n his book Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt describes Shakespeare as “the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time”. This echoes the fact that ‘the Bard’ is often considered to be one of England’s greatest authors. Even today his work is read by thousands of schoolchildren, his plays are performed in many theatres (including the replica Globe in London which is named after him), his plays have been repeatedly filmed and turned into parts of popular culture, and his language is often quoted in various forms. In addition, his home town of Stratford has become one of England’s premier tourist attractions.
Considering Shakespeare is such a famous figure, it is remarkable how little we actually know about his life. In fact, some critics have suggested that this is one reason for his continuing success or for the ‘cult’ of ‘The Bard’: if the man himself is a myth then he can be permanently recreated for many generations. However there are some details that we can identify with relative confidence.
Shakespeare was born in 1564, probably on April 23rd as he was baptised on the 26th. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in the county of Warwickshire where his father was a glover and alderman. He received a good education at the local grammar school, the Kings New School, where boys were taught Latin grammar and classical texts (he later used Latin sources for the plots of some of his plays, for example Titus Andronicus refers to Ovid’s tales Metamorphoses).
By the time Shakespeare was 18 he was married to a relative and local woman named Anne Hathaway, with whom he eventually had three children, called Susanna, Hamnet and Judith. Between 1585 and 1592 there are few records to indicate where Shakespeare was living and under what occupation, though a number of different stories suggest he was already in London, or had fled accused of poaching, or was in fact himself a teacher:
“He had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country” wrote John Aubrey. But by 1592 records suggest that he was established in London as a playwright, where he continued to write and perform plays with considerable success until shortly before his death in 1616 (coincidentally, on April 23rd, his birthday). When Shakespeare’s plays were originally published all together in the First Folio of 1623, they were collected for the first time, and were divided into comedies, tragedies and histories.
While these generic categories are not always upheld today, and there are some plays such as Measure for Measure which do not easily fit into one group or another, there are consistencies between some of the plays which allow them to be grouped in this manner. We can identify certain patterns based upon genre. For example, in Othello, Othello’s murder of Desdemona followed by suicide restores the social status quo of a powerful state under white leadership.
Hamlet’s death in Hamlet disrupts the royal line but succeeds in first purging the state of the corruption, the “something rotten”, that affects the country. However both of these plays, like Macbeth, are mainly concerned not with social relations but with following the decline of a powerful character. It is true that there is often a comic subplot in the plays to provide a light relief, but the main plot follows a tragic flaw in character to a tragic conclusion usually of multiple deaths.
By contrast, where tragedy has multiple deaths, the comedy plays usually offer multiple marriages – this is one of their most characteristic features. Confusion and misinterpretations are resolved not in duels or deaths but in reconciliation and the restoration of characters to their proper social roles. At the end of Twelfth Night, Orsino responds to the revelation of Sebastian and Viola’s identities with the following lines: “If this be so, as yet the glass seems true,
I shall have share in this most happy wrack” (V.i) Although “wrack” suggests the potential for catastrophe, it has found its proper romantic conclusion and the love-plot is untangled. Viola is released from her disguise as the boy Cesaro and restored to her proper female role, and everyone’s identity revealed. Social reconciliation usually takes this form in Shakespeare’s comedies as lovers are united in marriage, usually in groups of two or three pairs whose plots are followed together throughout the play. Multiple narratives are drawn together often in the final scene. The ability to resolve complex plots in such a way is one of the features that make Shakespeare such a great dramatist.
Shakespeare’s construction of love, though often seemingly simplistic in its conclusion, is sophisticated in being able to question each character’s ability to make the right decisions for themselves, and the different layers of narrative serve as comments upon the other plots that work alongside them. In the complex reversals of affection in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s most popular romantic comedies, the proper order of the lovers is disrupted and then restored by Oberon and his servant Puck: “When they next awake, all t
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