and II, are one of Shakespeare’s greatest works.
Characteristics of Shakespeare’s historical plays
- The historical plays Present history of England from 1200 to 1550. Present their tumult & confusion, peace & conflict.
- These plays are named “Mirror of Kings.”
- The sources of Shakespearean historical plays are Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Marlow’s Edward II was the model for his historical plays.
- His historical plays are the link between tragedies & comedies.
- Shakespeare historical plays are mostly tragic plays except for Henry V. All the plays end with the imprisonment and the murder of the king.
- Action is predominant in historical plays. It is man’s action that brings success or failure in life. Henry V was the great king. He was great because of his great actions and achievements. He achieved great victories as he was possessed the qualities that made him able to suppress his enemies.
- Some common characteristics of the plays are that it shows the medieval period of England.
- Purposes of the historical plays are making Englishman more patriotic as the plays reflect the patriotic feeling of that age.
- Aims of the historical plays are to represent human life in action and thought within limits.
- It Conveys a moral lesson.
- There is an Impression of kingly glory and kingly responsibility in the plays.
- The play presents the idea of soldiership & horsemanship, wars, warriors, honour & worldly glory. Also, religious facts & duties are there.
- All kinds of womanhood idealized, pictures of motherhood, wifehood & maidenhood.
- The plays Reflect the general temper of the time.
The conception of comedy and nature of Shakespearean comedy
Comedy is also a kind of drama with humour, pleasure, joy, satire, romantic love, and finally ending happily. Although there is some adversity that the characters have to face, but finally, all ends happily. Shakespearean comedies are basically romantic comedies. It is a story of love, marriage, wit, humour, joy, light satire and irony etc. Shakespeare’s comedies can be classified into different parts like
- Early immature comedies that include Love’s Labour Lost, the Comedy of Errors, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. These are characterized as boisterous and farcical comedies, full of “wit and wordplay, puns and conceits.”
- Secondly, it is a joyous and sunny comedy that includes As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night. These are the best comedies written by Shakespeare. The comedies are full of love, music, romantic atmosphere and comic spirit.
- Thirdly, there are sombre comedies that include Measure for Measure, All’s Well that’s ends well and Troilus and Cressida. These are painful and dark comedies as ingredients of Shakespeare’s tragedies are scattered in these comedies.
- Fourthly and lastly, the later comedies, also known as dramatic romances, are there. The plays include Cymbeline, the Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. These plays were written after the great tragedies of Shakespeare. So these comedies are different from earlier comedies.
Characteristic of Shakespearean comedy
- The comedies of Shakespeare are basically the story of love and marriage as we can find many pairs of lovers in all comedies.
- The atmosphere of all comedies is romantic.
- In the comedies of Shakespeare, feminine predominance, unlike the tragedies, the role of the heroine is more important and powerful than heroes. For example, Rosalind (As You Like It), Portia (the Merchant of Venice), Viola (Twelfth Night), Miranda (The Tempest), Hermia (Midsummer Night’s Dream), and Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing).
- Music and dance are also important characteristics of Shakespearean tragedies.
- Shakespearean tragedies are full of wit, humour, pranks and harmless jesting. The professional jesters are present in all comedies of Shakespeare, like Touchstone (As You Like It), Feste (Twelfth Night), Lancelot (Merchant of Venice), Trinculo (the Tempest).
- There is a blend of realism and fantasy in the comedies of Shakespeare.
- Overall the Aim of Shakespearean comedies is to give pleasure and joy.
- It is a poetic, creative and artistic vision.
- Comedies are a world of fancy and imagination.
- Presents “willing suspension of disbelief the moment which is called pets faith.”
- There are Adversity, separation and disappointments in the character’s life.
- Settings are imaginative but related to real-life like Forest of Arden, Thebes, and Venice etc.
- Fools and clowns teach wisdom & intelligence, e.g. Touchstone (As You Like It)
- Characterization of the comedies are – complex mood & subtle character, e.g. Sir Toby Belch’s – drunkenness, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s – cowardice
- Complex mood – Rosalind, Viola, Beatrice
- Above all, Shakespearean comedies are sympathetic in tone, humanitarian in idealism.
- Shakespearean Early comedies – these are sharpness in language and wit & humour in the expression of these comedies. Middle comedies- there is a deep motive in these comedies and the Late comedies- there is bitterness & cynicism in these comedies
The conception of tragedies and the nature of Shakespearean tragedies
The tragedy is basically a tale of death and suffering. It is a story of a good or great man, who due to some flaw in his character, suffers mentally and spiritually and finally meets his doom and death. According to Aristotle, “tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude….. in the form of action and not of narration; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.”
Shakespearean tragedies are also a tale of death and suffering, and even it is more than that. His tragedies do not show only the pictures of the sufferings of hero and heroine but also exhibits man’s unsuccessful conflict with circumstances. The Shakespearean hero develops by the interaction of other characters in the play or by the struggle against certain circumstances and situations which are created purposely in order to give a chance to the hero to rise to the fullest heights as well as to sink to the lowest ebbs.
Shakespearean tragic heroes die a glorious & honourable death; they are great in life as well as in death. The main cause of tragedy in Shakespeare’s play is a fatal flaw in the character of a hero or heroine. The fatal flaw in the character is not a big fault or a vice of the character, but it is just the weakness of the character which due to the adverse circumstances become the cause of tragedy like Hamlet’s tragedy is his vacillating nature, Macbeth overweening ambition become the cause of his tragedy, the suspicious nature of Othello and rash nature of Lear was the cause of their tragedy.
Shakespeare wrote many tragedies in different periods of his career. Name of tragedies written by him is; Richard III, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caeser, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens and Coriolanus, and the four great tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear. The themes of the tragedies are conflicts between good and evil, resulting in suffering and death. One another common theme in all Shakespeare’s great tragedies are melodramatic scenes like the ghost, the madness or semi-madness of hamlet, Lear, or Ophelia, the graveyard scene in hamlet and the witches and numerous murders in Macbeth, the drunken scenes and riot in Othello, etc.
Important characteristics of Shakespearean tragedies
Some important characteristics of Shakespearean tragedies are as follows:
- It is a Tale of death and suffering.
- The tragedies are Subject to the struggle of good & evil in the world.
- Its motives are the exhibition of the man in unsuccessful conflict with circumstances.
- The tragedies Concern the fate of persons of ‘high degree’. (King & prince & leader of state).
- Shakespearean tragedies are Medieval in conception as in modern tragedies, lives of ordinary people are portrayed, but in Shakespearean tragedies, heroes are of high degree like Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, Othello is a warrior, Macbeth is the general of Scotland, and King Lear is the king of Great Britain.
- These are the story of one person hero & heroine.
- The tragedies End with the death of the hero.
- The cause of tragedy – some fatal flaw in the character of the hero & heroine.
- According to Shakespeare, ‘character is destiny’, and man is responsible for his own action.
Additional factors in Shakespeare’s tragic plays are;
- An abnormal condition of mind. Example; insanity in Lear, hallucinations (sleep-walking) in Macbeth.
- Introduction of supernatural element. Example; ghosts, witches (in Hamlet, Macbeth)
- Chance or accident: example; Handkerchief dropped by Desdemona, attacked on hamlet’s ship so that prince back to Denmark.
- Conflict & struggle: In Shakespeares’s plays, conflicts are either external or internal. Even internal conflicts are more intense than external conflicts because it is psychological, spiritual and moral. It affects the mind and soul of the hero. It is more painful than defeat or death. Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Lear, are the best example of internal conflict. Othello conflict was his love and suspicion for Desdemona; Macbeth told ‘better be with the dead, as if bitten at once by a hundred scorpions. Hamlet’s conflict is his wish to take revenge, and his vacillation is to do or not to do. King Lear conflict is between pride and filial ingratitude.
Examples of external conflicts are Romeo & Juliet and Richard II.
- Heroes of the tragedies are exceptional beings, intensification of life, object, passion or habit of the mind (identification).
- Shakespearean tragedies finally produce or leave two feelings – Awe & Pity. The feelings of awe are aroused by the fall of the great hero, whereas we feel pity for the way by which the hero meets his end. After the death of the hero, we feel pain in our hearts as well as we admire the qualities of the great hero. That time the state of mind is calm, all passion spent.
- Villainy punished except Iago and Edmund.
Shakespeare dramatic romances and last plays
Shakespeare last plays include Pericles, Cymbeline, the Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. However, these plays show the decline of Shakespeare’s dramatic power, although, in this phase, his philosophical genius was at its highest.
Characteristics of dramatic romances
- The romances of these plays are true in the Elizabethan sense.
- The basic theme of these romances is reconciliation, as at the end of all plays, the misunderstandings are removed and the parties reconciled.
- Another major theme of these plays is loss and finding, restoration and reunion. The children of these plays are lost at an early stage and found at the end of the play.
- Philosophical allegories and symbolism are also important features of these last plays.
- Finally, one common characteristic of all these plays is a happy ending.
- The atmosphere of the plays is – peace, calmness & serenity, sunny & genial.
- There is sympathy, kindness & humanity and gentility in the plays. The plays are also full of emotion, feeling of human life, Reconciliation, atonement, forgiveness, beauty, love, mirth, the grief of youth and philosophy.
- There are Sufferers, aged, experienced and tired in the play. E.g. Queen Katherine, Prospero and Hermione.
- Charming innocence and ignorance is present in Perdita and Miranda
The conception of sonnets and Shakespearean sonnets
A sonnet is defined as a short poem consist of fourteen lines with a particular rhyme scheme that expresses a single emotion and idea. Traditionally there are two forms of sonnets; the Petrarchan sonnet is made up of two parts, the first one is octave consist of eight lines, and the second one is sestet consist of six lines. The rhyme scheme of the octave is abba, abba, and the sestet is cdcdee, cddece. The Shakespearean sonnet is made up of three quatrains of four lines, each ending with an independent couplet. The rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet is abab, cdcd, efef, gg. One another kind of sonnet was developed by Edmund Spenser is called the Spenserian sonnet. The rhyme scheme of the Spenserian sonnet is abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee.
Shakespeare has written a total of 154 sonnets, which were written in the years of 1592, 1597 and 1598, but published after 1609. These sonnets were published by Thomas Thorpe, who got the manuscripts of the sonnets from Mr W.H. actually, this Mr W.H was the man to whom Shakespeare’s most of the sonnets are addressed. However, there is no certain identity of this man. This man may be his brother-in-law William Hathaway, maybe William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, and William Hall, a printer, and some more, but one person the young lord, the third Earl of Southampton, namely Henry Wriothesley, widely accepted that man to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed. Further, Shakespeare’s sonnets are in two groups; in one group, we can place the sonnets 1-126, that are addressed to Earl of Southampton, and in the second group, we can place the sonnets 127-152, that are addressed to the dark lady whose identity is also a matter of controversy. It is considered that the lady was Mary Fitton. The last two, 153-154, describe the god of love.
Some more characteristics of Shakespearean sonnets are:
- Mostly autobiographical, as these shows Shakespeare’s thought, love, pain, mental conflict about his friend Earl of Southampton and his beloved the dark lady who betrayed him for Shakespeare’s friend Earl of Southampton.
- The central theme of Shakespeare’s sonnets is love and admiration.
- One another theme is the power of time. Shakespeare addressed time as the greatest destroyer as all the things in the world like youth and beauty are destroyed by time. Further, he also states that his sonnet is more powerful than time. Time conquers everything, but his sonnets would conquer the time as his sonnets would preserve his friend’s youth and beauty forever, and the coming generations would know about the merits of his friend.
Shakespeare is of all ages, and Shakespeare’s universality
- He is not of an age but of all times. (Ben Jonson)
- Transcended the limits of time & space
- A rich heritage of mankind
- Universal appeal with ‘soul of the age.’
- Poet of mankind/life
- Neither lender nor borrower but was himself both.
- Timelessness (didn’t’ wait for time), change his time according to the situation; follow the three unities of time- time, place, action.
- Product of renaissance
- Universality lies in the acceptance of life in its totality
- Expressed human soul with intense emotion which is an echo of their own emotions, their laughter and tears, passion and prejudices, longings and aspiration.
- His Plays- Elizabethan conventions, passions, prejudices and nuances of expression
- His Poetry- expression of imagination
- Universality consists of humanity
- Friendly approach with baseness and limitations
- Tolerance, forgiveness are cardinal precepts
- Faith in moral order (one of a universal appeal)
- Retains sanity of good sense
- His love for life with all its colours and beauty
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is wing’d cupid painted blind.
- His tragedy – triumph of goodness, beauty, love and life
- There is a symbolic overtone and embalmed evening in Romeo & Juliet, a note of thunder, lightning and rain in Macbeth, dream in Mid-Summer Night Dream, garish light of day and morn in the Merchant of Venice.
- There is a Vision of life, wonderful characterization, broad humanity, sense of humour and tolerance, the catholicity of outlook, dramatic art in his poetry.
- Shakespearean humour is not limited to comedy but equally in tragedy, e.g. the porter scene in Macbeth & the grave-digger scene in Hamlet.
- Tolerant, sympathetic, genial, sparking
- Lively polished and cultured
- Devoid of cynicism
- Like his total genius, is dramatic
- Individuality & universality (specialities)
- Good & bad
- Unfailing humanity
- Presents different phases of human life like credulity(Othello), ambition(Macbeth), philosophic (Hamlet), simplicity (King Lear), nobility (Brutus), friendship (Antonio), villainy (Iago), beauty (Miranda & Perdita), fidelity (Imogen), devotion (Desdemona), fieriness (lady Macbeth), intellectuality( Portia), biting sarcasm (Beatrice).
- His love for human beings
- The infinite feeling of sympathy for his characters. E.g. “what a piece of work is man”!
Shakespeare’s language & style
- Grand & majestic: (above the rich of modern writers)
- Command of language, the magic of expression.
- In spite of philosophic penetration, never lost lyrics, grace, sweetness & exuberance.
- “He was the man, who of all modern and perhaps ancient poets, held the largest and most comprehensive soul”. (Dryden)