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When Shakespeare was born, in 1564, the English theater hardly existed as an organized commercial or artistic institution. Troupes of actors roamed the countryside, performing in courtyards or in the great halls of noble houses; little better than vagrants in the eyes of the law, they lived by presenting crude native tragedies, bawdy interludes, or adaptations of the classics, in exchange for a meal, a bed, or a few coins. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, the stage was one of London's thriving industries, supporting at least three successful repertory companies of which one--the Lord Chamberlain's Men--boasted the services of William Shakespeare as a resident actor, playwright, and shareholder. Shakespeare certainly had a lot to do with the success of English theatre as a whole.
The distinction between tragedy and comedy was particularly important in Shakespeare's time. Elizabethan tragedy was the familiar tale of a great man or woman brought low through hubris or fate (though some of Shakespeare's tragic heroes--such as Romeo or Macbeth--do not easily accomodate Aristotle's definition of the type). Tragedies and comedies are two of the genres into which the First Folio of Shakespeare divides the plays; the third category is Histories, comprising plays that chronicled the lives of English Kings, but these plays themselves often tended toward the tragic (Richard II or Richard III, for instance) or the comic (the Falstaff subplots of both parts of Henry IV and the Pistol-Fluellen encounters of Henry V). Thus almost from the start, Shakespeare's method was to mingle the heretofore antagonistic visions of comedy and tragedy in ways that still seem novel and startling. There is more to laugh at in the tragedy of Hamlet than there is in a comedy like The Merchant of Venice, and some modern critics go so far as to consider King Lear at once the pinnacle of Shakespeare's tragic achievement and a kind of divine comedy or even absurdist farce. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy assembled from comic materials (a story of young lovers struggling to overcome the obstacle of parental disapproval), and in Shakespeare's later tragedy of romantic love, Antony and Cleopatra, there is much poignant humor at the expense of middle-aged lovers attempting with difficulty to sustain the passion usually associated with adolescence. Indeed, some of Shakespeare's comedies--Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well are the most notable--seem so far removed from the optimism usually associated with that genre that they have acquired the qualifying title of "problem comedies."
Shakespeare's contribution to English drama is incalculable. Just his work on the King James Bible alone has shaped generations of people's imagination. When it comes to tragedy, he is pretty important for a few reasons. First, tragedy was chiefly a western invention from the Greeks, but it was lost for a long time. Some scholars even posit that no one, but the Greeks could write proper tragedy. Perhaps it was due to the historical circumstances. In light of this, it is significant that Shakespeare wrote successful tragedies. For this reason we can say that he revived a Greek form for generations.
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