(baptised 26 April 1564 – died 23 April 1616)[a]
was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer
in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist.
He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon" (or simply
"The Bard"). His surviving works consist of 38 plays,[b]
154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and several other poems. His plays
have been translated into every major living language, and are performed
more often than those of any other playwright.
Shakespeare was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon. At the age of 18
he married Anne Hathaway, who bore him three children: Susanna, and twins
Hamnet and Judith. Between 1585 and 1592 he began a successful career in
London as an actor, writer, and part owner of the playing company the Lord
Chamberlain's Men, later known as the King's Men. He appears to have retired
to Stratford around 1613, where he died three years later. Few records of
Shakespeare's private life survive, and there has been considerable
speculation about such matters as his sexuality, religious beliefs, and
whether the works attributed to him were written by others.
Shakespeare produced most of his known work between 1590 and 1613. His
early plays were mainly comedies and histories, genres he raised to the peak
of sophistication and artistry by the end of the sixteenth century. Next he
wrote mainly tragedies until about 1608, including Hamlet, King
Lear, and Macbeth, considered some of the finest examples in the
English language. In his last phase, he wrote tragicomedies, also known as
romances, and collaborated with other playwrights. Many of his plays were
published in editions of varying quality and accuracy during his lifetime,
and in 1623 two of his former theatrical colleagues published the First
Folio, a collected edition of his dramatic works that included all but two
of the plays now recognised as Shakespeare's.
Shakespeare was a respected poet and playwright in his own day, but his
reputation did not rise to its present heights until the nineteenth century.
The Romantics, in particular, acclaimed Shakespeare's genius, and the
Victorians hero-worshipped Shakespeare with a reverence that George Bernard
Shaw called "bardolatry". In
the twentieth century, his work was repeatedly adopted and rediscovered by
new movements in scholarship and performance. His plays remain highly
popular today and are consistently performed and reinterpreted in diverse
cultural and political contexts throughout the world.
William Shakespeare was the son of John Shakespeare, a successful glover
and alderman originally from Snitterfield, and Mary Arden, the daughter of
an affluent landowning farmer.
He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon and baptised on 26 April 1564. His
unknown birthday is traditionally observed on 23 April, St George's Day.
This date, which can be traced back to an eighteenth-century scholar's
mistake, has proved appealing because Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616.
He was the third child of eight and the eldest surviving son.
Although no attendance records for the period survive, most biographers
agree that Shakespeare was educated at the King's New School in Stratford,
a free school chartered in 1553,
about a quarter of a mile from his home. Grammar schools varied in quality
during the Elizabethan era, but the curriculum was dictated by law
throughout England, and
the school would have provided an intensive education in Latin grammar and
the classics. At the age
of 18, Shakespeare married the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway. The consistory
court of the Diocese of Worcester issued a marriage licence on 27 November
1582. Two of Hathaway's neighbours posted bonds the next day as surety that
there were no impediments to the marriage.
The couple may have arranged the ceremony in some haste, since the Worcester
chancellor allowed the marriage banns to be read once instead of the usual
three times. Anne's
pregnancy could have been the reason for this. Six months after the
marriage, she gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, who was baptised on 26 May
1583. Twins, son Hamnet
and daughter Judith, followed almost two years later and were baptised on 2
February 1585. Hamnet died
of unknown causes at the age of 11 and was buried on 11 August 1596.
After the birth of the twins, there are few historical traces of
Shakespeare until he is mentioned as part of the London theatre scene in
1592. Because of this gap, scholars refer to the years between 1585 and 1592
as Shakespeare's "lost years".
Biographers attempting to account for this period have reported many
apocryphal stories. Nicholas Rowe, Shakespeare’s first biographer, recounted
a Stratford legend that Shakespeare fled the town for London to escape
prosecution for deer poaching.
Another eighteenth-century story has Shakespeare starting his theatrical
career minding the horses of theatre patrons in London.
John Aubrey reported that Shakespeare had been a country schoolmaster.
Some twentieth-century scholars have suggested that Shakespeare may have
been employed as a schoolmaster by Alexander Hoghton of Lancashire, a
Catholic landowner who named a certain "William Shakeshafte" in his will.
No evidence substantiates such stories other than hearsay collected after
London and theatrical career
It is not known exactly when Shakespeare began writing, but contemporary
allusions and records of performances show that several of his plays were on
the London stage by 1592.
He was well enough known in London by then to be attacked in print by the
playwright Robert Greene:
...there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with
his Tiger's heart wrapped in a Player's hide, supposes he is as
well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an
absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only
Shake-scene in a country.
Scholars differ on the exact meaning of these words,
but most agree that Greene is accusing Shakespeare of reaching above his
rank in trying to match university-educated writers, such as Christopher
Marlowe, Thomas Nashe and Greene himself.
The italicised phrase parodying the line "Oh, tiger's heart wrapped in a
woman's hide" from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 3, along with the pun
"Shake-scene", identifies Shakespeare as Greene’s target.
|"All the world's a stage,
the men and women merely players:
they have their exits and their entrances;
and one man in his time plays many parts..."
|As You Like It, Act II, Scene
Greene’s attack is the first recorded mention of Shakespeare’s career in
the theatre. Biographers suggest that his career may have begun any time
from the mid-1580s to just before Greene’s remarks.
From 1594, Shakespeare's plays were performed only by the Lord Chamberlain's
Men, a company owned by a group of players, including Shakespeare, that soon
became the leading playing company in London.
After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, the company was awarded a royal
patent by the new king, James I, and changed its name to the King's Men.
In 1599, a partnership of company members built their own theatre on the
south bank of the Thames, which they called the Globe. In 1608, the
partnership also took over the Blackfriars indoor theatre. Records of
Shakespeare's property purchases and investments indicate that the company
made him a wealthy man. In
1597, he bought the second-largest house in Stratford, New Place, and in
1605, he invested in a share of the parish tithes in Stratford.
Some of Shakespeare's plays were published in quarto editions from 1594.
By 1598, his name had become a selling point and began to appear on the
title pages. Shakespeare
continued to act in his own and other plays after his success as a
playwright. The 1616 edition of Ben Jonson's Works names him on the
cast lists for Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Sejanus, His
Fall (1603). The
absence of his name from the 1605 cast list for Jonson’s Volpone is
taken by some scholars as a sign that his acting career was nearing its end.
The First Folio of 1623, however, lists Shakespeare as one of "the Principal
Actors in all these Plays", some of which were first staged after Volpone,
although we cannot know for certain what roles he played.
In 1610, John Davies of Hereford wrote that "good Will" played "kingly"
roles. In 1709, Rowe
passed down a tradition that Shakespeare played the ghost of Hamlet's
father. Later traditions
maintain that he also played Adam in As You Like It and the Chorus in
Henry V, though
scholars doubt the sources of the information.
Shakespeare divided his time between London and Stratford during his
career. In 1596, the year before he bought New Place as his family home in
Stratford, Shakespeare was living in the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate,
north of the River Thames.
He moved across the river to Southwark by 1599, the year his company
constructed the Globe Theatre there.
By 1604, he had moved north of the river again, to an area north of St
Paul's Cathedral with many fine houses. There he rented rooms from a French
Huguenot called Christopher Mountjoy, a maker of ladies' wigs and other
Later years and death
After 1606–1607, Shakespeare wrote fewer plays, and none are attributed
to him after 1613. His
last three plays were collaborations, probably with John Fletcher,
who succeeded him as the house playwright for the King’s Men.
Rowe was the first biographer to pass down the tradition that Shakespeare
retired to Stratford some years before his death;
but retirement from all work was uncommon at that time,
and Shakespeare continued to visit London.
In 1612, he was called as a witness in a court case concerning the marriage
settlement of Mountjoy's daughter, Mary.
In March 1613, he bought a gatehouse in the Blackfriars priory;
and from November 1614, he was in London for several weeks with his
son-in-law, John Hall.
Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616,
and was survived by his wife and two daughters. Susanna had married a
physician, John Hall, in 1607,
and Judith had married Thomas Quiney, a vintner, two months before
|Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare,
To digg the dvst encloased heare.
Blest be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And cvrst be he yt moves my bones.
|Inscription on Shakespeare’s grave
In his will, Shakespeare left the bulk of his large estate to his elder
daughter Susanna. The
terms instructed that she pass it down intact to "the first son of her
body". The Quineys had
three children, all of whom died without marrying.
The Halls had one child, Elizabeth, who married twice but died without
children in 1670, ending Shakespeare’s direct line.
Shakespeare's will scarcely mentions his wife, Anne, who was probably
entitled to one third of his estate automatically. He did make a point,
however, of leaving her "my second best bed", a bequest that has led to much
speculation. Some scholars
see the bequest as an insult to Anne, whereas others believe that the
second-best bed would have been the matrimonial bed and therefore rich in
Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church two days
after his death. Sometime
before 1623, a monument was erected in his memory on the north wall, with a
half-effigy of him in the act of writing. Its plaque compares him to Nestor,
Socrates, and Virgil. A
stone slab covering his grave is inscribed with a curse against moving his
Scholars have often noted four periods in Shakespeare's writing career.
Until the mid-1590s, he wrote mainly comedies influenced by Roman and
Italian models and history plays in the popular chronicle tradition. His
second period began in about 1595 with the tragedy Romeo and Juliet
and ended with the tragedy of Julius Caesar in 1599. During this
time, he wrote what are considered his greatest comedies and histories. From
about 1600 to about 1608, his "tragic period", Shakespeare wrote mostly
tragedies, and from about 1608 to 1613, mainly tragicomedies, also called
The first recorded works of Shakespeare are Richard III and the
three parts of Henry VI, written in the early 1590s during a vogue
for historical drama. Shakespeare's plays are difficult to date, however,
and studies of the texts suggest that Titus Andronicus, The Comedy
of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew and Two Gentlemen of Verona
may also belong to Shakespeare’s earliest period.
His first histories, which draw heavily on the 1587 edition of Raphael
Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland,
dramatise the destructive results of weak or corrupt rule and have been
interpreted as a justification for the origins of the Tudor dynasty.
Their composition was influenced by the works of other Elizabethan
dramatists, especially Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe[c],
by the traditions of medieval drama, and by the plays of Seneca.
The Comedy of Errors was also based on classical models; but no
source for the The Taming of the Shrew has been found, though it is
related to a separate play of the same name and may have derived from a folk
story. Like Two
Gentlemen of Verona, in which two friends appear to approve of rape,
the Shrew's story of the taming of a woman's independent spirit by a
man sometimes troubles modern critics and directors.
Shakespeare's early classical and Italianate comedies, containing tight
double plots and precise comic sequences, give way in the mid-1590s to the
romantic atmosphere of his greatest comedies.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a witty mixture of romance, fairy magic,
and comic low-life scenes.
Shakespeare's next comedy, the equally romantic The Merchant of Venice,
contains a portrayal of the vengeful Jewish moneylender Shylock which
reflected Elizabethan views but may appear prejudiced to modern audiences.
The wit and wordplay of Much Ado About Nothing,
the charming rural setting of As You Like It, and the lively
merrymaking of Twelfth Night complete Shakespeare's sequence of great
comedies. After the
lyrical Richard II, written almost entirely in verse, Shakespeare
introduced prose comedy into the histories of the late 1590s, Henry IV,
parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. His characters become more
complex and tender as he switches deftly between comic and serious scenes,
prose and poetry, and achieves the narrative variety of his mature work.
This period begins and ends with two tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, the
famous romantic tragedy of sexually charged adolescence, love, and death;
and Julius Caesar—based on Sir Thomas North's 1579 translation of
Plutarch's Parallel Lives—which introduced a new kind of drama.
According to Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro, in Julius Caesar
"the various strands of politics, character, inwardness, contemporary
events, even Shakespeare's own reflections on the act of writing, began to
infuse each other".
Shakespeare's so-called "tragic period" lasted from about 1600 to 1608,
though he also wrote the so-called "problem plays" Measure for Measure,
Troilus and Cressida, and All's Well That Ends Well during
this time and had written tragedies before.
Many critics believe that Shakespeare's greatest tragedies represent the
peak of his art. The hero of the first, Hamlet, has probably been more
discussed than any other Shakespearean character, especially for his famous
soliloquy "To be or not to be; that is the question."
Unlike the introverted Hamlet, whose fatal flaw is hesitation, the heroes of
the tragedies that followed, Othello and King Lear, are undone by hasty
errors of judgement. The
plots of Shakespeare's tragedies often hinge on such fatal errors or flaws,
which overturn order and destroy the hero and those he loves.
In Othello, the villain Iago stokes Othello's sexual jealousy to the
point where he murders the innocent wife who loves him.
In King Lear, the old king commits the tragic error of giving up his
powers, initiating the events which lead to the murder of his daughter and
the torture and blinding of the Earl of Gloucester. According to the critic
Frank Kermode, "the play offers neither its good characters nor its audience
any relief from its cruelty".
In Macbeth, the shortest and most compressed of Shakespeare's
ambition incites Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, to murder the rightful
king and usurp the throne, until their own guilt destroys them in turn.
In this play, Shakespeare adds a supernatural element to the tragic
structure. His last major tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra and
Coriolanus, contain some of Shakespeare's finest poetry and were
considered his most successful tragedies by the poet and critic T. S. Eliot.
In his final period, Shakespeare turned to romance or tragicomedy and
completed three more major plays: Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale
and The Tempest, as well as the collaboration, Pericles, Prince of
Tyre. Less bleak than the tragedies, these four plays are graver in tone
than the comedies of the 1590s, but they end with reconciliation and the
forgiveness of potentially tragic errors.
Some commentators have seen this change in mood as evidence of a more serene
view of life on Shakespeare's part, but it may merely reflect the theatrical
fashion of the day.
Shakespeare collaborated on two further surviving plays, Henry VIII
and The Two Noble Kinsmen, probably with John Fletcher.
It is not clear for which companies Shakespeare wrote his early plays.
The title page of the 1594 edition of Titus Andronicus reveals that
the play had been acted by three different troupes.
After the plagues of 1592–3, Shakespeare's plays were performed by his own
company at The Theatre and the Curtain in Shoreditch, north of the Thames.
Londoners flocked there to see the first part of Henry IV, Leonard
Digges recording, "Let but Falstaff come, Hal, Poins, the rest...and you
scarce shall have a room".
When the company found themselves in dispute with their landlord, they
pulled The Theatre down and used the timbers to construct the Globe Theatre,
the first playhouse built by actors for actors, on the south bank of the
Thames at Southwark. The
Globe opened in autumn 1599, with Julius Caesar one of the first
plays staged. Most of Shakespeare's greatest post-1599 plays were written
for the Globe, including Hamlet, Othello and King Lear.
After the Lord Chamberlain's Men were renamed the King's Men in 1603,
they entered a special relationship with the new King James. Although the
performance records are patchy, the King's Men performed seven of
Shakespeare's plays at court between 1 November 1604 and 31 October 1605,
including two performances of The Merchant of Venice.
After 1608, they performed at the indoor Blackfriars Theatre during the
winter and the Globe during the summer.
The indoor setting, combined with the Jacobean fashion for lavishly staged
masques, allowed Shakespeare to introduce more elaborate stage devices. In
Cymbeline, for example, Jupiter descends "in thunder and lightning,
sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt. The ghosts fall on their
The actors in Shakespeare's company included the famous Richard Burbage,
William Kempe, Henry Condell and John Heminges. Burbage played the leading
role in the first performances of many of Shakespeare's plays, including
Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.
The popular comic actor Will Kempe played the servant Peter in Romeo and
Juliet and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, among other
characters. He was
replaced around the turn of the sixteenth century by Robert Armin, who
played roles such as Touchstone in As You Like It and the fool in
King Lear. In 1613,
Sir Henry Wotton recorded that Henry VIII "was set forth with many
extraordinary circumstances of pomp and ceremony".
On 29 June, however, a cannon set fire to the thatch of the Globe and burned
the theatre to the ground, an event which pinpoints the date of a
Shakespeare play with rare precision.
In 1623, John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare's friends
from the King's Men, published the First Folio, a collected edition of
Shakespeare's plays. It contained 36 texts, including 18 printed for the
first time. Many of the
plays had already appeared in quarto versions—flimsy books made from sheets
of paper folded twice to make four leaves.
No evidence suggests that Shakespeare approved these editions, which the
First Folio describes as "stol'n and surreptitious copies".
Alfred Pollard termed some of them "bad quartos" because of their adapted,
paraphrased or garbled texts, which may in places have been reconstructed
from memory. Where
several versions of a play survive, each differs from the other. The
differences may stem from copying or printing errors, from notes by actors
or audience members, or from Shakespeare's own papers.
In some cases, for example Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida and
Othello, Shakespeare could have revised texts between the quarto and
folio editions. The folio version of King Lear is so different from
the 1608 quarto that the Oxford Shakespeare prints them both, since
they cannot be conflated without confusion.
In 1593 and 1594, when the theatres were closed because of plague,
Shakespeare published two narrative poems on erotic themes, Venus and
Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. He dedicated them to Henry
Wriothesley, earl of Southampton. In Venus and Adonis, an innocent
Adonis rejects the sexual advances of Venus; while in The Rape of Lucrece,
the virtuous wife Lucrece is raped by the lustful Tarquin.
Influenced by Ovid's Metamorphoses,
the poems show the guilt and moral confusion that result from uncontrolled
lust. Both proved
popular and were often reprinted during Shakespeare's lifetime. A third
narrative poem, A Lover's Complaint, in which a young woman laments
her seduction by a persuasive suitor, was printed in the first edition of
the Sonnets in 1609. Most scholars now accept that Shakespeare wrote
A Lover's Complaint. Critics consider that its fine qualities are
marred by leaden effects.
The Phoenix and the Turtle, printed in Robert Chester's 1601
Love's Martyr, mourns the deaths of the legendary phoenix and his lover,
the faithful turtle dove. In 1599, two early drafts of sonnets 138 and 144
appeared in The Passionate Pilgrim, published under Shakespeare's
name but without his permission.
|"Shall I compare thee to a summer's
Thou art more lovely and more temperate..."
|Lines from Shakespeare's Sonnet 18.
Published in 1609, the Sonnets were the last of Shakespeare's
non-dramatic works to be printed. Scholars are not certain when each of the
154 sonnets was composed, but evidence suggests that Shakespeare wrote
sonnets throughout his career for a private readership.
Even before the two unauthorised sonnets appeared in The Passionate
Pilgrim in 1599, Francis Meres had referred in 1598 to Shakespeare's
"sugred Sonnets among his private friends".
Few analysts believe that the published collection follows Shakespeare's
intended sequence. He
seems to have planned two contrasting series: one about uncontrollable lust
for a married woman of dark complexion (the "dark lady"), and one about
conflicted love for a fair young man (the "fair youth"). It remains unclear
if these figures represent real individuals, or if the authorial "I" who
addresses them represents Shakespeare himself, though Wordsworth believed
that with the sonnets "Shakespeare unlocked his heart".
The 1609 edition was dedicated to a "Mr. W.H.", credited as "the only
begetter" of the poems. It is not known whether this was written by
Shakespeare himself or by the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, whose initials
appear at the foot of the dedication page; nor is it known who Mr. W.H. was,
despite numerous theories, or whether Shakespeare even authorised the
praise the Sonnets as a profound meditation on the nature of love,
sexual passion, procreation, death, and time.
Shakespeare's first plays were written in the conventional style of the
day. He wrote them in a stylised language that does not always spring
naturally from the needs of the characters or the drama.
The poetry depends on extended, sometimes elaborate metaphors and conceits,
and the language is often rhetorical—written for actors to declaim rather
than speak. The grand speeches in Titus Andronicus, in the view of
some critics, often hold up the action, for example; and the verse in Two
Gentlemen of Verona has been described as stilted.
Soon, however, Shakespeare began to adapt the traditional styles to his
own purposes. The opening soliloquy of Richard III has its roots in
the self-declaration of Vice in medieval drama. At the same time, Richard’s
vivid self-awareness looks forward to the soliloquies of Shakespeare's
mature plays. No single
play marks a change from the traditional to the freer style. Shakespeare
combined the two throughout his career, with Romeo and Juliet perhaps
the best example of the mixing of the styles.
By the time of Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, and A
Midsummer Night's Dream in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare had begun to write
a more natural poetry. He increasingly tuned his metaphors and images to the
needs of the drama itself.
Shakespeare's standard poetic form was blank verse, composed in iambic
pentameter. In practice, this meant that his verse was usually unrhymed and
consisted of ten syllables to a line, spoken with a stress on every second
syllable. The blank verse of his early plays is quite different from that of
his later ones. It is often beautiful, but its sentences tend to start,
pause, and finish at the end of lines, with the risk of monotony.
Once Shakespeare mastered traditional blank verse, he began to interrupt and
vary its flow. This technique releases the new power and flexibility of the
poetry in plays such as Julius Caesar and Hamlet. Shakespeare
uses it, for example, to convey the turmoil in Hamlet's mind:
- Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
- That would not let me sleep. Methought I lay
- Worse than the mutines in the bilboes. Rashly—
- And prais'd be rashness for it—let us know
- Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well...
After Hamlet, Shakespeare varied his poetic style further,
particularly in the more emotional passages of the late tragedies. The
literary critic A. C. Bradley described this style as "more concentrated,
rapid, varied, and, in construction, less regular, not seldom twisted or
elliptical". In the last
phase of his career, Shakespeare adopted many techniques to achieve these
effects. These included run-on lines, irregular pauses and stops, and
extreme variations in sentence structure and length.
In Macbeth, for example, the language darts from one unrelated
metaphor or simile to another: "was the hope drunk/ Wherein you dressed
yourself?" (1.7.35–38); "...pity, like a naked new-born babe/ Striding the
blast, or heaven's cherubim, hors'd/ Upon the sightless couriers of the
air..." (1.7.21–25). The listener is challenged to complete the sense.
The late romances, with their shifts in time and surprising turns of plot,
inspired a last poetic style in which long and short sentences are set
against one another, clauses are piled up, subject and object are reversed,
and words are omitted, creating an effect of spontaneity.
Shakespeare's poetic genius was allied with a practical sense of the
theatre. Like all
playwrights of the time, Shakespeare dramatised stories from sources such as
Petrarch and Holinshed.
He reshaped each plot to create several centres of interest and show as many
sides of a narrative to the audience as possible. This strength of design
ensures that a Shakespeare play can survive translation, cutting and wide
interpretation without loss to its core drama.
As Shakespeare’s mastery grew, he gave his characters clearer and more
varied motivations and distinctive patterns of speech. He preserved aspects
of his earlier style in the later plays, however. In his late romances, he
deliberately returned to a more artificial style, which emphasised the
illusion of theatre.
Shakespeare's work has made a lasting impression on later theatre and
literature. In particular, he expanded the dramatic potential of
characterisation, plot, language, and genre.
Until Romeo and Juliet, for example, romance had not been viewed as a
worthy topic for tragedy.
Soliloquies had been used mainly to convey information about characters or
events; but Shakespeare used them to explore characters' minds.
His work heavily influenced later poetry. The Romantic poets attempted to
revive Shakespearean verse drama, though with little success. Critic George
Steiner described all English verse dramas from Coleridge to Tennyson as
"feeble variations on Shakespearean themes."
Shakespeare influenced novelists such as Thomas Hardy,
William Faulkner, and
Charles Dickens. Dickens often quoted Shakespeare, drawing 25 of his titles
from Shakespeare's works.
The American novelist Herman Melville's soliloquies owe much to Shakespeare;
his Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick is a classic tragic hero, inspired by
Scholars have identified 20,000 pieces of music linked to Shakespeare's
works. These include two operas by Giuseppe Verdi, Otello and
Falstaff, whose critical standing compares with that of the source
plays. Shakespeare has
also inspired many painters, including the Romantics and the
Swiss Romantic artist Henry Fuseli, a friend of William Blake, even
translated Macbeth into German.
The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud drew on Shakespearean psychology, in
particular that of Hamlet, for his theories of human nature.
In Shakespeare's day, English grammar and spelling were less standardised
than they are now, and his use of language helped shape modern English.
Samuel Johnson quoted him more often than any other author in his A
Dictionary of the English Language, the first serious work of its type.
Expressions such as "with bated breath" (Merchant of Venice) and "a
foregone conclusion" (Othello) have found their way into everyday
Shakespeare was never revered in his lifetime, but he received his share
of praise. In 1598, the
cleric and author Francis Meres singled him out from a group of English
writers as "the most excellent" in both comedy and tragedy.
And the authors of the Parnassus plays at St John's College,
Cambridge, numbered him with Chaucer, Gower and Spenser.
In the First Folio, Ben Jonson called Shakespeare the "Soul of the age, the
applause, delight, the wonder of our stage", though he had remarked
elsewhere that "Shakespeare wanted art".
|"He was not of an age, but for all
Between the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the end of the
seventeenth century, classical ideas were in vogue. As a result, critics of
the time mostly rated Shakespeare below John Fletcher and Ben Jonson.
Thomas Rymer, for example, condemned Shakespeare for mixing the comic with
the tragic. Nevertheless, poet and critic John Dryden rated Shakespeare
highly, saying of Jonson, "I admire him, but I love Shakespeare".
For several decades, Rymer's view held sway; but during the eighteenth
century, critics began to respond to Shakespeare on his own terms and
acclaim what they termed his natural genius. A series of scholarly editions
of his work, notably those of Samuel Johnson in 1765 and Edmond Malone in
1790, added to his growing reputation.
By 1800, he was firmly enshrined as the national poet.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, his reputation also spread
abroad. Among those who championed him were the writers Voltaire, Goethe,
Stendhal and Victor Hugo.
During the Romantic era, Shakespeare was praised by the poet and literary
philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and the critic August Wilhelm Schlegel
translated his plays in the spirit of German Romanticism.
In the nineteenth century, critical admiration for Shakespeare's genius
often bordered on adulation.
"That King Shakespeare," the essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1840, "does
not he shine, in crowned sovereignty, over us all, as the noblest, gentlest,
yet strongest of rallying signs; indestructible".
The Victorians produced his plays as lavish spectacles on a grand scale.
The playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw mocked the cult of Shakespeare
worship as "bardolatry". He claimed that the new naturalism of Ibsen's plays
had made Shakespeare obsolete.
The modernist revolution in the arts during the early twentieth century,
far from discarding Shakespeare, eagerly enlisted his work in the service of
the avant garde. The Expressionists in Germany and the Futurists in Moscow
mounted productions of his plays. Marxist playwright and director Bertolt
Brecht devised an epic theatre under the influence of Shakespeare. The poet
and critic T. S. Eliot argued against Shaw that Shakespeare's
"primitiveness" in fact made him truly modern.
Eliot, along with G. Wilson Knight and the school of New Criticism, led a
movement towards a closer reading of Shakespeare's imagery. In the 1950s, a
wave of new critical approaches replaced modernism and paved the way for
"post-modern" studies of Shakespeare.
By the eighties, Shakespeare studies were open to movements such as
structuralism, feminism, African American studies, and queer studies.
Speculation about Shakespeare
Around 150 years after Shakespeare's death, doubts began to emerge about
the authorship of Shakespeare's works.
Alternative candidates proposed include Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe,
and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.
Although all alternative candidates are almost universally rejected in
academic circles, popular interest in the subject, particularly the
Oxfordian theory, has continued into the 21st century.
Some scholars claim that members of Shakespeare's family were Catholics,
at a time when Catholic practice was against the law.
Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, certainly came from a pious Catholic
family. The strongest evidence might be a Catholic statement of faith signed
by John Shakespeare, found in 1757 in the rafters of his former house in
Henley Street. The document is now lost, however, and scholars differ on its
authenticity. In 1591,
the authorities reported that John had missed church "for fear of process
for debt", a common Catholic excuse.
In 1606, William's daughter Susanna was listed among those who failed to
attend Easter communion in Stratford.
Scholars find evidence both for and against Shakespeare's Catholicism in his
plays, but the truth may be impossible to prove either way.
Few details of Shakespeare's sexuality are known. At 18, he married the
26-year-old Anne Hathaway, who was pregnant. Susanna, the first of their
three children, was born six months later on 26 May 1583. However, over the
centuries readers have pointed to Shakespeare's sonnets as evidence of his
love for a young man. Others read the same passages as the expression of
intense friendship rather than sexual love.
At the same time, the twenty-six so-called "Dark Lady" sonnets, addressed to
a married woman, are taken as evidence of heterosexual liaisons.
List of works
Classification of the plays
Shakespeare's works include the 36 plays printed in the First Folio of
1623, listed below according to their folio classification as comedies,
histories and tragedies.
Shakespeare did not write every word of the plays attributed to him; and
several show signs of collaboration, a common practice at the time.
Two plays not included in the First Folio, The Two Noble Kinsmen and
Pericles, Prince of Tyre, are now accepted as part of the canon, with
scholars agreed that Shakespeare made a major contribution to their
composition. No poems
were included in the First Folio.
In the late nineteenth century, Edward Dowden classified four of the late
comedies as romances, and though many scholars prefer to call them
tragicomedies, his term is often used.
These plays and the associated Two Noble Kinsmen are marked with an
asterisk (*) below. In 1896, Frederick S. Boas coined the term "problem
plays" to describe four plays: All's Well That Ends Well, Measure
for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet.
"Dramas as singular in theme and temper cannot be strictly called comedies
or tragedies", he wrote. "We may therefore borrow a convenient phrase from
the theatre of today and class them together as Shakespeare's problem
plays." The term, much
debated and sometimes applied to other plays, remains in use, though
Hamlet is definitively classed as a tragedy.
The other problem plays are marked below with a double dagger (‡).
Plays thought to be only partly written by Shakespeare are marked with a
dagger (†) below. Other works occasionally attributed to him are listed as
lost plays or apocrypha.
- All's Well That Ends Well‡
- As You Like It
- The Comedy of Errors
- Love's Labour's Lost
- Measure for Measure
- The Merchant of Venice
- The Merry Wives of Windsor
- A Midsummer Night's Dream
- Much Ado About Nothing
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre
- The Taming of the Shrew
- The Tempest
- Twelfth Night, or What You Will
- The Two Gentlemen of Verona
- The Two Noble Kinsmen
- The Winter's Tale
- King John
- Richard II
- Henry IV, part 1
- Henry IV, part 2
- Henry V
- Henry VI, part 1
- Henry VI, part 2
- Henry VI, part 3
- Richard III
- Henry VIII
- Romeo and Juliet
- Titus Andronicus
- Julius Caesar
- Troilus and Cressida
- King Lear
- Antony and Cleopatra
- Shakespeare's Sonnets
- Venus and Adonis
- The Rape of Lucrece
- The Passionate Pilgrim
- The Phoenix and the Turtle
- A Lover's Complaint
- Lost plays
- Love's Labour's Won
- Arden of Faversham
- The Birth of Merlin
- The London Prodigal
- The Puritan
- The Second Maiden's Tragedy
- Sir John Oldcastle
- Thomas Lord Cromwell
- A Yorkshire Tragedy
- Edward III
- Sir Thomas More
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