Almost every nation on earth reads, studies and performs the works of William Shakespeare. No writer of any country, nor any age, has ever enjoyed such universal popularity. Neither has any writer been so praised. As William Hazlitt observed, "The most striking peculiarity of Shakespeare's mind was it's generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds." It is perhaps this quality that has earned Shakespeare the supreme accolade, that of lending his name to an era. Other than a monarch or an emperor, few can boast that a time or place is so exclusively theirs. As we talk about Napoleonic Europe or Victorian England, so we speak of Shakespearean London or the Age of Shakespeare. No other artist, let alone writer, has had their name inscribed on such a towering edifice. "Thou in our wonder and astonishment, hast built thyself a long-live monument," wrote Milton, in praise of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare is by far and without doubt the most popular and successful writer of all time. But what of the man himself? Who was William Shakespeare?
The life of William Shakespeare is shrouded in mystery. There is no record of him receiving an education, buying a book or writing a single letter, and no original manuscript of a Shakespeare play survives. There is no direct record of his conversations, and no one in his home town seems to have known that he was a successful playwright while he was alive. There is not even a contemporary portrait to reveal his true appearance. Although a number of mentions of William Shakespeare the poet-dramatist appear on record during the 1590's and early 1600's, they comment only briefly on his writings, telling us nothing about the man. Less is known about Shakespeare than almost any other playwright of his time.
The orthodox version of William Shakespeare's life is probably the most widely accepted Shakespeare legend of them all. According to it, he was born on 23 April 1564, in an upstairs room of a Stratford house in Warwickshire. He was born to John and Mary Shakespeare, and was baptized Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere (William, son of John Shakespeare) three days later. His father ran a successful glove making business on Henley Street. In 1565, his father was elected alderman, and three days later he became chief magistrate. William began his education at the local grammar school, learning to read and write. By his early teens, he had mastered Latin and the art of acting. He took part in the school's annual play every Whitsun. By his early teens he had moved into the upper school where he studied logic, poetry and history.
In November 1582, at eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, and by twenty-one he had fathered three children: twins, Hamnet and Judith, and their older sister Susanna. In 1587, when Shakespeare was twenty-three, the premier acting company The Queens Men visited Stratford. Just before their performance one of the players died and Shakespeare stood in for that person. His natural talent so impressed the players that he was offered a permanent place in the troupe.
Shakespeare began his new career at James Burbage's Theatre in London, where he made extra money by looking after the patrons' horses. Before long his writing potential was noticed by the Earl of Southampton, who used his influence to make Shakespeare a full-time actor and eventually a dramatist. In 1592 the playwright Robert Greene warned the country's most distinguished dramatists that Shakespeare was their greatest potential rival.
On 18 April 1593 Shakespeare's first poem, Venus and Adonis was patronized by Lord Southampton, and over the next few years he wrote well over 150 published poems. By 1595, Shakespeare was one of the most accomplished dramatists of his day. In March of that year two of his plays were performed before the Queen herself. Over the next twenty years he wrote no fewer than thirty-seven plays.
By the late 1590's Shakespeare acquired shares in many theatres. In 1599, he bought shares in the newly built theatre in Southwark. His financial acumen had already reaped rewards. As early as 1597 Shakespeare returned to buy New Place, the second largest house in the town of Stratford.
In 1599 Shakespeare's company moved to the Globe theatre, heralding his finest hour. In 1603 his company earned the highest accolade of all. The new King, James I, honoured the company with the title, The King's Men. Unfortunately, on 29 June 1613 the Globe burned to the ground, and although it was rebuilt the following year, Shakespeare retired to Stratford.
Shakespeare led a peaceful retirement, and hardly returned to London at all. Sadly, on his birthday in 1616, Shakespeare contracted a fever and died in his sleep, aged fifty-two. He was buried a few days later in a tomb at Stratdford's Holy Trinity Church.
Shakespeare mixed freely with royalty and commoner alike. He never looked down on anyone and made no enemies. He was a self-made man, a devoted husband and a kindly father. Not only was his literary genius second to none, he was also a superb level-headed businessman, one of Stratford's most respected citizens.
Although Shakespeare has been dead for many centuries, his legacy to literature is still remembered when his plays are read. All of Shakespeare's plays can be classified into four categories: The comedies, the tragedies, the romantic plays, and the chronicled or historical plays. Shakespeare's poetic and dramatic career has been divided into four periods corresponding to the growth and experience of his life and mind.
The first division, is the Period of Early Experimentation (1588-93) To this period belong: Titus Andronicus, Henry VI (three parts), Love's Labour's Lost, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard II. Other than these plays, he also wrote the two long poems, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece. These were the first of Shakespeare's great works, and his experience in writing plays grew with the increasing number of popular plays that he wrote. Many critics have remarked that the work of this period is, as a whole, extremely slight in texture. His critics have also said that the treatment of life in these plays is very superficial, and the art is evidently immature. There is evidence of this in Romeo and Juliet. The tragic end of these "...star crossed lovers..." makes many raise their eyebrows and question whether a young man like Romeo would have really committed suicide in that situation. On the other hand, many readers have also noted that the works of this period are characterized by the youthful exuberance of imagination, and by the extravagance of language. Shakespeare has characterized his work by the constant use of puns, conceits and other affections.
The second period is known as The Period of the Great Comedies and Chronicle Plays (1594-1600). The works of this period are: King John, The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV (Parts I and II), The Taming of the Shrew, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. According to many observers, these plays show a rapid growth and development in the Poet's genius. They reflect a deeper knowledge of human life and human nature. The characterization and the humour have become more penetrating while the thought has become more weighty. Many readers have noticed that the rime has been largely abandoned for prose and blank verse and that the blank verse itself has lost its stiffness.
The third period is usually known as The Period of the Great Tragedies and of the Sombre or Bitter Comedies (1601-07). Julius Caesar, Hamlet, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens were all written in this period. This is a period of gloom and depression and it marks the full maturity of his powers. His dramatic power, his intellectual power, and his power of expression are at their highest. This period is considered by many experts as the time of his supreme masterpieces. However, many people argue that Shakespeare fails to see the better part of human nature. His work is, in fact, more concerned with the darker side of human experience. The themes of these plays tend to dwell on the sins and weaknesses of man, and a lot of emphasis is thrown on evil, thus the tone is either grave or fierce.
The fourth period is usually known as The Period of the Later Comedies or Dramatic Romances (1608-12). The plays of this period are: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and the unfinished Henry VIII. During this period the temper of Shakespeare has changed from bitter and gloomy, to serene and peaceful. As one observer put it, "The heavy clouds have melted away from the sky, and a tender and graceful tone prevails. In these plays, the plays are based on tragic passion, but this time the evil is controlled, and then conquered by the good. According to Ramji Lal, "[These] plays show the decline of Shakespeare's dramatic powers. They are often careless in construction and unsatisfactory in characterization, while there is a decline in style and versification also.
Shakespeare's plays were greatly influenced by the Renaissance. The Renaissance is a period of European history that saw a renewed interest in the arts. The Renaissance began in 14th- century Italy and spread to the rest of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During the course of this period, the European feudal society of the Middle Ages, with its agricultural economy and church-dominated intellectual and cultural life, was transformed into a society which was dominated by political institutions, with a more urban, fiscal economy. A great deal of work was put forward increasing the standards of education, the arts, and music. Renaissance literally means rebirth. This period was given this name because it was believed to be the end of the Middle Ages, and the birth of a new era.
Shakespeare lived during the renaissance period, and so many of the features of this period had a huge impact on him. For example, Shakespeare conveys Romeo's method of love for Rosaline, as one of the methods of courtly love. Courtly love was very common during this period, and in fact it was a disgrace for the person's social status if he did not observe this practice. The Renaissance also affected Shakespeare in many other ways. All of Shakespeare's plays are set in this period of time as well. The articulate language spoken in those times was also a major characteristic of that era. A lot of time and money was spent on the aspect of Drama and literature, and this explains why the literary works that stem from this period are of such a high standard. The Renaissance was a period in which people traveled a lot. Shakespeare is believed to have traveled a great deal during his life. He allegedly made many journeys to Italy which was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Perhaps the influence that the Renaissance had on him encouraged him to set many of his plays in Italy. The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet are two plays which have been set in places in Italy. The settings of such plays are described with a great deal of accuracy.
Since the Renaissance was a period in which plenty of attention was paid to the development of drama and literature, the Elizabethan theatre underwent a great deal of improvements as well. During the middle ages, there were hardly any theatres at all in Britain. Drama was usually staged in the streets or in other unofficial places. They were generally a nuisance because they attracted crowds and this blocked the streets. Sometimes, they were staged in the market square or the village common. There was no entrance fee, and all the actors were amateurs. The plays were seen by rich and poor alike. The crowds here lacked discipline, and if the play was not well acted out, the audience was known to pelt the actors on stage with anything they could lay their hands on.
During the Renaissance, however, the major interest in drama sparked of a sudden increase in the building of theatres. In spite of objections by the residents, and criticism by the Puritans, during the period between 1557 and 1629, no fewer than thirty major theatres were opened in London alone. Considering the fact that London only had 300,000 inhabitants, this shows how keen the interest in drama was. They usually resembled large wooden sheds partly thatched with rushes. There was usually a flagstaff on the roof and a trench around the theatre building.
Private theatres were designed on the model of the Guild Halls, while the private theatres were made to resemble inn yards. The private theatres were more luxurious, being fully roofed and seated. In the public theatres, on the other hand, the auditorium, as in ancient Greece was open to the sky. Only the stage was roofed, which made it difficult for plays to be seen in bad weather.
There were no tickets. An amount of five pence in modern reckoning admitted a customer to standing room in the yard. Rich spectators watched the performances from boxes on each side of the stage, paying about twelve shillings for the privilege of a seat. In an upper box was the orchestra. The Globe theatre, the largest in London, composed of ten performers with different instruments.
The fashionable part of the house was the stage itself. There sat the royal patrons of the theatre and their friends. Here also sat the dramatic poets of the time to who were given free passes. Most importantly, this is where all the shorthand writers and the piratical book-sellers sat. They took down the dialogue, under the pretence of criticizing it, and thus preserved for posterity many plays that would have otherwise been lost. There was ceaseless chatter of conversation between the fashionable spectators on stage, interspersed with calls for drinks and lights for their pipes. Smoking went on throughout the performance. The actors and the audience, however, accepted these interruptions without much protest.
A trumpet blast started the performance. Then came the prologue, spoken by an actor in a long black coat. The performance of a tragedy was signalized by draping the stage with black; for a comedy, blue hangings were substituted. A placard, hung upon one of the stage doors, indicated the scene of the play. With the change of scene, the placard was changed. To restrain the audience from feeling bored, a jester would entertain them during the change of scenes.
Hardly any women appeared on stage, and very few women went to see the performances. The theatre was considered far too rough a place for decent women! The Queen summoned the players to Court on special occasions, and this is why A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice have flattering allusions made to the Queen.
The stage itself consisted of a bare platform, with a curtain across the middle, separating it from backstage. On the backstage, unexpected scenes or characters were presented to the audience by simply drawing the curtain aside. At first little or no scenery was used, and this lack of scenery led to better acting since the actor had to be realistic enough to make the audience forget its shabby surroundings. By Shakespeare's day, however, painted scenery had appeared. Thus the stage was no longer colourless and dull. It was hung with tapestries and curtains which affected the emotional response of the audience. The actors wore splendid clothes, largely inherited from noblemen. Music, fireworks and thunder were all used to suggest the atmosphere. The audience was expected to imagine a lot, and respond to an aesthetic experience as the result of seeing a stage and the properties representing imaginary scenes in which actors created character and incident by making the words of an author come alive.
During Shakespeare's time, there were three main types of theatre. First of all, there were the inn yard theatres, which were open to everybody, and they were free. Secondly, there is also the Arena Theatres, which included the theatres like the Globe. These were generally open to the middle and upper classes. The third type of theatre were the Royal Theatres. These were very luxurious, and they were only reserved for the nobility. Therefore, many people were able to watch Shakespeare's plays, by going to the theatre of their socio-economic group.
Shakespeare's plays were based on the Elizabethan belief in both fate and fortune. Time and time again, we see evidence of these beliefs in Shakespeare's plays. The Elizabethans were very religious and superstitious people. Any unnatural circumstances was put to fate, and God was the highest form of life there was. This can be seen in The Great Chain of Being. The Elizabethans believed that everything was arranged in a fixed arrangement. God was at the head of this chain, while Rocks and Minerals were at the bottom. A king was the highest form of man, because he was believed to have been appointed by God. I anybody killed the King, it was a sin against God, and they were given the death sentence. I the order of the chain was broken, people believed that the world would be thrown into chaos.
During the Elizabethan times, fate was considered to be a major controlling force of life. The Elizabethans believed that a man's life was likely to have its ups and downs, just like the points on a wheel. This meant that someone in a low position could hope to rise to a high position while someone in a high position could expect to fall to a low position. All these would be brought about by a change in fate or fortune. Some people believed that the people rose to a higher position during the spring and the summer, while they sank to a lower position during the autumn and the winter. However, it was later noticed that such beliefs were very unpredictable. Like the belief in the zodiac, the Wheel of Fortune opposed the theory that fate was controlled by man. Instead, fate was believed to be controlled by the stars. This is why in the opening chorus of Romeo and Juliet, both of them are described as "... star crossed lovers..." This suggests that the stars had already destined them to love and then to die.
Shakespeare is arguably the best writer of all time, yet it is interesting to know that so little is known about him. Perhaps no-one will ever know who the real William Shakespeare was. Only one thing is certain: Shakespeare may be dead, but his great works never cease to astound us and it makes us wonder if any person will ever come to rival the maestro of English Literature.
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