Topics so far –
10. William Shakespeare - His Life & Works
11. Shakespeare’s Contemporaries
12. Shakespeare’s Successors
13. Literature under Charles I and the Commonwealth
William Shakespeare - His Life & Works
There is no one kind of Shakespearean hero, although in many ways Hamlet is the epitome of the Renaissance tragic hero, who reaches his perfection only to die. In Shakespeare’s early plays, his heroes are mainly historical figures, kings of England, as he traces some of the historical background to the nation’s glory. But character and motive are more vital to his work than praise for the dynasty, and Shakespeare’s range expands considerably during the 1590s, as he and his company became the stars of London theatre. Although he never went to university, as Marlowe and Kyd had done, Shakespeare had a wider range of reference and allusion, theme and content than any of his contemporaries. His plays, written for performance rather than publication, were not only highly successful as entertainment, they were also at the cutting edge of the debate on a great many of the moral and philosophical issues of the time.
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Shakespeare’s earliest concern was with kingship and history, with how ‘this sceptr’d isle’ came to its present glory. As his career progressed, the horizons of the world widened, and his explorations encompassed the geography of the human soul, just as the voyages of such travellers as Richard Hakluyt, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Francis Drake expanded the horizons of the real world.
Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays over a period of some twenty-four years, as well as the most famous sonnet collection in English and a number of longer poems: he wrote all these while working with his theatre company and frequently performing with them. His was a working life in the theatre, and his subsequent fame as the greatest writer in English should not blind us to this fact. He was a constant experimenter with dramatic form and content, and with the possibilities that the open thrust stage gave him to relate to his audience.
The plays of Shakespeare, in approximate order of composition:-
Early plays from 1589 to 1593
1 KING HENRY VI, PART ONE
2 KING HENRY VI, PART TWO
3 KING HENRY VI, PART THREE
4 TITUS ANDRONICUS
5 THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
6 THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA
7 THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
8 KING RICHARD III
Plays from 1593 to 1598
9 KING JOHN
10 LOVE’S LABOURS LOST
11 ROMEO AND JULIET
12 A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
13 THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
14 KING RICHARD II
15 KING HENRY IV, PART ONE
16 KING HENRY IV, PART TWO
17 THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
Plays from 1598, with likely dates of composition
1598 18 MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
1599 19 KING HENRY V
1599 20 JULIUS CAESAR
1600 21 AS YOU LIKE IT
1600 22 HAMELET
1601 23 TWELFTH NIGHT
1602 24 TROILUS AND CRESSIDA
1603 25 ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
1604 26 MEASURE FOR MEASURE
1604 27 OTHELLO
1605 28 KING LEAR
1606 29 MACBETH
1607 30 ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
1607 31 TIMON OF ATHENS
1608 32 CORIOLANUS
1608 33 PERICLES
1610 34 CYMBELINE
1611 35 THE WINTER’S TALE
1611 36 THE TEMPEST
1613 37 KING HENRY VIII [a collaborative history play with John Fletcher]
The starting point of Shakespeare’s writing career was English history. The year 1588 had been the high point of Elizabeth’s reign. The defeat of the Spanish Armada signaled England’s supremacy of the seas. Shakespeare, beginning to write for the theatre around 1589, turns to the recent history of England in order to trace the human elements behind this conquest of power. From the three parts of Henry VI (1589–92) to the tragedy of Richard II (1595) and the historical pageant of Henry V (1599), Shakespeare examines the personalities who were the monarchs of England between 1377 and 1485. Generally called the history plays, these works are, on one level, a glorification of the nation and its past, but, on another level, they examine the qualities which make a man a hero, a leader, and a king. This is a process not of hero-worship, but of humanising the hero. The king is brought close to his people. His virtues and faults are brought to life before the audience’s eyes. Literature is no longer distant, no longer the preserve only of those who can read. It is familiar history enacted close to the real life of the people it concerns.
All Renaissance drama, especially the works of Marlowe and Shakespeare, is profoundly concerned with shifting power relations within society. The individual was a new force in relation to the state. The threat of rebellion, of the overturning of established order, was forcefully brought home to the Elizabethan public by the revolt of the Earl of Essex, once the Queen’s favourite. The contemporary debate questioned the relationship between individual life, the power and authority of the state, and the establishing of moral absolutes. Where mediaeval drama was largely used as a means of showing God’s designs, drama in Renaissance England focuses on man, and becomes a way of exploring his weaknesses, depravities, flaws – and qualities.
Henry VI is portrayed as weak, indecisive, in complete contrast to the heroic young Henry V. The audience can follow this prince in his progress from the rumbustious, carefree Prince Hal (in the two parts of Henry IV) to the more mature, responsible hero who wins the Battle of Agincourt, but who becomes tongue-tied when he tries to woo the princess of France.
This balance between the role of king and the role of man becomes one of Shakespeare’s main concerns. Richard III is portrayed as a complete villain: the epitome of ‘Machiavellian’ evil, the enemy whom the Tudor dynasty had to destroy. But, as a theatrical character, this villain becomes a fascinating hero. Like Marlowe’s heroes, he overreaches himself, and his fall becomes a moral lesson in the single-minded pursuit of power. He famously introduces himself in his opening soliloquy:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
and goes on, later in the same speech, to announce his evil intentions:
I am determined to prove a villain.
The idea that the king, the nearest man to God, could be evil, and a negative influence on the nation, was a new and dangerous idea in the political context of England in the 1590s.
It raises the frightening possibility that the people might want or, indeed, have the right to remove and replace their ruler. This idea comes to the fore in several of Shakespeare’s tragedies, from Richard III to Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, and is a major theme in Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear.
Shakespeare was conscious that he was engaging in his plays with the struggle between past, present, and future; between history and the new, expanding universe of the Renaissance. In Hamlet, Shakespeare gives the hero these words when he addresses a troupe of actors:
The purpose of playing … both at the first and now, was and is to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature; to show … the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
The form of the time, and the pressures shaping the move into a new century, meant the re-evaluation of many fundamental concepts. Time and again, Shakespeare’s characters ask, ‘What is a man?’
What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. (Hamlet)
Time and again, aspects of human vulnerability are exposed, examined, and exploited for their theatrical possibilities. Love in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, and the same subject, in a comic vein, in Love’s Labours Lost, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It; the theme of revenge and family duty in Hamlet; jealousy in Othello; sexual corruption and the bounds of justice in Measure for Measure; misanthropy, or rejection of the world, in Timon of Athens; family rejection and madness in King Lear; the power of money and the vulnerability of the minority in The Merchant of Venice; the healing effects of the passage of time, and hope in the new generation, in the late plays – with a final return to historical pageantry in Henry VIII, the monarch with whose Reformation it all began.
Shakespeare’s themes are frequently the great abstract, universal themes, seen both on the social level and the individual level: ambition, power, love, death, and so on. The theatre permitted him to create characters who embody the themes directly, and who speak to the audience in language that is recognisably the same language as they speak. From kings to ordinary soldiers, from young lovers to old bawds, Shakespeare’s characters speak modern English. The language of Shakespeare is the first and lasting affirmation of the great changes that took place in the sixteenth century, leaving the Middle English of Chaucer far behind. In many ways, the language has changed less in the 400 years since Shakespeare wrote than it did in the 150 years before he wrote.
The theatre was therefore the vehicle for poetry, action, and debate. In formal terms, Shakespeare used many kinds of play. His first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, uses the ‘blood tragedy’ model of the Latin writer, Seneca, which was very much to the taste of the late 1580s audiences. The Comedy of Errors similarly uses the model of the Roman comic dramatist Plautus; but Shakespeare soon goes beyond these classical forms in The Comedy of Errors. Plautus’s plot of the confusion of identical twins is doubled – with two sets of twins, and twice the complicity of plot. In the next twenty or so years of his career he will constantly experiment with dramatic forms and techniques.
All Shakespeare’s plays have come down to us in a standard form: five acts. But this division into acts and scenes is not always Shakespeare’s own. He wrote the plays for performance, and there are many differences and variations between the various editions published in his own lifetime (usually called Quartos) and the First Folio, put together by John Heminge and Henry Condell in 1623. The division into acts and scenes of most of the plays belongs to almost a century later. In 1709, one of the first editors of Shakespeare’s works, Nicholas Rowe, imposed a pattern of structural order on the works.
This confirms his own age’s concern with order and propriety rather than stressing Shakespeare’s formal innovations and experiments. It was also Rowe who, for the first time, added many stage directions, and gave some indication of the location of scenes.
Shakespeare both affirms and challenges accepted values. He upholds, in general, the necessity of strong central power in the hands of a monarch, but he challenges any automatic right to power; worthiness is vital. He asserts the importance of history, but is quite prepared to bend historical ‘truth’ to make the play more viable – as in Richard III and Macbeth. (The original Macbeth was a good king who had no particular problems with his wife or with witches!) Where Shakespeare is perhaps most innovative is in his exploration of human defects, and the necessary acceptance of them as part of what makes humanity valuable.
Shakespeare’s plays can be read as showing that imperfectability has not only to be understood, but has also to be enjoyed in all its individual variety. This is what leads to the ‘wisdom’ of a long line of clowns and fools; comic characters with a serious purpose.
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools. (King Lear)
Many of Shakespeare’s characters have become so well known that they have almost taken on a life of their own. Queen Elizabeth I’s own favourite was Falstaff (in Henry IV, Parts One and Two) and it was at her command that a comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, was created around this jovial, cynical, humorous, fat, pleasure-loving adventurer. Romeo and Juliet are the embodiment of young love which triumphs over everything, even death; Lady Macbeth is often seen as the strong, scheming woman behind an indecisive husband – and sometimes as the fourth witch, in a play where the witches represent demonic power; Othello and Desdemona are the perfect union of warrior and virgin (the classical Mars and Diana), whose union is ruined by the devil- figure, Iago; Shylock is almost the traditional stage Jew, but as human as any other character: as he says,
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? 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? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. (The Merchant of Venice)
Shakespeare’s female roles were always played by boys, a practice Cleopatra wryly comments on when she says, ‘I shall see Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness.’
Shakespeare’s women are just as much forceful modern Renaissance characters as his men – from Adriana in The Comedy of Errors, through Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, to the determined Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well, they demonstrate strength and assertiveness, as well as femininity. But it is usually an untraditional kind of femininity. Even Katharina’s famous acceptance of the ‘tamed’ role to her husband Petruchio is framed in such a way as to be theatrically ambiguous: it is part of a play within-the-play where the ‘mirror up to nature’ can be seen has having various prisms and slants.
In fact, many of the female characters question the presumptions of a patriarchal society, even though they might yield to it by the end of the play. It is often the female characters who lead and ‘tame’ the men – in the gender-switching comedies As You Like It and Twelfth Night it is Rosalind and Viola who, temporarily dressed as men, bring Orlando and Orsino respectively to the fullest realisation of their own masculine potential.
In Othello Emilia asserts to Desdemona, ‘But I do think it is their husbands’ fault If wives do fall.’ There is a questioning of male/female roles here, as in so much of Shakespeare. When he uses a well-known traditional story, as in Troilus and Cressida, the characters reflect modern social roles and issues, and the conclusions to be drawn are often still open to controversy and interpretation. Shakespeare gives us mothers (Volumnia in Coriolanus, Gertrude in Hamlet, Queen Margaret in Richard III, the Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well), young lovers such as Juliet, Ophelia and Miranda (who are also daughters and sisters), and strong decisive women who might well take on conventionally masculine roles and qualities, such as Portia and Lady Macbeth. The list is endless, and, indeed, some of the major Shakespearean critics have been accused of treating the characters too much as if they were real people. This has been widely regarded as testimony to the timeless universality of their preoccupations, desires, fears, and basic humanity. Although the concerns are Renaissance and Western European, they strike a chord in many other cultures and times.
The character and the play of Hamlet are central to any discussion of Shakespeare’s work. Hamlet has been described as melancholic and neurotic, as having an Oedipus complex, as being a failure and indecisive, as well as being a hero, and a perfect Renaissance prince. These judgements serve perhaps only to show how many interpretations of one character may be put forward. ‘To be or not to be’ is the centre of Hamlet’s questioning. Reasons not to go on living outnumber reasons for living. But he goes on living, until he completes his revenge for his father’s murder, and becomes ‘most royal’, the true ‘Prince of Denmark’ (which is the play’s subtitle), in many ways the perfection of Renaissance man.
Hamlet’s progress is a ‘struggle of becoming’ – of coming to terms with life, and learning to accept it, with all its drawbacks and challenges. He discusses the problems he faces directly with the audience, in a series of seven soliloquies – of which ‘To be or not to be’ is the fourth and central one. These seven steps, from the zero-point of a desire not to live, to complete awareness and acceptance (as he says, ‘the readiness is all’), give a structure to the play, making the progress all the more tragic, as Hamlet reaches his aim, the perfection of his life, only to die.
The play can thus be seen as a universal image of life and of the necessity of individual choice and action. No matter how tortured or successful a life will be, the end is death, and, to quote Hamlet’s final words, ‘the rest is silence’. Shakespeare’s plays became ‘darker’ or, according to some critical views, are ‘problem’ plays, in the years immediately before and after Queen Elizabeth’s death and the accession of James VI of Scotland as King James I of the United Kingdom in 1603.
But when viewed in theatrical terms – of character and action, discussion and debate – the ‘problem’ areas can be seen as examinations of serious social and moral concerns.
The balance between justice and authority in Measure for Measure is set against a society filled with sexual corruption and amorality. The extremes of Puritanism and Catholicism meet in the characters of Angelo and Isabella. The justice figure of the Duke is, for most of the play, disguised as a priest. A false priest, giving false advice to an innocent man who is condemned to death, in a play which is basically a comedy, is an indication of the complexity of Shakespeare’s experimentation with form and content at this stage of his career.
When the false priest/humanist Duke says ‘Be absolute for death’, it is almost exactly the reverse of Hamlet’s decision ‘to be’ – and is rendered the more ambiguous by the Catholic friar’s costume. The reply of the condemned Claudio must catch the sympathy of the audience, making them side with young love against hypocritical justice:
Shakespeare’s plays do not present easy solutions. The audience has to decide for itself. King Lear is perhaps the most disturbing in this respect. One of the key words of the whole play is ‘Nothing’. When King Lear’s daughter Cordelia announces that she can say ‘Nothing’ about her love for her father, the ties of family love fall apart, taking the king from the height of power to the limits of endurance, reduced to ‘nothing’ but ‘a poor bare forked animal’. Here, instead of ‘readiness’ to accept any challenge, the young Edgar says ‘Ripeness is all’. This is a maturity that comes of learning from experience. But, just as the audience begins to see hope in a desperate and violent situation, it learns that things can always get worse:
Who is’t can say ‘I am at the worst?’
… The worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’
Shakespeare is exploring and redefining the geography of the human soul, taking his characters and his audience further than any other writer into the depths of human behaviour. The range of his plays covers all the ‘form and pressure’ of mankind in the modern world. They move from politics to family, from social to personal, from public to private. He imposed no fixed moral, no unalterable code of behaviour. That would come to English society many years after Shakespeare’s death, and after the tragic hypothesis of Hamlet was fulfilled in 1649, when the people killed the King and replaced his rule with the Commonwealth. Some critics argue that Shakespeare supported the monarchy and set himself against any revolutionary tendencies. Certainly he is on the side of order and harmony, and his writing reflects a monarchic context rather than the more republican context which replaced the monarchy after 1649.
It would be fanciful to see Shakespeare as foretelling the decline of the Stuart monarchy. He was not a political commentator. Rather, he was a psychologically acute observer of humanity who had a unique ability to portray his observations, explorations, and insights in dramatic form, in the richest and most exciting language ever used in the English theatre. His works are still quoted endlessly, performed in every language and culture in the world, rewritten and reinterpreted by every new generation.
Shakespeare’s final plays move against the tide of most Jacobean theatre, which was concentrating on blood tragedy or social comedy. After the tragedies of Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, and the sheer misanthropy of Timon of Athens, there is a change of tone, a new optimism. Prose writing about voyages across the sea and faraway places had created a vogue for romances. The late plays, from Pericles to The Tempest, have been variously described as pastorals, romances, and even tragi-comedies. They all end in harmony, and use the passage of time (usually a whole generation) to heal the disharmony with which the plays open. They echo the structure of the masque form which was now popular at court: ‘antimasque’ or negative elements being defeated by positive elements, and a final harmony achieved. A ‘brave new world’, as Miranda describes it in The Tempest, is created out of the turbulence of the old.
Prospero’s domination of the native Caliban has been interpreted by some critics as having overtones of colonialism, which reflect the period’s interest in voyages and in the new colonial experiments in Virginia and elsewhere.
CALIBAN: This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou camest first,
Thou strok’st me, and made much of me; wouldst give me
Water with berries in it; and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o’ the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own King: and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ the island. (The Tempest)
This is the beginning of a theme which will grow considerably in importance in literature from The Tempest to Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko at the end of the century, and on to the international recognition of colonial voices in literature in modern times.
It is fashionable to see The Tempest as Shakespeare’s farewell to his art. However, as with the early comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the audience is left with a sense of magic, of transience, of awareness of the potential of humanity and the expressive potential of the theatre as a form.
The idea of transience, of the brevity of human life, is important in Renaissance writing. Before the Reformation, there was an emphasis on eternity and eternal life which implied security and optimism. Now the life of man is seen as ‘nasty, brutish, and short’, and there are many images which underline this theme. In Measure for Measure, man is seen ‘like an angry ape’ who is ‘dressed in a little brief authority’; Macbeth describes life as ‘but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more’. The stage becomes an image, a metaphor of the world and human action. The stage can encompass the huge range of emotions, from magic and joy to tragedy and despair, which mankind experiences. The audience is invited to share the experience rather than simply watch it from a distance, and to identify with the characters in their joys and sufferings.
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.
If Shakespeare had not become the best-known dramatist in English, he would still be remembered as a poet. His longer poems, such as Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) are classically inspired narratives. Venus and Adonis, in sesta rima, was one of Shakespeare’s most immediately popular works, being reprinted at least fifteen times before 1640.
His sonnets, probably written in the mid-1590s, use the Elizabethan form – rhyming a b a b c d c d e f e f g g – rather than the Petrarchan form which had been popular earlier. They are poems of love and of time; of love outlasting time, and poetry outlasting all. Critics have tried to identify the mysterious young man and dark lady to whom the sonnets are addressed, but it is more realistic to see the poems not as having particular addressees but rather as examining the masculine/feminine elements in all humanity and in all love relationships. Power, as in the plays, is another major concern of the sonnets.
The power of the beloved to command is a microcosm of all power. The suffering of a lover is a symbol of all suffering. For some critics, the Elizabethan sonnet sequence is largely to be regarded as ‘a long poem in fourteen-line stanzas’. Such collections as Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella and Shakespeare’s Sonnets have been much analysed in terms of their formal organisation, especially in relation to numerology. In this reading, Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are based on a triangle: 17 times 3, times 3, plus 1. No definitive explanation for the order in which the sonnets are numbered has ever been put forward convincingly. This only serves to
add to the pleasantly enigmatic nature of the collection.
Indeed, ambiguity is at the heart of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Whether the ‘I’ loves or is loved by a man or a woman:
Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still;
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill… (Sonnet 144)
Whether, in the 1590s, he considers himself a success or a failure, together with the constant preoccupation with time and transience, all serve to underline the lack of certainty in the poems. ‘I’ very often presents himself as rejected, some kind of outcast:
When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate… (Sonnet 29)
There is a truth of emotion and of constancy in the affections of the poetic ‘I’. Homoerotic the attraction to his male love certainly is:
… my state
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings. (Sonnet 29)
Shakespeare has been staged, adapted, studied and adopted throughout the centuries. It is a mark of his universality that his plays have survived all the appropriations, attacks, uses and interpretations made of them. They are used institutionally in education to show what is best in high-cultural ideology; they have been read as nihilistically modern, incorrigibly reactionary, and as ‘a cultural creation which has no intrinsic authority and whose validity is wide open to dispute’.
There is a serious question about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, which will probably never be fully resolved. Were they really by the actor from Stratford who had no books to leave in his will and who had never travelled outside England? The most credible alternative ‘Shakespeare’ is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. He was the nephew by marriage of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, so the invention of the ‘Shakespearean sonnet’ is close to him. And the biographical details of his life are more closely reflected in the sonnets than Shakespeare’s. The dating of the plays would have to be brought forward by some seven or eight years: otherwise nothing needs to be changed from what we know. All the evidence either way is circumstantial, so the debate will no doubt continue.
It is true that Shakespeare has been made into something he was not in his own lifetime, a cultural institution and an emblem, whose quality and artistry are not in doubt.
So he will no doubt survive radical and systematic counter-interpretation just as he has survived institutional appropriation from Victorian times to the present. He can be, as critics have described him, ‘our contemporary’, ‘alternative’, ‘radical’, ‘historicist’, ‘subversive’, ‘traditional’ and ‘conservative’. But his plays continue to speak to audiences and readers, as ‘imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown’, and he explores the known and the unknown in human experience. Reinterpretation, on a wide scale of opinions from radical to hegemonic, will always be a vital part of Shakespearean study. As long as the critics never take on more importance than the texts, Shakespeare’s plays and poems will survive as ‘eternal lines to time’.
At the time of Shakespeare the English language was in a state of rapid transition. The fluidity of the language was utilised by Shakespeare to coin new phrases, to introduce new words, to innovate in idiom and regularly to exploit the newly forming grammar and spelling patterns of Modern English for purposes of creative ambiguity. Shakespeare’s more distinctive uses of language are, however, more deeply patterned into the ideas and themes of his prose and poetry. On the level of vocabulary choices, key recurring words such as ‘time’ in Macbeth, or ‘honest’ in Othello or ‘act’ in Hamlet resonate across a whole play.
But the choices in words do not only convey particular meanings, they also enact meanings. For example, in Macbeth Shakespeare exploits tensions between formal Latin derived vocabulary and more informal native English vocabulary for purposes of dramatic effect.
Shakespeare satirised the over-use of formal Latinate diction in the character of Holofernes in Love’s Labours Lost, but his main purpose in these soliloquies is not satirical, nor is it simply to use Latinisms or new poetic compounds to display lexical richness. Throughout plays like Macbeth the double voice is an essential element of characterisation. At its most creative Shakespeare’s language is iconic; that is, there is a connection between some aspect of the linguistic expression and the event or object or character it refers to.
Such iconic uses extend to syntax too. In Shakespeare’s Language (2000), the critic Frank Kermode notes how in Hamlet there is a preoccupation with a particular grammatical pattern of ‘doubling’. This involves the constant splitting of a single thought into a double pattern of two words:
‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’;
‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I’;
or of a coordinated phrase ‘to be or not to be’; or
of an apposition ‘He took my father, full of bread’.
The doubling even occurs in literal repetitions, as when Laertes is twice blessed by his father (‘A double blessing is a double grace’).
These couplings and doublings grow thematically throughout the play to generate double patterns of character (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; father and uncle; father and brother), patterns of theme (incest/adultery) and of character (Hamlet’s constant uncertainty when one course of action splits into two unresolvable alternatives). Hamlet is revenger and revenged (by Laertes); the revenge motif is duplicated by Laertes and Fortinbras; and the play-within-a-play doubles the plot of Hamlet. Even the most ordinary of speeches is imbued with the pattern:
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach
With windlass and with assays of bias
By indirections find directions out;
Shakespeare’s language is fascinating in terms of surface form and formal innovation and development; but when it works at full stretch the resources of language itself become, as it were, a theme, permeating the whole interior design and architecture of the text.
Some Features of his Plays. The extent, variety, and richness of Shakespeare’s plays are quite bewildering as one approaches them. All that can be done here is to set down in order some of the more obvious of their qualities.
Their Originality: In the narrowest sense of the term, Shakespeare took no trouble to be original. Following the custom of the time, he borrowed freely from older plays (such as King Leir), chronicles (such as Holinshed's)," and tales (such as The Jew, the part-origin of The Merchant of Venice). To these he is indebted chiefly for his plots; but in his more mature work the interest in the plot becomes subordinate to the development of character, the highest achievement of the dramatist's art. He can work his originals deftly: he can interweave plot within plot, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream; he can solidify years of history into five acts, as in King John and Antony and Cleopatra; and, as in Macbeth, he makes the dust of history glow with the spirit of his imagination.
Characters: In sheer prodigality of output Shakespeare is unrivalled in literature. From king to clown, from lunatic and demi-devil to saint and seer, from lover to misanthrope--all are revealed with the hand of the master. Surveying this multitude, one can only cry out, as Hamlet does, "What a piece of work is man!"
Another feature of Shakespeare's characterization is his objectivity. He seems indifferent to good and evil; he has the eye of the creator, viewing bright and dismal things alike, provided they are apt and real. In his characters vice and virtue commingle, and the union is true to the common sense of humanity. Thus the villain Iago is a man of resolution, intelligence, and fortitude; the murderer Claudius (in Hamlet) shows affection, wisdom, and fortitude; the peerless Cleopatra is narrow, spiteful, and avaricious; and the beast Caliban has his moments of ecstatic vision. The list could be extended almost without limit, but these examples must serve.
"He was the man," said Dryden, "who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul." These lines aptly sum up Shakespeare the artist.
Literature under Charles I and the Commonwealth
English Literature by Edward Albert [Revised by J. A. Stone]
History of English Literature, by Legouis and Cazamian
The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, by Ronald Carter and John McRae