Shakespeare is considered the greatest English writer of all times. His works have been translated into more languages than any book in the world except the Bible. He contributed to the development of the English language. A large number of words and phrases from his plays have passed into the language and are used today by millions of persons who have no idea that Shakespeare created them. When he wrote his plays, there were no accepted standardized grammars or dictionaries, no accepted standards of spelling and pronunciation. Well-educated men spelled the same word in different ways and often pronounced it differently. They used grammatical forms which are not allowed today. There were no English words for many ideas and new words and new expressions were taken from other languages or invented for the English language.
As far as his life, very little is known for sure. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon on April 26th, 1564. He attended the local grammar school but he did not go on to study at the university. When he was eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, eight years older than he and they had three children, Susanna and the twins Judith and Hamnet. Hamnet died in 1596 and his death affected Shakespeare very deeply. He moved to London to work for the theatre as an actor and a playwright. He joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of the two existing companies of actors at the time, which later, when James I went to the throne, was renamed “The King’s Men”. They owned the playhouse “The Theatre”, which was dismantled and rebuilt in another place and called “The Globe”. Shakespeare was a co-owner of The Globe. He had a great success as a playwright and earned enough. Because of his success, he was attacked by Robert Greene, probably envious of him, who complained that uneducated dramatists were becoming more popular than university men. In his later years he retired to Stratford where he died in 1616.
Shakespeare wrote all his plays for performance not for publication and paid little attention to the written text. He wrote for the audience not for the readers because it was the audience that could afford him to maintaining his family and paying his company of actors. His plays were popular because he was able to write in such a way as to appeal both to learned and unlearned people.
Shakespeare did not bother to publish his works, which circulated in unauthorized copies known as the “bad quartos” (quartos: volumes made up of sheets of paper folded twice; bad: because full of gaps and mistakes). They were reconstructed from memory by some actors or from notes taken in the theatres. In 1623 two members of his company published the first edition of his plays, known as the First Folio (a volume made up of sheets of paper folded once). In this volume the plays were simply grouped as Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. This edition contained no indication as to the date of composition of the plays and the real chronology of his works remains imperfect and approximate. Critics divide his literary production into four periods.
The first period goes from 1590 to 1595. It is the phase of his apprenticeship and he tried several different kinds of drama: chronicle plays dealing with the history of Britain (Henry VI, Richard II, Richard III), comedies (The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night’s dream) and a Roman play (Titus Andronicus). They show little originality because he revised the plays of other authors or imitated those of his immediate predecessors that were already popular in the public stage. They are important because they contain elements that he later developed in his tragedies. To this phase also belongs the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
The second period goes approximately from 1596 to 1600. Shakespeare gradually frees himself by imitation. It contains chronicle plays (Henry IV, Henry V),comedies (The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It , Twelfth night) and the tragedy Julius Caesar. To this period might also belong the history play King John which contains a possible reference to Hamnet’s death. Shakespeare expressed his great sorrow in Act III, scene IV, where he makes a character say the following touching words: “.…. I have heard you say that we shall see and know our friends in heaven. If that be true, I shall see my boy again…. Grief fills the room up of my absent child, lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, remembers me of all his gracious parts, stuffs out his vacant garments with his form…. O Lord! My boy, my Arthur, my fair son! My life, my joy, my food, my all the world! “ . Some critics maintain that these words have nothing to do with Hamnet’s death because, according to them, King John was written before his death.
The third period goes from 1601 to 1607. Shakespeare’s life in this period seemed to have grown dark. He was forced to live more cautiously because he was a friend of the Earl of Southampton who was involved in the Earl of Essex’s plot against Queen Elizabeth. The day before the rebellion, Richard II was played at The Globe under the pressure of the Earl’s supporters. They hoped to win support for the rebellion because of the theme it dealt with. The rebellion failed and his best friends fell into ruin: Essex died on the scaffold, Southampton went to the Tower, Pembroke was banished from the Court and Shakespeare was probably under suspicion. This is the period in which Shakespeare wrote the so-called “Golden Tragedies”: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. They are tragedies of human sufferings, afflictions,grief and deal with the struggle between good and evil. The general mood is one of pessimism. He also wrote four comedies, known as the “dark comedies” because they are full of blood and we are tempted to consider them more as tragedies than as comedies: Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well that ends Well and Measure for Measure. They show Shakespeare’s pessimistic vision of the world and are tinged with a deep bitterness. In the same period he also wrote the Roman plays Anthony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. Roman history was very popular in the Elizabethan Age because it was used as the material for political lessons.
The fourth and last period goes from 1608 to 1612. The works of this period (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest) seem to reflect a new attitude to life. Shakespeare overcomes the previous pessimistic mood and expresses his happier state of mind.
Shakespeare is not original in the choice of his plots, which are all derived from various ancient and contemporary sources: historical works (Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland), Roman history, classical works (Plutarch’s and Plautus’s writings), the Italian works of Matteo Bandello and others and material taken from many Elizabethan playwrights. In the Renaissance the idea of originality as we have nowadays, did not exist. There was no copyright and it was possible to copy other writers without any legal consequence. Writers were praised not for saying something new but for saying it well or in a new way. Of course Shakespeare did not copy; his originality was in his ability to handle the original source and make it assume a new meaning and value. He penetrated the depths of the human soul and represented impartially all aspect of life and attitudes of men. He created a great variety of characters. They include persons of all types: Kings, Queens, ordinary people, heroes and so on. Shakespeare loved music and he also wrote several songs which appear in some of his plays.
The Great Tragedies have got some common characteristics. They all have a hero who is assailed by forces, good or evil, the full nature of which he doesn’t know until it’s too late. Like the heroes of the greatest Greek tragedies, Shakespearian heroes are driven to their downfall by the loss of something they believed in. The hero, who may be as wicked as Richard III or as innocent as Romeo, is also brought to his ruin by the operation of the Fate. The Fate works through the faults or errors of the hero, through the evil embodied in a “villain”, a character who lives near him (Cassius, Iago) or through the supernatural (ghosts, witches).In nearly all the tragedies the destruction of the hero involves the death of the innocent who lives next to him. The hero has fatal tragic flaws which explain the calamities by which he is overwhelmed. When the play ends, there is always his “redemption” even if he has been so wicked as Richard III or Macbeth. The spectators feel pity on him because Shakespeare is able to make them realize that he was not completely bad and that he has been brought to his downfall by the operation of the Fate.
Other common characteristics are the theme of the “Shattered Harmony” and the use of prose and verse. There is always harmony at the beginning of the play; then the harmony is shattered by a character, the hero, who brings chaos, and by the forces of evil. But Good in the end always wins and another character, usually a minor one, defeats the hero and restores harmony.As far as the use of verse and prose, characters belonging to aristocracy speak in verse while common people speak in prose. When a character from the aristocracy speaks in prose, it is because he is out of mind (for instance Hamlet and Ophelia). In Julius Caesar instead, Brutus and Anthony in their speeches respectively speak in prose and in verse for a different reason: Brutus addresses to people’s rationality and Anthony to people’s feelings.
Shakespeare’s world is male dominated but women are as important as men. In some plays the action is equally divided between man and women, for example in Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra and Macbeth. The psychology of the female characters of these plays, together with other female characters (Ophelia, Desdemona), has been openly investigated. They are stronger, more decided and less hesitant than their respective lovers and they are ready to risk everything for their love.
Besides being a dramatist, Shakespeare was also a great poet. He wrote some long mythological poems (Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece) and a collection of 154 Sonnets. They show his knowledge of classical themes and mythology. Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, one of his patrons, who helped him when the theatres were closed because of the plague which raged all over Europe in the years 1592- 1594.It is probably because of the plague that Shakespeare and other playwrights start to write poetry. The Sonnets can be conventionally divided into two groups: from sonnet 1 to sonnet 126 and from sonnet 127 to 154. The first group is addressed to a lovely boy, “a fair youth” a “Mr W.H.” while the second group is dedicated to a “dark Lady”.In the first group there is also another character, a ” rival poet“, probably a poet (George Chapman?) who depended on the patronage of Shakespeare’s patrons. Critics have tried to discover who “the fair Youth” and “the Dark Lady” were. They found no definite answers. Many of them think that the “Fair Youth”, was the above mentioned Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, or William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who were Shakespeare’s friends and patrons. The “Dark Lady” is a mysterious married woman, probably Shakespeare’s mistress. The poet describes their troubled and painful relationship in which they are both unfaithful to each other. The woman bestows her attention also on one of Shakespeare’s friends and he feels doubly betrayed by his woman and by his friend. The Sonnets have got many themes: unselfish love and mutual infidelity, friendship, old age, the decay of all earthly things, the destructive force of time and the immortality of art.
Shakespeare’s sonnets do not follow the Petrarchan sonnets of an octave and a sestet (or two quatrains and two tercets) but the standard English structure of three quatrains and a final rhymed couplet. The final couplet is used either to summarize the theme dealt with in the quatrains or to reinforce it. They also differ from the other cycles of sonnets of the time (Astrophel and Stella, Amoretti) because they do not tell the poet’s love story for a woman.