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Sep 6, 2014

The Works and Life of Shakespeare


Note: the text is copy from the above source.

In the early stages of their existence, the actors’ companies performed their plays in the open yards of some of the inns of the City Council, from where they were expelled in due course. The first theater was built by James Burbage in 1576. It was circular and open to the sky, the spectators stood in the pit, as they had done in the inn yards. The movable stage was rectangular and the audience could stand on three sides of it. A retiring house was curtained off behind the stage. After Burbage’s death, it was pulled down and its timber used in the construction of The Globe (one of the 2 theaters Shakespeare was intimately associated with, the other being the Blackfriars). Theaters that came after Burbage’s were also in the form of an amphitheatre where spectators stood in the pit. There were 2 or 3 galleries where seats were provided. There were also boxes for more privileged spectators. Aristocrats were seated on the stage itself. There they would carry on active and very audible criticism of the performance before the eyes of the whole house. The stage was rectangular, open on 3 sides to the public. There was no curtain and the close of an act or scene was indicated by the exit of all the performers. In the case of the dead, provision was always made for their removal. There was an upper stage or balcony and a rear stage that could be curtained off. Scenery, in the modern sense, did not exist and places and scenes were indicated either by suitable properties or possibly by a placard and more commonly by the words of actors. Costume, however, was elaborate and expensive. Since there was no artificial lighting plays could be performed only during the daytime. The Elizabethan audience was fun loving, yet enjoyed philosophizing on stage. They were very critical of drama and if they did not enjoy a play, it was immediately hissed off the stage. They wanted amusement and melodrama and plays of contemporary, social and historical interest. Hence Elizabethan drama was at times crude, farcical and indecent but on the whole full-blooded and imaginative with a remarkable human quality.

Most of Shakespeare's career unfolded during the monarchy of Elizabeth I, the Queen from whom the historical period of the Bard's life takes its name as the Elizabethan Age. Elizabeth came to the throne under turbulent circumstances in 1558 (before Shakespeare was born) and ruled until 1603. Under her reign, not only did England prosper as a rising commercial power at the expense of Catholic Spain, Shakespeare's homeland undertook an enormous expansion into the New World and laid the foundations of what would become the British Empire. This ascendance came in the wake of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the former regaining Greek and Roman classics and stimulating an outburst of creative endeavour throughout Europe, the latter transforming England into a Protestant/Anglican state, and generating continuing religious strife, especially during the civil wars of Elizabeth's Catholic sister, Queen Margaret or "Bloody Mary." The Elizabethan Age, then, was an Age of Discovery, of the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and the exploration of human nature itself. The basic assumptions underpinning feudalism/Scholasticism were openly challenged with the support of Elizabeth and, equally so, by her successor on the throne, James I. There was in all this an optimism about humanity and its future and an even greater optimism about the destiny of England in the world at large. Nevertheless, the Elizabethans also recognized that the course of history is problematic, that Fortune can undo even the greatest and most promising, as Shakespeare reveals in such plays asAntony & Cleopatra. More specifically, Shakespeare and his audiences were keenly aware of the prior century's prolonged bloodshed during the War of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York. Many Elizabethans, particularly the prosperous, feared the prospect of civil insurrection and the destruction of the commonwealth, whether as a result of an uprising from below or of usurpation at the top. Thus, whether or not we consider Shakespeare to have been a political conservative, his histories, tragedies and even his romances and comedies are slanted toward the restoration or maintenance of civil harmony and the status quo of legitimate rule.
His father, John Shakespeare, was successful in the leather business during Shakespeare's early childhood but later met with financial difficulties. During his prosperous years his father was also involved in municipal affairs, holding the offices of alderman and bailiff during the 1560s. While little is known of Shakespeare's boyhood, he probably attended the grammar school in Stratford, where he would have been educated in the classics, particularly Latin grammar and literature. Whatever the veracity of Ben Jonson's famous comment that Shakespeare had “small Latine, and less Greeke,” much of his work clearly depends on a knowledge of Roman comedy, ancient history, and classical mythology. In 1582 Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior and pregnant at the time of the marriage. They had three children: Susanna, born in 1583, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, born in 1585. Nothing is known of the period between the birth of the twins and Shakespeare's emergence as a playwright in London (c.1592). However, various suggestions have been made regarding this time, including those that he fled Stratford to avoid prosecution for stealing deer, that he joined a group of travelling players, and that he was a country schoolteacher. The last suggestion is given some credence by the academic style of his early plays; The Comedy of Errors, for example, is an adaptation of two plays by Plautus. In 1594 Shakespeare became an actor and playwright for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the company that later became the King's Men under James I. Until the end of his London career Shakespeare remained with the company; it is thought that as an actor he played old men's roles, such as the ghost in Hamlet and Old Adam in As You Like It. In 1596 he obtained a coat of arms, and by 1597 he was prosperous enough to buy New Place in Stratford, which later was the home of his retirement years. In 1599 he became a partner in the ownership of the Globe theatre, and in 1608 he was part owner of the Blackfriars theatre. Shakespeare retired and returned to Stratford c.1613. He undoubtedly enjoyed a comfortable living throughout his career and in retirement, although he was never a wealthy man.

‘Comedy’ refers to drama that provokes laughter at human behaviour, usually involving romantic love and with a happy ending. In Shakespeare’s day, the conventional comedy enacted the struggle of young lovers to surmount some difficulty, usually presented by their elders, and the play ended happily in marriage or the prospect of marriage. Sometimes the struggle was to bring separated lovers or family members together, and their reunion was the happy culmination. Shakespeare generally observed these conventions, though his inventiveness within them yielded many variations. Eighteen plays are generally included among Shakespeare’s comedies. They are divided into – early comedies (The Comedy of ErrorsTwo Gentlemen of VeronaTaming of the Shrew), middle comedies (Love’s Labour’s LostA Midsummer Nights’ DreamThe Merchant of VeniceThe Merry Wives of WindsorMuch Ado About NothingAs You Like ItTwelfth Night) tragi-comedies or problem plays (Troilus andCressidaMeasure for MeasureAll’s well That Ends Well), romances (PericlesCymbelineThe Winter’s TaleThe TempestThe Two Noble Kinsmen)
All of Shakespeare’s comedies are driven by love. Love, in Shakespearean comedy, is stronger than the inertia of custom, the power of evil, or the fortunes of chance and time. In all these plays except one (Troilus) the obstacles presented to love are triumphantly overcome, as conflicts are resolved and errors forgiven in a general aura of reconciliation and marital bliss at the play’s close. Such intransigent characters as Shylock (Merchant of Venice), Malvolio (Twelfth Night) and Don John (Much Ado About Nothing), who choose not to act out of love, cannot be accommodated here, and are carefully isolated from the action before the climax. In their resolutions Shakespeare’s comedies resemble the medieval morality play, which centers on a sinful human being who receives God’s mercy. In Shakespeare’s secular comedies a human authority figure (for instance, Don Pedro in Much Ado or Duke Senior in As You Like It) is symbolically divine, the opponents of love are the representatives of sin, and all the characters partake of the love and forgiveness at the play’s closing. Moreover, the context of marriage – at least alluded to at the close of all comedies except Troilus and Cressida – is the cap-stone of the comedic situation, for these plays not only delight and entertain, they affirm, guaranteeing the future. Marriage, with its promise of offspring, reinvigorates society and transcends the purely personal element in sexual attraction and romantic love. Tragedy’s focus on the individual makes death the central fact of life, but comedy, with its insistence on the on going process of love and sex and birth, confirms our awareness that life transcends the individual.

A tragedy is a drama dealing with a noble protagonist placed in a highly stressful situation that leads to a disastrous, usually fatal conclusion. The 10 plays generally included among Shakespeare’s tragedies are Titus Andronicus,Romeo and JulietJulius CaesarHamletOthelloMacbethKing Lear,Antony and CleopatraCoriolanus and Timon of Athens. A central group of 4 plays: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear offer Shakespeare’s fullest development of tragedy, and they are sometimes collectively labelled the great tragedies. These plays focus on a powerful central character whose most outstanding personal quality—tragic flaw, as it is called—is the source of his catastrophe. He is the victim of his own strength, which will not allow accommodation with his situation, and we are appalled at this paradox and at the inexorability of his fate. These works, sometimes with the addition of Antony and Cleopatra, are often thought to constitute Shakespeare’s greatest achievement as a playwright.

 Shakespeare’s tragedies developed out of earlier 16th century tragedies, which had antecedents in medieval poetry – verse accounts of disaster, suffering and death usually of mighty rulers. These medieval poems, however, did not lend themselves to the stage because they simply made a single point – that disaster comes even to the great, in the same fashion every time. Renaissance authors, imbued with a sense of the value of human experience, began to alter the pattern. A wider range of subjects was assembled and moral lessons incorporated into them. A good instance, and an important influence to Shakespeare, was A Mirror for Magistrates, in which the settings range from classical and biblical worlds to recent history. The typical subject of the biographies of this compilation is a villainous tyrant whose fall is amply deserved. Retribution becomes the theme rather than simple inevitability. The ancient plays of Seneca were similar in subject and tone and these works were exploited by 16th century playwrights. The immediate result was the revenge play, pioneered by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd. However, the emphasis on evil figures was gradually eroded by an awareness of the dramatic value of virtue. The medieval heritage of the Morality Play was an important influence on this development. Sometimes the good were simply victims as inTitus Andronicus; sometimes virtuous deeds resulted in death or disaster as inThe Rape of Lucrece, and sometimes the two motifs combined, in virtuous victims whosedeaths are redemptive, spiritually cleansing the world of the play as in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, is a simple melodrama, frankly imitative of Seneca. With Romeo and Juliet, the young playwright advances considerably, developing human and credible protagonists. An essential tragic theme is established in Romeo: the superiority of the human spirit to its mortal destiny. It is in Julius Caesar that Shakespeare first achieves the distinctive element of the major tragedies, a protagonist. InJulius Caesar, the protagonist Brutus, who is undone precisely by his own virtues, as he pursues a flawed political ideal. A paradoxical sense of the interconnectedness of good and evil permeates the play, as the hero’s idealism leads to disaster for both him and his world. Only with Hamlet does the hero’s personal sense of that paradox become the play’s central concern. In Hamletand its three great successors, Shakespeare composes four variations on the overarching theme that humanity’s weaknesses must be recognised as our inevitable human lot, for only by accepting our destiny can we transcend our morality. Hamlet, unable to alter the evil around him because of his fixation on the uncertainties of moral judgement, himself falls into evil in killing Polonius and rejecting Ophelia but finally recovers his humanity by recognizing his ties to others. He accepts his own fate, knowing that “readiness is all”. Lear, his world in ruins of his own making, can find salvation only through madness, but in his reconciliation with Cordelia, he too finds that destiny can be identified with, “as if we were God’s spies”. As Edgar puts it, sounding very like Hamlet, “Ripeness is all”. Othello, drawn into evil by an incapacity for trust, recognizes his failing and kills himself. The power of love—the importance of our bonds to others—is again upheld. In Macbeth, the same point is made negatively, as the protagonist’s rejection of love and loyalty leads to an extreme human isolation, where “Life’s but a walking shadow”. In each of the 4 major tragedies, a single protagonist grows in self-awareness and knowledge of human nature, though he cannot stop his disaster. In the later Roman tragedies,Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus we find the same pattern. But these differ from their predecessors in that the central figures are placed in a complex social and political context, and the plays are strongly concerned with the relationship between the individual and the society, with less focus on the emotional development of the tragic hero. Timon of Athens is a flawed effort that Shakespeare left incomplete. Shakespeare’s tragedies are disturbing plays. We feel horror at the stories, and pity for the victims. That this pity extends to doers of evil as well – Macbeth, Othello, Lear, Coriolanus – attests to the dramatist’s power. We recognise the nobility of the human spirit, which may err catastrophically but which does so through an excess of strength, challenging its own limits. In a tragic universe, we are all flawed precisely because we are human, and Shakespeare’s tragic heroes embody this inexorable feature of life.

Shakespeare’s 10 plays deal with events in English history.
(1) Minor Tetralogy - Henry VI 3 Parts, and Richard III
(2) King John
(3) Major Tetralogy - Richard II, Henry IV 2 Parts, and Henry V.
(4) Henry VIII.
The Tetralogies are Shakespeare’s major achievement in the histories and deal with English history from 1398 to 1485. The central theme of the history plays is political – they deal with the gain and loss of power – ut Shakespeare transcended this subject. As he wrote his histories, the playwright increasingly pursued the definition of the perfect king. After presenting two distinctly bad rulers, the ineffectual Henry VI and the villainous Richard III, he turned to a consideration of kingly virtues. He began to explore the psychology of political leaders, and these plays are at their best as much psychological as historical. Not content to deal with the nature of kingship solely from the point of view of the rulers, Shakespeare also focuses on the lives of the common people of England, especially in the major tetralogy. Sometimes fictitious minor figures, such as the Gardener in Richard III, fulfill an important function simply by offering their own interpretation of political events and historical personalities and thus influencing the reader’s responses. But many common people are developed as characters in their own right. Indeed, in the Henry IV plays, often considered the greatest of his histories, Falstaff and a number of fully sketched minor characters offer a sort of national group portrait that is contrasted with political history. The juxtaposition generates a richly stimulating set of relationships. Those secular accounts of the past, neither legendary nor religious, that were presented on the stage— and were highly popular—reflect the Elizabethan era’s intense interest in history. In the late 16th century, when these plays were written, England was undergoing a great crisis. As a leading Protestant state, it found itself at odds, with the great Catholic powers of counter-Reformation Europe, including its traditional enemy, France, and a new foe, Spain. The latter, at the height of its power, was a very dangerous adversary, and England felt seriously imperiled until the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. This situation sparked a tremendous patriotism among all classes of English society, and with that came an increasing interest in the nation’s history, an interest that the theatre was of course delighted to serve. Written not long after the peak of nationalistic fervour in 1588, the history plays, which were extremely popular, deal with political events of England, like the Wars of the Roses, the significance of which the Elizabethans were very much aware. Moreover, even though in hindsight the reign of Elizabeth seems very different from those of the troubled 15th century, this was not so clear at the time. A number of threats to the government arose and the people felt a strong fear of civil war and anarchy; for both moral and practical reasons they valued an orderly society ruled by a strong monarch. The history plays addressed this attitude by presenting a lesson in the evils of national disunity. This view of English history was held not only by both the playwright and most of his audience, but also by the historians whose works Shakespeare consulted. When the Tudor dynasty came to power, among the policies adopted by King Henry VII was the use of scholarly propaganda to justify his seizure of the throne. He encouraged and commissioned various works of history and biography to emphasize the faults of earlier rulers and present his own accession as the nation’s salvation. Among them was an official history of England by the Italian humanist Polydore Vergil, which was to have a strong influence on subsequent historians including Holinshed and Hall, whose chronicles were Shakespeare’s chief sources. Thus Shakespeare saw, and passed on, a story of inevitable progress towards the benevolent reign of the Tudors. The sources available to Shakespeare were highly unreliable by modern historical standards. In any case, Shakespeare was not writing history; he was concerned with dramatic values more than with historical accuracy. Other Elizabethan playwrights also wrote histories but only Shakespeare’s work has survived. In writing history plays Shakespeare always pursued his own concerns, exploring political values and social relations. Throughout his career he was preoccupied with the value of order in society. Shakespeare believed, as is evident in Henry V, in the need for authority, but he also showed a distrust of those who held authority. Thus the history plays point to an underlying characteristic of human societies—the fact that political power inspires disturbing fears as well as profound ideals.

Three of Shakespeare’s comedies—All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida are called problem plays. They are potent satires characterised by disturbingly ambiguous points of view and seemingly cynical attitudes towards sexual and social relations. These plays – written around 1602- 1604 – are concerned with basic elements of life, sex and death, and the psychological and social complications they give rise to. These issues are problematic, and the plays further stress this by pointedly offering no clear-cut resolutions, leaving audiences with a painful awareness of life’s difficulties. The phrase ‘problem play’ was first applied to these plays – as well as to Hamlet – by Frederick Boas in his book Shakespeare and his Predecessors. In Boas’s time the phrase was used to refer to the works of playwrights like Ibsen and Shaw whose plays dealt frankly and purposefully with social problems. Shakespeare’s problem plays too are indeed concerned with society and its discontents.

Three plays of Shakespeare are set in ancient Rome – Julius CaesarAntony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. The much earlier Titus Andronicus, though Roman in setting, is generally excluded from this classification because it is a timeless tale that does not involve any real, historical world. Each of the Roman plays is a tragedy, but they are unlike the other tragedies, which are placed in virtually imaginary historical situations. These works are complicated by the history of ancient Rome, which is reasonably accurately presented, and they are thus similar to the history plays. When he wrote plays about ancient Rome, Shakespeare dealt with material that was highly meaningful to his age. Due to the Renaissance rediscovery of classical literature and art, the Roman era in the Mediterranean world was seen as the high-watermark of Western culture, and the general outlines of its history were familiar to all educated people. Thus the politics of that world, and the lives of its illustrious personages were viewed with great interest. The moral questions found in the careers of Coriolanus, Brutus and Antony had particular importance as they were examples taken from the most important epoch in the development of western polities. Rome’s history also had importance to Christianity because it was thought of as the period of Christianity’s birth. In particular, the establishment of the empire was often perceived as evidence of God’s intervention in human affairs. In fact, it is important to the Roman plays that the Roman Republic was pre-Christian. Shakespeare’s repeated allusions to suicide as an honourable alternative to defeat marks a striking difference in pre-Christian morality. The suicides indeed point to the most important distinction of the Roman tragedies: they lack Christianity’s belief in divine providence as a final arbiter of human affairs. Without God’s promised redemption, the moral questions of the classical world had to be resolved within an earth–bound universe of references. The protagonists of Roman plays cannot recognize an error and gain divine forgiveness, nor can they be confident that he is right in the face of worldly defeat. Hence there is a paradox in their characters. The consequence is that Rome’s conflicts are never clearly organized on lines of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – each side contains elements of both.

Shakespeare’s late comedies are called romances: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and (sometimes) The Two Noble Kinsmen. They are tragicomedies in the broadest sense of the term. All of the romances share a number of themes. The theme of separation and reunion of family members is highly important. The related idea of exile also features in the romances, with the banished characters—usually rulers or rulers–to be—restored to their rightful homes at the play’s end. Another theme, jealousy, is prominent in The Winter’s TaleCymbeline and The Two Noble Kinsmen; it has minor importance in Pericles and The Tempest. Most significant, the romances all speak to the need for patience in adversity and the importance of providence in human affairs. This visionary conception outweighs any given individual’s fate or even the development of individual personalities. Compared with earlier plays, realistic characterization in the romances is weak, instead, the characters’ symbolic meaning in pronounced. The plots of these plays offer improbable events in exotic locales. Their characters are frequently subject to long journeys, often involving shipwrecks. Seemingly magical developments arise—with real sorcery in The Tempest—and supernatural beings appear. These developments are elaborately represented, and all of the romances rely heavily on spectacular scenic effects. In all these respects, the romances are based on a tradition of romantic literature going back at least to Hellenistic Greece, in which love serves as the trigger for extraordinary adventures. In this tradition love is subjected to abnormal strains – often involving jealous intrigues and conflicts between male friendship and romantic love - and there are fantastic journeys to exotic lands, encounters with chivalrous knights and allegorical appearances of supernatural beings. Absurdly improbable coincidences and mistaken identities complicate the plot, though everything is resolved in a conventional happy ending. The protagonists are also conventional, their chief distinction being their noble or royal blood. In the romances Shakespeare returned to an idea that had been prominent in his earlier comedies— young lovers are united after various tribulations. Now, however, the focus is not only on the young lovers, but also encompasses the older generation, once the opponents of love. At the end of these plays, the emphasis is not on reward and punishment but rather on the reunion of parents and children and the hopeful prospect of new generations to come. The romances concern themselves with the lovers not for their own sake but for their effect on the whole continuum of life. This broad canvas is enlarged even further to cosmic dimensions with the many images of the supernatural. The romances conclude in a spirit of hope, as the main characters are reunited in an aura of reconciliation—a favourite motif throughout Shakespeare’s career. The natural good in humanity is put under pressure but preserved through the action of providence. An emphasis on the cycle of regeneration—both in the traditional comedic emphasis on marriage and in the theme of reunited families—offers a guarantee that the preservation will be lasting.

Shakespeare's first published works were two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). In 1599 a volume of poetry entitled The Passionate Pilgrim was published and attributed entirely to Shakespeare. However, only five of the poems are definitely considered his, two appearing in other versions in the Sonnets and three in Love's Labours Lost. A love elegy, The Phoenix and the Turtle, was published in 1601. In the 1980s and 90s many Elizabethan scholars concluded that a poem published in 1612 entitled A Funeral Elegy and signed “W.S.” exhibits many Shakespearean characteristics; it has not yet been definitely included in the canon. Shakespeare's sonnets are by far his most important non-dramatic poetry. They were first published in 1609, although many of them had certainly been circulated privately before this, and it is generally agreed that the poems were written sometime in the 1590s. Scholars have long debated the order of the poems and the degree of autobiographical content. The first 126 of the 154 sonnets are addressed to a young man whose identity has long intrigued scholars. The publisher, Thomas Thorpe, wrote a dedication to the first edition in which he claimed that a person with the initials W. H. had inspired the sonnets. Some have thought these letters to be the transposed initials of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece; or they are possibly the initials of William Herbert, 3rd earl of Pembroke, whose connection with Shakespeare is more tenuous. The identity of the dark lady addressed in sonnets 127-152 has also been the object of much conjecture but no proof. The sonnets are marked by the recurring themes of beauty, youthful beauty ravaged by time, and the ability of love and art to transcend time and even death.

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