illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare Biography

William Shakespeare left school at age fifteen, and his contemporary Ben Jonson said Shakespeare had “little Latin and less Greek”—so it wasn't his training. It wasn't where he was born, either: Stratford is still a pretty small town even today. It wasn't a long career: Shakespeare wrote all of his great works in about a twenty-five-year span and died relatively young at fifty-two. It wasn't even his story ideas: the Bard adapted almost all his plots from known sources. No, what's impressive about Shakespeare is that his genius seems to have come from nowhere except himself. He penned comedies, tragedies, and lyric poems; and his mastery of language, character psychology, and emotion combined to make him one of the greatest writers in the English language.

Facts and Trivia

  • Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he was eighteen. She was eight years older and gave birth six months after the wedding—suggesting why they may have married due to a pregnancy.
  • Shakespeare’s will leaves his “second best bed” to his wife. Who got the best bed—and why?
  • In 1890, Eugene Schieffelin released eighty starlings into New York’s Central Park because they were mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. There are now hundreds of millions of starlings in America.
  • Actors try to avoid saying “Macbeth” in a theater. Tradition (superstition?) says that it brings bad luck, so actors call it the “Scottish play” instead.
  • Some say that Shakespeare didn’t write any of the works staged under his name. This theory became popular in the nineteenth century, and some say you can find clues to the real author (Francis Bacon?) all through the works... if you read closely enough.

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Extended Introduction

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I. Introduction

Any discussion of Shakespeare's life is bound to be loaded with superlatives. In the course of a quarter century, Shakespeare wrote some thirty-eight plays. Taken individually, several of them are among the world's finest written works; taken collectively, they establish Shakespeare as the foremost literary talent of his own Elizabethan Age and, even more impressively, as a genius whose creative achievement has never been surpassed in any age.

In light of Shakespeare's stature and the passage of nearly four centuries since his death, it is not surprising that hundreds of Shakespeare biographies have been written in all of the world's major languages. Scanning this panorama, most accounts of the Bard's life (and certainly the majority of modern studies) are contextual in the sense that they place the figure of Shakespeare against the rich tapestry of his "Age" or "Times" or "Society." This characteristic approach to Shakespeare biography is actually a matter of necessity, for without such fleshing out into historical, social, and literary settings, the skeletal character of what we know about Shakespeare from primary sources would make for slim and, ironically, boring books. As part of this embellishment process, serious scholars continue to mine for hard facts about the nature of Shakespeare's world. The interpretation of their meaning necessarily varies, often according to the particular school or ideology of the author.

Whatever the differences of opinion, valid or at least plausible views about Shakespeare, his character and his personal experience continue to be advanced. Yet even among modern Shakespeare biographies, in addition to outlandish interpretations of the available facts, there persists (and grows) a body of traditions about such matters as Shakespeare's marriage, his move to London, the circumstances of his death and the like. The result of all this is that there is now a huge tapestry of descriptive, critical, and analytical work about Shakespeare in existence, much of it reasonable, some of it outlandish, and some of it hogwash.

II. Three important points about Shakespeare

In examining Shakespeare's life, three broad points should be kept in mind from the start. First, despite the frustration of Shakespeare biographers with the absence of a primary source of information written during (or even shortly after) his death on 23 April 1616 (his fifty-second birthday), Shakespeare's life is not obscure. In fact, we know more about Shakespeare's life, its main events and contours, than we know about most famous Elizabethans outside of the royal court itself.

Shakespeare's life is unusually well-documented: there are well over 100 references to Shakespeare and his immediate family in local parish, municipal, and commercial archives and we also have at least fifty observations about Shakespeare's plays (and through them, his life) from his contemporaries. The structure of Shakespeare's life is remarkably sound; it is the flesh of his personal experience, his motives, and the like that have no firm basis and it is, of course, this descriptive content in which we are most interested.

Second, the appeal of seeing an autobiographical basis in Shakespeare's plays and poetry must be tempered by what the bulk of the evidence has to say about him. Although there are fanciful stories about Shakespeare, many centering upon his romantic affairs, connections between them and the events or characters of his plays are flimsy, and they generally disregard our overall impression of the Bard. In his personal life, Shakespeare was, in fact, an exceedingly practical individual, undoubtedly a jack of many useful trades, and a shrewd businessman in theatrical, commercial and real estate circles.

Third, the notion that plays ascribed to Shakespeare were actually written by others (Sir Francis Bacon, the poet Phillip Sidney among the candidates) has become even weaker over time. The current strong consensus is that while Shakespeare may have collaborated with another Elizabethan playwright in at least one instance (probably with John Fletcher on The Two Noble Kinsman), and that one or two of his plays were completed by someone else (possibly Fletcher on an original or revised version of Henry VIII), the works ascribed to Shakespeare are his.

III. Birth and Early Life

Parish records establish that William Shakespeare was baptized on 26 April, 1564. Simply counting backwards the three customary days between birth and baptism in Anglican custom, most reckon that the Bard of Avon was born on 23 April, 1564. This is, indeed, Shakespeare's official birthday in England, and, it is also the traditional birth date of St. George, the patron saint of England. The exact date and the precise cause of Shakespeare's death are unknown: one local tradition asserts that the Bard died on 23 April, 1616, of a chill caught after a night of drinking with fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. Shakespeare was, in fact, buried three days later, exactly 52 years after his baptism.

Shakespeare was born and raised in the picturesque Tudor market town of Stratford-on-Avon, a local government and commercial center within a larger rural setting, and it is likely that the surrounding woodlands of his boyhood were reflected in the play As You Like It, with its Forest of Arden. Shakespeare's mother Mary Arden was a daughter of the local gentry, holding extensive properties around Stratford-on-Avon in his name. In marrying Shakespeare's father, the glover and tenant farmer John Shakespeare, Mary Arden took a step down the social ladder of the Elizabethan Age, for her husband was of the yeoman class, a notch or two below the gentry. Yet long before his son's fame as a playwright fell to his good fortune, John Shakespeare's talents enabled him to rise modestly on his own accord as he became a burgess member of the town council. Despite evidence of a family financial setback when William was fifteen, Shakespeare's family was comfortable, if not privileged. Shakespeare's eventual fame and success spilled over to his parents in the form of both money and title, and on the eve of his death in 1601, Queen Elizabeth granted the Bard's father a "gentleman's" family coat-of-arms.

We have good cause to believe that Shakespeare attended Stratford Grammar School where he would have received a tuition-free education as the son of a burgess father. There young William was exposed to a standard Elizabethan curriculum strong on Greek and Latin literature (including the playwrights Plautus and Seneca, and the amorous poet Ovid), rhetoric (including that of the ancient Roman orator Cicero), and Christian ethics (including a working knowledge of the Holy Bible). These influences are pervasive in Shakespeare's works, and it is also apparent that Shakespeare cultivated a knowledge of English history through chronicles written shortly before and during his adolescence. Shakespeare left school in 1579 at the age of fifteen, possibly as the result of a family financial problem. Shakespeare did not pursue formal education any further: he never attended a university and was not considered to be a truly learned man.

There is a period in Shakespeare's life of some seven years (1585 to 1592) from which we have absolutely no primary source materials about him. We do know that in November of 1582, at the age of eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway (a woman eight years his senior), and that she gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, six months later. Two years after that, the Shakespeares had twins: Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet, Shakespeare's only son, would die at the age of eleven. Speculation has it that Shakespeare was not happy in his marriage, and that this may have played a role in his decision to move to London's theater scene. In fact, during the late 1580s and early 1590s, Shakespeare traveled back and forth between London and Stratford-on-Avon, but by this time, the momentum of Shakespeare's life was toward his career and away from family, hearth, and home. Although we lack hard facts, we may surmise that before he took up a career as a playwright, Shakespeare engaged in a variety of occupations, probably working with his father in commercial trades (leathers and grains), probably working as a law clerk, and possibly serving as a soldier or sailor for an England threatened by Spain. Shakespeare displays a command of the argot and the practices of many such crafts, as in his portrayal of the law profession in trial scenes of The Merchant of Venice.

IV. The Playwright

Between the early 1590s (The Comedy of Errors) and the second decade of the seventeenth century (The Tempest written in 1611), Shakespeare composed the most extraordinary body of works in the history of world drama. His works are often divided into periods, moving roughly from comedies to histories to tragedies and then to his final romances capped by a farewell to the stage in The Tempest. The question of how and whether the Bard's career should be divided into periods aside, we do know that Shakespeare received a major boost in 1592 (the earliest review of his work that we have), when playwright-critic Robert Greene condemned the future Bard as an impudent "upstart" beneath the notice of established literary men or University Wits. Greene's critical diatribe was soon retracted by his editor as a number of leading Elizabethan literary figures expressed their admiration for his early plays. Retreating from London in the plague years of 1592 through 1594, Shakespeare briefly left playwriting aside to compose long poems like Venus and Adonis and at least some of his sonnets. But during this period, Shakespeare garnered the support of his first major sponsor, the Earl of Southampton. Soon, as a leading figure in the Chamberlain's Men company he would garner even greater patronage from the courts of Queen Elizabeth and her successor, King James.

Just as the rise of Shakespeare's success, popularity, and fame began to accelerate, he experienced a personal tragedy when his son Hamnet died in 1596. Shakespeare undoubtedly returned to Stratford for Hamnet's funeral and this event may have prompted him to spend more time with his wife and daughters. In 1597, Shakespeare purchased a splendid Tudor Mansion in his hometown known as the New Place. During the period between 1597 and 1611, Shakespeare apparently spent most of his time in London during the theatrical season, but was active in Stratford as well, particularly as an investor in grain dealings. Shakespeare also purchased real estate in the countryside and in London as well, the latter including Blackfriar's Gatehouse which he bought in 1613. In 1612, four years before his death, Shakespeare went into semi-retirement at the relatively young age of forty-eight. He died on or about 23 April of 1616 of unknown causes.

William Shakespeare's family lineage came to an end two generations after his death. His two daughters followed different paths in their father's eyes. His older daughter, Susanna, married a prominent local doctor, John Hall, in 1607 and there are indications that a close friendship developed between Hall and his renowned father-in-law. Susanna gave Shakespeare his only grandchild, Elizabeth Hall in 1608. Although she inherited the family estate and was married twice (her first husband dying) Elizabeth had no children of her own. Shakespeare's other daughter, Judith married Thomas Quiney, a tavern owner and reputed rake given to pre-marital and extramarital affairs and the fathering of illegitimate children. They had three legitimate sons, all of whom died young.

V. Shakespeare's World

Most of Shakespeare's career unfolded during the monarchy of Elizabeth I, the Great Virgin Queen from whom the historical period of the Bard's life takes its name as the Elizabethan Age. Elizabeth came to the throne under turbulent circumstances in 1558 (before Shakespeare was born) and ruled until 1603. Under her reign, not only did England prosper as a rising commercial power at the expense of Catholic Spain, Shakespeare's homeland undertook an enormous expansion into the New World and laid the foundations of what would become the British Empire. This ascendance came in the wake of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the former regaining Greek and Roman classics and stimulating an outburst of creative endeavor throughout Europe, the latter transforming England into a Protestant/Anglican state, and generating continuing religious strife, especially during the civil wars of Elizabeth's Catholic sister, Queen Margaret or "Bloody Mary."

The Elizabethan Age, then, was an Age of Discovery, of the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and the exploration of human nature itself. The basic assumptions underpinning feudalism/Scholasticism were openly challenged with the support of Elizabeth and, equally so, by her successor on the throne, James I. There was in all this an optimism about humanity and its future and an even greater optimism about the destiny of England in the world at large. Nevertheless, the Elizabethans also recognized that the course of history is problematic, that Fortune can undo even the greatest and most promising, as Shakespeare reveals in such plays as Antony & Cleopatra. More specifically, Shakespeare and his audiences were keenly aware of the prior century's prolonged bloodshed during the War of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York. Many Elizabethans, particularly the prosperous, feared the prospect of civil insurrection and the destruction of the commonwealth, whether as a result of an uprising from below or of usurpation at the top. Thus, whether or not we consider Shakespeare to have been a political conservative, his histories, tragedies and even his romances and comedies are slanted toward the restoration or maintenance of civil harmony and the status quo of legitimate rule.

Tips for Reading Shakespeare

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Shakespeare’s Language

Shakespeare’s language can create a strong pang of intimidation, even fear, in a large number of modern-day readers. Fortunately, however, this need not be the case. All that is needed to master the art of reading Shakespeare is to practice the techniques of unraveling uncommonly-structured sentences and to become familiar with the poetic use of uncommon words. We must realize that during the 400-year span between Shakespeare’s time and our own, both the way we live and speak has changed. Although most of his vocabulary is in use today, some of it is obsolete, and what may be most confusing is that some of his words are used today, but with slightly different or totally different meanings. On the stage, actors readily dissolve these language stumbling blocks. They study Shakespeare’s dialogue and express it dramatically in word and in action so that its meaning is graphically enacted. If the reader studies Shakespeare’s lines as an actor does, looking up and reflecting upon the meaning of unfamiliar words until real voice is discovered, he or she will suddenly experience the excitement, the depth and the sheer poetry of what these characters say.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In English, or any other language, the meaning of a sentence greatly depends upon where each word is placed in that sentence. “The child hurt the mother” and “The mother hurt the child” have opposite meanings, even though the words are the same, simply because the words are arranged differently. Because word position is so integral to English, the reader will find unfamiliar word arrangements confusing, even difficult to understand. Since Shakespeare’s plays are poetic dramas, he often shifts from average word arrangements to the strikingly unusual so that the line will conform to the desired poetic rhythm. Often, too, Shakespeare employs unusual word order to afford a character his own specific style of speaking.

Today, English sentence structure follows a sequence of subject first, verb second, and an optional object third. Shakespeare, however, often places the verb before the subject, which reads, “Speaks he” rather than “He speaks.” Solanio speaks with this inverted structure in The Merchant of Venice stating, “I should be still/Plucking the grass to know where sits the wind” (Bevington edition, I, i, ll.17-19), while today’s standard English word order would have the clause at the end of this line read, “where the wind sits.” “Wind” is the subject of this clause, and “sits” is the verb. Bassanio’s words in Act Two also exemplify this inversion: “And in such eyes as ours appear not faults” (II, ii, l. 184). In our normal word order, we would say, “Faults do not appear in eyes such as ours,” with “faults” as the subject in both Shakespeare’s word order and ours.

Inversions like these are not troublesome, but when Shakes–peare positions the predicate adjective or the object before the subject and verb, we are sometimes surprised. For example, rather than “I saw him,” Shakespeare may use a structure such as “Him I saw.” Similarly, “Cold the morning is” would be used for our “The morning is cold.” Lady Macbeth demonstrates this inversion as she speaks of her husband: “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be/What thou art promised” (Macbeth, I, v, ll. 14-15). In current English word order, this quote would begin, “Thou art Glamis, and Cawdor.”

In addition to inversions, Shakespeare purposefully keeps words apart that we generally keep together. To illustrate, consider Bassanio’s humble admission in The Merchant of Venice: “I owe you much, and, like a wilful youth,/That which I owe is lost” (I, i, ll. 146-147). The phrase, “like a wilful youth,” separates the regular sequence of “I owe you much” and “That which I owe is lost.” To understand more clearly this type of passage, the reader could rearrange these word groups into our conventional order: I owe you much and I wasted what you gave me because I was young and impulsive. While these rearranged clauses will sound like normal English, and will be simpler to understand, they will no longer have the desired poetic rhythm, and the emphasis will now be on the wrong words.

As we read Shakespeare, we will find words that are separated by long, interruptive statements. Often subjects are separated from verbs, and verbs are separated from objects. These long interruptions can be used to give a character dimension or to add an element of suspense. For example, in Romeo and Juliet Benvolio describes both Romeo’s moodiness and his own sensitive and thoughtful nature:

I, measuring his affections by my own,
Which then most sought, where most might not be found,
Being one too many by my weary self,
Pursu’d my humour, not pursuing his,
And gladly shunn’d who gladly fled from me. (I, i, ll. 126-130)

In this passage, the subject “I” is distanced from its verb “Pursu’d.” The long interruption serves to provide information which is integral to the plot. Another example, taken from Hamlet, is the ghost, Hamlet’s father, who describes Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, as

…that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts—
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce—won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming virtuous queen. (I, v, ll. 43-47)

From this we learn that Prince Hamlet’s mother is the victim of an evil seduction and deception. The delay between the subject, “beast,” and the verb, “won,” creates a moment of tension filled with the image of a cunning predator waiting for the right moment to spring into attack. This interruptive passage allows the play to unfold crucial information and thus to build the tension necessary to produce a riveting drama.

While at times these long delays are merely for decorative purposes, they are often used to narrate a particular situation or to enhance character development. As Antony and Cleopatra opens, an interruptive passage occurs in the first few lines. Although the delay is not lengthy, Philo’s words vividly portray Antony’s military prowess while they also reveal the immediate concern of the drama. Antony is distracted from his career, and is now focused on Cleopatra:

…those goodly eyes,
That o’er the files and musters of the war
Have glow’d like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front…. (I, i, ll. 2-6)

Whereas Shakespeare sometimes heaps detail upon detail, his sentences are often elliptical, that is, they omit words we expect in written English sentences. In fact, we often do this in our spoken conversations. For instance, we say, “You see that?” when we really mean, “Did you see that?” Reading poetry or listening to lyrics in music conditions us to supply the omitted words and it makes us more comfortable reading this type of dialogue. Consider one passage in The Merchant of Venice where Antonio’s friends ask him why he seems so sad and Solanio tells Antonio, “Why, then you are in love” (I, i, l. 46). When Antonio denies this, Solanio responds, “Not in love neither?” (I, i, l. 47). The word “you” is omitted but understood despite the confusing double negative.

In addition to leaving out words, Shakespeare often uses intentionally vague language, a strategy which taxes the reader’s attentiveness. In Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra, upset that Antony is leaving for Rome after learning that his wife died in battle, convinces him to stay in Egypt:

Sir, you and I must part, but that’s not it:
Sir you and I have lov’d, but there’s not it;
That you know well, something it is I would—
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten. (I, iii, ll. 87-91)

In line 89, “…something it is I would” suggests that there is something that she would want to say, do, or have done. The intentional vagueness leaves us, and certainly Antony, to wonder. Though this sort of writing may appear lackadaisical for all that it leaves out, here the vagueness functions to portray Cleopatra as rhetorically sophisticated. Similarly, when asked what thing a crocodile is (meaning Antony himself who is being compared to a crocodile), Antony slyly evades the question by giving a vague reply:

It is shap’d, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth.
It is just so high as it is, and moves with it own organs.
It lives by that which nourisheth it, and, the elements once out of it, it transmigrates. (II, vii, ll. 43-46)

This kind of evasiveness, or doubletalk, occurs often in Shakespeare’s writing and requires extra patience on the part of the reader.

Shakespeare’s Words

As we read Shakespeare’s plays, we will encounter uncommon words. Many of these words are not in use today. As Romeo and Juliet opens, we notice words like “shrift” (confession) and “holidame” (a holy relic). Words like these should be explained in notes to the text. Shakespeare also employs words which we still use, though with different meaning. For example, in The Merchant of Venice “caskets” refer to small, decorative chests for holding jewels. However, modern readers may think of a large cask instead of the smaller, diminutive casket.

Another trouble modern readers will have with Shakespeare’s English is with words that are still in use today, but which mean something different in Elizabethan use. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare uses the word “straight” (as in “straight away”) where we would say “immediately.” Here, the modern reader is unlikely to carry away the wrong message, however, since the modern meaning will simply make no sense. In this case, textual notes will clarify a phrase’s meaning. To cite another example, in Romeo and Juliet, after Mercutio dies, Romeo states that the “black fate on moe days doth depend” (emphasis added). In this case, “depend” really means “impend.”

Shakespeare’s Wordplay

All of Shakespeare’s works exhibit his mastery of playing with language and with such variety that many people have authored entire books on this subject alone. Shakespeare’s most frequently used types of wordplay are common: metaphors, similes, synecdoche and metonymy, personification, allusion, and puns. It is when Shakespeare violates the normal use of these devices, or rhetorical figures, that the language becomes confusing.

A metaphor is a comparison in which an object or idea is replaced by another object or idea with common attributes. For example, in Macbeth a murderer tells Macbeth that Banquo has been murdered, as directed, but that his son, Fleance, escaped, having witnessed his father’s murder. Fleance, now a threat to Macbeth, is described as a serpent:

There the grown serpent lies, the worm that’s fled
Hath nature that in time will venom breed,
No teeth for the present. (III, iv, ll. 29-31)

Similes, on the other hand, compare objects or ideas while using the words “like” or “as.” In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo tells Juliet that “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books” (II, ii, l. 156). Such similes often give way to more involved comparisons, “extended similes.” For example, Juliet tells Romeo:

‘Tis almost morning,
I would have thee gone,
And yet no farther than a wonton’s bird,
That lets it hop a little from his hand
Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves,
And with silken thread plucks it back again,
So loving-jealous of his liberty. (II, ii, ll. 176-181)

An epic simile, a device borrowed from heroic poetry, is an extended simile that builds into an even more elaborate comparison. In Macbeth, Macbeth describes King Duncan’s virtues with an angelic, celestial simile and then drives immediately into another simile that redirects us into a vision of warfare and destruction:

…Besides this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind…. (I, vii, ll. 16-25)

Shakespeare employs other devices, like synecdoche and metonymy, to achieve “verbal economy,” or using one or two words to express more than one thought. Synecdoche is a figure of speech using a part for the whole. An example of synecdoche is using the word boards to imply a stage. Boards are only a small part of the materials that make up a stage, however, the term boards has become a colloquial synonym for stage. Metonymy is a figure of speech using the name of one thing for that of another which it is associated. An example of metonymy is using crown to mean the king (as used in the sentence “These lands belong to the crown”). Since a crown is associated with or an attribute of the king, the word crown has become a metonymy for the king. It is important to understand that every metonymy is a synecdoche, but not every synecdoche is a metonymy. This is rule is true because a metonymy must not only be a part of the root word, making a synecdoche, but also be a unique attribute of or associated with the root word.

Synecdoche and metonymy in Shakespeare’s works is often very confusing to a new student because he creates uses for words that they usually do not perform. This technique is often complicated and yet very subtle, which makes it difficult of a new student to dissect and understand. An example of these devices in one of Shakespeare’s plays can be found in The Merchant of Venice . In warning his daughter, Jessica, to ignore the Christian revelries in the streets below, Shylock says:

Lock up my doors; and when you hear the drum
And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife,
Clamber not you up to the casements then… (I, v, ll. 30-32)

The phrase of importance in this quote is “the wry-necked fife.” When a reader examines this phrase it does not seem to make sense; a fife is a cylinder-shaped instrument, there is no part of it that can be called a neck. The phrase then must be taken to refer to the fife-player, who has to twist his or her neck to play the fife. Fife, therefore, is a synecdoche for fife-player, much as boards is for stage. The trouble with understanding this phrase is that “vile squealing” logically refers to the sound of the fife, not the fife-player, and the reader might be led to take fife as the instrument because of the parallel reference to “drum” in the previous line. The best solution to this quandary is that Shakespeare uses the word fife to refer to both the instrument and the player. Both the player and the instrument are needed to complete the wordplay in this phrase, which, though difficult to understand to new readers, cannot be seen as a flaw since Shakespeare manages to convey two meanings with one word. This remarkable example of synecdoche illuminates Shakespeare’s mastery of “verbal economy.”

Shakespeare also uses vivid and imagistic wordplay through personification, in which human capacities and behaviors are attributed to inanimate objects. Bassanio, in The Merchant of Venice, almost speechless when Portia promises to marry him and share all her worldly wealth, states “my blood speaks to you in my veins…” (III, ii, l. 176). How deeply he must feel since even his blood can speak. Similarly, Portia, learning of the penalty that Antonio must pay for defaulting on his debt, tells Salerio, “There are some shrewd contents in yond same paper/That steals the color from Bassanio’s cheek” (III, ii, ll. 243-244).

Another important facet of Shakespeare’s rhetorical repertoire is his use of allusion. An allusion is a reference to another author or to an historical figure or event. Very often Shakespeare alludes to the heroes and heroines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For example, in Cymbeline an entire room is decorated with images illustrating the stories from this classical work, and the heroine, Imogen, has been reading from this text. Similarly, in Titus Andronicus characters not only read directly from the Metamorphoses, but a subplot re-enacts one of the Metamorphoses’s most famous stories, the rape and mutilation of Philomel. Another way Shakespeare uses allusion is to drop names of mythological, historical and literary figures. In The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, Petruchio compares Katharina, the woman whom he is courting, to Diana (II, i, l. 55), the virgin goddess, in order to suggest that Katharina is a man-hater. At times, Shakespeare will allude to well-known figures without so much as mentioning their names. In Twelfth Night, for example, though the Duke and Valentine are ostensibly interested in Olivia, a rich countess, Shakespeare asks his audience to compare the Duke’s emotional turmoil to the plight of Acteon, whom the goddess Diana transforms into a deer to be hunted and killed by Acteon’s own dogs:

That instant was I turn’d into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E’er since pursue me. […]

But like a cloistress she will veiled walk,
And water once a day her chamber round…. (I, i, l. 20 ff.)

Shakespeare’s use of puns spotlights his exceptional wit. His comedies in particular are loaded with puns, usually of a sexual nature. Puns work through the ambiguity that results when multiple senses of a word are evoked; homophones often cause this sort of ambiguity. In Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus believes “there is mettle in death” (I, ii, l. 146), meaning that there is “courage” in death; at the same time, mettle suggests the homophone metal, referring to swords made of metal causing death. In early editions of Shakespeare’s work there was no distinction made between the two words. Antony puns on the word “earing,” (I, ii, ll. 112-114) meaning both plowing (as in rooting out weeds) and hearing: he angrily sends away a messenger, not wishing to hear the message from his wife, Fulvia: “…O then we bring forth weeds,/when our quick minds lie still, and our ills told us/Is as our earing.” If ill-natured news is planted in one’s “hearing,” it will render an “earing” (harvest) of ill-natured thoughts. A particularly clever pun, also in Antony and Cleopatra, stands out after Antony’s troops have fought Octavius’s men in Egypt: “We have beat him to his camp. Run one before,/And let the queen know of our gests” (IV, viii, ll. 1-2). Here “gests” means deeds (in this case, deeds of battle); it is also a pun on “guests,” as though Octavius’ slain soldiers were to be guests when buried in Egypt.

One should note that Elizabethan pronunciation was in several cases different from our own. Thus, modern readers, especially Americans, will miss out on the many puns based on homophones. The textual notes will point up many of these “lost” puns, however.

Shakespeare’s sexual innuendoes can be either clever or tedious depending upon the speaker and situation. The modern reader should recall that sexuality in Shakespeare’s time was far more complex than in ours and that characters may refer to such things as masturbation and homosexual activity. Textual notes in some editions will point out these puns but rarely explain them. An example of a sexual pun or innuendo can be found in The Merchant of Venice when Portia and Nerissa are discussing Portia’s past suitors using innuendo to tell of their sexual prowess:

I pray thee, overname them, and as thou namest them, I will describe them, and according to my description level at my affection.

First, there is the Neapolitan prince.

Ay, that’s a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but talk of his horse, and he makes it a great appropriation to his own good parts that he can shoe him himself. I am much afeard my lady his mother played false with the smith. (I, ii, ll. 35-45)

The “Neapolitan prince” is given a grade of an inexperienced youth when Portia describes him as a “colt.” The prince is thought to be inexperienced because he did nothing but “talk of his horse” (a pun for his penis) and his other great attributes. Portia goes on to say that the prince boasted that he could “shoe him [his horse] himself,” a possible pun meaning that the prince was very proud that he could masturbate. Finally, Portia makes an attack upon the prince’s mother, saying that “my lady his mother played false with the smith,” a pun to say his mother must have committed adultery with a blacksmith to give birth to such a vulgar man having an obsession with “shoeing his horse.”

It is worth mentioning that Shakespeare gives the reader hints when his characters might be using puns and innuendoes. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia’s lines are given in prose when she is joking, or engaged in bawdy conversations. Later on the reader will notice that Portia’s lines are rhymed in poetry, such as when she is talking in court or to Bassanio. This is Shakespeare’s way of letting the reader know when Portia is jesting and when she is serious.

Shakespeare’s Dramatic Verse

Finally, the reader will notice that some lines are actually rhymed verse while others are in verse without rhyme; and much of Shakespeare’s drama is in prose. Shakespeare usually has his lovers speak in the language of love poetry which uses rhymed couplets. The archetypal example of this comes, of course, from Romeo and Juliet:

The grey-ey’d morn smiles on the frowning night,
Check’ring the eastern clouds with streaks of light,
And fleckled darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels.
(II, iii, ll. 1-4)

Here it is ironic that Friar Lawrence should speak these lines since he is not the one in love. He, therefore, appears buffoonish and out of touch with reality. Shakespeare often has his characters speak in rhymed verse to let the reader know that the character is acting in jest, and vice-versa.

Perhaps the majority of Shakespeare’s lines are in blank verse, a form of poetry which does not use rhyme (hence the name blank) but still employs a rhythm native to the English language, iambic pentameter, where every second syllable in a line of ten syllables receives stress. Consider the following verses from Hamlet, and note the accents and the lack of end-rhyme:

The síngle ánd pecúliar lífe is bóund
With áll the stréngth and ármor óf the mínd (III, iii, ll. 12-13)

The final syllable of these verses receives stress and is said to have a hard, or “strong,” ending. A soft ending, also said to be “weak,” receives no stress. In The Tempest, Shakespeare uses a soft ending to shape a verse that demonstrates through both sound (meter) and sense the capacity of the feminine to propagate:

and thén I lóv’d thee
And shów’d thee áll the quálitíes o’ th’ ísle,
The frésh spríngs, bríne-pits, bárren pláce and fértile. (I, ii, ll. 338-40)

The first and third of these lines here have soft endings.

In general, Shakespeare saves blank verse for his characters of noble birth. Therefore, it is significant when his lofty characters speak in prose. Prose holds a special place in Shakespeare’s dialogues; he uses it to represent the speech habits of the common people. Not only do lowly servants and common citizens speak in prose, but important, lower class figures also use this fun, at times ribald variety of speech. Though Shakespeare crafts some very ornate lines in verse, his prose can be equally daunting, for some of his characters may speechify and break into doubletalk in their attempts to show sophistication. A clever instance of this comes when the Third Citizen in Coriolanus refers to the people’s paradoxical lack of power when they must elect Coriolanus as their new leader once Coriolanus has orated how he has courageously fought for them in battle:

We have power in ourselves to do it, but it is a power that we have no power to do; for if he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds, we are to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them; so, if he tell us his noble deeds, we must also tell him our noble acceptance of them. Ingratitude is monstrous, and for the multitude to be ingrateful were to make a monster of the multitude, of the which we, being members, should bring ourselves to be monstrous members. (II, ii, ll. 3-13)

Notice that this passage contains as many metaphors, hideous though they be, as any other passage in Shakespeare’s dramatic verse.

When reading Shakespeare, paying attention to characters who suddenly break into rhymed verse, or who slip into prose after speaking in blank verse, will heighten your awareness of a character’s mood and personal development. For instance, in Antony and Cleopatra, the famous military leader Marcus Antony usually speaks in blank verse, but also speaks in fits of prose (II, iii, ll. 43-46) once his masculinity and authority have been questioned. Similarly, in Timon of Athens, after the wealthy lord Timon abandons the city of Athens to live in a cave, he harangues anyone whom he encounters in prose (IV, iii, l. 331 ff.). In contrast, the reader should wonder why the bestial Caliban in The Tempest speaks in blank verse rather than in prose.

Implied Stage Action

When we read a Shakespearean play, we are reading a performance text. Actors interact through dialogue, but at the same time these actors cry, gesticulate, throw tantrums, pick up daggers, and compulsively wash murderous “blood” from their hands. Some of the action that takes place on stage is explicitly stated in stage directions. However, some of the stage activity is couched within the dialogue itself. Attentiveness to these cues is important as one conceives how to visualize the action. When Iago in Othello feigns concern for Cassio whom he himself has stabbed, he calls to the surrounding men, “Come, come:/Lend me a light” (V, i, ll. 86-87). It is almost sure that one of the actors involved will bring him a torch or lantern. In the same play, Emilia, Desdemona’s maidservant, asks if she should fetch her lady’s nightgown and Desdemona replies, “No, unpin me here” (IV, iii, l. 37). In Macbeth, after killing Duncan, Macbeth brings the murder weapon back with him. When he tells his wife that he cannot return to the scene and place the daggers to suggest that the king’s guards murdered Duncan, she castigates him: “Infirm of purpose/Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures” (II, ii, ll. 50-52). As she exits, it is easy to visualize Lady Macbeth grabbing the daggers from her husband.

For 400 years, readers have found it greatly satisfying to work with all aspects of Shakespeare’s language—the implied stage action, word choice, sentence structure, and wordplay—until all aspects come to life. Just as seeing a fine performance of a Shakespearean play is exciting, staging the play in one’s own mind’s eye, and revisiting lines to enrich the sense of the action, will enhance one’s appreciation of Shakespeare’s extraordinary literary and dramatic achievements.

Shakespeare Chronology

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1564: William Shakespeare is born in Stratford-upon-Avon. His notice of baptism is entered in the parish register at Holy Trinity Church on April 26th. While the actual date of his birth is not known, it is traditionally celebrated on April 23rd.

1571: Shakespeare probably enters grammar school, seven years being the usual age for admission.

1575: Queen Elizabeth visits Kenilworth Castle, near Stratford. Popular legend holds that the eleven-year-old William Shakespeare witnessed the pageantry attendant on the royal progress and later recreated it in his dramatic works.

1582: Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway of Shottery. The eighteen-year-old Shakespeare and twenty-six-year-old Hathaway are married on November 27th at Temple Grafton, a village about five miles from Stratford.

1583: Susanna, the first child of William and Anne Shakespeare, is born. Susanna's birth occurs five months after Shakespeare and Hathaway wed. Susanna dies in 1649.

1585(?): Shakespeare leaves Stratford sometime between 1585 and 1592, and joins a company of actors as a performer and playwright.

1585: Twins Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare born. Hamnet dies in 1596. Judith dies in 1662.

1589-90: Shakespeare probably writes Henry VI, Part One. The dates given for the composition of Shakespeare's plays, though based in scholarship, are somewhat conjectural.

1590-91: Shakespeare probably writes Henry VI, Part Two and Henry VI, Part Three.

1592: Shakespeare was known in London as an actor and playwright by this time as evidenced by his being mentioned in Robert Greene's pamphlet A Groats-worth of Wit. In this pamphlet (published this year), Greene chides Shakespeare as an "upstart crow" on the theater scene. Greene charges that Shakespeare is an unschooled player and writer who "borrows" material from his well-educated betters for his own productions.

London theaters are closed due to plague.

1592-93: Shakespeare probably writes Venus and Adonis, Richard III, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

1592-94: Shakespeare probably writes The Comedy of Errors.

1593: Shakespeare probably begins composing his sonnets. He will eventually write 154 sonnets.

Shakespeare's narrative poem Venus and Adonis is published.

1593-94: Shakespeare probably writes The Rape of Lucrece, Titus Andronicus, and The Taming of the Shrew.

1594: Shakespeare performs with the theater troupe the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The group includes leading actor Richard Burbage and noted comic performer Will Kempe.

1594-95: Shakespeare probably writes Love's Labour's Lost.

1594-96: Shakespeare probably writes King John.

1595: Shakespeare probably writes Richard II. The play is first performed the same year.

Shakespeare probably writes A Midsummer Night's Dream. The play is probably composed for performance at a wedding.

Shakespeare probably writes Romeo and Juliet.

1596: Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain, and patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, dies.

Shakespeare's company comes under the patronage of George Carey, second Lord Hunsdon.

Shakespeare probably writes The Merry Wives of Windsor. The play was performed before the Queen during the Christmas revels.

1596-97: Shakespeare probably writes The Merchant of Venice, and Henry IV, Part One.

1597: Shakespeare purchases New Place and the grounds surrounding the spacious Stratford home.

1598: Shakespeare appears in a performance of Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, and is listed as a principal actor in the London performance.

Shakespeare probably writes Henry IV, Part Two.

1598-99: Shakespeare probably writes Much Ado About Nothing.

1599: Shakespeare probably writes Julius Caesar, Henry V, and As You Like It.

The Lord Chamberlain's Men lease land for the Globe Theatre. Nicholas Brend leases the land to leading shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, including Shakespeare. Later this year, the Globe Theatre opens.

Earliest known performance of Julius Caesar. Thomas Platter, a German traveler, mentions the production at the Globe Theatre on September 21st in his diary.

John Weever publishes the poem "Ad Guglielmum Shakespeare," in which he praises Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, Romeo and Juliet, and other works.

1600-01: Shakespeare probably writes Hamlet.

1601: Shakespeare probably writes the narrative poem The Phoenix and Turtle.

1601-02: Shakespeare probably writes Twelfth Night; or, What You Will and Troilus and Cressida.

Shakespeare probably writes All's Well That Ends Well.

1603: A Midsummer Night's Dream is performed before the Queen at Hampton Court.

Queen Elizabeth dies. The new king, James I (James VI of Scotland), arrives in London a month later, and proves to be a generous patron of the theater and of acting troupes.

King James grants a patent, or license, to Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The patent is required for the troupe to perform. They take the name the King's Men to honor the new king.

The King's Men enact a play, probably As You Like It, before King James at Wilton.

Shakespeare appears in a performance of Ben Jonson's Sejanus. This is the last recorded occasion of Shakespeare appearing in a theatrical production.

An epidemic of the Black Death kills at least 33,000 in London. This is the worst outbreak of disease in London until the plague recurs in 1608.

1604: Shakespeare probably writes Measure for Measure. The play is staged at court before King James.

Shakespeare probably writes Othello. The play is first performed at Whitehall on November 1st.

1605: Shakespeare probably writes King Lear.

The Merchant of Venice is performed at court. The play is performed twice and is commended by the king.

Shakespeare probably writes Macbeth. This play's Scottish background was almost certainly intended to celebrate the new king's ancestry.

1606: Shakespeare probably writes Antony and Cleopatra.

1607: Hamlet and Richard III are performed. The plays are acted aboard the British ship Dragon at Sierra Leone.

1607-1608: Shakespeare probably writes Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, and Pericles.

1608: The King's Men lease the Blackfriars Theatre. The Blackfriars was the first permanent enclosed theater in London. Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Cuthbert Burbage, Thomas Evans, John Hemminges, Henry Condell, and William Sly lease the theatre for a period of twenty-one years. Stage directions indicate that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest with specific features of the new playhouse in mind.

London theaters are closed due to plague. This is one of the longest periods of theater closure due to plague: the playhouses are shut from spring 1608 throughout 1609.

1609: Shakespeare's sonnets are published. This publication of Shakespeare's sonnets is unauthorized.

1609-10: Shakespeare probably writes Cymbeline.

1610: The King's Men perform Othello at Oxford College during the summer touring season. An Oxford don records his impressions of the play in Latin, finding the spectacle of Desdemona's death, in particular, deeply moving.

1610-11: Shakespeare probably writes The Winter's Tale.

1611: Shakespeare probably writes The Tempest.

1612-13: Frederick V, the elector platine and future king of Bohemia, arrives in England to marry Elizabeth, King James's daughter. The King's Men perform several plays, including Othello and Julius Caesar.

Shakespeare probably writes Henry VIII, most likely collaborating with John Fletcher, another highly reputed dramatist, on this history play.

Shakespeare probably writes Cardenio, the only play of Shakespeare's that has been completely lost.

1613: Shakespeare probably writes The Two Noble Kinsmen. An entry in the Stationer's Register for 1634 indicates that this play was jointly written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

The Globe Theatre burns down.

1614: The Globe Theatre reopens on the opposite bank of the Thames.

1616: Shakespeare dies on April 23rd. His burial is recorded in the register of Stratford's Holy Trinity Church on April 25th.

1619: Hamlet and several other of Shakespeare's plays are performed at court as part of the Christmas festivities.

1623: Anne Hathaway Shakespeare dies.

Shakespeare's fellow actors, John Hemminges and Henry Condell, compile and publish thirty-six of the dramatist's works. This collection is known as the First Folio.

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