He was probably educated in a local grammar school. As theeldest son, Shakespeare would of taken over his father’s business, butaccording to one account, he became a butcher because of reverses in hisfather’s financial situation. According to another account, he became aschool master. That Shakespeare was allowed considerable leisure time inhis youth is suggested by the fact that his plays show more knowledge ofhunting and hawking than do those of other dramatists. In 1582, he marriedAnne Hathaway.
He is supposed to have left Stratford after he was caughtpoaching in a deer park. Shakespeare apparently arrived in London about 1588 and by 1592 hadattained success as a playwright. The publication of Venus and Adonis, TheRape of Lucrece and of his Sonnets established his reputation as a poet inthe Renaissance manner. Shakespeare’s modern reputation is based mainly onthe 38 plays he wrote, modified, or collaborated on. Shakespeare’s professional life in London was marked by a number offinancially advantageous arrangements that permitted him to share in theprofits of his acting company, the Chamberlain’s Men, and its two theaters,the Globe and the Blackfriars. His plays were given special presentationat the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I.
After about 1608,Shakespeare’s dramatic production lessened and he spent more time inStratford. There he established a family in and imposing house, the NewPlace, and became a leading local citizen. He died on April 23, 1616, andwas buried in the Stratford church. Although the precise date of many of Shakespeare’s plays is in doubt,his dramatic career is divided into four periods: (1) the period up to1594, (2) the years from 1594 to 1600, (3) the years from 1600 to 1608, (4)the period after 1608.
In all periods, the plots of his plays werefrequently drawn from chronicles, histories, or earlier fiction. Shakespeare’s first period was one of experimentation. His early playsare characterized to a degree of superficial construction and verse. Someof the plays from the first period my be no more than retouchings ofearlier works by others. Four plays dramatizing the English civil strifeof the 15th century are possibly Shakespeare’s earliest dramatic works. These plays, Henry VI, Parts I, II, III, and Richard III, deal with theevil results of weak leadership.
Shakespeare’s comedies of the first periodrepresent a wide range. The Comedy of Errors depends on its appeal on themistakes in identity between two sets of twins involved in romance and war. The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Love’s Labour’sLost are all comedies and satires. Next, Shakespeare’s second period includes his most important playsabout English history. The second period historical plays include RichardII, Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Henry V. These plays deal with Englishkings who lose their power to their successors.
Outstanding among thecomedies of the second period is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is fantasyfilled and is achieved by the interweaving of several plots involving twopairs noble lovers, a group of bumbling townspeople, and members of thefantasy realm. Another comedy is The Merchant of Venice which ischaracterized by friendship and romantic love. The witty comedy Much AdoAbout Nothing is marred by an insensitive treatment of its main character. Shakespeare’s most mature comedies, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, arecharacterized by a hilarious and kindly charm that depends upon theattraction of lovely heroines.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedyabout middle-class life which contains a comic victim of the middle-class. One of the two tragedies of this period is Romeo and Juliet. It is famousfor its poetic treatment of youthful love, and dramatizes the fate of twolovers victimized by feuds of their elders. The other, Julius Caesar, is aserious tragedy of political rivalries. Shakespeare’s third period includes his greatest tragedy and his darkor bitter comedies.
The tragedies of this period are the most profound ofhis works. Hamlet goes far beyond other tragedies of revenge in picturingthe mingled sordidness and glory of the human condition. Othello thegrowth of unjustified jealously in the protagonist. King Lear deals withthe consequences of the irresponsibility and misjudgment of an early rulerof Britain and his councillor.
The tragic outcome is the result of theirgiving power to their evil offspring rather that their good offspring. Antony and Cleopatra with a different type of love, namely, the middle-agedpassion of the Roman general Mark Antony for the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. In Macbeth, Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of a basically good man, wholed on by others, succumbs to ambition. In getting and retaining theScottish throne, Macbeth dulls his humanity to the point where he becomescapable of committing any enormity. Three other plays of this periodsuggest a bitterness lacking in these tragedies because the protagonists donot seem to possess greatness or tragic stature.
In Troilus and CressidaThe gulf between the ideal and the real, both individually and politically,is evoked. In Coriolanus, the Roman hero is portrayed as unable to bringhimself either to woo the Roman masses or to crush them by force. Timon ofAthens is a similarly bitter play about a character reduced to nothing byingratification. The two comedies of this period are also dark in mood. Of these, All’s Well That Ends Well is less significant that Measure forMeasure which suggests a picture f morality in Christian terms.
Finally, the fourth period of Shakespeare’s work comprises hisprinciples tragedies. Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare createdseveral plays suggestive of a mood of final resignation in the human lot. These plays differ greatly than his other comedies, but ending happily witha reunion or final reconciliation. The romantic tragicomedy Pericles,Prince of Tyre concerns the character’s painful loss of his wife and thepersecution of his daughter. After many adventures, Pericles is reunitedwith his loved ones. In Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, domesticcomplication are resolved by restoring loved ones.
The most successfulproduct of his creativity is his last complete play, The Tempest, in whichthe resolution suggests the beneficial effects of the union of wisdom andpower. Two final plays include a historical drama, Henry VIII, and The TwoNoble Kinsmen, a story of two noble friends for one woman. Hence, from a poor family, Shakespeare emerged as a great playwright. The odds were against him, but he rose to the occasion and wrote over 38plays which made him famous throughout the world. He is still consideredto be the best playwright that ever lived.