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William Shakespeare is considered to be one of the greatest dramatists and poets of all times. His works are widely known all over the world. Moreover, they occupy one of the significant places in the world literature and play a notable part in the literary academic world. Representative of the English Renaissance literature, his works have been translated into a multitude of languages of the world. His plays are performed not only in his native country, but also in every country all over the world. Although Shakespeare passed away many years ago, his masterpieces still live in the world’s culture. In fact, there are few clearly established facts about the life of England’s greatest dramatist and poet William Shakespeare. Moreover, Henry Beers supposes that “so little is known that it has been possible for ingenious persons to construct a theory – and support it with some show of reason – that the plays which pass under his name were really written by someone else” (Beers 43). Nevertheless, it is only a kind of assumption which has not actually been proved. That is why, let us have a look at the most vital facts of the life of William Shakespeare, and pay attention to the most prominent works of English dramatist.
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The Life and Prominent Works of the Notable Dramatist
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon on April 23, 1564. Three days later he was christened. That was on April 26, 1564 . He was the third child in the family, and he was the eldest one among the children of his two loved parents John and Mary Shakespeare. There is a piece of information about William’s parents: “From the records we may deduce that in 1557 John Shakespeare married Mary Arden, youngest daughter of Richard Shakespeare’s Snitterfield landlord” (Schoenbaum 18). After their wedding, couple had a daughter Margaret Shakespeare, but unfortunately she died the following year. Six years later in the family of John Shakespeare appeared William – the first son.
Frankly speaking, the information about the early years of William Shakespeare is limited, but there is a record which says that William Shakespeare attended the local grammar school and studied primarily Latin rhetoric, logic, and literature. In fact, the evidence of Shakespeare’s studies may be easily found throughout all his writings. “Recitation was a bulwark of classroom activity, and no doubt the emphasis on articulation and rhythmic precision gave Shakespeare an affection for both the glories of the language and the joy of performance”( L Cahn 10). Shakespeare was fond of reading, especially Latin historical books, namely Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic Wars. Shakespeare left school at the age of 15, and took some sort of job, because it was a difficult financial period in Joan’s family. A great number of references suggest that Shakespeare might work for his father and gained special knowledge.
The next event of vital importance in the life of the greatest dramatist was his marriage. In 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was seven or eight years older, and in three years he was a father of Susan, Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died at the age of eleven. Actually, seven years that followed are called “lost years”, since there is no documentary evidence about Shakespeare’s life. Rumours say that Shakespeare might have been involved in minor plays as an actor, or he might have been a law clerk. During that period of time William left his wife and kids in Stratford and stayed in London until he got commonly known as an actor and playwright at the age of 28. “The reason for Shakespeare’s sudden departure, and the nature of his marriage to Anne, continue to excite the discussion and debate of Shakespeare scholars” (Pearce 14). In fact, it is known that he kept in touch with his family and regularly provided financial support for their needs.
Shakespeare’s life can be divided into three most significant periods, namely the first 20 years in his native town of Stratford (this includes his school life, early marriage, and fatherhood), the following 25 years as a playwright and actor in London; and the last five years include returning back to Stratford where he enjoyed wealth gained from his successful theatrical career. The first two periods are referred to as the “dark years”, because of the lack of information about the playwright’s life.
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During the “dark years”, Shakespeare worked as an actor and playwright of some note. In 1592, he began his career with a London theatrical company. In 1592, the Plague closed the theatres for more than two years, but William still continued writing. He even turned to writing book-length narrative poetry. The most famous poems of his were “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”. During the 1590s, William created his famous sonnets. In 1609 they were issued as a cycle. Shakespeare’s sonnets are widely regarded as his most outstanding work other than the dramas. They resemble the style of Spenser and Sidney; however, Shakespeare surpasses these authors in terms of originality and poetic quality. Nevertheless, there is a kind of rumour which says that Shakespeare was not always an honest man. Moreover, they say he was accused of “borrowing” ideas. Yet, this has not been completely proved.
In 1596 Shakespeare suffered the loss of his only son, who died at the age of 11, but this event did not influence the success of his career. So in 1599 William became one of the partners in the Globe Theatre. His partners were excellent actors and close personal friends.
In fact, Shakespeare gained a great popularity among the Queen family. That is why he was made an officer of the Royal Household. Unfortunately, after 1603 Shakespeare acted very little and returned to his family in Stratford. Upon his returning, the playwright invested in London real estate, and after that he purchased the theater, the Blackfriars Gatehouse, in the partnership with his friend. He spent the last years of his life in his native town, reunited with his family. He died on St. George’s Day in 1616 and was buried in the chancel of the local Holy Trinity church. One can find some worm words engraved on that tomb:
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Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones.
And cursed be he that moves my bones
William Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays, which were divided into three groups, namely the histories, the tragedies, and the (romantic) comedies. One of his the most notable accomplishments was that he wrote his thirty-seven plays into the period of twenty-two years.
The history plays describe the reigns of earlier English kings and often deal with the nature of kingship and the qualities of an “ideal” king. The chronicle plays served as Shakespeare’s study of the drama. Among most significant minor heroic plays are Henry VI (1590-92) and The Life and Death of King John (1595-96). These plays vividly depict chaotic epochs of English history and power play of the nobility thenadays. In fact, there are some other heroic plays which deserve our attention, namely Richard III (1592), Richard II (1597), Henry IV, Part I (1597), Henry IV, Part II (1598), The Life of Henry V (1599).
There are different types of comedies, namely masque, fantasies, romantic comedies, problem comedies, and farces. In fact, Shakespeare’s last plays are rather dramatic romances than strict comedies. The most successful comedies are: The Comedy of Errors (1590-93), The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1590-94), Lover’s Labour’s Lost (1590-94), A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream (1591-96), The Taming of the Shrew (1596-97), The Merchant of Venice (1596-97), Twelfth Night, or What You Will (1600-01), Measure for Measure (1604), Cymbeline (1610-11), The Tempest (1611).
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No doubt, that Shakespeare gained great success due to his four renowned tragedies of Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet. Besides, he created six other works that can be considered tragedies and history plays. The main idea of these plays is the downfall of a monarch. His tragedies are divided into early tragedies, middle tragedies, and later tragedies. Early tragedies, namely the four tragedies written before 1603, differ in style and tone. The four tragedies are The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus (1592-94), The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (1595), The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1598-1601), The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1601). Middle tragedies were written in 1604-06 and depict the world full of evil, showed objectively, not subjectively. The greatest middle tragedies are The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice (1640), The Tragedy of King Lear (1605-6), The Tragedy of Macbeth (c. 1606). As for the later tragedies, there were three main tragedies Antony and Cleopatra (1607), The Life of Timon of Athes (1605-08), The Tragedy of Coriolanus (1606-08).
The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet
The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet was Shakespeare’s first gamble at composing a tragedy. Moreover, it was his first deep research of general dismay. When this play appeared in print for the first time, it was met “with great applause”. Nevertheless, all critics seem to argue upon the book which inspired Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet. “The story of Romeo and Juliet was well-known in Elizabeth England, and by the time of Shakespeare’s play it had appeared in several collections and in several forms” (Bloom 14). It was proved that the major wellspring of Shakespeare’s inspiration of the play was Arthur Brook’s long poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juiet. Brooke was beholden to a tradition of romantic tragedies arising from the Italian Renaissance, “it seems that the essential ingredients of Shakespeare’s play are taken from Brooke’s poem” (Pearce 9).
Romeo and Juliet is a story about two young star-crossed lovers who gave their lives in order to be together. Their death was an impetus to the conciliation of their feuding families. In fact, scholars found it difficult to appoint one major theme of the play. Some scholars proposed to depict the power of fate and the gander of hurried action as the leading themes in this play. No doubt, that the problem of love is the most appropriate issue which is described in Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet have become symbolic of lovers and condemned love. Two lovers try to outdare social customs, destiny and patriarchal power. Their efforts to be together lead to tremendous results, namely the death of Tybalt and Mercutio, as well as the horrible death of Romeo and Juliet.
A great number of scholars insist on the role of fate as one of the leading themes in the play Romeo and Juliet. There is no unanimous thought as to whether the characters are fated to die together or the events happen by the series of fatal chances. Sometimes Romeo and Juliet are described as “star-crossed”; it means that stars designated the future of the lovers. Some scholars depict the play as a series of fatal chances; in this case they do not see this play as tragedy at all, but as a melodrama. Ruth Nevo points out that the high degree to which the chance is emphasized in the play makes Romeo and Juliet a “lesser tragedy” of eventuality not of character.
Contemporary critics have different points of view concerning the significance of the tragedy. Dr. Jonson said that,
this play is one of the most pleasing of our author’s performance. The scenes are busy and various, the incidents numerous and important, the catastrophe irresistibly affecting, and the process of the action carried on with such probability, at least with such congruity to popular opinions, as tragedy requires. (Pattie 8)
Another critic, James Bemis, admitted, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet may be Bard’s most beloved and frequently read play. Its story of doomed lovers has inspired countless plays, novels, films, pieces of music and works of art” (151). Moreover, Harold Bloom believed that,
The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, the lovers are tragic in wholly different ways. Juliet, in a curious prophecy of Romeo’s charismatic elevation, transcends her self-destruction and dies exalted. Romeo not of her eminence, dies more pathetically. (Bloom 3)
The warm attitudes towards this play are obvious, that is why we can undoubtedly say that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the most successful plays he ever wrote. This play helps us understand the significance of the relationship between two lovers, the injustice in the society, especially concerning the misunderstanding between parents and children, and the inevitability of fate.
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
The tragedy Hamlet is one of the most successful tragedies in history of the Renaissance literature. The philosophical intricacy of the tragedy of a prince who takes vengeance on those who murdered his father excels one seen in Seneca’s works. Hamlet is acknowledged as classic work of the English literature. The multifaceted characterization along with splendid verse make the leading role, as Samuel Pepys wrote, “the best part. I believe, that ever was acted”. Many other literary critics expressed their attitudes toward this remarkable masterpiece. Among them was A. C. Bradley, who emphasized that,
The only way, if there is any way, in which a conception of Hamlet’s character could be proved true, would be to show that it, and it alone, explains all the relevant facts presented by the text of the drama. To attempt such a demonstration here would obviously be impossible, even if I felt certain of interpretation of all the facts. (Bradley 44)
As we can see, Hamlet is a play which has enjoyed immense popularity and deeply ingrained in literary culture. In fact, Hamlet has been explained from many different viewpoints , from the investigation of the psychoanalysis to the probation of the role of the intellectual in a totalitarian state. Indeed, it is notoriously difficult to pin down the essence of the play. Some literary critics believe that
It is a tragedy which is packed with comedy. It is a tense and pacy thriller which can run four hours in performance. It is a play which constantly re-examines itself, and which questions the very nature of the theatre and performance. (McEvoy 1)
In fact, there are three perspectives emerging as especially important in this play. The first one is that Hamlet is a political play. There are significant and secret diplomatic relationships between Norway, Denmark, and England. Moreover, three kings are murdered and spies are defined by the state on the royal prince. These facts seem to be extremely vital. Besides, if the downfall of a greased king was justified was the main question in then politics. The second fact is a problem of gender studies and psychoanalysis. There was a tendency to see the play as a consideration of conscience of the troubled man whose relationships are in crisis. Hamlet himself has lost his father and understands that his mother cannot have loved her husband. He has difficult affairs with Ophelia and their relations are a dead end. Modern critics have explored this conscience from the perspective of psychoanalysis. The last key perspective is that this play we may understand as a self-conscious and supremely theatrical play. A great number of actors have interpreted this play in many exciting ways, both in the theatre and in the cinema.
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The complication of life and death and the weight of mortality are brightly expressed in the play. Moreover, the problem of revenge is the main issue in Hamlet. It is not weird, because the right to obtain a private punishment was a privilege claimed by the aristocracy. Frankly speaking, the death of Hamlet’s father makes him ponder about the revenge. He believes that all crisis should be punished, especially the most severe. Besides revenge, Hamlet thinks over the meaning of life and its terminal ending. He admits that death is not so bad, it is incertitude of the afterlife that terrifies Hamlet away from suicide, even when he gets obsessed with this idea.
There is one more question that should be covered the question of madness in the play Hamlet. The British critic Duncan Salkeld gave his own definition of the “madness”. The latter “is… not confined to a single definitive concept in Renaissance literature but is instead evoked by a loose assembly of words which indicate a differentiated shade or kind of madness” (Salkeld 27). Originally, Hamlet acts mad to confuse people into the idea that he is harmless while inquiring his father’s death, “while Hamlet struggles with his own soul but is for the most part good-humored and charming with others, often reveals a hot temper and a peremptory and cynical arrogance” (Feingold 115). But under the circumstances, Hamlet’s behavior becomes more unstable. His acting mad causes Hamlet to lose the control of reality. Surrendering to physical violence under utmost stress shows that Hamlet, in fact, has deeper items than simply acting mad.
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Hamlet is a play which depicts the problems of identity, lack of self-confidence, betrayal. William Shakespeare describes two sides of one person: one side shows Hamlet’s behavior towards his family, and the other one defines his ideas of either doing right or wrong, where we can find the famous question, “To be or not to be”. Nevertheless, in general this play helps everyone understand the problem of life and death, which is of the vital importance in modern society.
To sum up, Shakespeare’s works are masterpieces which broaden the world’s culture, make it richer and diverse. While reading Shakespeare’s works we can easily return to the pass and understand the way of live in the society at that time. Once Robert Graves said, “The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good – in spite of all the people who say he is very good”.
William Shakespeare was a man who made a great contribution not only into the development of the English literary art, but also to the formation of English language. His works provide countless instances of the way English was developing at the time, mainly in the domains of pronunciation, world formation, syntax, and language use. His works give an ideal representation of the literary language of his days. Moreover, the editions show that the language used by Shakespeare was highly innovative. Through the celebrated status of his works, a great deal of this innovation flowed into the lexicon of present-day English.