Article abstract: Shakespeare writes his dramas, creating a literary legacy that transcends cultural and temporal barriers.
Summary of Event
After the sixth century Catholic Church had exerted its influence to close down the decadent theater of the late Roman Empire, theater did not officially exist in western Europe for the following four centuries. Ironically, the Catholic Church sponsored the beginnings of a new dramatic form within the church liturgy in the tenth century. Semidramatic and dramatic representations of the events of Easter evolved by the end of the twelfth century into complex and lengthy dramas dealing with other festivals in the liturgical calendar.
In the early fourteenth century, drama moved out of the churches and into the streets. Various craft guilds of certain towns began to present cycles of plays depicting biblical stories from the account of Creation and the Garden of Eden to the ascension of Christ; these plays were known as Corpus Christi plays because they were associated with the midsummer feast of Corpus Christi. Saints’ plays, focusing on the lives of the saints, and morality plays, which presented allegorical renditions of humanity’s spiritual journey through life, were also widely current in England. Morality plays were performed by wandering troupes of actors, contained stock characters and low comedy, and were intended to entertain as well as to instruct.
These plays survived into the late sixteenth century and had an appreciable influence on English playwright William Shakespeare. Shakespeare probably saw Corpus Christi plays as a youth. In the early sixteenth century, teachers and schoolboys began to produce plays based on Roman comedy but adapted to English customs and mores. Tragedy based on classical models, particularly Seneca, began to appear in the mid-sixteenth century. The most influential Renaissance playwrights who preceded Shakespeare were Robert Greene, who opened up for Shakespeare the work of Greek romance; John Lyly, known for his elaborate, courtly language and a sensitive portrayal of the psychology of love; Thomas Kyd, whose play, The Spanish Tragedy, was probably the most frequently performed play in the sixteenth century; and Christopher Marlowe, whose “mighty lines,” tragic seriousness, and spirit of aspiration were very influential on subsequent dramatists.
When Shakespeare arrived in London in the late 1580’s, the city proper and its suburbs had a population of approximately two hundred thousand inhabitants, making it the largest city in Europe. The city stretched along the north bank of the Thames River from the old Tower of London on the east to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Fleet Ditch on the west. Visitors approaching London from the south bank of the Thames (the Bankside) crossed London Bridge to enter the city. London authorities frowned on large public gatherings because they believed such gatherings made both crime and spread of the bubonic plague more likely. Consequently, public theaters were constructed in the suburbs in order to escape the stringent regulations imposed by the lord mayor and council of aldermen.
The first public theater, known as the Theatre, was built in Finsbury Fields by James Burbage in 1576. The Curtain was built the following year and the Rose, the first playhouse on the Bankside, was built about ten years later. Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, sons of James, dismantled the Theatre in 1599 because of trouble about the lease of the land. They rebuilt the theater on the Bankside and renamed it the Globe. These public theaters held about two to three thousand people. Smaller private theaters, based on the great halls of Tudor houses, flourished in the city proper during the 1580’s and again in 1598-1599. The prices charged at these theaters were higher, the accommodations were more comfortable, and the audiences were more elite than at the larger venues. The plays written for these select audiences tended to be more satirical and were oriented to courtly values.
By the time Shakespeare arrived in London, the flimsy scaffolds of the wandering troupes of actors had been replaced by permanent structures, and the theater was a thriving enterprise. It was not, however, altogether a respectable one. Gentlemen poets were perfectly acceptable in polite society, but commoners, particularly ones like Shakespeare, who did not have the benefit of a university education, were highly suspect. Shakespeare was one of the first men to earn a fortune with his pen, although strictly speaking, it was his share of the gate receipts for his plays that served as the source of his income. Shakespeare apparently coveted respectability and earned it long before he died. He began to purchase property in the 1590’s and was established in the rank and title of gentleman in 1596. His rapid rise in the world came through his association with the Burbages. By 1594, Shakespeare was a partner in, as well as actor and primary playwright for, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an acting company dominated by James Burbage as the owner of the Theatre, Cuthbert Burbage as manager of the company, and Richard Burbage as the principal actor of the troupe. Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth, the troupe became known as the King’s Men, to honor the accession of King James to the British throne.
Shakespeare apparently began writing plays around 1589. He was the author of two historical tetralogies— the three parts of Henry VI along with Richard III constituted the first tetralogy, and Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V constituted the second. The history plays are concerned with the consequences of civil strife and with questions about the nature of kingship and the relationship between humanity, morality, depth of character, and the ability to rule well. Characteristically, Shakespeare presents paradoxes, dilemmas, and questions rather than answers. His comedies—from joyous early ones, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to darker ones, such as Measure for Measure—are wonderfully complex, entertaining, and perplexing. Shakespeare never ceases to examine the nature of human life and the mysteries of sexual attraction and romantic love. The tragedies are generally taken to be Shakespeare’s most profound and compelling works. Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra are all intensely engaging, disturbing, and enriching works that probe the darker mysteries of human life and the human heart with unrelenting eloquence and honesty. Their greatness triumphantly survives translation and transposition, compelling attention in virtually every culture in the world. In the romances, such as The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare returns to the great themes of the tragedies with a more hopeful and quiet mind.
Shakespeare died without ever having bothered to publish his plays. Apparently, he had little concern for their ultimate fate or for his own enduring fame. Fortunately, John Heminges and Henry Condell, actors in the King’s Men, gathered copies of thirty-six plays, half of which had already been printed in individual quarto editions, and published the first Folio edition of Shakespeare’s dramatic works in 1623. Only Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen were missing from the first edition. The fact that Shakespeare did not oversee the production of the Folio, as Ben Jonson had overseen the publication of his Works in 1616, means that neither the Folio texts nor other surviving quartos and playbook copies of particular plays can be said to be definitive. Although there are numerous discrepancies among the surviving copies of the plays, textual critics and editors are in general agreement about the most accurate versions.
In his work, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994), critic Harold Bloom summarized the genius of Shakespeare, acknowledging that he “perceived more than any other, and had an almost effortless mastery of language, far surpassing everyone.” Shakespeare’s greatest originality is arguably in the representation of human character and personality and their mutability. His characters live beyond the bounds of his plays: Bottom, Shylock, Falstaff, Hamlet, Lear. Part of what made Shakespeare a unique author, besides his extraordinary facility with language, was what nineteenth century poet John Keats called “negative capability,” that is, Shakespeare’s ability to see into characters’ lives with an extraordinary self-effacing sympathy. It is as if Shakespeare overhears his characters rather than making them speak. Even his minor characters are individuals with distinct and consistent voices that seem real. Shakespeare is fascinating, in part, because he is the least aggressive and self-conscious of the greatest artists. Audiences and readers know what Hamlet thinks, or Antony, or Prospero, but they are never sure of Shakespeare; he has the generosity and largeness and indifference of nature. Michelangelo said in one of his letters: “the ultimate artist has no idea.” Shakespeare seems to have been such an artist. Truly, as his contemporary Ben Jonson said, “He was not of an age, but for all time.”
Andrews, John F., ed. William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence. 3 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985. A comprehensive general reference work that contains sixty essays on the historical and cultural context of Shakespeare’s work, career, and influence on his own time and on future generations.
Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. An excellent edition of the complete works of Shakespeare with thorough annotation, full critical introductions, and a wealth of ancillary material.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. A pioneering work in new historicism that continues to serve as one of the most important contributions in the field and one of the most rewarding for readers.
Kahn, Coppèlia. Man’s Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. Written by a distinguished feminist critic, this work provides a study of masculinity in Shakespeare’s plays.
Loomba, Anita. Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1989. Loomba analyzes race as it affects drama of the Renaissance period and discusses the uses of Shakespeare in colonialist and post-colonialist contexts.
Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare: A Life in Drama. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. A noted Shakespearean scholar offers a critical introduction to Shakespeare’s literary achievements as a playwright, grouping the plays together to analyze comparable themes and characters.