Very little is known about William Shakespeare’s personal life and that is the reason why much has been speculated on regarding the few facts that have been handed down to the present contributing ever more to clad it in mystery. What has been commonly accepted as certain is that he was born in Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire on April 23rd, 1564. At only eighteen he married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior, with whom he had three children. It is probably due to these ensuing events that he might have gone to London searching for means to make a living and support his growing family. His successful career as playwright eventually allowed him to invest his earnings in land property and to retire fairly early in Stratford where he died in 1616.
William Shakespeare’s artistic talent soon brought him to stand out as a lyrical poet thanks to his sonnet sequence, considered as, the best of the English sonnet tradition, but his worldwide fame still celebrated today, undoubtedly, rests upon his vast production of plays that go from history plays to tragedies and comedies.
Shakespeare’s Original Style and Structure
As far as Shakespeare’s lyrical mastery is concerned it can be easily noticed that it lays within its original use and transformation of style and structure compared to the Italian poetic tradition. It was Shakespeare who brought immortal fame to Lord Surrey’s adaptation of the Petrarchan sonnets, later known as Elizabethan’s or Shakespearean sonnet that, unlike the Italian original sonnet structured with two quatrains that had an identical rhyme scheme of: abba abba, and two tercet with a cdc rhyme scheme, the English sonnet was divided in three quatrains rhyming: abab-cdcd-efef and only one closing couplet of gg rhyme. The reason for this change was due, according to Surrey, to the lack of rhymes in the English language which then benefitted from the alternating rhyme scheme that he introduced and that was so skilfully mastered by Shakespeare as shown in his 154 sonnets. Similarly to the Italian sonnets the English ones too used the three quatrains to deal with one or three issues while the tercet contained the conclusion. Yet Shakespeare’s outstanding poetical talent proved its best in his all personal choice of themes and contents which are quite different from the Italian ones.
Shakespeare’s Contents and Themes
First of all Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence is, almost entirely, addressed to a fair youth that many have identified as being the young Earl of Southampton who was, in fact, the poet’s friend and patron, he is the centre of the poet’s world, his poetry is completely engrossed in the “fair youth” who inspires him deeply. Although it’s not easy to date them precisely, it is believed that they might haven composed between 1593 and 1599.
Alongside the “fair youth” another important figure that strikes the reader is that of the dark lady, again, as opposed to Petrarch’s idealised woman, Shakespeare’s idea of the female realm is as far as can be from the original Italian perfection, therefore he portrays a very down to earth and realistic feminine idea; there is then no trace of the angelical heavenly guide as that conceived by Petrarch around whom his artistic efforts revolve in the celebration of what appears more as an idea, a poetic inspiration rather than a true living creature. On the contrary Shakespeare’s dark lady has all the human traits and features that a real woman would possess, so her beauty, for instance, is not at all conventional or flawless, but quite familiar and even ordinary and just for that ever more precious and special for the English bard celebrating his love for her, she is sensual yet she can also be unfaithful, just as it may happen in real life.
The third and last remarkable figure that sparks Shakespeare’s jealousy is that of the rival poet whose own verses represent a danger for Shakespeare as he fears they may win over his friend and patron thus resulting in the loss of his priceless favours at court.
The themes that inspire Shakespeare’s poetry are at one time traditional and new. They are love, beauty and time. What makes them almost revolutionary is how Shakespeare deals with them conferring them a universal quality that overshadowed all its previous use.
Love, for instance, is the main theme of what are known as the marriage sonnets. This sort of poetry was very fashionable in Europe at this time, yet Shakespeare shows an unusual depth of analysis and insight of human psychology that will emerge in even more forceful strength in his plays, as it will be shown later on. Nevertheless it is in his sonnets that he first proves his great talent and the love that he celebrates here goes way beyond his time and its conventions reaching its artistic heights as he combines a lasting love made up of the idealistic affinity of two souls with a physical consuming passion. Both mind and body are concerned, all wrapped up in the unavoidable passing of time. So, if on the one side Shakespeare pays his tribute to tradition urging the “fair youth” to marry so that he may have an heir to whom he can pass on his earthly possessions and with whom to share his experience while conveying his intimate qualities too, so as to ensure posterity for himself; on the other side he emphasizes the importance of marriage and progeny to overcome man’s anguish when bluntly faced with the passing of time and approaching death.
Then it becomes quite clear that man’s fierce battle and therefore the poet’s and the lover’s is that against time, and time the most fearful enemy as it will always win, in the end.
However, as already pointed out, Shakespeare is especially celebrated for his plays. It is, in fact, the theatre that immediately caught his attention upon arriving in London and, at first, as an actor, he became member and share-holder of the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men”, an acting company that performed at Queen Elizabeth’s court too, the name of the company changed into the “King’s Men” after James I’s accession to the throne. Shakespeare was also co-owner of the Globe theatre since its first inauguration in 1599, an open public theatre mostly used during the summer while during the winter the performances were played out in the indoor private Blackfriars Theatre.
It has proved an almost impossible task to date his work, a prolific writer, the number of plays attributed to him totals approximately 40, as it is documented from the first edition of his collected work, the first Folio, which was printed in 1623 by two actors belonging to Shakespeare’s old acting company. The first Folio contains 38 plays and it does not include: Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Taking into consideration the many uncertainties that concern his production in this circumstance it is deemed more convenient to group them according to drama genres so as to best analyse contents and structure.
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come”. Julius Caesar– (Act II, Scene II).
History plays were fairly common in England during this time as they contributed to create a sort of mythological English tradition around its history and it helped to celebrate the court along with its kings and queens among the people so as to awaken in them pride and a sense of belonging to England and its glorious past as a nation. Shakespeare began and ended his career as a playwright with plays of this genre through which he outlines an overall picture of English history that encompasses two centuries focusing especially on the fierce struggle for power while paying great attention to the details that make the entire picture whole in order to portray the history of a great nation, therefore England is his main concern much more than any single character.
- Henry VI (Part II and III)
- Henry VI (Part I)
- Richard III
- Richard II
- King John
- Henry IV (Part I and II)
- Henry V
- Henry VIII
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. – Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene II).
In his tragedies Shakespeare shifts his attention from past historical events to the more profound analysis of human nature, his protagonists are all high-ranking individuals whether kings, queens, princes or commanders, yet they are not flawless heroes or heroines, on the contrary, despite their social positions they are shown in all their human weaknesses as they are often faced with overwhelming choices that may range from love and affection, pride and honour to justice and a strong sense of duty. Regardless the need for balance that they are all in search of, the idea of right and wrong is often clouded by doubt, human vulnerability, frailty or greed for power, conniving treachery that will be the causes for downfall and even those characters that are deep down virtuous and good are entrapped in what, indeed, is the inability to take a stand, to assert strongly their most intimate determination and are, instead, prey of their own contradictions and inner conflicts that will doom them finally.
- Titus Andronicus
- Romeo and Juliet
- Love’s Labour’s Lost
- Julius Caesar
- King Lear
- Antony and Cleopatra
- Timon of Athens
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind”. A Midsummer Nigth’s Dream – (Act I, Scene I).
Lastly there are his comedies that can be divided in dark comedies and romances. The former ones approach the big issues of man’s life as Shakespeare exposes the ambiguities and contradictions that afflict individuals in general. They are classified as comedies only because of their happy endings through which Shakespeare recomposes all the hectic disturbances in order and harmony. The latter instead, in an earlier phase, are bound to the conventional mode of the time that show how much Shakespeare was actually very familiar with the nobility’s life style and court’s customs; whereas those belonging to later years show an overall greater complexity of characters, plots and use of language as the poet explores human psychology with awareness and understanding.
- The Comedy of Errors
- The Taming of the Shrew
- The Two Gentlemen of Verona
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- The Merchant of Venice
- Much Ado About Nothing
- As You Like It
- The Merry Wives of Windsor
- Twelfth Night
- Troilus and Cressida
- All’s Well That Ends Well
- Measure for Measure
- The Winter’s Tale
- The Tempest
- Two Noble Kinsmen
But all in all what makes Shakespeare’s art as great as it is? Needless to say that it is certainly his mastery of English poetry and language, for which he forged many new terms, that has made him and his art immortal; at the same time though there’s more to it than that. Shakespeare had the ability and insight to deal with almost all of human concerns, passions, feelings and emotions that, on the one side, give readers, or audience, a clear idea of his own historical time and its society as he draws out a detailed picture of Renaissance England; on the other, he accomplished exactly what a great artist must, and that is to fix in everlasting time his works so much so that they are still real today to the point that anyone in our time can easily relate to them. He bridges past and present and he is, in this sense, very modern as his choice of themes show us.
“The common curse of mankind, – folly and ignorance”. Troilus and Cressida– (Act II, Scene III).
Shakespeare’s Female Assertive Characters
Let’s take, for instance, the role that Shakespeare’s women play. From Juliet to Lady MacBeth and to Desdemona they are all assertive figures, regardless of their positive or negative characteristics, these women are all strong and wilful, they are active and not in the least passive characters. Juliet, on her part, despite her very young age, defies her father, her family and the society she belongs to in order to assert her freedom to choose whom to love, to the point of death. The same tragic conflict that opposes a daughter to her father is outlined in King Lear, Cordelia too refuses to obey blindly to her father’s will, this same contrast of father vs. daughter is present in Othello, here Desdemona elopes with the Moor and goes against her father’s wishes. Ironically though, this great show of courage will be used against her as Iago points it out to Othello to convince him of his wife’s infidelity; if she has betrayed her own father why should she not betray her husband? In MacBeth the pursuit of power stems from Lady MacBeth, it is she who pushes MacBeth to kill the king and usurp the throne and it is she who reacts with determination and coldly waves away her husband’s forebodings about his hands stained with Duncan’s blood, as she, irritated, exclaims: “a little water clears us of this deed”. No, Shakespeare’s female characters are not submissive at all.
Shakespeare’s Great Mastery of Rhetoric
Another theme of great relevance is that, as mentioned before, of Shakespeare’s masterful use of words especially in soliloquies or monologues. They are central in all of his plays and they are meant to provide a wider perspective, further insight to unveil the protagonists’ true feelings or unravel their inner turmoil. It is the power of rhetoric that enables Iago to enrage Othello against his wife; it is his great ability to use words to twist the true meaning of facts, to play on Othello’s lack of self-confidence when it come to his wife’s love for him, it is Iago’s deft use of rhetoric that will push the Moor towards disaster and tragedy. Just as Othello’s own rhetoric played an important role in his relationship with Desdemona, his courtship is successful because he enchants her with his words rather than with his brave deeds as commander of a great fleet. Finally, Hamlet’s soliloquy, probably the most famous of them all, through which Shakespeare emphasizes the prince’s obsessions and weaknesses, his profound inability to take action, his overpowering doubts that show how truly modern this character is. As a matter of fact, Hamlet and Othello because of their personal insecurities, of their constant ponderings and questioning themselves represent the first two modern tragic heroes, they embody the typical frailty of modern man.
Lastly, there is the theme of the world as a stage that is recurrent in his plays as Shakespeare has some of his characters underline the meaninglessness of life; MacBeth, for one, comes to this conclusion: man does but play a role in the big stage of life and once that is done nothing else is left to him. Even though at the end of it all everything falls back into place the price to be paid is often very high as can be seen by the death or downfall of the virtuous as well as that of the wicked. Shakespeare’s universal value lies within his amazing insight in unveiling human nature while he analyses man’s everlasting passions and emotions such as love, friendship, human relationships, greed, pride, honour, the thirst for power that drives politics. All this through a skilful use of poetic devices, mastery of the theatre, knowledge of the classical past with its mythology and history; accomplished handling of the language which he enriched considerably thus laying the basis for modern literature which so much still owes to him and his greatness.
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© L. R. Capuana