Shakespeare was a prolific writer during the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages of British theatre (sometimes called the English Renaissance or the Early Modern Period).
William Shakespeare was a renowned English poet, playwright, and actor born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. His birthday is most commonly celebrated on 23 April (see When was Shakespeare born), which is also believed to be the date he died in 1616.
Shakespeare’s legacy is as rich and diverse as his work; his plays have spawned countless adaptations across multiple genres and cultures. His plays have had an enduring presence on stage and film. Shakespeare’s work includes 38 plays, 2 narrative poems, 154 sonnets, and a variety of other poems. No original manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays are known to exist today.
Here is a review on some of his great works:
The Tempest, perhaps the most successful of the tragicomedies, was written about 1611 and published for the first time in the 1623 Folio. The play’s resolution suggests the beneficial effects of the union of wisdom and power. In this play Prospero is deprived of his dukedom by his brother and banished to an island. But he defeats his usurping brother by employing magical powers and furthering a love match between his daughter and the son of the king of Naples. At the play’s conclusion, Prospero surrenders his magical powers. In this surrender some critics have seen Shakespeare’s own relinquishment of the magic of the theater. In spite of the appealing sentimentality of this idea, The Tempest was not Shakespeare’s last play, and it is worth remembering that Prospero gives up his magic only to return to the responsibilities of rule he had previously ignored.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
(Act IV, scene 1)
The Tempest is without doubt reflective in tone, especially on the end of life, in its concerns with remembrance and forgiveness, the loss and limitation of power, and the need for the reconciliation of the past, present, and future.
ROMEO AND JULIET
Romeo and Juliet (1595?) is justly famous for its poetic treatment of the ecstasy of youthful love. The play dramatizes the fate of two lovers victimized by the feuds and misunderstandings of their elders and by their own hasty temperaments. Shakespeare borrowed the tragic story of the two young Italian lovers from a long narrative poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562) by English writer Arthur Brooke. Shakespeare, however, added the character of Mercutio, increased the roles of the friar and the nurse, and reduced the moralizing of Brooke’s work. The play made an instant hit; four editions of the play were published before the 1623 Folio, demonstrating its popularity. The play continues to be widely read and performed today, and its story of innocent love destroyed by inherited hatred has seen numerous reworkings, as, for example, in the musical West Side Story (1957) by American composer Leonard Bernstein.
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
All’s Well That Ends Well, written about 1603 but not published until the 1623 Folio, adheres to the conventional pattern for comedy, as its title promises, ending with the reunion of a separated couple. But the reunion is deeply troubled and troubling. The callow, cowardly, and ungenerous Bertram is finally successfully paired with Helena, but they have reached that point through a process that has humiliated each. He immediately flees to Italy, and she must trick him to consummate the marriage. At the end they accept each other, but the ending is appropriately hedged with conditionals: “All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,/ The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.” The stability of even this muted resolution is itself unsettled by the King’s offer to Diana, a young woman Bertram has tried to seduce, to choose a husband for herself. At best this offer reveals how little the King has learned and at worst it threatens to start the dispiriting action all over again.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
The Merchant of Venice, first published in 1600 though seemingly written in 1596 or 1597, shares the lyric beauty and fairy-tale ending of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the strong characterization of the play’s villain, a Jewish moneylender named Shylock, shadows the gaiety. Shakespeare drew the main plot from an Italian story in which a crafty Jew threatens the life of a Christian merchant. Its composition may have arisen from a desire by Shakespeare’s acting company to stage a play that could compete with The Jew of Malta (1589?), a tragedy by English dramatist Christopher Marlowe, performed by a rival company, the Admiral’s Men. In the play Shakespeare sets motifs of masculine friendship and romantic love in opposition to the bitterness of Shylock, whose own misfortunes are presented so as to arouse understanding and even sympathy. While this play reflects European anti-Semitism of the time (although Jews had been banished from England in 1290 and were not formally readmitted until 1656), its exploration of power and prejudice also promote a critique of such bigotry. As Shylock says, confronted by the double standards of his opponents:
He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, and what’s his reason?—I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.