The high opinion in which Shakespeare has been held since the middle of the eighteenth century has often led to hyperbole in discussion of his literary merits. In The Riverside Shakespeare (1974), Harry Levin has observed that Shakespeare’s works have been “accorded a place in our culture above and beyond topmost place in our literature. They have been virtually canonized as humanistic scriptures, the tested residue of pragmatic wisdom, a general collection of quotable texts and usable examples” for guiding human actions. The dramatist’s works rank beside the Bible as the documents most referred to when explaining and illustrating the variegated qualities of human nature.
Any analysis of the general qualities of Shakespeare’s plays must focus initially on the writer’s ability to create characters. More than any other author in English, Shakespeare has been able to bring to life individuals who have the mark of reality about them. Throughout the dramas, Shakespeare tries to avoid the use of type characters, working instead to individualize his creations through patterns of speech and thought. In an age when society believed people were governed by “humors” and the dominant characteristics one exhibited were a consequence of these physical states, Shakespeare was somewhat unusual. His great contemporary, Ben Jonson, prided himself on his ability to capture the essence of types in his dramas. Shakespeare, on the other hand, strives always to achieve distinction among his kings, fools, lovers, and villains.
Like most of his contemporaries, Shakespeare makes extensive use of both literary and historical sources for his dramas. Almost nothing in the Shakespeare canon is wholly original. Some of the earliest works are highly derivative; The Comedy of Errors (pr. c. 1592-1594, pb. 1623), for example, is taken from a Roman comedy. As he matured in his art, Shakespeare was able to transform materials from diverse sources, such as Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115 c.e; Parallel Lives, 1579) and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) into original works of dramatic art. His Julius Caesar and Brutus, his Richard II and Prince Hal, are modeled on the figures Shakespeare discovered in the histories he read. He was not at all averse, however, to changing his characters’ motivations or even making them younger or older than they actually were if the dramatic interest of his plays was better served.
As important to him as the historical records on which he drew were the writings of both ancient and contemporary philosophers, whose ideas Shakespeare incorporates into his dramas. His writings are filled with allusions to various ancient authors, as well as to works by his contemporaries. He seems to have been especially influenced by the new movement in Humanism, exemplified best by the works of the French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Many of Shakespeare’s plays exhibit an appreciation for the Aristotelean concept that virtuous action is a kind of golden mean between two extremes; for example, heroism lies between cowardice and foolhardiness.
Among Shakespeare’s most notable contributions to literature was his innovative use of language. Like many of his contemporaries, he wrote much of his work in blank verse, the unrhymed iambic pentameter lines first used in English by Chaucer almost two hundred years earlier. He freely invented words and phrases that have since passed into the English language; to him is attributed the first use of words such as “lonely,” “laughable,” and even “critic.” Additionally, his ability to turn out particularly apt and pithy phrases has resulted in the elevation of many of his coinages into aphorisms. “The devil can quote scripture” and “All that glitters is not gold,” both adapted from The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597, pb. 1600), are but two examples. Many of the speeches he created for his characters have been taken out of context and recited as philosophical or patriotic dicta: Jacques’s discourse on the seven ages of man in As You Like It (c. pr. 1599-1600, pb. 1623), or John of Gaunt’s poetic survey of his homeland, “This royal throne of kings. . . . This blessed plot . . . this England,” in Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1600), are examples of many that could be cited.
Because the Elizabethan stage was usually a bare platform with little scenery and few props, Shakespeare often uses language to paint the scene for his audience. Direct references spoken by the characters make it clear to the audience, in the theater or at home with their texts, where a scene is taking place: “This castle hath a pleasant seat,” King Duncan says upon arriving at Macbeth’s home, notifying the audience that the scene has shifted; the young exiles in As You Like It are told that “This is the forest of Arden,” so that the audience, too, will know where the action is now occurring.
More than any other dramatist, Shakespeare makes extensive use of metaphor to drive home a point. What some have dismissed as excessively “flowery” language is actually the dramatist’s way of creating vivid pictures in the imagination of playgoers and readers. Hence, when Richard II returns from the wars in Ireland, he acknowledges his joy by comparing himself to “a long-parted mother with her child” who, upon reunion, “plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting.” In the same play, when the soon-to-be-deposed king realizes how little support he has, he complains to his henchmen that it is now time to “Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes/ Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.” Among Shakespeare’s favorite metaphors is that of the garden, to which he compares both individuals and the state. In Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622), the villain Iago dismisses the excuses made by Othello’s rival, Roderigo, for failing to win Desdemona by reminding him that “our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners.” In both Richard II and again in Henry IV, Part I (pr. c. 1597-1598, pb. 1598), the state of England is compared to a garden, which is in disarray because of the civil strife brought on by the king’s profligacy and his usurper’s inability to unite the rebels after Richard is deposed. Through the use of such language, Shakespeare makes his audience aware of the state of both individual and political affairs, drawing them into the action and allowing them to see the consequences of human acts.