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William Shakespeare
1564 - 1616
 



The English playwright, poet, and actor William Shakespeare is generally acknowledged to be the greatest of English writers and one of the most extraordinary creators in human history.
 

 

The most crucial fact about William Shakespeare's career is that he was a popular dramatist. Born 6 years after Queen Elizabeth I had ascended the throne, contemporary with the high period of the English Renaissance, Shakespeare had the good luck to find in the theatre of London a medium just coming into its own and an audience, drawn from a wide range of social classes, eager to reward talents of the sort he possessed. His entire life was committed to the public theatre, and he seems to have written non-dramatic poetry only when enforced closings of the theatre made writing plays impractical. It is equally remarkable that his days in the theatre were almost exactly contemporary with the theatre's other outstanding achievements - the work, for example, of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and John Webster.

Shakespeare was born on or just before April 23, 1564, in the small but then important Warwickshire town of Stratford. His mother, born Mary Arden, was the daughter of a landowner from a neighbouring village. His father, John, son of a farmer, was a glove maker and trader in farm produce; he had achieved a position of some eminence in the prosperous market town by the time of his son's birth, holding a number of responsible positions in Stratford's government and serving as mayor in 1569. By 1576, however, John Shakespeare had begun to encounter the financial difficulties which were to plague him until his death in 1601.

Though no personal documents survive from Shakespeare's school years, his literary work shows the mark of the excellent if gruelling education offered at the Stratford grammar school (some reminiscences of Stratford school days may have lent amusing touches to scenes in The Merry Wives of Windsor). Like other Elizabethan schoolboys, Shakespeare studied Latin grammar during the early years, then progressed to the study of logic, rhetoric, composition, oration, versification, and the monuments of Roman literature. The work was conducted in Latin and relied heavily on rote memorization and the master's rod. A plausible tradition holds that William had to discontinue his education when about 13 in order to help his father. At 18 he married Ann Hathaway, a Stratford girl. They had three children (Susanna, 1583-1649; Hamnet, 1585-1596; and his twin, Judith, 1585-1662) and who was to survive him by 7 years. Shakespeare remained actively involved in Stratford affairs throughout his life, even when living in London, and retired there at the end of his career.

The years between 1585 and 1592, having left no evidence as to Shakespeare's activities, have been the focus of considerable speculation; among other things, conjecture would have him a travelling actor or a country schoolmaster. The earliest surviving notice of his career in London is a jealous attack on the "upstart crow" by Robert Greene, a playwright, professional man of letters, and profligate whose career was at an end in 1592 though he was only 6 years older than Shakespeare. Greene's outcry testifies, both in its passion and in the work it implies Shakespeare had been doing for some time, that the young poet had already established himself in the capital. So does the quality of Shakespeare's first plays: it is hard to believe that even Shakespeare could have shown such mastery without several years of apprenticeship.


Early Career

Shakespeare's first extant play is probably The Comedy of Errors (1590; like most dates for the plays, this is conjectural and may be a year or two off), a brilliant and intricate farce involving two sets of identical twins and based on two already-complicated comedies by the Roman Plautus. Though less fully achieved, his next comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1591), is more prophetic of Shakespeare's later comedy, for its plot depends on such devices as a faithful girl who educates her fickle lover, romantic woods, a girl dressed as a boy, sudden reformations, music, and happy marriages at the end. The last of the first comedies, Love's Labour's Lost (1593), is romantic again, dealing with the attempt of three young men to withdraw from the world and women for 3 years to study in their king's "little Academe," and their quick surrender to a group of young ladies who come to lodge nearby. If the first of the comedies is most notable for its plotting and the second for its romantic elements, the third is distinguished by its dazzling language and its gallery of comic types. Already Shakespeare had learned to fuse conventional characters with convincing representations of the human life he knew.

Though little read and performed now, Shakespeare's first plays in the popular "chronicle," or history, genre are equally ambitious and impressive. Dealing with the tumultuous events of English history between the death of Henry V in 1422 and the accession of Henry VII in 1485 (which began the period of Tudor stability maintained by Shakespeare's own queen), the three "parts" of Henry VI (1592) and Richard III (1594) are no tentative experiments in the form: rather they constitute a gigantic tetralogy, in which each part is a superb play individually and an integral part of an epic sequence. Nothing so ambitious had ever been attempted in England in a form hitherto marked by slapdash formlessness.

Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus (1593), reveals similar ambition. Though its chamber of horrors - including mutilations and ingenious murders - strikes the modern reader as belonging to a theatrical tradition no longer viable, the play is in fact a brilliant and successful attempt to outdo the efforts of Shakespeare's predecessors in the lurid tradition of the revenge play.

When the theatre were closed because of plague during much of 1593-1594, Shakespeare looked to nondramatic poetry for his support and wrote two narrative masterpieces, the seriocomic Venus and Adonis and the tragic Rape of Lucrece, for a wealthy patron, the Earl of Southampton. Both poems carry the sophisticated techniques of Elizabethan narrative verse to their highest point, drawing on the resources of Renaissance mythological and symbolic traditions.

Shakespeare's most famous poems, probably composed in this period but not published until 1609, and then not by the author, are the 154 sonnets, the supreme English examples of the form. Writing at the end of a brief, frenzied vogue for sequences of sonnets, Shakespeare found in the conventional 14-line lyric with its fixed rhyme scheme a vehicle for inexhaustible technical innovations - for Shakespeare even more than for other poets, the restrictive nature of the sonnet generates a paradoxical freedom of invention that is the life of the form - and for the expression of emotions and ideas ranging from the frivolous to the tragic. Though often suggestive of autobiographical revelation, the sonnets cannot be proved to be any the less fictions than the plays. The identity of their dedicatee, "Mr. W. H.," remains a mystery, as does the question of whether there were real-life counterparts to the famous "dark lady" and the unfaithful friend who are the subject of a number of the poems. But the chief value of these poems is intrinsic: the sonnets alone would have established Shakespeare's preeminence among English poets.


Lord Chamberlain's Men

By 1594 Shakespeare was fully engaged in his career. In that year he became principal writer for the successful Lord Chamberlain's Men - one of the two leading companies of actors; a regular actor in the company; and a "sharer," or partner, in the group of artist-managers who ran the entire operation and were in 1599 to have the Globe Theatre built on the south bank of the Thames. The company performed regularly in unroofed but elaborate theatres. Required by law to be set outside the city limits, these theatres were the pride of London, among the first places shown to visiting foreigners, and seated up to 3,000 people. The actors played on a huge platform stage equipped with additional playing levels and surrounded on three sides by the audience; the absence of scenery made possible a flow of scenes comparable to that of the movies, and music, costumes, and ingenious stage machinery created successful illusions under the afternoon sun.

For this company Shakespeare produced a steady outpouring of plays. The comedies include The Taming of the Shrew (1594), fascinating in light of the first comedies since it combines with an Italian-style plot, in which all the action occurs in one day, a more characteristically English and Shakespearean plot, the taming of Kate, in which much more time passes; A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595), in which "rude mechanicals," artisans without imagination, become entangled with fairies and magic potions in the moonlit woods to which young lovers have fled from a tyrannical adult society; The Merchant of Venice (1596), which contributed Shylock and Portia to the English literary tradition; Much Ado about Nothing (1598), with a melodramatic main plot whose heroine is maligned and almost driven to death by a conniving villain and a comic subplot whose Beatrice and Benedick remain the archetypical sparring lovers; The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599), held by tradition to have been written in response to the Queen's request that Shakespeare write another play about Falstaff (who had appeared in Henry IV), this time in love; and in 1600 the pastoral As You Like It, a mature return to the woods and conventions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Twelfth Night, perhaps the most perfect of the comedies, a romance of identical twins separated at sea, young love, and the antics of Malvolio and Sir Toby Belch.

Shakespeare's only tragedies of the period are among his most familiar plays: Romeo and Juliet (1596), Julius Caesar (1599), and Hamlet (1601). Different from one another as they are, these three plays share some notable features: the setting of intense personal tragedy in a large world vividly populated by what seems like the whole range of humanity; a refusal, shared by most of Shakespeare's contemporaries in the theater, to separate comic situations and techniques from tragic; the constant presence of politics; and - a personal rather than a conventional phenomenon - a tragic structure in which what is best in the protagonist is what does him in when he finds himself in conflict with the world.

Continuing his interest in the chronicle, Shakespeare wrote King John (1596), despite its one strong character a relatively weak play; and the second and greater tetralogy, ranging from Richard II (1595), in which the forceful Bolingbroke, with an ambiguous justice on his side, deposes the weak but poetic king, through the two parts of Henry IV (1597), in which the wonderfully amoral, fat knight Falstaff accompanies Prince Hal, Bolingbroke's son, to Henry V (1599), in which Hal, become king, leads a newly unified England, its civil wars temporarily at an end but sadly deprived of Falstaff and the dissident lowlife who provided so much joy in the earlier plays, to triumph over France. More impressively than the first tetralogy, the second turns history into art. Spanning the poles of comedy and tragedy, alive with a magnificent variety of unforgettable characters, linked to one another as one great play while each is a complete and independent success in its own right - the four plays pose disturbing and unanswerable questions about politics, making one ponder the frequent difference between the man capable of ruling and the man worthy of doing so, the meaning of legitimacy in office, the value of order and stability as against the value of revolutionary change, and the relation of private to public life. The plays are exuberant works of art, but they are not optimistic about man as a political animal, and their unblinkered recognition of the dynamics of history has made them increasingly popular and relevant in our own tormented era.

Three plays of the end of Elizabeth's reign are often grouped as Shakespeare's "problem plays," though no definition of that term is able successfully to differentiate them as an exclusive group. All's Well That Ends Well (1602) is a romantic comedy with qualities that seem bitter to many critics; like other plays of the period, by Shakespeare and by his contemporaries, it presents sexual relations between men and women in a harsh light. Troilus and Cressida (1602), hardest of the plays to classify generically, is a brilliant, sardonic, and disillusioned piece on the Trojan War, unusually philosophical in its language and reminiscent in some ways of Hamlet. The tragicomic Measure for Measure (1604) focuses more on sexual problems than any other play in the canon; Angelo, the puritanical and repressed man of ice who succumbs to violent sexual urges the moment he is put in temporary authority over Vienna during the duke's absence, and Isabella, the victim of his lust, are two of the most interesting characters in Shakespeare, and the bawdy city in which the action occurs suggests a London on which a new mood of modern urban hopelessness is settling.


King's Men

Promptly upon his accession in 1603, King James I, more ardently attracted to theatrical art than his predecessor, bestowed his patronage upon the Lord Chamberlain's Men, so that the flag of the King's Men now flew over the Globe. During his last decade in the theatre Shakespeare was to write fewer but perhaps even finer plays. Almost all the greatest tragedies belong to this period. Though they share the qualities of the earlier tragedies, taken as a group they manifest new tendencies. The heroes are dominated by passions that make their moral status increasingly ambiguous, their freedom increasingly circumscribed; similarly the society, even the cosmos, against which they strive suggests less than ever that all can ever be right in the world. As before, what destroys the hero is what is best about him, yet the best in Macbeth or Othello cannot so simply be commended as Romeo's impetuous ardour or Brutus's political idealism (fatuous though it is). The late tragedies are each in its own way dramas of alienation, and their focus, like that of the histories, continues to be felt as intensely relevant to the concerns of modern men.

Othello (1604) is concerned, like other plays of the period, with sexual impurity, with the difference that that impurity is the fantasy of the protagonist about his faithful wife. Iago, the villain who drives Othello to doubt and murder, is the culmination of two distinct traditions, the "Machiavellian" conniver who uses deceit in order to subvert the order of the polity, and the Vice, a schizophrenically tragicomic devil figure from the morality plays going out of fashion as Shakespeare grew up. King Lear (1605), to many Shakespeare's masterpiece, is an agonizing tragic version of a comic play (itself based on mythical early English history), in which an aged king who foolishly deprives his only loving daughter of her heritage in order to leave all to her hypocritical and vicious sisters is hounded to death by a malevolent alliance which at times seems to include nature itself. Transformed from its fairy-tale-like origins, the play involves its characters and audience alike in metaphysical questions that are felt rather than thought.

Macbeth (1606), similarly based on English chronicle material, concentrates on the problems of evil and freedom, convincingly mingles the supernatural with a representation of history, and makes a paradoxically sympathetic hero of a murderer who sins against family and state - a man in some respects worse than the villain of Hamlet.

Dramatizing stories from Plutarch's Parallel Lives, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus (both written in 1607-1608) embody Shakespeare's bitterest images of political life, the former by setting against the call to Roman duty the temptation to liberating sexual passion, the latter by pitting a protagonist who cannot live with hypocrisy against a society built on it. Both of these tragedies present ancient history with a vividness that makes it seem contemporary, though the sensuousness of Antony and Cleopatra, the richness of its detail, the ebullience of its language, and the seductive character of its heroine have made it far more popular than the harsh and austere Coriolanus. One more tragedy, Timon of Athens, similarly based on Plutarch, was written during this period, though its date is obscure. Despite its abundant brilliance, few find it a fully satisfactory play, and some critics have speculated that what we have may be an incomplete draft. The handful of tragedies that Shakespeare wrote between 1604 and 1608 comprises an astonishing series of worlds different from one another, created of language that exceeds anything Shakespeare had done before, some of the most complex and vivid characters in all the plays, and a variety of new structural techniques.

A final group of plays takes a turn in a new direction. Commonly called the "romances," Pericles (1607), Cymbeline (1609), The Winter's Tale (1611), and The Tempest (1611) share their conventions with the tragicomedy that had been growing popular since the early years of the century. Particularly they resemble in some respects plays written by Beaumont and Fletcher for the private theatrical company whose operation the King's Men took over in 1608. While such work in the hands of others, however, tended to reflect the socially and intellectually narrow interests of an elite audience, Shakespeare turned the fashionable mode into a new kind of personal art form. Though less searing than the great tragedies, these plays have a unique power to move and are in the realm of the highest art. Pericles and Cymbeline seem somewhat tentative and experimental, though both are superb plays. The Winter's Tale, however, is one of Shakespeare's best plays. Like a rewriting of Othello in its first acts, it turns miraculously into pastoral comedy in its last. The Tempest is the most popular and perhaps the finest of the group. Prospero, shipwrecked on an island and dominating it with magic which he renounces at the end, may well be intended as an image of Shakespeare himself; in any event, the play is like a retrospective glance over the plays of the 2 previous decades.

After the composition of The Tempest, which many regard as an explicit farewell to art, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, returning to London to compose Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1613; neither of these plays seems to have fired his imagination. In 1616, at the age of 52, he was dead. His reputation grew quickly, and his work has continued to seem to each generation like its own most precious discovery. His value to his own age is suggested by the fact that two fellow actors performed the virtually unprecedented act in 1623 of gathering his plays together and publishing them in the Folio edition. Without their efforts, since Shakespeare was apparently not interested in publication, many of the plays would not have survived.
 


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SHAKESPEARE, William (1564-1616), the supreme English poet and playwright, universally recognized as the greatest of all dramatists.

A complete, authoritative account of Shakespeare's life is lacking; much supposition surrounds relatively few facts. His day of birth is traditionally held to be April 23; it is known he was baptized on April 24, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. The third of eight children, he was the eldest son of John Shakespeare (d. 1601), a locally prominent merchant, and Mary Arden (d. 1608), daughter of a Roman Catholic member of the landed gentry. He was probably educated at the local grammar school. As the eldest son, Shakespeare ordinarily would have been apprenticed to his father's shop so that he could learn and eventually take over the business, but according to one account he was apprenticed to a butcher because of reverses in his father's financial situation. According to another account, he became a schoolmaster.

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 contemporary dramatists. In 1582 he married Anne Hathaway (1557?-1623), the daughter of a farmer. He is supposed to have left Stratford after he was caught poaching in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy (1532-1600), a local justice of the peace.

Shakespeare apparently arrived in London about 1588 and by 1592 had attained success as an actor and a playwright. Shortly thereafter, he secured the patronage of Henry Wriothesley, 3d earl of Southampton (1573-1624). The publication of Shakespeare's two fashionably erotic narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and of his Sonnets (pub. 1609, but circulated previously in manuscript) established his reputation as a poet in the Renaissance manner. The Sonnets describe the devotion of a character, often identified as the poet himself, to a young man whose beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless dark lady with whom the poet is infatuated. The ensuing triangular situation, resulting from the attraction of the poet's friend to the dark lady, is treated with passionate intensity and psychological insight.

Shakespeare's modern reputation is based mainly, however, on the 38 plays that he apparently wrote, modified, or collaborated on. Although generally popular in his day, these plays were frequently little esteemed by his educated contemporaries, who considered English plays of their own day to be only vulgar entertainment.

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, later called the King'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 more frequently than those of any other contemporary dramatists. It is known that he risked losing royal favor only once, in 1599 when his company performed "the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II (The life and death of King Richard the Second)" at the instance of a group of conspirators against Elizabeth. They were led by Elizabeth's unsuccessful court favorite, Robert Devereux, 2d earl of Essex, and by the earl of Southampton. In the subsequent inquiry, Shakespeare's company was absolved of complicity in the conspiracy.

After about 1608, Shakespeare's dramatic production lessened and it seems that he spent more time in Stratford. There he had established his family in an imposing house, called New Place, and had become 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 generally divided into four periods: (1) the period up to 1594, (2) the years from 1594 to 1600, (3) the years from 1600 to 1608, and (4) the period after 1608. In all periods, the plots of his plays were frequently drawn from chronicles, histories, or earlier fiction, as were the plays of other contemporary dramatists.

Shakespeare's first period was one of experimentation. His early plays, unlike his more mature work, are characterized to a degree by wooden and superficial construction and verse. Some of the plays from the first period may 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, and III (c. 1590-92) and Richard III (c. 1593), deal with the evil results of weak leadership and of national disunity fostered for selfish ends. The cycle closes with the death of Richard III, a study in satanic malignity, and the ascent to the throne of Henry VII, the righteous founder of the Tudor dynasty, to which Elizabeth belonged. In style and structure, these plays are related partly to medieval drama and partly to the works of earlier Elizabethan dramatists, especially Christopher Marlowe. Either indirectly through such dramatists or directly, the influence of the classical Roman dramatist Seneca is also reflected in the organization of these four plays, in the bloodiness of many of their scenes, and in their highly colored, bombastic language. Senecan influence, exerted by way of the earlier English dramatist Thomas Kyd, is particularly obvious in Titus Andronicus (c. 1594), a tragedy of righteous revenge for heinous and bloody acts, which are staged in sensational detail.

Shakespeare's comedies of the first period represent a wide range. The Comedy of Errors (c. 1592), an uproarious farce in imitation of classical Roman comedy, depends for its appeal on the mistakes in identity between two sets of twins involved in romance and war. Farce is not so strongly emphasized in The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1593), a comedy of character. The Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1594), a weaker comedy, depends on the appeal of romantic love. In contrast, Love's Labour's Lost (c. 1594) satirizes the loves of its main male characters as well as the fashionable devotion to studious pursuits by which these noblemen had first sought to avoid romantic and worldly ensnarement. The dialogue in which they voice their pretensions ridicules the artificially ornate, courtly style typified by the works of the English novelist and dramatist John Lyly.

Shakespeare's second period includes his most important plays concerned with English history, his so-called joyous comedies, and two major tragedies. In this period, his style and approach became highly individualized. The second-period historical plays include Richard II (c. 1595), Henry IV, Parts I and II (c. 1597), and Henry V (c. 1598). They cover the span immediately before that of the Henry VI plays. Richard II is a study of a weak, sensitive, self-dramatizing, but sympathetic monarch who loses his kingdom to his forceful successor, Henry IV. In the two parts of Henry IV, Henry recognizes his own guilt. His fears for his own son, later Henry V, prove unfounded, as the young prince displays an essentially responsible attitude toward the duties of kingship. In an alternation of masterful comic and serious scenes, the fat knight Falstaff and the rebel Hotspur reveal contrasting excesses between which the prince finds his proper position. The mingling of the tragic and the comic to suggest a broad range of humanity became one of Shakespeare's favorite devices. King John (c. 1595), the other historical play of this period, is of less significance.

Outstanding among the comedies of the second period is A Midsummer Night's Dream (c. 1595). Its fantasy-filled insouciance is achieved by the interweaving of several plots involving two pairs of noble lovers, a group of bumbling and unintentionally comic townspeople, and members of the fairy realm, notably Puck, King Oberon, and Queen Titania. Subtle evocation of atmosphere, of the sort that characterizes this play, is found also in the tragicomedy The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596). The Renaissance motifs of masculine friendship and romantic love in this play are portrayed in opposition to the bitter inhumanity of a usurer named Shylock, whose own misfortunes are presented so as to arouse understanding and sympathy. The type of quick-witted, warm, and responsive young woman exemplified in this play by Portia reappears in the joyous comedies of the second period.

The witty comedy Much Adoe About Nothing (c. 1599) is marred, in the opinion of many critics, by an insensitive treatment of its main female character, Beatrice. However, Shakespeare's most mature comedies, As you Like it (c. 1599) and Twelfth Night (c. 1600), are characterized by a hilarious and kindly charm that depends largely upon the attraction of strong-minded but lovely heroines like Beatrice. In As You Like It, the contrast between the manners of the Elizabethan court and those current in the English countryside is drawn in a light, charming vein. A complex pattern of oppositions between good and evil characters and between appearance and reality permits Shakespeare to comment in this play on a variety of human foibles. In that respect, As You Like It is similar to Twelfth Night, in which the comical side of the serious emotion of love is illustrated by the misadventures of two pairs of romantic lovers and of a number of realistically conceived and clowning characters in the subplot. Another comedy of the second period is The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1599); this play is a farce about middle-class life in which Falstaff reappears as the comic victim.

Two major tragedies, differing considerably in nature, mark the beginning and the end of the second period. Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595), famous for its poetic treatment of the ecstasy of youthful love, dramatizes the fate of two lovers victimized by the feuds and misunderstandings of their elders and by their own hasty temperaments. On the other hand, Julius Caesar (c. 1599) is a serious tragedy of political rivalries, less intense in style than the tragic dramas that followed.

Shakespeare's third period includes his greatest tragedies and his so-called dark or bitter comedies. The tragedies of this period are the most profound of his works and those in which his poetic idiom became an extremely supple dramatic instrument capable of recording the passage of human thought and the many dimensions of given dramatic situations.

Hamlet (c. 1601), his most famous play, goes far beyond other tragedies of revenge in picturing the mingled sordidness and glory of the human condition. Hamlet feels that he is living in a world of horror; confirmed in this feeling by the murder of his father and the sensuality of his mother, he presents a pattern of crippling indecision and precipitous action. The interpretation of his motivation and ambivalence continues to be the subject of considerable controversy.

Othello (c. 1604) portrays the growth of unjustified jealousy in the protagonist, Othello, a Moor serving as a general in the Venetian army. The innocent object of his jealousy is his wife, the lovely Desdemona. In this domestic tragedy, Othello's evil lieutenant Iago draws him into mistaken jealousy in order to ruin him.

King Lear (c. 1605), conceived on a more epic scale, deals with the consequences of the irresponsibility and misjudgment of Lear, a ruler of early Britain, and of his councillor, the duke of Gloucester. The tragic outcome is a result of giving power to their evil offspring, rather than to their good offspring. Lear's daughter Cordelia displays a redeeming love that makes the tragic conclusion a vindication of goodness. This is reinforced by the portrayal of evil as self-defeating, exemplified by the fates of Cordelia's sisters and of Gloucester's opportunistic son.

Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606) is concerned with a different type of love, namely, the middle-aged passion of the Roman general Mark Antony for the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Their love is glorified by some of the most sensuous poetry written by Shakespeare.

In Macbeth (c. 1606), Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of a great and basically good man who, led on by others and because of a defect in his own nature, succumbs to ambition. In getting and retaining the Scottish throne, Macbeth dulls his humanity to the point where he becomes capable of 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 (c. 1602), the most intellectually contrived of Shakespeare's plays, the gulf between the ideal and the real, both individually and politically, is skillfully evoked.

In Coriolanus (c. 1608), another tragedy taking place in antiquity, the legendary Roman hero Gaius Marcus Coriolanus is portrayed as unable to bring himself either to woo the Roman masses or to crush them by force.

Timon of Athens (c. 1608) is a similarly bitter play about a character reduced to misanthropy by the ingratitude of his sycophants. Because of the uneven quality of the writing, this tragedy is considered a collaboration.

The two comedies of this period also are dark in mood. Of these, All's Well That Ends Well (c. 1602) is less significant than Measure for Measure (c. 1604), which, more clearly than any other of Shakespeare's plays, suggests a picture of morality in Christian terms.

The fourth period of Shakespeare's work comprises his principal tragicomedies. Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare created several plays suggestive of a mood of final resignation to the human lot. These plays are written in a grave vein differing considerably from that of his earlier comedies, but ending happily with a reunion or final reconciliation. The tragicomedies depend for part of their appeal upon the lure of the distant in time or place, and all seem more obviously symbolic than most of his earlier works. To many critics, the tragicomedies signify a final ripeness in Shakespeare's own outlook, but other authorities believe that the change reflects only a change in fashion in the drama.

The romantic tragicomedy Pericles Prince of Tyre (c. 1608) concerns the title character's painful loss of his wife and the persecution of his daughter. After many exotic adventures, Pericles is reunited with his loved ones.

In Cymbeline (c. 1610) and The Winter's Tale (c. 1610), domestic complications are similarly resolved by restoring loved ones. The most successful product of this particular vein of creativity, however, is what may be Shakespeare's last complete play, The Tempest (c. 1611), in which the resolution suggests the beneficial effects of the union of wisdom and power. In this play a duke, deprived of his dukedom and banished to an island, confounds his usurping brother by wisely employing magical powers and furthering a love match between his daughter and the usurper's son. Shakespeare's poetic power rarely reached heights as great as this.

Two final plays, sometimes ascribed to Shakespeare, presumably are the products of collaboration. A historical drama, Henry VIII (c. 1613), probably was written with the English dramatist John Fletcher, as was The Two Noble Kinsmen (c. 1613; pub. 1634), a story of the love of two noble friends for one woman. Literary reputation. Until the 18th century Shakespeare was generally thought to have been no more than a rough and untutored genius.

Theories were advanced that his plays had actually been written by someone more educated, perhaps the statesman and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon or the earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron. From the 19th century on, Shakespeare's achievement has been more adequately recognized. Throughout the world he is held to be the greatest dramatist ever. His plays communicate a profound knowledge of the wellsprings of human behavior as revealed in his masterful characterizations of a wide gamut of humanity. The skillful use of poetic and dramatic means to create a unified aesthetic effect out of a multiplicity of vocal expressions and actions is recognized as an achievement unequaled in other literature.

Finally, Shakespeare's employment of poetry within the plays to express the deepest levels of human motivation in relation to individual, social, and universal situations is considered one of the most astounding accomplishments of the human intellect.


 

 

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