The Personality of William Shakespeare
Getting to Know the Literary Legend that is William Shakespeare
“The golden age is before us, not behind us.”
The man bestowed upon us some 884,647 words. Some were famous plays. Others were lesser known poems. If it is at all possible to best describe the man, it is likely with this one fact: though Shakespeare lived approximately 400 years ago, his legacy remains alive today. It is remarkable how so much of what we know of 16th century drama comes from Shakespeare. Though much of his life is shrouded in mystery, the Bard’s spirit lives on, and will continue to do so for centuries to come.
Beyond his works of genius, it is Shakespeare’s relatively obscure life that fascinates experts.
For someone so famous, there is little documented evidence about William Shakespeare’s life compared to other literary greats. The lack of explanation for so many aspects of his life evokes a unique mystery that will continue to enthrall lovers of literature.
The spelling of his name, the nature of his marriage, his relationship with his children, where he lived during certain periods of his life – all this and much more puzzle scholars today. Even his appearance cannot be verified. The Cobbe portrait may have depicted our history’s literary legend. Named after the fact that it hung in Dublin’s Cobbe family home, the portrait was only discovered as recently as 2009, thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. No one knows who painted the portrait, and its authenticity is disputed among Shakespeare and art historians. Nevertheless, the Cobbe portrait holds incredible significance as a recently discovered painting of what may well be our literary hero.
Another likely depiction of the literary legend is the Chandos portrait. The Chandos portrait shows a man with a charming look, and for lack of a better term, a certain coolness to him. He sported a single earring, which would be considered quite fashionable and counter to any conventional trends of the sixteenth century. Many thought him too Jewish or Italian looking to be Shakespeare, the Englishman. Nonetheless, it could well be the man behind literally countless plays and sonnets. In the picture, he wears all black, a sign of prosperity. This aligns with what scholars know about the man. He was financially successful, even despite the dark clouds of plague and war in Elizabethan times.
His personality as a creative, open-minded, and ambitious man was no doubt shaped by his family, his colleagues, the theatre groups he belonged to, and the high status he ultimately won.
But scholars have long sought to fill the critical gaps of Shakespeare’s still unknown life. They would, and continue to, grasp at small facts and interpret them significantly, sometimes to the point of outright lies. But who could blame them for such wishful thinking? Unfortunately, it is more likely than not that people will not learn any more about the genius’s adventures. But what fans of the Bard can do is continue to enjoy his wondrous works.
Read on to explore the magical world of Shakespeare. Find out which personality type he was and what made him tick. Discover the life of a young William and how his childhood growing up in Stratford, England may have impacted his future career. Discover which school he likely went to and what subjects he studied. Analyse his family life, love stories and relationships, and the questions surrounding his religious and political beliefs. Get lost in the mystery of his famous “lost years,” along with the dramatist’s rise to fame in London, the incredible honour bestowed upon him by royalty, his most prominent playing companies, and his associations with famous theatres. Become immersed in his most compelling and well-known plays and understand their influence today. Identify what truly makes a piece of work Shakespearian, from his iambic pentameter to his inventive cross-genre style. Study his final years. Navigate through his legacy by reading about his literary rivals and the numerous film adaptations of his plays. Attempt to unlock the mystery that is the many Shakespearian authorship theories. Marvel at the everlasting imprint the Englishman secured in literary history.
William Shakespeare’s Personality
“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”
Although historical evidence is very limited, William Shakespeare likely fell into the Mediator personality type according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Mediators are curious beings. They will often think deeply about philosophical questions, and they seek to understand human connections and emotions. Thus, Mediators are empathetic and sensitive while also very capable of communicating in unique ways, not least art. Ultimately, Mediators continuously seek human understanding, and if they do not create, they become unhappy.
Through piecing together all evidence – from legal documents to his extraordinary artistic output – we can gather that Shakespeare was not only a driven and creative individual, but also someone who embraced his uniqueness. Of course, the man is known for society’s classic plays, sharing his brilliant gift to create imaginative worlds that take the audience on a journey of a lifetime. His independent nature was reflected in his works. For the time, his plays were something audiences had never seen before. He invented new words and phrases that have lasted centuries. Shakespeare understood the needs of his audience and delivered beyond expectations.
It is also thought that Shakespeare was a man of much knowledge. In addition to being a wordsmith, he was very open-minded to other academic subjects, which fits nicely into the Mediator personality type. He has shown knowledge of medicine, law, horticulture, and astronomy throughout his plays. Though he had an appetite for learning, that does not mean he was a true academic. From time to time, he would also make mistakes on these subjects, indicating that he was perhaps a little too eager. As the Shakespearean scholar Stanley Wells puts it, “Even in his greatest plays, we sometimes sense him struggling with plot at the expense of language, or allowing his pen to run away with him in speeches of greater length than the situation warrants.” However, what Shakespeare fan would ever fault his haste?
In addition, Shakespeare’s work ethic illustrated that he was a man who followed his own path. He juggled being a playwright, actor, director, and even part-owner of the Globe Theatre. Even though continuing to act and turning to plays from poems was not the most lucrative career path for those in the entertainment world at the time, he persisted in doing what he loved, and in turn, he reinvented theatre as Elizabethans knew it. He gained respect as a unique talent and even received a coat of arms. His stubbornness remained consistent, to the point where documents show he defaulted on paying taxes two years in a row, despite clearly having the means to pay them.
The dramatist was very giving as well. Though he had much success as England’s most famous poet and playwright, it did not seem to go to his head. He would lend money more than the average man at the time, yet was also wise enough not to lend too much. Not only would he provide to his family, as shown in his will, but also to his fellow countrymen. He clearly cared about the audience he wrote for.
Mediators‘ empathetic nature and constant philosophical yearnings are not just qualities that shape incredible art. These personality types are also often subject to feeling lost and without hope. They can go to a very dark place quickly and feel overwhelmed. But many Mediators use their most miserable times, such as when they experience grief or heartbreak, as fuel to their fire in producing their most ingenious and touching works. This is reflected in Shakespeare’s plays. He wrote much of suicide, expressing to the audience that he may have understood such despair himself. He created classic comedies while England was in deep turmoil, as the effects of the plague and war spread throughout the country. Most poignant of all, after burying his son at the age of only eleven, Shakespeare wrote some of the most touching lines about grief in history in King John. The man used his deepest of wounds to express himself and to help heal others.
The Early Years of William Shakespeare
“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”
England in the Sixteenth Century
Understanding the ways of life in sixteenth century England is essential to understanding Shakespeare and his life’s work. The socio-political landscape shaped his writing, just as art today is often deeply associated with what surrounds the artist. Queen Elizabeth reined for five years before Shakespeare was born and would continue for nearly forty more. From the time of his birth, 1564, until around 1592, England was in deep turmoil. Throughout the country and especially in heavily populated areas, the plague had taken numerous people’s lives, leading to a drastically decreasing population. Other diseases ran rampant across the country as well, with leprosy being a significant contributor to the declining population. Minor cuts led to deadly infections, and low harvests led to malnutrition and the starvation of many. Shakespeare’s first major accomplishment was outlasting the nastiest outbreak of the plague in 1564, and living throughout his childhood simply without dying, as so many others had done.
The Ancestry of Shakespeare
William Shakespeare would not have become England’s national poet without the array of life experiences that led his family together. Robert Arden and Agnes Hill were Shakespeare’s maternal grandparents. From their eight children, their youngest, Mary, would become the mother of the famous dramatist. Among the noble Catholic families of the time, his mother’s side of the family was offered land by the first Norman monarch of England, William the Conqueror. Mary would inherit a portion of the land in Wilmecote at the age of sixteen, supporting her financial future and presumably leading her to live a comfortable yet humble life before ever meeting her future husband, John Shakespeare.
Richard Shakespeare, the paternal grandfather to William Shakespeare, was a farmer in a small village near the poet’s hometown of Stratford. The Ardens and the Shakespeares already held a connection as Robert Arden’s land was the plot at which Richard Shakespeare farmed. Like his grandson, Richard was also stubborn by nature. Authorities would frequent the farm, citing him for his cattle overgrazing on public land.
Shakespeare’s Birth and Childhood
John and Mary Shakespeare married in 1557 and lived in Stratford, England. The couple had two girls who, sadly, did not survive as infants. Soon after, the Shakespeare household welcomed William into the world. He was the oldest brother to five siblings: two sisters and three brothers. Since his birth date is not known precisely, it is estimated that he came into the world on 23 April 1564 through reviewing traditions such as his baptism record, which proved that baby William was christened on 26 April 1564.
Though historians do not know the exact details of the great playwright’s birth, it likely went something like this. A midwife supported Mary in giving birth to her son. He was cradled in cloth and then given to his mother, who would likely have placed some honey and butter into his mouth, a regional tradition. After being cleaned and introduced to his father, the couple had their son baptised at the Church of the Holy Trinity, at which the poet would also be buried. John Shakespeare likely held his son on the way to the church, as traditionally, women did not attend English baptisms.
Throughout his career, John Shakespeare rose in authority, building his business as a leatherworker and then becoming the high bailiff of Stratford when the young William was around five years old. William’s father held many responsibilities as a high bailiff, one of which included approving performance budgets for the town, when actors would come through to entertain crowds. As he grew up, this was likely William’s first exposure to theatre, and it would be safe to assume he saw many plays, fueling inspiration early on to become an actor and playwright. Though his father was accused of several fraudulent activities (some proven and some not), it was surely to his father that we owe William Shakespeare’s initial love for the theatre.
William grew up in Stratford, which at the time was surrounded by depleting forests as the timber industry took off. The forest became a symbol of the old times – one of strength and home. This is shown in Shakespeare’s plays, as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It depict the forest as a haven for dreams and memories.
Shakespeare and his Education
A young William Shakespeare was set up well for his later artistic success. He likely attended the nearby grammar school, King’s New School, located in the Guild Hall. Compared to other English schools for boys, it was an academically strong institution. The town citizens contributed generously to the school, allowing the schoolboys an even better experience than that of the boys attending Westminster School in London, who had to endure windowless rooms and less than desirable food. That said, Shakespeare likely went through what most English schoolchildren endured at that age: long and numerous school days. This, coupled with the school’s orientation to reading and writing as opposed to other subjects, led Shakespeare to gain a rather outstanding education for the time. He would have studied many Latin plays, continuing his early exposure to the world of theatre. The classes not only studied these plays, but would even perform them themselves. It was common among English schools at the time to regularly participate in school productions. It was considered a fundamental aspect of a boy’s education. King’s New School even had an annual tradition of a Christmas production.
William most likely ended his education at the age of fifteen. The seven to eight years’ worth of reading, writing, memorising and acting set him up for success early, and success he certainly went on to have. One may speculate that the future playwright dreamed of a successful career in the world of English theatre, both as creative and a financial success. He must have passed his future home of New Place, one of the largest and most expensive homes in Stratford, every day when he walked to school, dreaming of what his future held.
Shakespeare’s Family Life and Relationships
“Love sought is good, but given unsought, is better.”
Shakespeare and His Family
26-year-old Anne Hathaway and 18-year-old William Shakespeare married with haste in 1582, as Anne had already been pregnant with their first child. A typical 18-year-old boy would not marry until much later, so whether it was love, the pregnancy, or both, the urgency for marriage among the two has led to much speculation about their relationship. The pair had three children: a daughter named Susanna in 1583 and twins Hamnet and Judith in 1585. The unfortunate passing of his only son at the age of eleven left the couple with their two girls, thus ending the Shakespeare family name.
Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway: A Booming Relationship or Fading Love?
Though the nature of the marriage can only be speculated upon, some historians believe that Anne’s mention in Shakespeare’s sonnets implies their love to be quite passionate. Although Hathaway was famously left his second-best bed at Shakespeare’s death, the fact is not enough to assume anything, one way or another. It actually would have been an honourable item to leave behind in those days, as it was probably the bed that the couple shared. Shakespeare frequently sent money home to his family when he worked in London, so he did care for them or at least held a certain degree of responsibility. Love is a central theme is many of his plays and poems, signalling his devotion to his own relationships.
But many question why he moved away from the family, which could have been a sign of the two falling out of love. When his plays are analysed deeply, it is clear that love as a theme is not necessarily always joyous for his characters. Shakespeare presented love in a tragic and challenging way. His only seemingly happily married characters throughout his works are arguably Claudius and Gertrude in Hamlet, and perhaps Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. Nonetheless, people struggle to believe that the man who depicted the most treasured sentiments of love and devotion in his works did not possess that same feeling in his own marriage.
Did Shakespeare’s Sonnets Cause Scandal?
Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Never Before Imprinted was revealed to the public in 1609, at the tail end of his career. But historians are curious as to Shakespeare’s role in its publishing. The sonnets are very personal and romantic, unlike his plays. It also holds an odd title meant to lure readers in with potential secrets of his life. The book is dedicated to a “Mr. W.H.” In all likelihood, we will never know who this person is in reference to, but we can clearly see that it was a man.
Many thought the dedication was to the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wrisley. He and Shakespeare mingled in similar circles. They could have met at the theatre, as Southampton regularly attended plays and was apparently quite the socialite. During a particularly horrid outbreak of the plague in 1593, some scholars think Shakespeare spent his time working as Southampton’s secretary. Other possibilities are their associations through Lord Strange, a patron the dramatist worked for in his early career, or through John Florio, the Earl’s language tutor. Shakespeare’s poem, Rape of Lucrece was publicly dedicated to Wrisley, further implying there may have been more than a patron and poet relationship. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Never Before Imprinted are essentially love poems and include the famous lines:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”
An analysis of the poetry implies that Shakespeare was gay or bisexual. It certainly was a possibility. If Wrisley was revealed as Shakespeare’s lover or anyone else was proven to be Mr. W.H., it could have caused a dramatic scandal for him and his family. Aside from the obvious embarrassment of adultery, the seventeenth century saw a rise in Puritanism, which strictly condemned homosexuality.
The Death of Shakespeare’s Loved Ones
Though death was prevalent among the young, that did not mean it hurt any less. Shakespeare experienced those close to him pass throughout his life, beginning with his younger sister, Anne, who sadly died at the age of seven. His son, Hamnet, passed away when he was just eleven years old. The cause of death is unknown, but since antibiotics did not yet exist, his son could have passed from any number of diseases or infections. The family buried Hamnet on 11 August 1596. Though we will never know how Shakespeare grieved the loss of his son, we can look at his writing at the time for guidance. His play, King John states:
“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.”
When his father died in 1601, Shakespeare visited Stratford more often to see his mother. This may have significantly impacted the themes of family reunions and reconciliations in his plays to come.
Shakespeare and Religion
“Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.”
Shakespeare’s Religious Beliefs
In the 16th century, England transitioned from a Catholic society to a Protestant one. It is unclear how much religion mattered to William Shakespeare, but it is suggested that he was a devout Catholic in his adult years, but not so much as to expose his beliefs too publicly. In fact, the shifting course of religion throughout the age saw many citizens simply adhere to the recognised religion of the day, depending on how strictly the laws of the land were being enforced.
When William was a child, the Shakespeare family clearly was or appeared to be Protestant. Despite appearances, there is some evidence to suggest that William’s father had formally declared himself a Catholic at some point in his life. His maternal grandfather, Robert Arden, was the head of a prominent Catholic family as “The Ardens of Park Hall,” and William’s paternal grandfather was public in his devotion to the religion even when it was deemed dangerous to do so.
As for William, more evidence of his Catholicism is found in his social circle. His patron, Lord Strange, was known to sympathise with Catholics. The Earl of Southampton was thought of as a sympathiser as well, even so much that some thought of the Earl as a symbol of an underground Catholic circle of worshippers. Scholars vary on whether or not his plays even made references to the Bible. Some thought he made so many allusions to it to suggest he was a profoundly religious man. Other historians believe the complete opposite. One thing is sure: people will not stop speculating the man’s spirituality.
Shakespeare’s Lost Years (1585-1592)
Shakespeare’s so-called “lost years” could offer an insight into his spiritual beliefs. Ironically, among the considerable gaps already lamented over regarding Shakespeare’s life, there is also a period titled his “lost years”, in which historians can only piece together small strokes of potential evidence to draw broad conclusions. The lost years of 1585-1592 could, however, offer a glimpse into his religious beliefs. He possibly travelled to Lancashire, England. The town is in the northern region of the country. At the time, it was more conducive for Catholics to practise in secret than London or Stratford. It is thought that if he did head north before his official move to the city, he was a tutor or an actor. The man would likely have crossed paths with Catholic missionaries Robert Parsons and Edmund Campion. The two were known to convert many to the religion and could have influenced Shakespeare or verified his existing beliefs.
Shakespeare in London
“We know what we are, but not what we may be.”
London in the Late Sixteenth Century: A Defining Moment in Literary History
Trumpets blare throughout the city. A banner ripples through the air. Citizens of all incomes and ages flock to the stage. As the audience takes their position accordingly, wealthy patrons enjoy tobacco, and people stare at an almost empty stage. When the clock strikes 2:00 pm, all-male actors hit the scene in elaborate costumes, beginning the show. Thus, London’s working people saw a sight that Shakespeare enthusiasts would envy for centuries to come.
This was the typical scene in London theatre, and Shakespeare became front and centre of it all as he emerged as the city’s newest young talent. One could only imagine the excitement that must have swept through Shakespeare’s mind as he entered London, likely sometime in the late 1580s. The city was dense and populated. It was a bustling scene compared to other parts of England. It was the centre for the emerging theatre scene and full of life, showcasing Peele, Kyd, and Marlowe’s fashionable dramas. Acting companies found much success, with the primary groups at the time being the Admiral’s Company and the Queen’s Men. Despite the lively entertainment, London only spanned five kilometres long at its furthest. It was quite a lot of creation and innovation compacted into what we now would consider a very small town.
Arriving in London as an anonymous poet and transforming into a national star, Shakespeare became very familiar with the unique and thriving city. He spent most of his career there and named title pages after some of London’s main roads. He lived in various neighbourhoods, with residences in Shoreditch, Southwark, Blackfriars, and Bishopgate. Even a small part of these communities was exceedingly larger than his hometown. The size of a London theatre would have housed more people than the entire population of Stratford.
Thousands of new books had been published in the city. Shakespeare must have known the bookstores Paternoster Row and St. Paul’s Churchyard quite well. Theatres were built as intimate spaces, allowing patrons to have a quality entertainment experience. The Royal Exchange held frequent concerts for Londoners in the summertime. Theatres such as the Cross Keys Inn, the Curtain, and the Theatre were at their peak. From taverns and eating houses to archery competitions in the north and small play productions in the forests just outside the city, it is clear that London was at the centre of Shakespeare’s inspiration.
Shakespeare and the Lord Strange’s Men
Before Shakespeare joined one of his first acting companies, Lord Strange’s Men, the group had been performing for five to ten years and had been quite successful. Historians have considered Lord Strange’s Men as more popular than other companies at the time, citing that their presumably most significant rival, Leicester’s Men, split as their patron had passed away. Their success continued as actors from the rival group aimed to join the Lord Strange’s Men. And, of course, they had Shakespeare as an actor and playwright. It is thought that the poet joined the group toward the end of their prime in the late 1580s or early 1590s, when the troop performed at least one of the dramatist’s famous works of the Henry VI series. Many scholars believe Shakespeare was involved in their play, A Knack to Know a Knave. Throughout England, the group shared a piece of the hustle and bustle of London with small towns like Coventry and Beverley.
Shakespeare and the Beginning of Fame
Scholars continue to seek to understand exactly how Shakespeare got his start in the theatre business. There are theories that he was an actor in Lancashire and that he may have crossed paths with an acting troop on his travels. Ultimately, they will likely never know. Fortunately, records show an approximate time he arrived in England, which was no later than 1592, as that was the year of the first official documentation of William Shakespeare as an actor and playwright, as described as a “Shake-scene” by his rival Robert Greene. The tone of Greene’s comment was to be taken as an insult, indeed bestowing peak relevancy upon William Shakespeare. Henry VI, Part 3 was among the writer’s earliest performed plays, and in 1593 he presented the poem Venus and Adonis. These quick releases of adored works led the once unrecognisable man to rise to the top of English theatre so fast that it shook the city of London and beyond.
Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, named in 1603 as the King’s Men, was Shakespeare’s most prominent playing company. It comprised of principle actors Will Kemp, Thomas Pope, John Heminges, and Augustine Phillips. The group performed his works for most of his career. This company stands out from all others Shakespeare has had a hand in. Not only did the group embody Shakespearian theatre, but the actors became lifelong friends of the dramatist. Without two particular members, the world today would be deprived of eighteen of Shakespeare’s works, as first published in the First Folio after his death. The playing company continued to cherish their intimate friend’s spirit even after death until 1642, an uncommonly long time to perform. The group of men claimed the most significant stake in English theatre’s identity, showcasing the most well recognised and beloved plays of all time and raising the status of actors in society for years to come.
Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre
The group opened the famous Globe Theatre in 1599 and dominated the new world of theatre in a booming city for the arts. Classics Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, and Antony and Cleopatra were all showcased at the Globe. Delayed construction and financial disputes led The Lord Chamberlain’s Men to co-own the Globe. Each principal actor, including Shakespeare, owned one-tenth of the soon prosperous theatre. A fire burned down the famous theatre in 1613, which was rebuilt the following year, only to be ultimately closed in late 1642 by the Puritans. Shakespeare’s unique opportunity to become so closely associated with the Globe likely allowed for more creative freedom and control, something artists always aspire for. It is estimated that a whopping eighty per cent of scenes that he wrote for this theatre did not need any props, thus proving the precise imagination of Shakespeare’s art.
Shakespeare and his Work
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”
Shakespeare Turned Ordinary into Extraordinary
A notable element of the literary genius’s career was his immediate rise to fame. It took him less than a decade to become a very well-known and well-rounded writer and performer. That said, much of his swift ability to write plays would perhaps stem from pulling from other plot points, characters, and dialogue and transforming someone else’s thoughts into a Shakespearian masterpiece. Notable examples are Romeo and Juliet, primarily based on Aurthur Brook’s poem titled, The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet (which was also pulled from an Italian author’s work) and As You Like It was a reworking of Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde. As the author, Bill Bryson puts it, “What Shakespeare did, of course, was take pedestrian pieces of work and show them with distinction and, very often, greatness.”
Shakespeare’s Unique and Masterful Writing Style
Characteristics that are unique to Shakespeare further illuminate his genius and creativity. The iambic pentameter, as shown in the poet’s sonnets, is a prime example of this. The style is so close to natural English that it is viewed as the perfect form for the language. “Iamb” refers to the beat in between emphasised syllables. In fitting poetic form, the iamb has been compared to a beating heart. Pentameter refers to the five groups of the emphasised and unemphasised syllables. Together, the iambic pentameter generates the masterful pattern of ten syllables, which famously comprise Shakespeare’s poems.
Beyond the iambic pentameter, Shakespeare wrote in fluid motions composing balanced thoughts of one idea along with the reverse of that same idea. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard describes it as the “art of writing lines, replies, which express a passion with full tone and complete imaginative intensity, and in which you can none the less catch the resonance of its opposite—this is an art which no poet has practiced except the unique poet, Shakespeare.” He composed fewer rhymes and focused more on rhythm. He played with grammar, invented new diction, flipped words used as nouns to become verbs, wrote in fragments or run-on verses – all to bring to life the emotions he wished to convey.
He was versatile not only in his use of language, but in his substance. Shakespeare wrote tragedies, histories, and comedies, exploring numerous subjects to produce themes of love, loss, and legacy. He alluded to current events in his plays, and in doing so, became quite the political influencer. As Queen Elizabeth reigned, her potential succession plans were the talk of the town. It was illegal to inquire about the queen’s successorship, but the subject of royal succession often appeared in the dramatist’s works. Later on, his plays would not just reflect current events but directly connect to them. Under King James’s reign, Shakespeare’s acting company would contribute to English patriotism under the monarchy through the accurately named playing company, King’s Men.
Shakespeare and his Most Influential Story: Hamlet
Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s most popular play. It is viewed as the most significant play in history, and its influence can be found everywhere, from the fifty renditions of the play to modern pop culture. Any analysis of Shakespeare would not be complete without an overview of his most important and compelling piece of work about a prince navigating through duty, revenge, and human existence.
When Hamlet is faced with his father’s murder by his own uncle’s hands, the character immediately faces the duty to avenge him. But his constant questioning of which actions to undertake broadens to reflections about the world around him. The ultimate philosophical questions surrounding destiny versus free choice are unleashed upon the audience as Hamlet navigates his internal existential struggle. His investigation of his father’s murder tips off his uncle Claudius. Unhappiness, grief, and war pain Hamlet as he navigates his tough questions of life. Political troubles loom over Hamlet’s country. Hamlet’s family has been torn apart and is headed down a dangerous path. The prince is genuinely depressed and in despair, as shown in his lines, “O that this too, too sullied flesh would melt.”
The Ghost of the old king pressures the prince to avenge his father. This action seemingly would help his mother get rid of his uncle as the corrupt king and allow Hamlet to take the throne. But as the audience sees Hamlet spiral into a further internal struggle, it is clear the actual conflict is with himself. He claims to be deranged, insists on additional evidence of his uncle’s wrongdoing, becomes paranoid that the Ghost of the old king was lying to him, and continues to dwell on his duties to his family and country. These actions extend the delay in avenging his father.
The audience sees the progression of Hamlet’s fake madness to true madness. Pressure builds to the point where he contemplates suicide, illustrated from the famous line, “To be or not to be—that is the question.” Hamlet displays his disdain for the roles women play in marriage, which deepens the audience’s understanding of his motives for avenging his father. His uncle caused a rift in his relationship with his mother, which Claudius further displayed, suggesting Hamlet should leave due to his dangerous behaviour.
Finally, it becomes apparent that Hamlet’s uncle is guilty of the crime. But it is too late, for Hamlet is not in a sane state of mind, and the very question of how to avenge his father’s death brought him face to face with his true enemy: himself. The prince digs himself deeper as he accuses his mother of taking part in the murder and goes back and forth as to what to do. He eventually ends up making a fatal mistake. Hamlet acts so impulsively that instead of killing his uncle, he kills Polonius.
Polonius’s murder sparks another chain of events leading up to the horrific ending of the play. Hamlet’s conflict never settles. Instead, more death and madness ensue all around him. Finally, Hamlet is so mad and so deep into the intriguing yet destructive philosophical question of the meaning of life that he still cannot decide whether he should kill himself. Hamlet dies by poisoning but does kill his uncle in his final moments. Hamlet dies, killing his uncle in his final moments, but his eternal questions live on.
Hamlet mimics Shakespeare’s treasured perspective on life’s most universal yet complex questions. The theme of the failure to truly know life’s realities is reflected throughout the play. Hamlet delays avenging his father with excuse after excuse. He claims he does not have enough information. It is impossible for the character to be sure of what happened and which course of action to take in order to resolve the central conflict of the play. Hamlet’s seemingly impossible journey to find these answers plays on the most human element of desire for clarity. The play also expands on the theme of indecisiveness through its meticulous dissection of what it means to take action. The audience sees Hamlet struggle between the various factors weighing on his decisions, including his emotions, paranoid thoughts, and logic.
Death is also at the centre of Hamlet’s story. It is central to the concept of uncertainty and is intensified in Hamlet’s mind as he spirals into insanity. From the beginning of the play’s murder of Hamlet’s father to the play’s tragic end, Shakespeare uses the despair and mystery surrounding death to capture the audience. To understand the meaning of death is to understand the importance of life, and Shakespeare uses this notion as the centerpiece to this historic tragedy.
Shakespeare also alludes to performance to falsify one’s actions and feelings and, alternatively, to evoke truth and reality. As Hamlet’s story goes on, the audience becomes uncertain of what is authentic and performative. He claims madness, then truly becomes mad. But when does it begin, and when does it end? Was he mad all along? Is his madness logical, given his current circumstances? If so, where is the line between sane and insane? What does this teach us about the previously described theme of uncertainty? What is magical about Shakespeare’s talent is that he captivates his audience, making them feel what his characters feel.
Shakespeare and the Tragedy and Legacy of Macbeth
Another influential tragedy written by Shakespeare is Macbeth. Shakespeare explores corruption, morality, power, and ambition to paint a picture that mimics countless societies even to this day.
From beginning to end, this play is packed full of the consequences of seeking power. Macbeth, a nobleman, meets three dark witches who bestow upon the Scotsman his future as the Thane of Cawdor and eventually the King of Scotland. As Macbeth realises the truth in the first of these prophecies, he dwells on his next moves regarding seizing the throne. He is stuck between his wife, Lady Macbeth, who urges him to claim the throne, and the current King Duncan. In another sense, he’s stuck between his own ambition and his fear of its consequences. But his wife successfully manipulates him to kill the king and fulfil the prophecy.
When Macbeth becomes king, it is apparent to the audience that he feels he must continue to possess this power. But the people around him begin to question if he seized the throne through corrupt means. This leads to Macbeth instrumenting Banquo and his son’s deaths. At this point in the play, the audience sees the shift between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The man who now sits on the throne has thrown away his indecision and becomes confident that he must remain in power – no matter what it takes. As for his wife, Lady Macbeth has shifted her ferocious thinking into yearning for her husband to choose inaction. Once, he was a man who questioned himself and his longing for power, but was held back by his loyalties and consciousness. Now Macbeth is the central ruinous figure of the play and must be destroyed in the eyes of many.
However, this does not thwart the king’s efforts to grasp his control. As he arranges for another murder, this time of Macduff’s family, the play heightens even more in its conflict. Macbeth holds on to his dangerous ambition for so long that he slowly drowns in loss. His influence plummets. His control disappears. And he even loses his beloved Lady Macbeth.
Macbeth’s faith in the witches’ prophecies is what eventually destroys him. He finally understands that the witches did not predict his rise to the top as a glorious and happy journey, but sadly, he realises this only as he faces death. As King Malcolm takes the throne after Macbeth passes away, the country is seemingly on the path to a better future.
Shakespeare’s depiction of ambition as a dangerous and corruptible quality has become a central principle in countless stories. Macbeth cannot balance his overwhelming decisiveness when he is king and ultimately is his own worst enemy. The playwright shows the audience the greed that comes with a little power. As Macbeth makes one terrible decision, he spirals into more due to fear and paranoia. As for Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare displays her transformation as a driven and power-hungry woman who pulls back from her bloodthirsty urges and tries to tame her husband’s new ways. Shakespeare explores such greed compared to a good conscience, all within the scope of constant power.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of gender is also a central component of the play. Lady Macbeth and the witches could illustrate the dramatist’s somewhat misogynistic viewpoint, as the women are painted as the source of violence that infects Macbeth. On the other hand, the masculine energy throughout the play evokes direct violence instead of the sneaky nature of deception among the female characters. At the same time, it is critical to not generalise Shakespeare’s viewpoints from his writing. He must have understood the complexity of what society portrays as conventional masculinity by Malcolm’s realisation that to be a man entails empathy, sensitivity, and other feelings that go along with manhood.
Another telling theme in this play that was highly topical at the time was that of politics. Shakespeare shows the fine line between exemplary leadership within the monarchy and the power-hungry and deceptive attitudes that could, in an instant, destroy a king and negatively impact the country. Shakespeare values justice, loyalty, and peace among leaders. It would not be far-fetched to state that the playwright believed in the monarchy in England, especially as he became one of the King’s Men and most loyal servants to King James.
Guilt swarms Macbeth’s mind from the start of the play, as he dwells on the moral conflict of murdering someone he is loyal to versus the destiny he believes is before him. Though the man becomes progressively more decisive and murderous, he still knows what he is doing is wrong. The contrast with Lady Macbeth’s guilty conscience paints a bleak picture of inward reflection, which is the couple’s downfall.
Shakespeare and his Dark Comedy, Measure for Measure
A new form of comedic entertainment was inaugurated with Shakespeare’s famous play, Measure for Measure. This play was particularly relevant in Shakespeare’s time, as it strongly relates to the religious and social upheaval brought about by the rise of Puritanism. It illustrates how the playwright’s inspiration came from the world around him and was connected to his own questions around morality.
Sexual deviancy and immorality are among the matters that outrage the character Angelo. He can do something about the impure behaviour spreading across Vienna as the Duke appoints him to lead. Angelo’s laws are cruel and murderous, but the man faces his own moral questions as a woman offers to sleep with him in exchange for a pardon of her brother. All the while, the Duke shows himself to the audience as the man of hidden identities, manipulation, and the controller of the play. He claims to be a friar, guides the play’s characters to misidentify themselves, and urges others (and thus, the audience) to analyse his appointment’s method of ruling over Vienna. Shakespeare shows a man who seemingly relinquishes his authority to another, yet still holds control over the story. Unlike numerous Shakespearian characters, the Duke is exceptionally clever.
The interesting quality of Measure for Measure is that the play does not depict characters who truly change their perspective or belief systems. In a sense, critics argue this play is more about mistaken identities and complex misunderstandings as opposed to any ethical questions. The play explores Christianity, justice, and forgiveness, which are closely associated with tragedies. It it therefore unique that they are framed within an essentially comedic play.
Shakespeare’s Classic Play, Romeo and Juliet
With Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare illustrated his creativity by utilising genre in ways that other writers had not done before. During the rise of English theatre in the 16th century, it was thought that romance was not a good enough theme to centre a tragedy around. Shakespeare took it upon himself to prove its worth. Luckily for everyone, he was fearless when it came to pushing creative boundaries in his writing. And if he had not, the world would look entirely different today.
The play is about two lovers who are stuck in the middle of an intense family feud. Romeo and Juliet fall in love at first sight, but their families and societal roles cause destructive and ultimately fatal consequences. Instead of the two main characters acting as a bridge among enemies to sort out their differences and find peace, the young lovers are faced with darkness and decay. Shakespeare tells his audience that romance, lust, and love are not always showcased in comedies, and in fact, can be harbingers of heartbreak and death.
Romeo is set to marry Rosaline, and when he rebels and goes to his family rival’s party, the plot is set in motion. Tybalt sees Romeo as an intruder and declares he will seek revenge. Then, Juliet locks eyes with Romeo. The two discover true love at first sight, which also coexists with their newly found freedom from the restrictive confines of their families and overall society.
Their love seems to be the missing piece of the puzzle that will end the Montague and Capulet dispute, but sadly, the lovers will face their deaths before seeing any lasting peace. Shakespeare fools the audience into anticipating his conventional comedic ending, but immediately after Romeo and Juliet are wed in secret, tragedy ensues. Though Romeo believes he is now free of the restrictions placed upon him, he is blinded by love. As Tybalt continues to seek his revenge for Romeo’s appearance at the Capulet’s party, a series of events lead the two men into a duel, of which Tybalt dies at the hands of Juliet’s new husband. It no longer matters that Romeo did not want to fight Tybalt in the first place. What’s done is done, and he is brought back to the sad realities of life.
It now seems unlikely that Romeo and Juliet will be able to live happily together. The couple knows their time together is ending. They share a romantic evening, which is all the more tragic as the audience knows it may be the last time they spend together.
Romeo is banished. Juliet is set to marry Paris. But Juliet has not given up hope. She decides to fake her death, to hopefully become free to live with Romeo in banishment. In its most tragic scene, Romeo finds Juliet and believes her to be dead, though she is merely asleep. He lashes out, kills Paris, and commits suicide due to his most painful grief. As Juliet finally awakens, she is utterly heartbroken at the cruel circumstances that have led Romeo to take his own life. She joins him, and they both find freedom in their deaths.
Shakespeare embeds the theme of love’s power throughout the story. Love is inserted into virtually any story in existence today. Still, Shakespeare’s experimental and gut-wrenching narrative of the young lovers’ demise is what truly makes this play one of the classics. The idea of love at first sight is universally discussed, whether as true or false, wise or naive. Love transcends societal norms, and to it shame, exile, and even death are no match. Shakespeare provides the audience with lines that illustrate love’s transcendence. Juliet describes it:
“But my true love is grown to such excess,
I cannot sum up some of half my wealth.”
A central aspect of love is its ability to evoke violent behaviour. From Romeo’s battle with Tybalt to the tragic young couple’s deaths, love is in the middle of the cruel and murderous action we see throughout the play. Shakespeare identifies the ironic nature of those madly in love: they live to die for each other.
The star-crossed lovers reside in a bitter world. The theme of the impossibility to escape one’s destiny is arguably the most tragic aspect of Romeo and Juliet. Though the couple attempts to free themselves from their limiting circumstances, they cannot overcome barriers and be happy in the end. Shakespeare forces the audience also to feel locked into the circumstances of the play. For instance, the audience never learns why the families have been feuding for so long, and therefore are frustrated just as the lovers are, in that there is truly no way out of such limitations. The only way young lovers can escape is through death. They resist their fates to the very end, as Romeo exclaims, “Then I defy you, stars,” as he believes his wife to be dead. Yet, his own resistance to his destiny is what allows death to happen.
The Tempest and Shakespeare’s Legacy
The Tempest is a unique play with a reputation as sweeping as Shakespeare himself. The plot of The Tempest is entirely original. There are only a few plays where this is the case and signifies Shakespeare’s deep-rooted connection to the fantastic plot and style. The Tempest is also Shakespeare’s most musical play, featuring multiple songs and providing the fodder for dozens of operas and semi-operas based on it throughout the years.
The Tempest follows the story of Prospero, a former Duke and powerful magician, and his daughter Miranda. Together, the two live in exile on a remote island, along with a spirit named Arial, and Caliban, one of the island’s inhabitants that preceded Prospero and Miranda’s exile there.
Prospero’s magic is an essential recurring concept throughout the play. It is Prospero’s magic that causes the storm that kicks off the events of the story. Prospero’s magic also keeps Ariel and Caliban indebted to him. As often as he uses his magic to create beautiful, mystical things, he also uses it to intimidate, bully, and bend the will of others to his own. He uses his magic to drive the play’s events and build a happy ending, delivering his concepts of what is good and just.
For these reasons, many critics believe that Shakespeare created Prospero in his own image. Throughout the play, Prospero’s mastery of magic makes him similar to a playwright building narratives. At the play’s end, Prospero actually describes himself as a playwright, stating:
“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air.
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself–
Yea, all which it inherit–shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
Here, through Prospero, Shakespeare shares his feelings about magic, theatre, and the world, commenting on the pure illusion of it all.
Later on, when Prospero forever renounces magic, many critics believe Shakespeare by proxy is rejecting the theatre and announcing his departure from writing plays. In one of the play’s most dramatic moments, Prospero exclaims:
“By my so potent art. But rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.”
The Tempest’s legacy is derives predominantly from its highly musical nature. At least 46 operas or semi-operas have been based on The Tempest, and countless poets have found their muse in the characters and Shakespeare’s story. The Tempest has also been adapted for the screen for over 115 years. The first on-screen rendition of The Tempest dates back to 1905. Throughout the decades, The Tempest has been reimagined as a 1956 science fiction film called Forbidden Planet, a 1979 homoerotic version of the classic story, and so many others.
Shakespeare’s Great Tragedy, Othello
Othello is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. It was written sometime in the early years of the 17th century and first published in 1622 by Thomas Walkley. It premiered at Whitehall Palace in 1604. Shakespeare’s Othello influenced at least twenty adaptations, including films, and continues to engage audiences worldwide. The story captured the imagination of its first audience, but was also historically significant as one of the earliest English plays to tell a story about an interracial couple.
The play explores the life of an African general who faces the consequences of his own actions. Though he was very accomplished in battle, he suffocates his most cherished personal life, literally. Othello and Desdemona are in love but have many differences, including their age, race, and life experience. Shakespeare displays their union as heroic and noble, but it is sadly destroyed by jealousy.
Cassio is selected as lieutenant by the main character, Othello. He is subject to much frustration as Iago is jealous of the appointment, claiming he should have been chosen instead. The audience will become aware that the jealousy stems from a deeper source: the suspicion that Cassio and Othello both had sex with his wife. But as Iago’s mischievous intentions become apparent, the audience is exposed to the lies and deception that centre the narrative.
Iago deceives Othello and persuades him that his wife has slept with Cassio, turning the protagonist against his newly appointed lieutenant, playing right into Iago’s plans to strip him of his position and pit the two men against each other. Othello believes the false proof that Iago presents to him about his wife and smothers Desdemona. When Othello learns of his tragic mistake in believing Iago, he is emotionally tortured enough to take his own life.
Shakespeare shows the audience that Othello’s successful military career is unable to coexist with his love life. This balance of career and personal life is a challenge for the jealous man, who faces immeasurable social prejudice and whose unease leads him down a dark path. The completion of his fights on the battlefield compared to these struggles in his private life paints the picture that his identity as a soldier and husband are incompatible and confusing to the man. He states:
“Farewell the plum’d troops and the big wars
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell,
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”
Othello says goodbye to his military identity in this speech. Others believe he is attempting to cover up his wrongdoings. Shakespeare successfully intrigues the audience with an eternal question of identity, nobility, and jealousy.
Othello is an isolated man. He is considered an outsider among the white people surrounding him and is constantly viewed as different. This idea that the protagonist is “other” spirals into his other forms of isolation and ultimately causes severe harm. Othello travels to the island of Cyprus, symbolising the shift from being surrounded by many people, like he was in Venice, to being only surrounded by the sea and military defences. Isolation is not only within Othello. When the other characters are with Othello in Cyrpus, the isolation causes them to turn on each other. It generates more victims to manipulation and shows that isolation is the beginning of self-destruction.
Justice is also a key theme in the playwright’s work. Characters are constantly finding justification for their actions. For instance, Brabantio believes in racial superiority as a means to justify his claims against Othello. Though immoral and untrue, he is establishing his own sense of justice. Thus, Shakespeare unpacks what true justice really is. The audience experiences the complexities within a subjective justice system both literally in governance and figuratively in the characters’ own minds.
Additionally, Othello himself seeks his revenge against his wife and takes justice into his own hands. He justifies it based on the lies and deception of Iago. Othello creates his justified actions to murder his own wife. He is filled with pain and grief of his marriage, though he has trusted the wrong source. Not only does his perspective on the just cause to kill his wife lie in false claims, but it shows Othello’s entitlement over Desdemona, further playing into the intersecting themes of racial and gendered hierarchies in the context of jealously and seeking truth and justice.
Shakespeare’s Renaissance Romantic Comedy: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare allows his audience to dive into a fantasy world full of comedy and romance. First written around 1594, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is another cherished work of the brilliant dramatist. One can only imagine the laughter of those English patrons as the hilarious play delights the crowd. The play also led to 21 screen adaptations, proving its relevance even today.
Four characters are caught up in love, lust, marriage. Hermia loves Lysander but is set to wed Demetrius, whom Helena loves. The couples meet Oberon and Titania, fairies of the forest, who have their own disputes, which leads Titania to fall victim to a love spell that sends her into a deep obsession and desire for Bottom, whose his head is turned into that of an ass by Puck.
The love potion is then used on Lysander, who falls deeply in love with Helena, who still loves Demetrius. Chaos ensues among the quarrelling and confused lovers. At the end of the play, Oberon sets the group back to normal, and they wake, assuming the entire fiasco was merely a dream. Luckily for Helena, Demetrius loved her all along, and yes, the lovers all lived happily ever after.
Shakespeare delivers a satirical and dramatic story centred around the theme of the difficulty of love. There are many external factors that contribute to the lovers’ incidents: social institutions, fairies, misunderstandings, and much more. The playwright gifts his audiences with a playful comedy that explores these factors in a way that allows viewers to enjoy themselves without worry, a stark contrast to Shakespeare’s dark tragedies. Thus, again the writer shows his well-rounded theatrical abilities.
The playwright also finds much use in his fantasy world. Through magic, writers can pretty much do whatever they please. Shakespeare uses this element to add a unique flair to his play. The ease in which the fairies use magic to create and resolve problems, in contrast to the ordinary men who struggle to rehearse their play, makes more funny scenarios that anyone can enjoy.
Shakespeare and the Significance of King Lear
King Lear and Hamlet are frequently heralded as Shakespeare’s best tragedies. Beyond the beauty of its language, King Lear’s story has an immense historical significance. Written around 1605, King Lear is about a king who decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, as he has no male heir. After Cordelia offers a disappointing answer to how much she loves her father, the king disowns her. The other two daughters, Goneril and Regan, betray their father and his authority, leading the king to grow deranged in nature. Cordelia’s attempts to save her father from the manipulative sisters are met with a tragic end. As she dies, her father cannot stand his grief and dies.
Shakespeare was not the most educated man among his contemporaries, but one would certainly not guess it as his immense knowledge is shown throughout his plays. He incorporates much history within King Lear, including the inspired king himself based on the legendary Leir of Britain. King Leir ruled in the eighth century BCE. Shakespeare certainly was not the first to narrate a tale based on the accidental king. But the Bard’s rendition of the legend was tragic compared to most others who depicted the story.
The play premiered at Whitehall in 1606, and one of the first-ever audience members was King James himself. The play mirrored the political context at the time, as King James urged Scotland and England to come together. It is thought that the playwright intended to please the king, and he presumably did so with his clear message of the feared consequences of a divided land.
The King Lear that Shakespeare fans know today is quite different from what was initially written. The current play came from several variations which were combined. First, the story was published in 1608, then again in 1619 as a separate version with changes in diction. Then, the play ended up in the famous First Folio with over one hundred additional lines and missing an entire scene. In the late seventeenth century, the renowned poet, Nahum Tate, put his own spin on King Lear, resulting in a happy ending.
Shakespeare explores the theme of justice, as he does with many of his plays. But King Lear is intensely cruel in nature. Indeed, both the audience and the characters wonder whether any justice shall be served at all. The death of Cordelia is haunting and so painful for the king that he also dies. There is no justice for the innocent, the good, and the loving.
The Bard also leads his characters to seek questions about their identities as family members vis à vis as leaders of the realm. The king’s decision to disown his daughter, Cordelia, was not the best move for him as a leader, though his desires as a father to hear flattery from his precious other daughters steered his decisions. As Lear goes insane over his evil daughters’ betrayal, the realm becomes a chaotic land. In an attempt to balance his duties as a king and his responsibilities as a father, Lear implodes with emotion and destruction.
Arguably the most tragic theme exposed in the magnificent play is reconciliation. Cordelia remains loyal to her father despite her exile and goes to great lengths to save him from his situation at home. The father and daughter relationship will captivate audiences to tears when witnessing their tragic demise. But there is hope in the reconciliation of their relationship. The guilt-ridden king feels remorse for his horrible decision to cast away his loving daughter in such haste. He mends the relationship despite it all. The reconciliatory theme generates light amid the darkness, but ultimately darkness takes over.
The play offered much food for thought for prominent thinkers, including Sigmund Freud, who believed Cordelia’s character to represent Atropos, also known as the goddess of death. This is primarily based on the fact that she remains silent when her father asks her to declare her love for him. Freud further analyses the symbolism by associating the king’s inability to accept his own death in relation to his abandonment of Cordelia.
King Lear was fascinatingly banned from England when King George III reigned over the country. Apparently, the monarch decided that it depicted too ill of a king and should be stricken from history. Rather poetically, King George III himself died after a period of madness. As history continues to show, nothing will ever permanently stop an audience from experiencing the great works of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare and his Rivals
“I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed!”
Shakespeare as a “Shake-scene”
One of Shakespeare’s early rivals was Robert Greene. The writer was quite accomplished when he made his first insults against the young playwright. He released The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and The History of Orlando Furioso, which were hits with the crowds of England. Greene was also friends and colleagues with Shakespeare’s future contemporaries, Marlowe and Nashe.
When critics begin to recognise one’s work, even negatively, it means one has earned a seat at the table. When Greene famously coined the young dramatist as a “Shake-scene,” it was clear this was the case for William Shakespeare, the up-and-coming playwright. This was the first-ever recorded insult of the poet in 1592, but scholars believe the criticism may not have begun then and there. The rising star had many critics and rivals, but there is a blurred line that historians continue to dissect among who was his friend and who was his foe. Greene himself was more clearly in the category of his literary enemy. He attacked Shakespeare as someone who stole from other writers and reaped the much undeserved benefits. He felt that Shakespeare rose too quickly and was too ambitious, leaving out the essential creative process respected by many of his contemporaries. But scholars frame Greene’s attacks within the vital context of the time. Shakespeare was young, extremely driven, and very successful, qualities of which are bound to strike jealously among the older playwrights working within the status quo. This is more evidence of the fact that Shakespeare followed his own path.
Shakespeare and Marlowe
Separate from Robert Greene’s apparent disdain for the man, Christopher Marlowe appears to have had a close connection and even a collaborative relationship with Shakespeare. Associated with Lord Strange’s Men, Marlowe and Shakespeare’s relationship likely was a friendly rivalry that encouraged them to produce their best work and even do so together. In fact, as recently as 2016, Marlowe has officially become one of the coauthors of Shakespeare’s famous series of plays, Henry VI.
Marlowe was a slightly older and already established playwright and colleague of Shakespeare, who appears to have had an immense influence on the English poet’s work. His style, plots, themes, and reflective nature of his works must have inspired the up-and-coming playwright. But to what extent will likely be debated for centuries to come. However, one thing remains clear: without Christopher Marlowe, readers would probably not have the Shakespearian works known and loved today. Sadly, Marlowe was killed in a fight. However, some conspiracy theorists believe his death was a farce to cover up his impersonation of Shakespeare himself, leaving another mystery for scholars to explore.
What if Marlowe had lived on as Shakespeare’s best rival? Would humanity be dissecting every inch of his work just as they do Shakespeare? The world will never know.
Shakespeare Under the Reign of King James
“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”
Shakespeare’s Creative Growth in his Later Years
The reign of King James coincided with Shakespeare’s later years. The Two Noble Kinsmen was one of the last plays he composed, which was a collaboration with his colleague, John Fletcher. His works contained more density and evoked a heightened sense of introspection, and thus appealed less to the typical priorities of an audience. One would assume, like many other artists, that Shakespeare refined or changed what he enjoyed writing about. Stanley Wells calls this shift “brilliant, but more challenging.” The deaths of his brother Edmund and his mother Mary could have affected his creative process. Or, simply, old age offered a new perspective to the Bard.
Shakespeare and the Blackfriars Theatre
Luckily for the King’s Men, the Children of the Chapel Royal company put on an overly scandalous performance featuring the French Ambassador, leading to their disbandment. This left their property open for lease, and Shakespeare’s crew grasped the opportunity in 1608. The Blackfriars Theatre opened in 1610 after a deadly two-year delay of a plague outbreak. It became the company’s venue of choice during the winter season, while the Globe Theatre dominated the summer season, until its unfortunate demise. The Blackfriars Theatre contributed much to the theatre as we know it today. Indoor lighting, more formal décor, and a seating only format shifted the audience’s experience from a traditional 16th century London theatre experience.
Shakespeare’s Upward Social Mobility
A mere six days after King James arrived at his new quarters, the permission of Shakespeare’s acting company was granted. Shortly after, the King’s Men became “grooms of the chamber,” and their red cloaks symbolised their rising status. Although not proven, some thought there was direct correspondence from King James to Shakespeare. Regardless, the esteemed playwright had become close to those among the higher circles, especially in his later years. These relationships are reflected in Shakespeare’s work. For example, in the play Measure for Measure, Shakespeare writes, “And, above all, let the measure of your love to everyone be according to the measure of his virtue,” which is thought to uphold the notion of royalty’s divine right. Just as Shakespeare and other playwrights spent years working for high-status patrons, the King’s Men were undoubtedly the men of King James, entertaining his grace and upholding the status quo of the age.
Shakespeare’s Final Years
“The empty vessel makes the loudest sound. Life is as tedious as twice-told tale, vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man.”
Shakespeare Lands Back in his Hometown
The King’s Men continued to perform and also did much travelling, which would have been quite exhausting for a man in his 40s at the time. For nearly a decade, the company travelled on and off. The successful playwright came back to the city, as shown by the last record of Shakespeare’s time in London in 1615. This was demonstrated by a legal dispute regarding the deeds in the Blackfriar properties. Soon after he presumably addressed the disagreement, the dramatist returned to Stratford to his grand estate, “New Place,” which he acquired in 1597. Curiously, the man edited his will at the beginning of 1616 in Stratford. Thus, it is thought that Shakespeare knew he was dying, though it could have been a coincidence.
The man regarded as the greatest playwright of all time died on 23 April 1616. Most historians agree it must have been a disease that took William Shakespeare’s life. First, if he knew he was nearing the end, it could have been a slow illness that caused him to take his final breath. Second, Shakespeare’s brother-in-law died one week prior, which could mean that an infectious disease was spreading among the family. Third, records indicate that Stratford was home to a particularly dreadful influenza epidemic in that same year. And fourth, Shakespeare’s funeral occurred immediately after death, a common practice among those who possess a deadly and contagious disease.
The funeral procession was a mighty event as large crowds gathered to pay their respects. This was, in a sense, his last and final performance in his body. The burial was much more intimate and occurred at the Holy Trinity Church in his hometown of Stratford, the same church at which he was christened.
Shakespeare’s will was also a testament to his declining health. His signature appears shaky, and the words were likely drafted by his lawyer, Francis Collins. Shakespeare even forgot the name of one of his nephews. In January 1616, Shakespeare created a first draft of the will. Later in March, he updated the document to add a new page and make other changes to the existing pages.
His will left £300 to his daughter Judith, £30 and his clothes to Joan, his sister, and £5 to each of his three nephews. And, of course, the famous second-best bed was left to his wife. Susannah and her husband were left to manage his estate. His oldest daughter also acquired his other properties, an incomparable inheritance to his youngest daughter’s.
Shakespeare Continues to Live After Death
“No legacy is so rich as honesty.”
Shakespeare and the Famous First Folio
Created in 1623 by his two close friends and esteemed colleagues, John Heminge and Henry Condell, Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, or as we know it today, the First Folio, turned out to be the saving grace of literary history. 18 of Shakespeare’s plays were published in this book, which otherwise would have become completely lost. The historical significance of the First Folio deepens humanity’s understanding of Shakespeare’s mind. The world certainly would look different today if it were not for this publication.
The term folio refers to a book that contains folded paper that makes four pages in one. This was common in the age of Shakespeare, but not for plays. In fact, the literary great’s friends published the first-ever folio in England exclusively comprised of plays.
Haminge and Henry grouped the plays within their genre: comedies, histories, and tragedies. The book contains the very first publishing of All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VIII, Julius Caesar, King John, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Winter’s Tale. The book contained a total of 36 plays. It is unknown how many of the books were printed, but it is estimated that it was around 750 copies. However, only 235 of the books have been found, and two of which were discovered as recently as 2016.
The Fall and Resurrection of English Theatre
When the Puritans took over the country, a substantial cultural shift was imposed upon the population. No one was to see theatre performances or even own scripts of plays. From the Puritans’ perspective, the theatre was clearly the devil’s work. Sexual innuendo, gender role reversal, and the mere act of acting were viewed as counter to God. Lucky for fans of theatre, the reemergence of the arts in 1660 occurred, and Shakespeare was again front and centre of the country’s conversation. His popularity and genius, coupled with the Puritan crackdown on citizenry partaking in the entertainment, created the notion that Shakespeare’s works should be cherished and studied to their fullest extent. This sentiment travelled throughout the eighteenth century when scholars began to focus on preserving records of the literary legend.
Shakespeare and his Many Names
Shakespeare had many nicknames throughout the years. Some were coined by his admirers, and others by his rivals and critics. Regardless of their intent, the nicknames he received speak yet again to his legacy. Here are the top nicknames for William Shakespeare.
“Swan of Avon,” as a nickname for the literary great, came about through his contemporary and famous writer, Ben Johnson. In the First Folio, Shakespeare is revered by his colleague Johnson in the following poem:
“Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,
That so did take Eliza and our Iames!”
Johnson refers to Shakespeare as having taken on his final performance. The phrase “swan song” stems from Greek mythology comparing a swan’s last song to someone’s last act before they pass away.
“The Bard” is a well-known nickname for Shakespeare. Bards were travelling poets back in Shakespeare’s day, and as Shakespeare is known for being the master of literature, he is not simply a bard, but “The Bard.” He is also known as “The Bard of Avon,” in reference to the Avon river near his home of Stratford and “The Immortal Bard, ” indicating that his legacy shall live forever.
Known as the “National Poet of England,” William Shakespeare can no more clearly make his mark on his beloved country. This nickname came to fruition recently in the twentieth century in honour of the English writer.
The Doubt, Mystery, and Conspiracies Surrounding Shakespeare’s Work
“Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind.”
The Consequence of Shakespeare’s Legacy
Over time, those who leave as large of a footprint in human history, such as William Shakespeare, stir up controversy as their legacy is explored. Whether well-intentioned or not, true or false, numerous theories have surfaced regarding the legitimacy of his authorship. The controversies over who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets began sometime in the 1850s, when William Henry Smith and Delia Bacon published a book that attempted to expose Walter Raleigh and Francis Bacon as the actual authors. Understanding the man’s complete legacy merits an explanation of some of these theories, though it must be stressed that most of these are disputed among historians.
The Marlovian Theory
As noted previously, it was thought that Christopher Marlowe held a massive influence upon Shakespeare, and even recently, in 2016, he has been named the formal coauthor of some of his plays. This collaborative relationship among friendly competitors has sparked controversy. The Marlovian theory claims that Marlowe faked his own death instead of the more likely scenario that he died in a fight as a result of attempted self-defence in Deptford on 30 May 1593. Believers in this theory, or “Marlovians,” argue that the presumed dead esteemed playwright continued to compose works under William Shakespeare’s name, pointing to various coincidences and timing of certain publications of the author.
Critics of this stretch of argument point to documents that prove jurors had accepted Marlowe’s death as legitimate. They also point to the involvement of a well-known coroner who serviced Queen Elizabeth herself. Furthermore, though Shakespeare held Marlowe in high esteem as he clearly incorporated his influence into his works, the two writers have particularly unique styles that would be a challenge, to say the least, to duplicate as the same author. Though academia overall rejects this idea, it does generate more questions about the nature of the two’s professional and personal relationship.
Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford
Others speculate that the Earl of Oxford was behind the curtain of Shakespeare’s greatness. Proponents claim that he was a hidden talent and chose to keep his writing disassociated from his name. They also point to the man’s usage of the phrase, “vultus tela vibrat,” or “thy countenance shakes spears” as a pseudonym, which were very common in the sixteenth century. He was known to adore the arts and is loosely connected to Shakespeare’s presumed travels throughout Italy, where he gained inspiration for Venus and Adonis’s published works. Believers also look deep into the meaning of his plays, including his most influential story, Hamlet. They claim that Polonius’s character was Oxford’s depiction of his father-in-law, with whom he had a shaky relationship. The list goes on into the realm of very skeptical pieces of alleged evidence, even going so far as to say that since the Earl of Oxford was kidnapped by pirates and left naked on a shore, he was the mastermind behind the same minor plot point in Hamlet, as pirates also captured the prince left bare on the beach. It is easy to debunk this theory, but it is also again a testament to the intrigue that Shakespeare’s works have sparked throughout the centuries.
The Recent Emergence of Sir Henry Neville
A more recent and slightly more compelling theory of Shakespeare’s authorship was brought to the attention of Shakespearean scholars in 2005. English writer Brenda James claims that Sir Henry Neville could likely be the candidate that theorists have been searching for as to the truth behind the masterpieces we all know and love today. Neville was probably born in or around 1562 and passed away in 1615. This directly correlates with William Shakespeare’s active years in the English theatre. But such a small coincidence was not all that James pointed to for her case for Neville.
Neville was well-educated in Oxford and travelled throughout Europe in areas that many of Shakespeare’s plays are set. He went on to become a member of Parliament, Ambassador to France, and then a political prisoner as the Essex Rebellion failed. Seeking to take back his status and wealth, Neville paired up with the Earl of Southampton to lead the London Virginia Company. Many believe that given this role, Neville would have read the famous Strachey Letter, which outlined occurrences thought to have influenced Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Believers in Neville’s accurate authorship claim that William Shakespeare would not have read the letter, as it was confidential and private.
Sir Henry Neville was within inner circles of the English theatre scene. He, of course, knew Southampton, a patron of the arts, but he also was friends with Ben Johnson, Beaumont, and Fletcher. Proponents of this theory argue that this information alongside the life events of both men that seemingly appear more fitting for Neville, help to prove his true authorship. But scholars note that just because it cannot be proven that Sir Henry Neville did not write Shakespeare’s works does not make this accurate. With that logic, there are endless possibilities.
Shakespeare’s Legacy Today
“To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Could One Even Imagine a World Without Shakespeare? That is the Question.
Culture would look dramatically different today without the literary legend that was William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s influence upon society today is of the utmost importance when attempting to understand the man behind the masterful pieces of writing. Internationally known and revered, the dramatist has weaved his way into classrooms, pop culture, film adaptations, books, and other stories. Out of the countless authors in history, his work stands out as arguably the greatest and the most compelling features of theatre and poetry.
Shakespeare and the English Language
Not only did the man invent new words and play with diction like no one before his time, but Shakespeare also exists in our language today. Even those who have never studied Shakespeare in their lifetime use phrases stemming from Shakespeare’s imagination. “Vanish into thin air,” “puking,” tongue-tied,” “in a pickle,” “method to madness,” “wild goose chase,” “all of a sudden,” “swagger,” “break the ice,” and much more are all taken from Shakespeare’s writing. He even created famous characters that would live on throughout the solar system, such as the names of the moons surrounding the planet Uranus.
Shakespeare as a Brand Identity
The man has grown from a famous playwright to a revered international sensation even 400 years after his passing. He has become an icon in the literary world, but beyond that, has embodied branding for companies as early as 1710 when he became Jacob Tonson’s corporate logo for his bookstore. Tobacco advertisers used his influential play, Romeo and Juliet, to sell their products, and even the corporate giant Coca Cola used the literary great to increase sales. One advertisement from 1950 shows a shadow of a woman drinking from a Coca Cola bottle. In the frame is The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and underneath it reads, “Thirst, Too, Seeks Quality.”
Shakespeare’s Relatable Characters and Imaginative Ideas
Until Shakespeare released his cherished plays and poems, the world was sheltered from the his unique way he tells a story. For instance, romance was melted into a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet. At the heart of his genius lie his stories. Shakespeare was able to understand what his audience needed, in order to feel invested in his stories. He knew that reflection, introspection, and philosophical ideas shaped human existence, no matter where an individual came from. He was relatable, and even as he rose to fame and social status, his plays still carried worthwhile characters for any audience to adore and abhor. It is no wonder that William Shakespeare’s legacy continues in the twenty first century.
Shakespeare Influenced Many of the Greats
The famous poet has become the epitome of literary brilliance, inspiring countless writers, actors, directors, playwrights, producers, storytellers, and everyone in between. The innovative poet Samuel Taylor was inspired by the man. Taylor’s romantic poems have left a remarkable imprint on literary society. John Milton’s An Epitaph on the Admirable Dramatic Poet, W. Shakespeare pays tribute to the man who became incredibly influential on him. Arguably the best poet during the Enlightenment, Alexander Pope gave credit to the masterful poet in various works. The treasured poet of the nineteenth century, John Keats, admired the man’s work so much that he alluded to Shakespeare’s writing style throughout his pieces and even discussed his love for the Shakespearian style in his letters to friends. Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, and Thomas Dickens were all touched by the playwright’s brilliance.
Beyond literature, the man influenced many other areas of art. He inspired painters, musicians, psychologists, and philosophers to this day.
Shakespeare and his Other Great Plays in Film
It is nearly impossible to cram in all the historical and literary analysis that exists for Shakespeare’s works in one place. His other famous plays deserve honourable mentions, however, especially those that have transcended text and entered the new world of video. Each play has sparked the imagination of so many others. All’s Well That Ends Well has four screen adaptations. As You Like It has eleven adaptations, including television and silent films. The Comedy of Errors merits nine story adaptations, including ones from Canada, the United States, England, and India. Love’s Labour’s Lost gained an animated adaptation, plus one film and two television shows. The Merchant of Venice possesses thirteen renditions over the span of about one hundred years. The Merry Wives of Windsor was the inspiration behind five adaptations. Twelfth Night possesses thirteen renditions. The Taming of the Shew has a total of twenty-three variations from countries all over the world, including Korea, Brazil, Italy, India, and Australia.
The writer’s tragedies likewise have warranted many renditions on screen. Seven television and movie adaptations have been made from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and nine from Julius Caesar. Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, and Troilus and Cressida all have two renditions to their name.
Shakespeare’s histories also won great interest. Of his Henry IV series, there have been a total of thirteen adaptations. The writer’s Henry V warranted eight renditions. Nineteen renditions of the series, Henry VI appeared, with the latest one as recently as 2016. Henry VIII inspired a silent film and a television show, and the list goes on. Of course, the list will undoubtedly continue to grow as new artists emerge and seasoned writers seek new inspiration.
William Shakespeare: A Stunning Paradox of Mystery and Exposition
“They do not love that do not show their love.”
Those 884,647 words that remain of Shakespeare’s output have impacted countless people, places, ideas, social constructs, narratives. His creativity influenced millions. His open-mindedness was the spark of some of the most inventive forms of speech. His yearning for growth allowed his work to transform over time. His fascination with the meaning of life and death, alongside the many fundamental human philosophies, connects his stories to audiences around the world. The man who created the most devout poetry ignited love and lust throughout the ages and delivered some of the most romantic soliloquies known to humanity.
Yet, despite the meticulous analysis of these 884,647 over many hundreds of years, most of his life remains entirely undocumented. Perhaps that is the lasting effect of his legacy. Brilliance in a sea of the unknown.
William Shakespeare Mottos & Quotes:
- A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.
- A peace is of the nature of a conquest; for then both parties nobly are subdued, and neither party loser.
- An overflow of good converts to bad.
- And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.
- As soon go kindle fire with snow, as seek to quench the fire of love with words.
- Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.
- Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.
- Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.
- False face must hide what the false heart doth know.
- God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.
- How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?
- If music be the food of love, play on.
- If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?
- It is a wise father that knows his own child.
- Listen to many, speak to a few.
- Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs.
- Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds.
- Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
- Love to faults is always blind, always is to joy inclined. Lawless, winged, and unconfined, and breaks all chains from every mind.
- Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we often might win by fearing to attempt.
- The course of true love never did run smooth.
- The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.
- The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
- There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
- What’s done can’t be undone.
- When a father gives to his son, both laugh; when a son gives to his father, both cry.
- Who could refrain that had a heart to love and in that heart courage to make love known?
- Women may fall when there’s no strength in men.
- Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Shakespeare Extra Mottos & Quotes
- A man can die but once.
- Action is eloquence.
- All that glisters is not gold.
- Beware the Ides of March.
- Brevity is the soul of wit.
- Come what come may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day.
- Get thee to a nunnery.
- I do love nothing in the world so well as you: is not that strange?
- Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?
- Lord, what fools these mortals be!
- Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.
- Nothing will come of nothing.
- Now is the winter of our discontent.
- Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
- Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin, as self-neglecting.
- Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
- Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
- Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.
- The better part of valor is discretion.
- The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interrèd with their bones.
- The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
- The wheel is come full circle: I am here.
- There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
- They have been at a great feast of languages, and stol’n the scraps.
- To be, or not to be: that is the question.
- Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
- We have seen better days.
- What light through yonder window breaks.
- What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Shakespeare’s Known Complete Works