William Shakespeare's Works/The World of William Shakespeare
The England of William Shakespeare's time was one marked by changes in social, political, religious, philosophical, and artistic perceptions. This period is usually referred to as The Renaissance (1485-1660)during which innumerable changes in the culture of England became manifest. In the beginning, many scholars point to the end of the middle ages as the beginning of the Renaissance. This is often tied to the deposing of King Richard III who was killed in battle and dropped unceremoniously into an unmarked grave, naked and unmourned. This allowed the accession to the throne of the long reigning House of Tudor, beginning with Henry VII (1485-1509). With the rise of the Tudor monarchs a new era was begun. The cultural changes of the Renaissance had been an ongoing process in Europe for a hundred years before, most notably in Italy and France.
At the core of this change was the idea of "renewal" or "rebirth" - the meaning of the word renaissance. Among those things reborn was the interest in the learning from the classical ages, primarily Greek and Roman culture. In the Middle Ages, such interests were actively repressed by a dominating church and its partner the Feudal System. Both of these kept the majority of people in England tied to the values of the church and the control of the feudal lords for whom they worked. Literacy was almost non-existent among the masses, and any attempt to educate people other than for work in the church or government was actively and brutally discouraged. After the Renaissance is allowed to expand into England, a passion for literacy, learning, and creativity emerged. The works of the ancients of the Classical Period were gathered up from the monasteries and studied widely. The increase in the interest in the ideals of the Romans and Greeks created a new hunger for a philosophical perspective the people of England could embrace. That philosophy was humanism, the belief system which advocated the improvement of the human condition based on the pursuit of virtues drawn from the teachings of the ancient philosophers such as Cicero. Humanism was not an attempt to discredit Christianity; rather, the humanists pursued the knowledge of the classics in order to bring them into harmony with the teachings of the church. Contrary to the perception of many, the Renaissance actually emerged from the attempts of the Roman Catholic Church, especially in Italy to discover and add to scholarship to develop this harmonic relationship between what was secular and what was religious.
Another factor in the leaps and strides of the Renaissance in England was the arrival of the printing press developed by Johannes Gutenberg (1400?-1468). The press made publication of large numbers of books and as a result the wider distribution of material on which to build a greater literacy among the people of England. In 1476, years after it had been invented and widely used in Europe, the printing press arrived in England. The owner of that first press, William Caxton (1422?-1491) published over one hundred titles and began the flood of literacy that was to continue in England. Why such a delay? England was a remote island off the west coast of Europe and had long been considered a barbaric and unenlightened land by some in Europe who believed the centers of advanced civilization existed in Italy, France, and Spain.
While literacy was on the rise, so was an increased sense of national identity which, for the English, was a necessary redefining of themselves and the development of a culture of its own and not just a patchwork of cultures resulting from occupying forces and peoples which had been underway since the time of the Roman occupation begun by Julius Caesar. Since that time, wave after wave of invaders attempted a permanent occupation of the island. As the Celts and the Bretons were displaced by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, so were they by the Norman invasion of 1066 a.d. and the ongoing presence of the Roman Catholic church with its Italian and European habits and traditions. The renaissance enabled the increasing numbers of literate English to develop their own identity, accommodating their past and developing their own virtues and values of their own.
With the Tudor monarchs also came a newer, stronger, more determined line of Kings and Queens who shaped the political and cultural change in England. Henry VII began the reign of the House of Tudor which would produce five monarchs. His rise to the throne ended the famous War of the Roses to place the Welsh nobleman on the throne to shape the changes to come. His son, the highly intelligent, fiery, zealous, progressive, insistent Henry VIII did as much to shape the new English identity as any other monarch. He wrote books, created a new religion to suit his own purposes, built a navy, and executed all who stood in his way (including two wives, several close friends, and political enemies). After Henry VIII died, his children each replaced him in turn, starting with the son Edward VI (r. 1547-1553) who ruled and died a child while the country was ruled by relatives who acted in his name to preserve the advances of his father. Upon his death of tuberculosis, Mary Tudor ascended the throne (r.1553-1558); the half-Spanish, half-English daughter of Catherine of Aragon ruled the nation ruthlessly. Her goal was to return Roman Catholicism to England and solidify an alliance (or absorption) with Spain. She married King Philip II of Spain, alarming the general population of England who feared that Spain was on the verge of an invasion. When Mary (often referred to a "Bloody Mary") died of natural causes, the throne became the possession of Queen Elizabeth (now referred to as Elizabeth I). After a shaky start, Elizabeth ruled intelligently and decisively, displaying all the necessary characteristics and courage of a King such as her father. Perhaps an early example of feminism, Queen Elizabeth decided early on to refuse to marry and take a back seat to power. Forever known as the "Virgin Queen" (a fond misnomer as she had dalliances with many men during her lifetime), Elizabeth ruled with a brilliant mind. Under her reign (1558-1603) she led a nation in relative peace, economic expansion, and the highest point of English cultural nationalism in the whole period of the Renaissance. Elizabeth's reign was highlighted by her stunning and complete defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, led by the Royal Navy her father had built (with a bit of help from bad weather and the treacherous and rocky Irish coastline).
Throughout the Renaissance in England, but especially under the reign of the Tudors, the arts flourished and became a central interest for the English. One of the most explosive of these expansions of art was that of the theater. Drama had been long confined to the church pageant both in the medieval church and later in which a primitive (by later standards) form of drama emerged. The medieval church pageants served to teach the parishioners basic concepts of the teachings of the church, present the standards of morality, and continue the reinforcement of the Roman Catholic Church as the center of Truth and Moral teaching. When these dramas grew longer and more sophisticated, they moved out of doors into the courtyards and streets of towns and cities. These plays depicted the personification of moral precepts, interactions between masked actors called "good" and "evil" and so forth. The topics were narrowly defined to the doctrines of the church, the origins of man, the fall of man, sin, and other such topics. These repeated festival performances generated an appetite for more complex theater among the English, who now were beginning to read the Roman plays and to a lesser extent at first, the Greek plays. Thus was created the environment for the English Renaissance Theater to be born. Watching year after year Morality Plays required at least a basic understanding of the world of "make-believe" needed to watch a group of ordinary persons portraying the actions and speaking the words of real and imaginary persons and abstract moral concepts. This appetite for entertaining visual representations of life led directly to the appetite for the new theater of England's small body of artisans who sought to broaden and deepen these plays into more local, topical, humanistic, and relevant representations of life. Out of this association of artists emerged a new voice, that of William Shakespeare.
In the midst of the reign of the Tudors was born William Shakespeare, a son of a merchant in the small town of Stratford-on-Avon. Shakepeare was baptised April 26, 1564 and most scholars assume he was born a few days earlier, by tradition, on April 23. Shakespeare was the son of John Shakepeare, glover and moderately successful businessman, and Mary Arden. Very little is known of Shakespeare's life, as he kept no journal and little in the way of historical evidence has survived. It is widely assumed that he attended the Stratford Grammar School, since he could have attended free because of his father's position in city government. Tradition says that Shakespeare worked for a time as a school teacher, but there is no direct evidence of this. At the age of eighteen he married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. Their marriage produced three children, Susanna and twins Hamnet and Judith. The daughter grew up and was married, but the only son, Hamnet, died tragically at age eleven, an event which would have lasting impact on his father.
Shakespeare seems to have left Stratford (and his family) for London in 1587. By 1592 scholars have found evidence that he was already heavily involved in the theater, having written Henry VI which was attacked in print by Robert Greene, a Cambridge graduate who was down on his luck and suffering from illness. He died just as his attack on Shakespeare went to press, and a friend of Greene's came to Shakespeare's defense, and so the young actor and playwright was noticed in the public eye. Most of what we know of Shakespeare's life from 1592 through his death derives from the plays themselves, as well as dramatis persone list of the plays in which he acted, and records of appearances at court. Early on, Shakespeare made a name for himself as a playwright, and he performed regularly in his acting company, first The Lord Chamberlin's Men, and later The King's Men. His early association with the very popular tragedian Richard Burbage and the great comic actor actor William Kemp put Shakespeare in good company. Though the acting profession was not a highly regarded profession, the theater was popular and profitable. Shakespeare also made his mark as a poet with his two acclaimed narrative poems "Venus and Adonis" (1593) and "The Rape of Lucrece" (1594), and with his sonnets. Shakespeare's playwriting is traditionally divided into three periods, The Early Period (also the most prosperous period of his life)(1592-1601), The Tragic Period (1600-1610), and the Later Period (1610-1616). These three divisions of his work reveal much about the development of his vision as a writer. Some have suggested that these periods reflect the evolution of the man along with his art, while others caution that reading too much into these divisions may give readers a false impression of the diversity and liveliness of Shakespeare himself. Scholars also caution that to ignore his poetry throughout this period is to miss an enormous contribution of Shakespeare.
In his Early Plays a remarkable explosion of work came from his pen. In a matter of four years (1592-1595) he wrote seven popular plays of wide variety. He began developing the categories of interest he would pursue his whole career: History plays, Latin (or Roman) plays, Comedies, and the Tragedies. These plays are as follows: "Richard III" (1592-1593)- History "The Comedy of Errors" (1592-1593)- Comedy "Titus Andronicus" (1593-1594)- Roman "The Taming of the Shrew" (1593-1595)- Comedies "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" "Love's Labor's Lost" "Romeo and Juliet" (1594-1595)- Tragedy The latter play, "Romeo and Juliet" is sometimes referred to as an imperfect tragedy as it begins and apparently runs toward a comedy's resolution, but exactly halfway through the play it shifts directly into tragedy. This has led some to use the term "tragi-comedy" with this play. Further, Romeo and Juliet remains the play most often taught in schools around the world. By 1596 Shakespeare's income and status was growing briskly. He solidified this status by buying a huge manor house in Stratford and applying to the Heraldic College for a coat of arms. This plan was successful and his status rose both at home and in London. Over the next four years he continued to act, write, and now became a shareholder of a theater. He was respected by the literary community of the day and was solidly a part of aristocratic society. By 1600 he had given six command performances in the Court of Queen Elizabeth.
Shakespeare's writing in these early years continued with his cycle of history plays about the kings of the Wars of the Roses, his most famous Roman play, Julius Caesar more comedies, and his masterwork of tragedy Hamlet. These plays are as follows: Richard II (1595-1596)- History Henry IV, Part One (1596-1597)- History Henry IV, Part Two (1596-1597)- History Henry V (1599) - History Julius Caesar (1599) - Roman A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595-1596)- Comedy The Merchant of Venice (1596-1597)- Comedy Much Ado About Nothing (1598-1599)- Comedy As you Like It (1598-1600)- Comedy Twelfth Night (1600-1601)- Comedy Hamlet (1600-1601)- Tragedy The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600-1601)- Comedy
These nineteen plays, plus his beginning attempt, Henry VI make the early period of Shakespeare's career. Twenty plays, rising fame, increased wealth, and dominating influence made this portion of his career a profound achievement. This end of this time frame also signaled the coming end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. When her successor, James I (r.1603-16XX) came to power he would increase favor and sponsorship of Shakespeare and the arts. James was a prolific supporter of the theater in these years, and as a result, Shakespeare's wealth grew, enabling him to make shrewd business deals and acquire property in Stratford and London.
In spite of its name, Shakespeare's "Tragic Period" is called that primarily because of the powerful and masterful tragedies he wrote during that period. No evidence suggests that this was a tragic period for Shakespeare himself, and to draw the loose connection between this period and some mysterious and unidentified hardship on the playwrite would be only weak conjecture. This period of his creative life was his most mature and artistically developed of any time in his life. From 1600 through 1607 he wrote three more profound tragedies, another Roman play, and two comedies. In this short time he managed to create some of the most influential and long-studied plays in history. Whatever his vision was at this time, his art was never better. After Hamlet in 1601 these are the seven plays of this period: Othello (1601-1602)- Tragedy King Lear (1605) - Tragedy Macbeth (1605-1606)- Tragedy Antony and Cleopatra (1606-1607)- Roman All's Well That Ends Well (1602-1603)- Comedy Measure for Measure (1604) - Comedy
For a short while Shakespeare produced no plays, and seems to have been busy with performances and seeing to his investments. By 1610 he returned to Stratford and took up residence in his home there.
The Later Period, from 1610 until his death in 1616 has generated much interest and speculation about the evolving mind of Shakespeare. His plays of this period include two more tragediesand his last history play, and five comedies (which have caused as much debate as his tragedies). These five plays are also called "romances" by some scholars, and even "tragi-comedies" as they represent a sort of "darker" side of Shakespeare's vision. The Winter's Tale and The Tempest contain some of the most quotable of Shakespeare's lines and deal with comical scenes transmitting seriously deep concerns. Unlike the other two "periods" of his work, these eight plays are written in groups from tragedy to comedy to history. As Shakespeare's life wound to a close, he remained active until just a few days before his death. He traveled back and forth from New Place in Stratford to London regularly, and lived to enjoy time with Susanna and her Husband Dr. John Hall and his granddaughter Elizabeth. He died on April 23, 1616, believed to be his fifty-second birthday. He could not have lived a more prosperous and brilliant life. Though laced with tragedy, such as the loss of his only son in his childhood, and spending so much time away from home, Shakespeare managed to keep his family together and obtain success at the same time.
Remarkably, his work has never been out of print, though it saw little print in his lifetime, and to this day his plays are produced in dozens of languages in hundreds of countries. His sonnets are unmatched in the poetry of his day in quality and quantity. His plays are studied in schools around the world and it has been said that not a day passes that somewhere in the world actors are presenting one of his plays. William Shakespeare has given the Renaissance and all times forward much to think about and much to enjoy. When he was buried under the floor of the church at Stratford, he left the following epitaph forbidding the removal of his bones:
Good Friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.