William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare in World Literature

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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:...

(The entire section is 1,058 words.)