"He was not of an age, but for all time." So wrote Ben Jonson in his dedicatory verses to the memory of William Shakespeare in 1623, and so we continue to affirm today. No other writer, in English or in any other language, can rival the appeal that Shakespeare has enjoyed. And no one else in any artistic endeavor has projected a cultural influence as broad or as deep.
Shakespeare's words and phrases have become so familiar to us that it is sometimes with a start that we realize we have been speaking Shakespeare when we utter a cliche such as "one fell swoop" or "not a mouse stirring." Never mind that many of the expressions we hear most often—"to the manner born," or (from the same speech in Hamlet) "more honored in the breach than the observance"—are misapplied at least as frequently as they are employed with any awareness of their original context and implication. The fact remains that Shakespeare's vocabulary and Shakespeare's cadences are even more pervasive in our ordinary discourse today than the idiom of the King James Bible, which Bartlett lists as only the second most plentiful source of Familiar Quotations.
And much the same could be said of those mirrors of our nature, Shakespeare's characters. From small delights like Juliet's nurse, or Bottom the Weaver, or the Gravedigger, to such incomparable creations as Falstaff, King Lear, and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare has enlarged our world by imitating it. It should not surprise us, therefore, that personalities as vivid as these have gone on, as it were, to lives of their own outside the dramatic settings in which they first thought and spoke and moved. In opera alone there are enough different renderings of characters and scenes from Shakespeare's plays to assure that the devotee of Charles-Francois Gounod or Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner or Benjamin Britten, could attend a different performance every evening for six months and never see the same work twice. Which is not to suggest, of course, that the composers of other musical forms have been remiss: Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Claude Debussy, Jean Sibelius, Sergey Prokofiev, and Aaron Copland are but a few of the major figures who have given us songs, tone poems, ballets, symphonic scores, or other compositions based on Shakespeare. Cole Porter might well have been addressing his fellow composers when he punctuated Kiss Me Kate with the advice to "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."
Certainly the painters have never needed such reminders. Artists of the stature of George Romney, William Blake, Henry Fuseli, Eugene Delacroix, John Constable, J. M. W. Turner, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti have drawn inspiration from Shakespeare's dramatis personae; and, thanks to such impresarios as the eighteenth century dealer John Boydell, the rendering of scenes from Shakespeare has long been a significant subgenre of pictorial art. Illustrators of Shakespeare editions have often been notable figures in their own right: George Cruikshank, Arthur Rackham, Rockwell Kent, and Salvador Dali. Meanwhile, the decorative arts have had their Wedgwood platters with pictures from the plays, their Shakespeare portraits carved on scrimshaw, their Anne Hathaway's Cottage tea cozies, their mulberry-wood jewelry boxes, and their Superbard T-shirts.
Every nation that has a theatrical tradition is indebted to Shakespeare, and in language after language Shakespeare remains the greatest living playwright. Not merely in terms of the hundreds of productions of Shakespeare's own plays to be blazoned on the marquees in any given year, either: no, one must also bear in mind the dozens of film and television versions of the plays, and the countless adaptations, parodies, and spinoffs that accent the repertory—from musicals such as The Boys From Syracuse (based on The Comedy of Errors) and West Side Story (Leonard Bernstein's New York ghetto version of the gang wars in Romeo and Juliet), to political lampoons like Macbird (contra LBJ) and Dick Deterred (the doubly punning anti-Nixon polemic), not to mention more reflective dramatic treatments such as Edward Bond's Bingo (a "biographical drama" about Shakespeare the man) and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (an absurdist re-enactment of Hamlet from the perspective of two innocents as bewildered by the court of Renaissance Elsinore as their twentieth-century counterparts would be in a play such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot).
When we broaden our survey to include the hundreds of novels, short stories, poems, critical appreciations, and other works of serious literature that derive in one way or another from Shakespeare, we partake of an even grander view of the playwright's literary and cultural primacy. Here in America, for example, we can recall Ralph Waldo Emerson's awestruck response to the Stratford seer, his exclamation that Shakespeare was "inconceivably wise," all other great writers only "conceivably." On the other side of the coin, we can indulge in the speculation that Shakespeare may have constituted an aspect of the behemoth that obsessed Herman Melville's imagination, thus accounting for some of the echoes of Shakespearean tragedy in the form and rhetoric of Moby-Dick. In a lighter vein, we can chuckle at the frontier Bardolatry so hilariously exploited by the Duke and the King in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Or, moving to our own century, we can contemplate William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury as an extended allusion to Macbeth's "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquy. Should we be disposed to look elsewhere, we can puzzle over "the riddle of Shakespeare" in the meditations of the Argentine novelist and essayist Jorge Luis Borges. Or smile (with perhaps but an incomplete suspension of disbelief) as the Nobel Prize-winning African poet and dramatist Wole Soyinka quips that "Sheikh Zpeir" must have had some Arabic blood in him, so faithfully did he capture the local color of Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra.
Implicit in all of these manifestations of Shakespeare worship is a perception best summed up, perhaps, in James Joyce's rendering of the charismatic name: "Shapesphere." For in showing "the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" (as Hamlet would put it), Shakespeare proved himself to be both the "soul of the age" his works reflected and adorned and the consummate symbol of the artist whose poetic visions transcend their local habitation and become, in some mysterious way, contemporaneous with "all time" (to return once more to Jonson's eulogy). If Jan Kott, a twentieth-century existentialist from eastern Europe, can marvel that Shakespeare is "our contemporary," then, his testimony is but one more instance of the tendency of every age to claim Shakespeare as its own. Whatever else we say about Shakespeare, in other words, we are impelled to acknowledge the incontrovertible fact that, preeminent above all others, he has long stood and will no doubt long remain atop a pedestal (to recall a recent New Yorker cartoon) as "a very very very very very very important writer."
So important, indeed, that some of his most zealous admirers have paid him the backhand compliment of doubting that works of such surpassing genius could have been written by the same William Shakespeare who lies buried and memorialized in Stratford-upon-Avon. Plays such as the English histories would suggest in the writer an easy familiarity with the ways of kings, queens, and courtiers; hence their author must have been a member of the nobility, someone like Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Plays such as Julius Caesar, with their impressive display of classical learning, would indicate an author with more than the "small Latin and less Greek" that Ben Jonson attributes to Shakespeare ; hence the need to seek for their true begetter in the form of a university-trained scholar such as Francis Bacon. Or so would urge those skeptics (whose numbers have included such redoubtable personages as Henry James and Sigmund Freud) who find themselves in sympathy with the "anti-Stratfordians." Their ranks have never been particularly numerous or disciplined. since they have often quarreled among themselves about which of the various "claimants"—Earl of Derby, Christopher Marlowe, even Queen Elizabeth herself—should be upheld as the "true Shakespeare." And because many of their arguments are methodologically unsophisticated, they have never attracted adherents from scholars with academic credentials in the study of English Renaissance history and dramatic literature. But, whatever their limitations, the anti-Stratfordians have at least helped keep us mindful of how frustratingly little we can say for certain about the life of the man whose works have so enriched the lives of succeeding generations.
One thing we do know is that if Shakespeare was a man for all time, he was also very much a man of his own age. Christened at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26 April 1564, he grew up as the eldest of five children, reared by John Shakespeare, a tradesman who played an increasingly active role in the town's civic affairs as his business prospered, and Mary Arden Shakespeare, the daughter of a gentleman farmer from nearby Wilmcote. Whether Shakespeare was born on 23 April, as tradition holds, is not known; but a birth date only a few days prior to the recorded baptism seems eminently probable, particularly in view of the fear his parents must have had that William, like two sisters who had preceded him and one who followed, might die in infancy. By the time young William was old enough to begin attending school, he had a younger brother (Gilbert, born in 1566) and a baby sister (Joan, born in 1569). As he attained his youth, he found himself with two more brothers to help look after (Richard, born in 1574, and Edmund, born in 1580), the younger of whom eventually followed his by-then prominent eldest brother to London and the theater, where he had a brief career as an actor before his untimely death at twenty-seven.
The house where Shakespeare spent his childhood stood adjacent to the wool shop in which his father plied a successful trade as a glover and dealer in leather goods and other commodities. Before moving to Stratford sometime prior to 1552 (when the records show that he was fined for failing to remove a dunghill from outside his house to the location where refuse was normally to be deposited), John Shakespeare had been a farmer in the neighboring village of Snitterfield. Whether he was able to read and write is uncertain. He executed official documents, not with his name, but with a cross signifying his glover's compasses. Some scholars interpret this as a "signature" that might have been considered more "authentic" than a full autograph; others have taken it to be an indication of illiteracy. But even if John Shakespeare was not one of the "learned," he was certainly a man of what a later age would call upward mobility. By marrying Mary Arden, the daughter of his father's landlord, he acquired the benefits of a better social standing and a lucrative inheritance, much of which he invested in property (he bought several houses). And by involving himself in public service, he rose by sure degrees to the highest municipal positions Stratford had to offer: chamberlain (1561), alderman (1565), and bailiff (or mayor) and justice of the peace (1568). A few years after his elevation to the office of bailiff, probably around 1576, John Shakespeare approached the College of Heralds for armorial bearings and the right to call himself a gentleman. Before his application was acted upon, however, his fortunes took a sudden turn for the worse, and it was not until 1596, when his eldest son had attained some status and renewed the petition, that a Shakespeare coat of arms was finally granted. This must have been a comfort to John Shakespeare in his declining years (he died in 1601), because by then he had borrowed money, disposed of property out of necessity, ceased to attend meetings of the town council, become involved in litigation and been assessed fines, and even stopped attending church services, for fear, it was said, "of process for debt." Just what happened to alter John Shakespeare's financial and social position after the mid 1570s is not clear. Some have seen his nonattendance at church as a sign that he had become a recusant, unwilling to conform to the practices of the newly established Church of England (his wife's family had remained loyal to Roman Catholicism despite the fact that the old faith was under vigorous attack in Warwickshire after 1577), but the scant surviving evidence is anything but definitive.
The records we do have suggest that during young William's formative years he enjoyed the advantages that would have accrued to him as the son of one of the most influential citizens of a bustling market town in the fertile Midlands. When he was taken to services at Holy Trinity Church, he would have sat with his family in the front pew, in accordance with his father's civic rank. There he would have heard and felt the words and rhythms of the Bible, the sonorous phrases of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, the exhortations of the Homilies. In all likelihood, after spending a year or two at a "petty school" to learn the rudiments of reading and writing, he would have proceeded, at the age of seven, to "grammar school." Given his father's social position, young William would have been eligible to attend the King's New School, located above the Guild Hall and adjacent to the Guild Chapel (institutions that would both have been quite familiar to a man with the elder Shakespeare's municipal duties), no more than a five minute walk from the Shakespeare house on Henley Street. Though no records survive to tell us who attended the Stratford grammar school during this period, we do know that it had well qualified and comparatively well-paid masters; and, through the painstaking research of such scholars as T. W. Baldwin, we now recognize that a curriculum such as the one offered at the King's New School would have equipped its pupils with what by modern standards would be a rather formidable classical education.
During his many long school days there, young Shakespeare would have become thoroughly grounded in Latin, acquired some background in Greek, and developed enough linguistic facility to pick up whatever he may have wanted later from such modern languages as Italian and French. Along the way he would have become familiar with such authors as Aesop, Caesar, Cicero, Sallust, Livy, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Seneca. He would have studied logic and rhetoric as well as grammar, and he would have been taught the principles of composition and oratory from the writings of such masters as Quintilian and Erasmus. In all probability, he would even have received some training in speech and drama through the performance of plays by Plautus and Terence. If Shakespeare's references to schooling and schoolmasters in the plays are a reliable index of how he viewed his own years as a student, we must conclude that the experience was more tedious than pleasurable. But it is difficult to imagine a more suitable mode of instruction for the formation of a Renaissance poet's intellectual and artistic sensibility.
Meanwhile, of course, young Shakespeare would have learned a great deal from merely being alert to all that went on around him. He would have paid attention to the plant and animal life in the local woods that he would later immortalize, in As You Like It, as the Forest of Arden. He may have hunted from time to time; one legend, almost certainly apocryphal, has it that he eventually left Stratford because he had been caught poaching deer from the estate of a powerful squire, Sir Thomas Lucy, four miles upstream. He probably learned to swim as a youth, skinny-dipping in the river Avon. He may have participated in some of the athletic pursuits that were the basis of competition in the Elizabethan equivalent of the Olympics, the nearby Cotswold Games. He would undoubtedly have been adept at indoor recreations such as hazard (a popular dice game), or chess, or any of a number of card games. As he grew older, he would have become accustomed to such vocations as farming, sheep herding, tailoring, and shopkeeping. He would have acquired skills such as fishing, gardening, and cooking. And he would have gathered information about the various professions: law, medicine, religion, and teaching. Judging from the astonishing range of daily life and human endeavor reflected in his poems and plays, we can only infer that Shakespeare was both a voracious reader and a keen observer,—the sort of polymath Henry James might have been describing when he referred to a character in one of his novels as "a man on whom nothing was lost."
Once his school years ended, Shakespeare married, at eighteen, a woman who was eight years his senior. We know that Anne Hathaway was pregnant when the marriage license was issued by the Bishop of Worcester on 27 November 1582, because a daughter, Susanna, was baptized in Holy Trinity six months later on 26 May 1583. We have good reason to believe that the marriage was hastily arranged: there was only one reading of the banns (a church announcement preceding a wedding that allowed time for any legal impediments against it to be brought forward before the ceremony took place), an indication of unusual haste. But whether the marriage was in any way "forced" is impossible to determine. Some biographers (most notably Anthony Burgess) have made much of an apparent clerical error whereby the bride's name was entered as Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton in the Worcester court records; these writers speculate that Shakespeare was originally planning to marry another Anne until Anne Hathaway of Shottery (a village a mile or so from Shakespeare's home in Stratford) produced her embarrassing evidence of a prior claim. To most scholars, including our foremost authority on Shakespeare's life, S. Schoenbaum, this explanation of the Anne Whateley court entry seems farfetched. Such hypotheses are inevitable, however, in the absence of fuller information about the married life of William and Anne Hathaway Shakespeare.
What we do have to go on is certainly compatible with the suspicion that William and Anne were somewhat less than ardent lovers. They had only two more children—the twins, Hamnet and Judith, baptized on 2 February 1585—and they lived more than a hundred miles apart, so far as we can tell, for the better part of the twenty-year period during which Shakespeare was employed in the London theater. If we can give any credence to an amusing anecdote recorded in the 1602-1603 diary of a law student named John Manningham, there was at least one occasion during those years when Shakespeare, overhearing the actor Richard Burbage make an assignation, "went before, was entertained, and at his game before Burbage came; then, message being brought that Richard the Third was at the door. Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third." If we read the sonnets as in any way autobiographical, moreover, we are shown a poet with at least one other significant liaison: a "Dark Lady" to whom Will's lust impels him despite the self disgust the affair arouses in him (and despite her infidelity with the fair "Young Man" to whom many of the poems are addressed and for whom the poet reserves his deepest feelings).
But even if there is reason to speculate that Shakespeare may not have always been faithful to the marriage bed, there is much to suggest that he remained attached to Anne as a husband. In 1597 he purchased one of the most imposing houses in Stratford—New Place, across the street from the Guild Chapel—presumably settling his wife and children there as soon as the title to the property was clear. He himself retired to that Stratford home, so far as we can determine, sometime between 1611 and 1613. And of course he remembered Anne in his will, bequeathing her the notorious "second-best bed"—which most modern biographers regard as a generous afterthought (since a third of his estate would have gone to the wife by law even if her name never occurred in the document) rather than the slight that earlier interpreters had read into the phrasing.
Naturally we would like to know more about what Shakespeare was like as a husband and family man. But most of us would give just as much to know what took place in his life between 1585 (when the parish register shows him to have become the father of twins) and 1592 (when we find the earliest surviving reference to him as a rising star in the London theater). What did he do during these so-called "dark years"? Did he study law, as some have suspected? Did he travel on the Continent? Did he become an apprentice to a butcher, as one late-seventeenth century account had it? Or—most plausibly, in the view of many modern biographers—did he teach school for a while? All we can say for certain is that by the time his children were making their own way to school in rural Stratford, William Shakespeare had become an actor and writer in what was already the largest city in Europe.
Shakespeare probably traveled the hundred miles to London by way of the spires of Oxford, as do most visitors returning from Stratford to London today. But why he went, or when, history does not tell us. It has been plausibly suggested that he joined an acting troupe (the Queen's Men) that was one player short when it toured Stratford in 1587. If so, he may have migrated by way of one or two intermediary companies to a position with the troupe that became the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1594. The only thing we can assert with any assurance is that by 1592 Shakespeare had established himself as an actor and had written at least three plays. One of these—the third part of Henry VI —was alluded to in that year in a posthumously published testament by a once-prominent poet and playwright named Robert Greene, one of the "University Wits" who had dominated the London theater in the late 1580s. Dissipated and on his deathbed, Greene warned his fellow playwrights to beware of an "upstart crow" who, not content with being a mere player, was aspiring to a share of the livelihood that had previously been the exclusive province of professional writers such as himself. Whether Greene's Groatsworth of Wit accuses Shakespeare of plagiarism when it describes him as "beautified with our feathers" is not clear; some scholars have interpreted the phrase as a complaint that Shakespeare has borrowed freely from the scripts of others (or has merely revised existing plays, a practice quite common in the Elizabethan theater). But there can be no doubt that Greene's anxieties signal the end of one era and the beginning of another: a golden age, spanning two full decades, during which the dominant force on the London stage would be, not Greene or Kyd or Marlowe or even (in the later years of that period) Jonson, but Shakespeare.
If we look at what Shakespeare had written by the early 1590s, we see that he had already become thoroughly familiar with the daily round of one of the great capitals of Europe. Shakespeare knew St. Paul's Cathedral, famous not only as a house of worship but also as the marketplace where books were bought and sold. He knew the Inns of Court, where aspiring young lawyers studied for the bar. He knew the river Thames, spanned by the ever-busy, ever- fascinating London Bridge. He knew the Tower, where so many of the characters he would depict in his history plays had met their deaths, and where in his own lifetime such prominent noblemen as the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh would be imprisoned prior to their executions. He knew Westminster, where Parliament met when summoned by the Queen, and where the Queen herself held court at Whitehall Palace. He knew the harbor, where English ships, having won control of the seas by defeating the "invincible" Spanish Armada in 1588, had begun in earnest to explore the New World.
In Shakespeare's day London was a vigorous city of somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 inhabitants. If in its more majestic aspects it was dominated by the court of Queen Elizabeth, in its everyday affairs it was accented by the hustle and bustle of getting and spending. Its Royal Exchange was one of the forerunners of today's stock exchanges. Its many marketplaces offered a variety of goods for a variety of tastes. Its crowded streets presented a colorful pageant of Elizabethan modes of transport and dress, ranging from countrywomen in homespun to elegant ladies in apparel as decorative as their husbands' wealth—and the Queen's edicts on clothing—would allow. Its inns and taverns afforded a rich diversity of vivid personalities—eating, tippling, chatting, and enjoying games and pleasures of all kinds. It was, in short, an immensely stimulating social and cultural environment, and we can be sure that Shakespeare took full advantage of the opportunity it gave him to observe humanity in all its facets. Like Prince Hal, he must have learned "to drink with any tinker in his own language," and it was this as much as anything he was taught at school (or might have acquired by attendance at university) that equipped him to create such vibrant characters as Mistress Quickly, proud Hotspur, and the imperturbable Bottom.
Not that all was always well. Like any major city, London also had its problems. Preachers and moralists were constantly denouncing the excessive use of cosmetics. Thus, when Hamlet speaks out against "your paintings," telling Ophelia that "God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another," he would have been sounding a note familiar to everyone in Shakespeare's audience. So also with the "furred gowns" so roundly cursed by Lear: courtiers and their ladies were accustomed to lavishing as much "pride" on a single article of bejeweled finery as a modern man or woman might pay for a very expensive automobile. But luxury was only one of the evils of the age. London's Puritan authorities, regarding the theaters as dens of iniquity, closed them down on any available pretext, particularly when the plague was rampant. Meanwhile, even without the plague or the theaters to concern them (and one gathers that some of the authorities were anything but sure about which was the greater peril), the city fathers had to contend with gambling, drunkenness, prostitution, and other vices, especially in the Bankside district south of the Thames and in the other "liberties" outside the city walls to the west, east and north (such as Shoreditch, where James Burbage had erected the first permanent commercial play house, the Theatre, when Shakespeare was only twelve, and where many of Shakespeare's plays prior to 1599 were first performed). Here most blatantly, but elsewhere as well, pickpockets, vagabonds, and other members of the fraternity of urban lowlife lay in wait for "conies," as they called their unsuspecting victims. Given so many "notorious villainies" for spokesmen like Thomas Dekker's "Belman of London" to bring to light, it is hardly surprising that among the most prolific literary genres of the period were the scores of books and tracts that spewed forth from reformers incensed by the decadence of the Renaissance metropolis.
In such a setting did Shakespeare write and help perform the greatest theatrical works the world has ever experienced. And he did so in suburbs known primarily for entertainments that we would regard as totally alien from the sweet Swan of Avon's poetic grace. For if Shoreditch and, later, Bankside were to blossom into the finest theatrical centers of that or any other age, they were also, for better or worse, the seedbeds for such brutal spectator sports as bearbaiting, bullbaiting, and cockfighting. This may help account for the blood and violence so frequently displayed on the Elizabethan stage, most notably in such early Shakespearean experiments as the Henry VI trilogy and Titus Andronicus, but also in mature works such as Julius Caesar and King Lear. But of course there was a good deal more than murder and mayhem in the "wooden O" that served as amphitheatre for most of Shakespeare's dramatic productions.
On a stage largely devoid of scenery but by no means lacking in spectacle, the playwright and his actors made efficient use of language, properties, and gesture to establish time, locale, situation, and atmosphere. In the process, through all the resources of rhetoric, symbolism, and what Hamlet in his advice to the players calls "action," the "artificial persons" of the drama (its dramatis personae) imitated humanity in such a way as to convey whatever "matter" an author and his company envisaged for a scene, an act, or a full dramatic sequence. By twentieth-century standards, the means they used were relatively primitive—no spotlights, too few furnishings to achieve verisimilitude through setting and dress, only the crudest of "special effects," no curtains to raise and lower as a way of signaling the beginning and end of a scene or act—but by any standards, the results they achieved were brilliant. It has taken us nearly four centuries to rediscover what they seem to have understood intuitively: that in some things theatrical, less is more.
Our best estimate is that approximately 3,000 spectators could be crammed into a ninety-nine-foot-wide, polygonal structure such as the Theatre (which opened in 1576 and was dismantled in 1598, after the owner of the land on which it stood refused to negotiate a lease acceptable to Shakespeare's acting company) or its successor the Globe (which opened in 1599, after the company transported the lumber from the Theatre across the Thames and used it as the scaffolding for an even more handsome playhouse on the Bankside). More than half of the audience stood in the yard (which measured about fifty-five feet in diameter); the remainder sat in the three galleries that encircled the yard and rose to a thatched roof some thirty-six feet above the ground .
The stage was probably about forty-three feet wide, and it thrust some twenty-seven feet into the yard from the "tiring house" at the rear of the building. It was covered by a pillar-supported superstructure—the "heavens"—that protected the actors and their costumes from the elements and housed the equipment Elizabethan companies used for ascents, descents, and other "flying" effects. In the floor of the stage platform (about five feet above the surrounding yard) was a trapdoor that could be opened for visitations from below or for access into what, depending on the context, might represent a grave or a pit or even hell itself. At the back of the stage in all likelihood, concealing the tiring house, where the actors effected their costume changes and awaited their cues to enter, were three doors. The two at the corners were probably used for most of the entrances and exits of the actors; the large middle one was capable of being employed as a shallow, draped "discovery space" that might be drawn open for tableaux (as when Ferdinand and Miranda are disclosed playing chess in The Tempest) or adapted to represent small enclosures such as closets, studies, bedrooms, or shops like the Apothecary's cell in Romeo and Juliet. On the level above the tiring house, probably divided into five bays, was a balcony that accommodated a select number of the theater's highest-paying customers and functioned in many of the plays as the "upper stage" where brief scenes requiring a higher vantage point could be enacted. Sentinels on watch, lovers at a second-story bedroom window, seamen crying out from a ship's crow's nest: these and other situations called for the use of one or more of the upper-level bays (probably the central one in most instances) for characters to speak their lines and render the movements called for in the script.
Because the main playing area was surrounded on all four sides by spectators, the poet and the performer benefited from a more intimate relationship with the audience than is customary in present-day theaters fitted with a curtain and a proscenium arch. For Shakespeare, this meant that he could allow a character to confide in a nearby playgoer through asides, as does Iago in Othello, or to be overheard while he meditates in solitude, as does Brutus in the soliloquy in which he talks himself into joining the plot to assassinate Caesar. Such devices may strike a modern viewer as less sophisticated than, say, the cinematic voice-over, but they proved eminently acceptable to an audience that was willing to "piece out" a performance's "imperfections with [its] thoughts." And it says a great deal about the intelligence and sensitivity of Elizabethan theatergoers that they attended and were capable of appreciating dramatic works which, in many respects, were both responses to and sublimations of the coarser activities that competed for attention (and people's entertainment budgets) only a short distance away from the magic circle defined by the walls of a Theatre or a Globe.
Just who composed the audiences of these public playhouses is still a matter of debate, but recent research by Ann Jennalie Cook and Andrew Gurr suggest that they were a more affluent cross section of Elizabethan society than earlier writings by such scholars as Alfred Harbage would have led us to believe. An examination of wages and prices during the period indicates, for example, that those who attended performances on weekday afternoons would have had to have more leisure, and more disposable income, than seems compatible with the view that even the groundlings (who paid the lowest admission, a penny to stand in the yard and risk getting soaked in the event of rain) were predominantly working-class people and illiterate apprentices. Because their position in the yard put their eyes on a level with the feet of the players, the groundlings were sometimes derided as—"understanders"; it now begins to appear that a substantial percentage of these theatergoers were "understanders" in a more favorable sense. To be sure, some of them may at times have been a bit obstreperous, and their number may well have included an assortment of men and women (including prostitutes) preoccupied with extra-theatrical pursuits. It may be, too, that the groundlings were more susceptible than other members of the audience (if merely because of their greater proximity to the stage) to manipulation by what we now call "naughty" actors, the overweening "clowns" whom Hamlet rebukes for their tendency to ply the crowd for inappropriate laughter, interrupting the flow of the action and causing spectators to miss "some necessary question of the play." But even if the groundlings were not quite as cultivated, on the average, as those members of the audience who could afford to sit while they watched a play, it is difficult to reconcile the subtlety and indirection of Shakespeare 's plotting and characterization, not to mention the complexity of his language and the incomparable music of his verse, with the assumption that the majority of an average house at the public theaters was unable to respond to anything more elevated than the broad humor of a Launce or a Dogberry. Even if we still find it valuable, then, to preserve something of the traditional distinction between the groundlings and the more "privileged" spectators who sat in the three-tiered galleries encircling the yard, we should now open our minds to the possibility that there were more of what Hamlet would call "judicious" viewers in every segment of the Elizabethan audience, including those who stood in the yard, than we have tended to assume until very recently in our analyses of Shakespearean drama.
Which is not to say, of course, that Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists were completely satisfied with any of their audiences (but then what writer ever is?). Hamlet bestows high praise on a play that he says "was never acted, or if it was, not above once," for "it pleased not the million, 'twas caviary to the general." He then exhorts the players to disregard "a whole theatre of others," if necessary, in order to please "those with judgments in such matters." Whether Hamlet's creator would himself have endorsed such extreme elitism is difficult to determine, but such a view is certainly consonant with the epistle to the reader that prefaced the revised 1609 first quarto edition of Troilus and Cressida. Here we are assured that we have "a new play, never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar, and yet passing full of the palm comical"; and we are given to believe that it is to the credit rather than the discredit of the work that it has never been "sullied with the smoky breath of the multitude." Inasmuch as this preface and the title page preceding it replaced an earlier title page advertising Troilus and Cressida "as it was acted by the King's Majesty's servants at the Globe," we are probably correct to assume that whoever wrote it had in mind the kind of vulgar "multitude" who would have seen the play at one of the outdoor public theaters.
All of which is to acknowledge that even if the audiences that attended the public theaters were sophisticated enough to support the vast majority of Shakespeare's dramatic efforts, they may nevertheless have proven deficient in their response to some of the extraordinary challenges he placed before them after he arrived at his artistic maturity. This should not surprise us, given Shakespeare's continual experimentation with inherited generic forms and his ever-more-complex approaches to traditional material. Nor should we assume that by terms such as "the million" and "the general" he and his fellow playwrights referred only to the groundlings. Writers of the period were equally acidulous in their criticism of the gallants who attended the theater to be "the observed of all observers"—the ostentatiously attired young men who sat not only in the galleries near the stage (where the admission price was thrice as much as for the places in the yard) and in the balconies above and behind the stage (which cost six times as much as the places in the yard), but even on the stage itself at some performances in the indoor "private" theaters (where the least expensive seat cost six times the price of general admission to the Theatre or the Globe, and where some of the seats cost a full thirty times as much). It is difficult to believe that Shakespeare any more than Dekker (who satirized such gallants in The Cull's Hornbook ) would have considered these foppish Osrics even slightly more "judicious" than their fellow spectators at the lower end of the economic scale. And one can easily imagine that after 1609, when his company began using the Blackfriars theater as its primary venue during the colder months (the London authorities having finally dropped the restrictions that had prevented James Burbage from operating a commercial adult theater in the old monastery he had purchased and adapted in 1596), Shakespeare felt that he had simply exchanged one kind of less-than-perfect audience for another.
One gathers, nevertheless, that, like other playwrights of the period, Shakespeare was careful not to refer too overtly to deficiencies in the well-to-do members of his audiences, especially when such members might include the nobility or persons close to them. After all, an acting company's livelihood depended upon its securing and retaining favor at Court—not only because of the extra income and prestige that accrued from periodic Court performances commissioned by the Master of the Revels, but even more fundamentally because a company could perform in or near London only if it were licensed to do so by the Crown and enjoyed the protection of a noble or royal patron. A prudent playwright would not wish to jeopardize his company's standing with the monarch. And Shakespeare and his colleagues—the other "sharers" who owned stock in the company that was known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men from 1594 until 1603 (when Queen Elizabeth died and was succeeded by King James I) and the King's Men thereafter (having received a patent as the new monarch's own players)—must have been prudent, because theirs was by far the most prosperous and the most frequently "preferred" theatrical organization in the land, from its inception in the early 1590s until the triumph of Puritanism finally brought about the closing of the theaters half a century later in 1642.
Shakespeare's position with the Lord Chamberlain's Men was a source of professional stability that probably had a great deal to do with his growth and maturation as a writer. For one thing, it freed him from some of the uncertainties and frustrations that must have been the lot of other playwrights, virtually all of whom operated as free-lancers selling their wares to impresarios such as Philip Henslowe (often for as little as five pounds), and most of whom thus forfeited any real say about how their plays were to be produced and, in time (if a given acting company so wished or if chance provided), published. From at least 1594 on Shakespeare was a stockholder of the theatrical organization for which he wrote his plays. After 1598 (when the sons of the recently deceased James Burbage, Cuthbert and Richard, invited four of the principal actors in the Lord Chamberlain's Men to become their partners and put up half the capital needed to rebuild the Theatre across the Thames as the Globe), Shakespeare was also a co-owner of the playhouse in which that company performed the plays. As such, he shared in all the profits the Lord Chamberlain's Men took in at the gate, and he was undoubtedly a participant in most, if not all, of the major decisions affecting the company's welfare. We know from the surviving legal records of the playwright's various business transactions that he prospered financially by this arrangement: like his father, Shakespeare invested wisely in real estate, purchasing properties in both Stratford and London. And we can infer from the evidence of his Rapidly developing sophistication as a dramatist that Shakespeare's membership in a close-knit group of theatrical entrepreneurs also helped him flourish artistically.
It meant, for example, that he could envisage and write his plays with particular performers in mind: Richard Burbage for leading roles such as Richard III, Othello, and King Lear; Will Kempe for clowning parts such as Launce or Dogberry in the early years of the company, and thereafter (following Kempe's departure from the Lord Chamberlain's Men around 1599) Robert Armin, who seems to have specialized in "wise fools" such as Touchstone, Feste, and Lear's Fool; Shakespeare himself, perhaps, for "old men' such as Adam in As You Like It; "hired men" (adult actors who, not being shareholders in the company, were simply paid a sum of money for each job of work) for most of the lesser roles; and apprentice boy-actors for the youthful parts and many, if not all, of the female roles (there being no actresses on the English stage until the theaters reopened after the Restoration). Working as the resident playwright for a company in which he was both an actor and a business partner meant that Shakespeare could revise and rewrite his scripts in rehearsal prior to a given play's first performance, and that he could adapt and further revise them later as differing circumstances required: such as performances commissioned at Court during holiday seasons or on ceremonial occasions, or performances solicited by the great houses of the nobility, or (during sieges of plague when the London theaters were closed) performances on tour in the provinces, during which, in all likelihood, the troupe was reduced to entertaining with fewer actors and was required to make do with provisional playing areas in guild halls, inn yards, and other less-than-ideal theatrical spaces.
Because the conditions under which Shakespeare worked required him, above all, to be pragmatic and flexible, we would probably be correct to infer that as he composed his plays he thought of his scripts, not as fixed "literary" texts, but as provisional production notes—susceptible of lengthening or shortening or other modes of alteration as determined by the constraints of particular venues and performance situations. He would have had to prepare each script with an eye to the number of actors available for speaking parts (one recent scholar has concluded that most of Shakespeare's plays were composed with a cast of thirteen performers in mind), and he probably planned each scene with a view to the possibilities for "doubling" (a principle of theatrical economy whereby a given actor would alternate among two or more roles in the same play). It may well be that, in the absence of anyone else in the organization designated to function in that capacity, Shakespeare was the first "director" his plays had. If so, we can be sure that he approached the task with an awareness that the devising of a production was a collaborative process and that the playscript, though normative, was never to be revered as a monument carved in stone. Shakespeare was, after all, a playwright (that is, a "maker" rather than merely a writer of plays), and he would have been the first to recognize that the final purpose of a dramatic text was a fully realized performance rather than a piece of literature to be read in the privacy of a patron's parlor or pondered in the lamplight of a scholar's study.
If in his capacity as theater professional Shakespeare conceived of himself, then, as a maker of "plays" (by definition ephemeral and "insubstantial" pageants, as Prospero observes in The Tempest) rather than as an author of literary "works" (the term that earned Ben Jonson the derision of his fellow playwrights when he came out with a pretentiously titled folio volume of his collected plays in 1616), it is hardly surprising that he appears to have had little or nothing to do with the publication of any of his own dramatic scripts. Nor is it surprising that several of the texts that were published in Shakespeare's lifetime or shortly thereafter have come down to us in forms that vary from one printing to another.
Some of these variations probably result from authorial revisions or from theatrical adaptations of one kind or another. Others undoubtedly derive from the vicissitudes of textual transmission, with the extant state of a given text or passage dependent on whether it was printed from the author's own manuscript (either in draft form or in a more finished version) or from a manuscript prepared by someone else (a scribe's "fair copy" of a manuscript owned by the author or the company, for example, or a rough compilation by one or more actors relying on faulty memories to pull together an abridged script for a reduced cast touring the provinces)quite apart from any further complications that may have occurred in the printing house itself (where one copy editor, one compositor, or one proofreader differed from another in the accuracy with which he reproduced the manuscript before him). Whatever their origins, these variations are eloquent testimony to the difficulty—if not indeed the impossibility—of our ever arriving at an absolutely "final" version of a Shakespearean play. For if the conditions under which plays were written, performed, and preserved make it clear that a "definitive" playtext was rare, if not unknown, in Shakespeare's own time, we must recognize that any effort to produce an authoritative edition for our own time can aspire, at best, to reconstitute as accurately as possible the closest surviving approximation to a given script at some point in its compositional or theatrical history.
And even this kind of edition will remain stubbornly "incomplete," for the simple reason that a Shakespearean script was originally intended for the use, not of a reading audience, but of a small company of theater professionals who would employ it as a "score" from which to orchestrate a complex, multidimensional performance. The texts that do survive are mostly dialogue, and a sensitive analysis of them can tell us a great deal about how the words were meant, to be spoken, where the emphases were to be placed, and what character motivations were to be indicated at specific points in the action. But because we can no longer recover the context in which these scripts were first realized—a context that would have included a good deal of oral communication about gesture, movement, blocking, and other stage business—we must content ourselves with editions that will always be to some degree indeterminate. Perhaps this is just as well: it teases the critic and the director with enough interpretive liberty to ensure that we will never be faced with a dearth of innovation in Shakespearean commentary and production.
We should bear in mind, of course, that a considerable investment of additional work would have been required to transform a production script into a reading text for the public—not altogether unlike what is required nowadays to turn a screenplay into a coherent piece of narrative fiction—and that Shakespeare may never have had the time (even if we assume that he ever had the inclination) to effect such a generic adaptation. Still. those of us who would not object to a little more detail about some of the "matter" of Shakespeare's plays may perhaps be pardoned for wishing that the playwright had been able to spare more thought for the morrow—for the afterlife that most (though who is to say all?) of his plays were eventually to have as a consequence of publication. Our sentiments are echoed in the 1623 address "To the Great Variety of Readers" at the beginning of that posthumous edition of Shakespeare's works known as the First Folio: "It had been a thing, we confess, worthy to have been wished, that the author himself had lived to have set forth and overseen his own writings."
He did set forth and oversee some of his own writings, of course. But, significantly, these were not dramatic scripts.
In 1593 Shakespeare published an 1194-line narrative poem that appears to have been intended as his opening bid for serious attention as an author of "literary works." Based on Ovid's Metamorphoses and capitalizing on a fashion for elegant romances that was being catered to by such writers as Thomas Lodge (whose Scilla's Metamorphoses had been published in 1589) and Christopher Marlowe (whose Hero and Leander may well have circulated in manuscript prior to his death in 1593 and certainly before it appeared in print in 1598), Shakespeare's Venus and Adoniswas an erotic mythological poem printed by fellow Stratfordian Richard Field and bearing a florid dedication to "the Right Honorable Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton." Its six-line stanzas employed an ababcc rhyming scheme whose authority had been established by such contemporary Renaissance poets as Edmund Spenser, and its ornamented, "artificial" style solicited a favorable reception from the "wiser sort" of readers to be found in the Inns of Courts, at the universities, and at Court. Although Shakespeare decorously apologized for the poem as "the first heir of my invention," he must have done so in full confidence that Venus and Adonis was an achievement worthy of his talent. And it proved to be an immediate and sustained success, with nine reprints by 1616 and six more by 1640. The large number of references to it during the late 1590s and early 1600s suggest that it was the work for which Shakespeare was most widely recognized during his own lifetime.
Within a year of the publication of Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare was back to press with another long narrative poem. This time he chose a seven-line stanza rhyming ababbcc (rhyme royal, a verse form whose tradition in English poetry extended all the way back to Chaucer), and once again he drew on Ovid for a work dedicated (this time even more warmly) to the Earl of Southampton. If Venus and Adonis is most aptly approached as a quasi-comic treatment of love (depicting the frustrations of an insatiate goddess who falls all over herself as she fumbles to seduce an unresponsive youth), despite the fact that it ends with the death of the innocent young mortal, Lucrece is more properly described as a tragic "complaint," a moving exploration of the personal and social consequences of a noble Roman's surrender to lust, against his better nature and at the cost, ultimately, of both his victim's life and his own. In his foreword to Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare had promised the dedicatee "a graver labor" if his first offering pleased its would-be patron; in all likelihood, then, Lucrece was under way as a companion piece to Venus and Adonis at least a year before its eventual publication in 1594. It may be, as some have suggested, that Shakespeare's narrative of Tarquin's rape of Lucrece and her suicide was motivated by a desire to persuade anyone who might have considered the earlier work frivolous that the poet's muse was equally capable of a more serious subject. In any case it is clear that once again he struck a responsive chord: Lucrece went through eight editions prior to 1640, and it seems to have been exceeded in popularity only by Venus and Adonis.
Both poems were printed during what has been called Shakespeare's "apprenticeship"—the period preceding his emergence as a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1594—and they share a number of stylistic characteristics with the plays that appear to have been completed during those same early years. As with such youthful dramatic efforts as the three parts of Henry VI, Titus Andronicus, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors,and The Taming of the Shrew, the writing in Venus and Adonis and Lucrece is generically imitative (closely adhering to received poetic and dramatic forms), structurally and verbally derivative (echoing the poet's sources almost slavishly at times), and rhetorically formal (with a rigidly patterned verse containing far more rhymes, end-stopped lines, syntactic balances, and allusions to the classics than are to be observed in Shakespeare's writing after the mid 1590s). One feels immediately that Venus and Adonis and Lucrece are artistically of a piece with Shakespeare's first tentative experiments as a dramatist.
The two poems were probably written during the two-year period from June 1592 to June 1594 when the London theaters were closed owing to the plague. But whether they indicate an inclination to leave the theater altogether and essay a career as a traditional poet (as Shakespeare's quest for the patronage of the young Earl of Southampton would seem to imply), or merely demonstrate that Shakespeare was resourceful enough to turn his pen to other uses while he waited for the theaters to reopen, is more than we can say. The only thing that seems beyond doubt is that Shakespeare regarded what he was doing when he wrote Venus and Adonis and Lucrece as something fundamentally different from what he was doing, prior to that and subsequent to it, in his capacity as a playwright and theater professional.
Like his fellow playwrights when they donned personae as men of letters, Shakespeare was addressing his efforts, first of all, to a noble patron and, second, to a cultivated readership. He was therefore concerned that his compositions be published as he had written them, and he took pains to assure that they were accompanied by a graceful appeal for the approval of an audience presumed to embody the highest standards of literary taste and judgment. It may be that during the same period when he was seeing Venus and Adonis and Lucrece through the press in carefully proofed editions he was also writing other nondramatic poetry. Many scholars believe that this was when he composed most if not all of the 154 sonnets that bear his name. And if he was in fact the author of A Lover's Complaint (a narrative poem in rhyme royal that was attributed to Shakespeare when it was published, along with the Sonnets, in an unauthorized edition in 1609), he probably wrote that labored lyric during his years "in the workshop" too. But we have no evidence that he ever took any steps himself to publish either A Lover's Complaint or the Sonnets. Apart from Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, the only other literary work that Shakespeare may have had anything to do with publishing on his own behalf was a curious poem called The Phoenix and Turtle, which appeared in 1601 as part of a collection "Shadowing the Truth of Love" and appended to Robert Chester's Love's Martyr. The Phoenix and Turtle is a sixty-seven-line Lyric, probably allegorical, about one bird (the phoenix) legendary for its rarity and beauty and another (the turtledove) proverbial for its constancy. Its scholastic imagery—reminiscent in some ways of the highly technical language to be found in writing of the same literary climate by such "metaphysical" poets as John Donne—suggests that, if indeed it is by Shakespeare (which many have questioned), it was probably written expressly for the Chester volume at about the time that Shakespeare was at work on such "philosophical" plays as Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida.
If we except The Phoenix and Turtle, then, and assume that the Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint were published without Shakespeare's active participation, we are left with the conclusion that Shakespeare's "literary career," narrowly defined, was more or less limited to the two-year interruption in his activities as a theater professional when the London playhouses were closed because of the plague. This does not require us to presume, of course, that he ceased to have literary aspirations after 1594. He may have allowed his "sugared sonnets" to circulate in manuscript "among his private friends" (as Francis Meres asserted in Palladis Tamia in 1598, a year prior to William Jaggard's surreptitious printing of two of the sonnets in a volume called The Passionate Pilgrim) while he continued to revise and augment them in the expectation that he would publish an anthology at a later time. And it is not inconceivable that he would have published a collected edition of his plays had he lived (Jonson having braved the critical tempest that such audacity was bound to generate when he came out with his works in 1616, the year of Shakespeare's death). But the fact is that Shakespeare did not himself publish any of the compositions we now value the most, and we can only infer that doing so was of less importance to him than what he did choose to devote his professional life to: the "wrighting" of plays.
If so, he must at times have had his doubts about the choice he made. In Sonnet 110 (if we may be permitted to assume that the poet was either speaking in his own voice or echoing sentiments that he himself had felt), he allows that he has made himself "a motley to the view" and "sold cheap what is most dear." He then goes on in Sonnet 111 to lament that he "did not better for [his] life provide / Than public means which public manners breeds."
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdu'd
To what it works in, like the dyer's hand.
Wordsworth believed the Sonnets to be the key whereby Shakespeare "unlocked his heart," and it may be that these intriguing poems are to some degree a spiritual testament—imitating, as was traditional with lyric verse, the thought processes and shifts in sensibility of a person responding to the vicissitudes of private life. That granted, we may be correct to interpret Sonnets 110 and 111 as expressions of Shakespeare's own dissatisfaction with the lot of an actor and playwright.
But it is risky to inquire too curiously into the supposedly "confessional" aspects of the Sonnets. Like Shakespeare's other writings, they employ the artifice of "fictions," and they may have been but another form of story telling—different in kind from the plays and narrative poems, to be sure, but similar to them in being "about" something quite other than (or in addition to) the poet's own experience. If we examine them in the context of earlier sonnet sequences—Petrarch's lyrics to Laura in fifteenth-century Italy, for instance, or such late-sixteenth-century English sequences as those by Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, and Michael Drayton—we discover that they are quite "conventional" in many respects. They display the speaker's wit and attest to his originality; they imply a deeply felt personal situation and hint at a coherent narrative, but they usually stop short of connecting their emotional peaks and valleys into a fully textured autobiographical landscape; they assert the immortality of verse and claim its sovereignty over the ravages of time and change; and usually they deal with themes of truth and beauty in the context of love and friendship and all the circumstances that life arrays in opposition to such values.
To a far greater degree than with most sonnet sequences, Shakespeare's Sonnets have "the ring of truth." This is partly because, like all his works (from his earliest plays onward), they portray humanity so convincingly. But it is also a consequence of the extent to which they seem to go beyond, or even to disregard, convention. Thus, instead of praising a lady by cataloging all the attributes that make her lovely, Shakespeare turns Petrarchan tradition on its head by denying his "dark lady" any of the expected beauties and virtues. "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," he says in Sonnet 130; and far from being ethereal and inaccessible in her idealized spirituality, the woman described in Shakespeare's Sonnets is sensual, coarse, and promiscuous. Petrarch's Laura may have inspired that earlier poet to Platonic transcendence, but Shakespeare's mistress leaves only the bitter aftertaste of "Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame," "A bliss in proof, and prov'd, a very woe" (Sonnet 129). And what is more, she alienates the affection of the fair young man to whom most of the first 127 sonnets in the sequence are addressed: the friend who occasions some of the deepest verses in English on such themes as fidelity, stewardship (Shakespeare seems to have been preoccupied with the Parable of the Talents, as rendered in Matthew 25: 14-30), and man's struggle against "never-resting time."
As one reads the sonnets directed to the young man, one detects a descent from unquestioned devotion ("This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong, / To love that well, which thou must leave ere long"—Sonnet 73) to a fear that the older man's love may be unrequited or at least taken for granted by the young friend to whom he has given so much of himself ("For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; / Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds"—Sonnet 94) to a courageous but probably quixotic determination to remain true to his convictions despite his doubts about the young man's worthiness of such absolute faith ("love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds / Or bends with the remover to remove"—Sonnet 116). The intensity of feeling expressed in these sonnets has led many interpreters to infer that they must have been based on a homoerotic passion. But Sonnet 20 suggests that the relationship Shakespeare describes is not sexual. Nature, he says, has given the young man "one thing to my purpose nothing." And "since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure, / Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure."
Several of the sonnets addressed to the friend refer to a "rival poet" who is also bidding for his favors and affection (Sonnets 79, 80, 83, and 86, for example), and others (Sonnets 78, 82, 84, and 85) imply that the young aristocrat is the subject of praise by a great many poetic suitors. As he reflects upon his own position vis-à-vis his many competitors for the friend's love, the speaker in Shakespeare's sonnets is subject to a depth of insecurity that sometimes borders on despair: "Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, / Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd, / Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope" (Sonnet 29). And many of the greatest sonnets in the sequence derive their peculiar power from what Robert Frost has termed a "sense of difficulty overcome"—the poet working through the tensions and conflicts described in the first three quatrains (linked by an abab cdcd efef rhyme scheme) to some kind of hard-won (though perhaps not completely convincing) resolution in the concluding couplet (rhymed gg): "For thy sweet love rememb'red such wealth brings, / That then I scorn to change my state with kings" (again Sonnet 29).
Because the other personalities who figure in the psychodrama of the Sonnets seem so vivid, at least as they impinge upon the personality of the speaker, interpreters of the sequence have been inexorably drawn toward speculation about real-life identities for the Dark Lady, the Young Man, and the Rival Poet. Some commentators (such as Oxford historian A. L. Rowse) have persuaded themselves, if not everyone else, that these characters can be positively linked with such contemporaries of Shakespeare as Emilia Lanier, the Earl of Southampton (or, alternatively, the Earl of Pembroke), and Christopher Marlowe (or possibly George Chapman). Unless further information should come to light, however, we are probably best advised to content ourselves with a position of agnosticism on such questions. Until we can be sure about how the Sonnets came to be published, and just what kind of debt the publisher Thomas Thorpe refers to when he dedicates the 1609 quarto to the "only begetter" of these poems "Never before Imprinted"—the mysterious "Mr. W. H."—we are unlikely to be able to pin down the "real names" of any of the persons who inhabit the world of the Sonnets. Until then, indeed, we cannot even be certain that the Sonnets have any autobiographical basis in the first place.
Turning from Shakespeare's nondramatic poetry to the fruits of his two decades as a playwright, we should probably begin where scholars now think he himself began: as the principal practitioner, if not in many ways the originator, of a new kind of drama that sprang from native patriotism. The most immediate "source" of the English history play appears to have been the heightened sense of national destiny that came in the wake of the royal navy's seemingly providential victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. Proud of the new eminence their nation had achieved, and immensely relieved that the threat of invasion by a Catholic power had been averted, many of Shakespeare's contemporaries were disposed to view England's deliverance as a sign of heaven's favor. As such, it seemed to be a vindication of the reign of Queen Elizabeth and a substantiation of the Tudor order's claim to divine sanction—a claim that had been asserted by a succession of Renaissance chroniclers from Polydore Vergil (circa 1470-1555) through Edward Hall (circa 1498-1547) to Raphael Holinshed (circa 1529-1580), and a claim that was implicit in such government documents as the "Exhortation concerning Good Order and Obedience to Rulers and Magistrates," a 1547 homily read in churches throughout England.
Given this context, it must have seemed entirely fitting that sometime in the late 1580s or early 1590s an enterprising young playwright began dramatizing a sequence of historical developments that were almost universally regarded as the "roots" of England's current greatness. Most of the material for the four history plays with which Shakespeare began his career as playwright he drew from Edward Hall's Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548) and Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587 edition). Here he found narratives of late-medieval English history that began with the reign of King Richard II (1377-1399), focused on Richard's deposition and execution by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV), described the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) that were the eventual consequence of Bolingbroke's usurpation, and concluded with the restoration of right rule when Henry Richmond defeated the tyrannical Richard III (1483-1485) and acceded to the crown as Henry VII, inaugurating a Tudor dynasty that was to last until the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603. Here he also found a theological reading of political history that treated England as a collective Everyman—falling into sin, undergoing a terrifyingly bloody punishment for its disobedience, and eventually finding its way back to redemption through the emergence of Henry VII.
The chances are that as Shakespeare matured in his craft he came to view the "Tudor myth" (as E. M. W. Tillyard has termed this official dogma) with a degree of skeptical detachment; but even so, he seems to have found in its clear, broad sweep a pattern that served quite well as a way of organizing the disparate materials he chose to dramatize. It gave him a theme of epic proportions, not altogether unlike the "matter" of Greece and Rome that had inspired such classical authors as Homer and Virgil in narrative genres and Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Seneca in dramatic genres. It accorded with the biblical treatment of human destiny that Shakespeare's age had inherited from earlier generations, an approach to historical interpretation that had been embedded in such didactic entertainments as the Morality Play (allegorizing the sin, suffering, repentance, and salvation of a typical member of mankind) and the Mystery Play (broadening the cycle to a dramatization of the whole of human history, from man's fall in the Garden of Eden to man's redemption in the Garden of Gethsemane to man's bliss in the Paradise of the New Jerusalem). And it provided a rationale for Shakespeare's use of such powerful dramatic devices as the riddling prophecy and the curse—projecting retribution for present crimes, as the Old Testament would put it, to the third and fourth generations.
When we approach the four plays known as Shakespeare's "first tetralogy" (the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, all written, so far as we can tell, by 1592) from the perspective of his "second tetralogy" (Richard II, Henry IV, parts I and 2, and Henry V, all of which appear to have been written between 1595 and 1597), the earlier plays seem comparatively crude. Like their sources, they place more emphasis on providential design and less on human agency. Their verse is more declamatory and less supple. And they provide less individuation of character. Still, they have their virtues, and successful recent productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Broadcasting Corporation have proven that they can be surprisingly effective in performance.
Henry VI, part I did not achieve print until the 1623 First Folio, but it is now generally thought to have been written prior to parts 2 and 3, which first appeared in bad texts, respectively, in a 1594 quarto edition titled The First Part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster and in a 1595 octavo entitled The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke. Henry VI, part 1, begins with the funeral of King Henry V (which occurred in 1422), details the dissension at home and the loss of life and territory abroad that result from the accession of a new monarch too young and weak to rule, and concludes with King Henry VI's foolish decision to marry Margaret of Anjou—a step that places the saintly King in the very unsaintly hands of an ambitious woman and a lustful nobleman (the Earl of Suffolk, who plans to enjoy Margaret as his own mistress and thereby "rule both her, the King, and realm") and virtually assures the further degradation of a kingdom that has been in decline since the death of Henry VI's famous warrior-king father. Henry VI, part 2, covers a ten-year span from Margaret of Anjou's arrival in England (1445) to the Duke of York's victory over his Lancastrian enemies at St. Albans in the first major battle of the Wars of the Roses (1455). The same kind of internecine strife that has left the noble Talbot exposed to the forces of the strumpet-witch Joan of Arc in Henry VI, part 1, works here to undo Henry VI's protector, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, topple two of the good Duke's enemies (Cardinal Beaufort and Suffolk), unleash the anarchic rebellion of the peasant Jack Cade, and further divide the warring factions (the Yorkists, who have chosen the red rose as their symbol in the famous Temple Garden scene, II.iv, of part 1, and the Lancastrians, who have rallied behind the white rose) that seem hell-bent to tear the kingdom asunder. In Henry VI, part 3, the war is at full pitch. As the feeble Henry VI withdraws into a private realm of pastoral longing, his brutal Queen and her allies exchange outrages with one Yorkist enemy after another, father killing son and son killing father in a nightmarish world that has degenerated into a spectacle of unmitigated cruelty. By the time the dust settles, Henry VI and a number of other would-be claimants to the throne are dead or on their way to the grave, and the ominously crookbacked figure of Richard, Duke of Gloucester is slouching his rough way to the crown he will don in the blood-drenched final movement of this hitherto unprecedented cycle of historical tragedies.
Richard III was first published in a 1597 quarto edition that many scholars believe to have been reconstructed from memory by actors plagued out of London theaters between July and October of that year. The play was evidently quite popular, because it went through at least five more printings before it appeared in the 1623 First Folio edition based largely on the third and sixth quartos. And it has remained popular ever since, with a stage tradition highlighted by Richard Burbage in Shakespeare's own theater, David Garrick in the eighteenth century, Edmund Kean in the nineteenth, and Laurence Olivier in the twentieth. Nor is the reason hard to find. For despite the bold strokes with which he is portrayed, Richard III is a character of sufficient complexity to sustain a great deal of dramatic interest. However much we find ourselves repelled by his ruthless treachery, we cannot help admiring the eloquence, resourcefulness, and virtuosity with which he confides and then proceeds to execute his wicked intentions. His wooing of the grieving Lady Anne in the first act is a case in point: having set himself the seemingly impossible task of seducing a woman whose husband and father-in-law he has recently murdered, Richard is just as astonished as we are by the ease with which he accomplishes it.
In many ways Richard seems, and would have seemed to Shakespeare's first audiences, a conventional, even old-fashioned stage villain: the quick-witted, clever, self-disclosing Vice of the late-medieval Morality Play, the dissimulating Devil familiar from the scriptures. In other, more important, ways he seems, and would have seemed, disturbingly modern: the Machiavellian politician who acknowledges no law, human or divine, in restraint of his foxlike cunning and leonine rapacity; the totalitarian dictator who subverts every social and religious institution in pursuit of his psychopathic grand designs; the existentialist cosmic rebel whose radical alienation is a challenge to every form of order. But if Richard seems in many ways a relentlessly twentieth-century figure, we learn by the end of the play that his "vaulting ambition" (so proleptic of Macbeth's) is ultimately but an instrument of the same providential scheme that he scorns and seeks to circumvent. Richard may be a "dreadful minister of hell," as Lady Anne calls him. but members of Shakespeare's audience (familiar with the story through such earlier renderings of it as the portrait painted by Thomas More) would have seen him simultaneously as a "scourge of God," unleashed to punish England for her sins of the past. Prophetic Margaret reminds us over and over that had there not been strife in the kingdom prior to the advent of Richard, there would have been no ripe occasion for "this poisonous bunch-backed toad" to ascend the throne in the first instance. And as the play ends, an action that has drawn our attention again and again to the past looks optimistically to the future. "By God's fair ordinance," the "bloody dog is dead," and Richmond and Elizabeth (the forebears of Shakespeare's sovereign Elizabeth) are ushering in "smooth-faced peace, / With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days."
One other English history play is now commonly believed to have been written during Shakespeare's apprenticeship, though scholars differ about whether to date it in the early 1590s or (more probably, in the opinion of most) in the transition years 1594-1595. The earliest surviving text of King John is the version printed in the 1623 First Folio, and it offers a drama about a king of doubtful title whose reign (1199-1216) had been viewed in widely divergent ways. Medieval Catholics, focusing on King John's presumed complicity in the death of his nephew Arthur (whose claim to the throne was stronger than John's) and on his feud with Pope Innocent III (which had resulted in the King's excommunication before he finally capitulated five years later and "returned" his kingdom to the Church), had seen him as a usurper, a murderer, and a heretic. Sixteenth-century Protestants, on the other hand, had rehabilitated him as a proto-Tudor martyr and champion of English nationalism. In many respects, Shakespeare's own portrayal is closer to the medieval view of King John: he does away with any ambiguity about John's role in the removal of Arthur, for example, presents the saint like Arthur and his impassioned mother, Constance, as thoroughly engaging characters, and endows John with few if any sympathetic traits. At the same time, however, Shakespeare's King John continues to receive the loyalty of characters who are portrayed sympathetically—most notably the bastard son of Richard the Lionhearted, Philip Faulconbridge—and by the end of the play it seems evident that a higher cause, the good of England, is to take precedence over such lesser concerns as John's weak title, his execution of a potential rival, and his inadequacies as a leader. The Bastard, a political realist who seems quite Machiavellian at first—particularly in his analysis of the all-pervasiveness of "commodity" (self interest) in human affairs—eventually becomes a virtual emblem of patriotism. To him is given the concluding speech of King John, and it is frequently cited as Shakespeare's most eloquent summary of the moral implicit in all his early history plays:
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Naught shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true.
If Shakespeare's earliest efforts in the dramatization of history derived from his response to the political climate of his day, his first experiments in comedy seem to have evolved from his reading in school and from his familiarity with the plays of such predecessors on the English stage as John Lyly, George Peele, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe. Shakespeare's apprentice comedies are quite "inventive" in many respects, particularly in the degree to which they "overgo" the conventions and devices the young playwright drew upon. But because they have more precedent behind them than the English history plays, they strike us now as less stunningly "original"—though arguably more successfully executed—than the tetralogy on the Wars of the Roses.
Which of them came first we do not know, but most scholars incline toward The Comedy of Errors, a play so openly scaffolded upon Plautus's Menaechmi and Amphitruo (two farces that Shakespeare probably knew in Latin from his days in grammar school ) that one modern critic has summed it up as "a kind of diploma piece." Set, ostensibly, in the Mediterranean city familiar from St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, the play begins with a sentence on the life of a luckless Syracusan merchant, Aegeon, who has stumbled into Ephesus in search of his son Antipholus. After narrating a tale of woe that wins the sympathy of the Duke of Ephesus, Aegeon is given till five in the afternoon to come up with a seemingly impossible ransom for his breach of an arbitrary law against Syracusans. Meanwhile, unknown to Aegeon, the object of his search is in Ephesus too, having arrived only hours before him; Antipholus had set out some two years earlier to find a twin brother by the same name who was separated from the rest of the family in a stormy shipwreck more than twenty years in the past. By happy coincidence, the other Antipholus has long since settled in Ephesus, and so (without either's knowledge) has their mother, Aegeon's long-lost wife, Aemilia, who is now an abbess. To complicate matters further, both Antipholuses have slaves named Dromio, also twins long separated, and of course both sets of twins are indistinguishably appareled. Into this mix Shakespeare throws a goldsmith, a set of merchants, a courtesan, a wife and a sister-in-law for the Ephesian Antipholus, and a conjuring schoolmaster. The result is a swirling brew of misunderstandings, accusations, and identity crises—all leading, finally, to a series of revelations that reunite a family, save Aegeon's life, and bring order to a city that had begun to seem bewitched by sorcerers.
The Comedy of Errors reached print for the first time in the 1623 First Folio. We know that it was written prior to 28 December 1594, however, because there is record of a performance on that date at one of the four Inns of Court. Some scholars believe that the play was written for that holiday Gray's Inn presentation, but most tend to the view that it had been performed previously, possibly as early as 1589 but more likely in the years 1592-1594. Most critics now seem agreed, more over, that for all its farcical elements, the play is a comedy of some sophistication and depth, with a sensitivity to love that anticipates Shakespeare's great comedies later in the decade: when Luciana advises her sister Adriana about how she should treat her husband Antipholus, for example, she echoes Paul's exhortations on Christian marriage in Ephesians. And with its use of the devices of literary romance (the frame story of Aegeon comes from Apollonius of Tyre), The Comedy of Errors also looks forward to the wanderings, confusions of identity, and miraculous reunions so fundamental to the structure of "late plays" such as Pericles and The Tempest.
What may have been Shakespeare's next comedy has also been deprecated as farce, and it is frequently produced today with staging techniques that link it with the commedia del l'arte popular in Renaissance Italy. But for all its knockabout slapstick, The Taming of the Shrew is too penetrating in its psychology and too subtle in its handling of the nuances of courtship to be dismissed as a play deficient in feeling. Its main event is a battle of the sexes in which Petruchio, who has "come to wive it wealthily in Padua," takes on a dare no other potential suitor would even consider: to win both dowry and docility from a sharp-tongued shrew avoided as "Katherine the curst." Apparently recognizing that Katherine's willfulness is a product of the favoritism her father has long bestowed upon her younger sister, and having the further good sense to realize that the fiery Kate is capable of becoming a much more attractive wife than the much-sought-after but rather devious Bianca, Petruchio mounts a brilliant campaign to gain Kate's love and make her his. First, he insists that Kate is fair and gentle, notwithstanding all her efforts to disabuse him of that notion. Second, he "kills her in her own humour," with a display of arbitrary behavior—tantrums, scoldings, peremptory refusals—that both wears her down and shows her how unpleasant shrewishness can be. At the end of the play Petruchio shocks his skeptical fellow husbands by wagering that his bride will prove more obedient than theirs. When Kate not only heeds his commands but reproaches her sister and the other wives for "sullen, sour" rebellion against their husbands, it becomes manifest that Petruchio has succeeded in his quest: Kate freely and joyfully acknowledges him to be her "loving lord." If we have doubts about whether Kate's transformation can be accepted as a "happy ending" today—and alterations of the final scene in many recent productions would suggest that it may be too offensive to current sensibilities to be played straight—we should perhaps ask ourselves whether the Kate who seems to wink conspiratorially at Petruchio as she puts her hands beneath his foot to win a marital wager is any less spirited or fulfilled a woman than the Kate who drives all her would-be wooers away in the play's opening scene.
Whether or not The Taming of the Shrew is the mysterious referred to by Francis Meres in 1598, it seems to have been written in the early 1590s, because what is now generally believed to be a bad quarto of it appeared in 1594. The Taming of a Shrew differs significantly from the version of Shakespeare's play that was first published in the 1623 Folio—most notably in the fact that the drunken tinker Christopher Sly, who appears only in the induction to the later printing of the play, remains on stage throughout The Taming of a Shrew, repeatedly interrupting the action of what is presented as a play for his entertainment and resolving at the end to go off and try Petruchio's wife-taming techniques on his own recalcitrant woman. Some directors retain the later Sly scenes, but no one seriously questions that the Folio text is in general the more authoritative of the two versions of the play.
The Folio provides the only surviving text of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a comedy so tentative in its dramaturgy (for example, its ineptitude in the few scenes where the playwright attempts to manage more than two characters on the stage at once), and so awkward in its efforts to pit the claims of love and friendship against each other, that many scholars now think it to be the first play Shakespeare ever wrote. Based largely on a 1542 chivalric romance (Diana Enamorada) by Portuguese writer Jorge de Montemayor, The Two Gentlemen of Verona depicts a potential rivalry between two friends—Valentine and Proteus—who fall in love with the same Milanese woman (Silvia) despite the fact that Proteus has vowed his devotion to a woman (Julia) back home in Verona. Proteus engineers Valentine's banishment from Milan so that he can woo Silvia away from him. But Silvia remains faithful to Valentine, just as Julia (who has followed her loved one disguised as his page) holds true to Proteus, notwithstanding the character he discloses as a man who lives up to his name. In the concluding forest scene Valentine intervenes to save Silvia from being raped by Proteus; but, when Proteus exhibits remorse, Valentine offers him Silvia anyway, as a token of friendship restored. Fortunately, circumstances conspire to forestall such an unhappy consummation, and the play ends with the two couples properly reunited.
Unlike The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona has never been popular in the theater, even though it offers two resourceful women (whose promise will be fulfilled more amply in such later heroines as Rosalind and Viola), a pair of amusing clowns (Launce and Speed), and one of the most engaging dogs (Crab) who ever stole a stage. In its mixture of prose and verse, nevertheless, and in its suggestion that the the "green world" of the woods is where pretensions fall and would-be evildoers find their truer selves, The Two Gentlemen of Verona looks forward to the first fruits of Shakespeare's maturity: the "romantic comedies" of which it proves to be a prototype.
The one remaining play that most critics now locate in the period known as Shakespeare's apprenticeship is a Grand Guignol melodrama that seems to have been the young playwright's attempt to outdo Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy (produced circa 1589) in its exploitation of the horrors of madness and revenge. The composition of Titus Andronicus is usually dated 1590-1592, and it seems to have been drawn from a ballad and History of Titus Andronicus, it is clear that he also went to Ovid's Metamorphoses (for the account of Tereus's rape of Philomena, to which the tongueless Lavinia points to explain what has been done to her) and to Seneca's Thyestes (for Titus's fiendish revenge on Tamora and her sons at the end of the play).
Although Titus Andronicus is not a "history play," it does make an effort to evoke the social and political climate of fourth-century Rome; and in its depiction of a stern general who has just sacrificed more than twenty of his own sons to conquer the Goths, it anticipates certain characteristics of Shakespeare's later "Roman plays": Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. But it is primarily as an antecedent of Hamlet (influenced, perhaps, by the so-called lost Ur-Hamlet) that Titus holds interest for us today. Because whatever else it is, Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's first experiment with revenge tragedy. Its primary focus is the title character, whose political misjudgments and fiery temper put him at the mercy of the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, and her two sons (Demetrius and Chirom). They ravish and mutilate Titus's daughter Lavinia, manipulate the Emperor into executing two of Titus's sons (Martius and Quintus) as perpetrators of the crime, and get Titus's third son (Lucius) banished for trying to rescue his brothers. Along the way, Tamora's Moorish lover Aaron tricks Titus into having his right hand chopped off in a futile gesture to save Martius and Lucius. After Lavinia writes the names of her assailants in the sand with her grotesque stumps, Titus works out a plan for revenge: he slits the throats of Demetrius and Chiron, invites Tamora to a banquet, and serves her the flesh of her sons baked in a pie. He then kills Tamora and dies at the hands of Emperor Saturninus. At this point Lucius returns heading a Gothic army and takes over as the new Emperor, condemning Aaron to be half-buried and left to starve and throwing Tamora's corpse to the scavenging birds and beasts.
As Fredson Bowers has pointed out, Titus Andronicus incorporates a number of devices characteristic of other revenge tragedies: the protagonist's feigned madness, his delay in the execution of his purpose, his awareness that in seeking vengeance he is taking on a judicial function that properly rests in God's hands, and his death at the end in a bloody holocaust that leaves the throne open for seizure by the first opportunist to arrive upon the scene.
Revenge is also a significant motif in Shakespeare's other early tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, usually dated around 1595-1596. It is a blood feud between their two Veronan families that forces the lovers to woo and wed in secret, thereby creating the misunderstanding that leads Mercutio to defend Romeo's "honor" in act three when the just-married protagonist declines his new kinsman Tybalt's challenge to duel. And it is both to avenge Mercutio's death and to restore his own now-sullied name that Romeo then slays Tybalt and becomes "fortune's fool"—initiating a falling action that leads eventually to a pair of suicides and a belated recognition by the Capulets and the Montagues that their children have become "poor sacrifices of our enmity."
But it is not for its revenge elements that most of us remember Romeo and Juliet. No, it is for the lyricism with which Shakespeare portrays the beauty and idealism of love at first sight—all the more transcendent for the ways in which the playwright sets it off from the calculations of Juliet's parents (intent on arranging their daughter's marriage to advance their own status) or contrasts it with the earthy bawdiness, of Juliet's Nurse or the worldly-wise cynicism of Romeo's friend Mercutio. The spontaneous sonnet of Romeo and Juliet's initial meeting at Capulet's ball, their betrothal vows in the balcony scene later that evening, the ominous parting that concludes their one night together and foreshadows their final meeting in the Capulet tomb—these are the moments we carry with us from a performance or a reading of what may well be history's most famous love story.
Romeo and Juliet may strike us as an "early" tragedy in its formal versification and in its patterned structure. It has been faulted for its dependence on coincidence and on causes external to the protagonists for the conditions that bring about the tragic outcome—an emphasis implicit in the play's repeated references to Fortune and the stars. And critics have encountered difficulty in their attempts to reconcile the purity of Romeo and Juliet's devotion to each other ("for earth too dear") with the play's equal insistence that their relationship is a form of idolatry—ultimately leading both lovers to acts of desperation that audiences in Shakespeare's time would have considered far more consequential than do most modern audiences. But whatever its supposed limitations and interpretive problems, Romeo and Juliet seems likely to hold its position as one of the classics of the dramatic repertory.
Romeo and Juliet first appeared in a 1597 quarto edition that most scholars believe to be a memorial reconstruction, though one with isolated passages (such as Mercutio's celebrated Queen Mab speech) printed in a form that some scholars believe superior to their rendering in the text today's editors accept as the best authority: the 1599 second quarto, "newly corrected, augmented, and amended," and apparently derived primarily from Shakespeare's own "foul papers." Two more printings appeared before the 1623 Folio, whose text—essentially a reprint of the third quarto edition (1609)—has no independent authority. The principal source for the play was a 1562 narrative, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, by Arthur Brooke, a didactic poem urging children to be obedient to their parents. By telescoping three months into four days and by dramatizing the story in a manner more sympathetic to the young lovers, Shakespeare transformed a sermon into a tragedy whose urgency must have been just as moving in the Elizabethan theater as we know it to be in our own.
If Romeo and Juliet is a play that has lost none of its freshness in the four centuries since its first appearance, Love's Labor's Lost now strikes us as so thoroughly "Elizabethan" in its rhetoric and topicality as to be nearly inaccessible to modern audiences. Evidently another product of the "transition years" when Shakespeare was working his way back into the theater after a two-year hiatus due to the plague, Love's Labor's Lost appears to have been written in 1594-1595 for private performance and may well have been revised in 1597 for a performance before the Queen during the Christmas revels. Its earliest known printing was a 1598 quarto announcing itself as "newly corrected and augmented" and probably set from Shakespeare's "foul papers." The Folio text was essentially a reprint of this first quarto, which has the distinction of being the first play to bear Shakespeare's name on its title page. Until recently no literary source had been found for the plot of Love's Labor's Lost, but Glynne Wickham has now turned up a 1581 analogue, The Four Foster Children of Desire, that helps account for much of the play's structure and several of its themes.
What emerges for a theatergoer or reader of the play today is a highly "artificial" comedy about a company of men whose well-intended but ill-conceived attempt to outwit nature makes them all look foolish and lands them in a pickle. No sooner have King Ferdinand of Navarre and his friends Longaville, Dumaine, and Berowne—hoping to conquer the frailties of the flesh and find an antidote to "cormorant devouring time"forsworn the company of women and withdrawn to their quasi-monastic Academe than they find their fortress besieged by four beautiful ladies—the Princess of France and her attendants Maria, Katherine, and Rosaline—who camp in the park outside and watch with amusement as each of the "scholars" falls in love, forsakes his vows, and gets caught by the others. Eventually the men surrender and propose marriage, but by this time it has become clear that they are so far gone in artifice that they need at least a year of penance—and time in real-world settings such as the hospital to which Berowne is consigned—before their protestations of devotion can be given any credit. Love's labor is "lost," then, in the sense that this is a comedy without the traditional happy consummation in wedding, feasting, and dancing. Its concluding lyrics move from spring ("When daisies pied") to winter ("When icicles hang"), and the year of penance to come is one that requires all of the men to reevaluate their aspirations with a renewed awareness of the omnipresence of disease and the inevitability of death.
Love's Labor's Lost is one of Shakespeare's most self-conscious plays generically, and it is also one of his most demanding plays linguistically. Much is made of the "literary" artifice of the four men's rhetoric, and it is shown to be detrimental to normal human feeling. It is also shown to be an infection that touches such lesser characters as the bombastic braggart soldier Don Adriano de Armado, the pedant schoolmaster Holofernes, and the clown Costard, all of whom, like the poor curate Nathaniel in the Pageant of the Nine Worthies, prove 'a little o'erparted." It is one of the ironies of the play that the four major male characters, who laugh so cruelly at the participants in the pageant, also prove "o'erparted" in the end. Such are the wages of affectation.
Affectation of another kind is depicted in a delightful scene from what many regard as Shakespeare's most charming comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream. As the Athenian courtiers are quick to observe in their critiques of the "tragical mirth" of Pyramus and Thisby in V.i, the "mechanicals" who display their dramatic wares at the nuptial feast of Theseus and Hippolyta are even more fundamentally "o'erparted" than the hapless supernumeraries of Love's Labor's Lost. But there is something deeply affectionate about Shakespeare's portrayal of the affectations of Bottom and his earnest company of "hempen homespuns," and the "simpleness and duty" with which they tender their devotion is the playwright's way of reminding us that out of the mouths of babes and fools can sometimes issue a loving wisdom that "hath no bottom." Like "Bottom's Dream," the playlet brings a refreshingly naive perspective to issues addressed more seriously elsewhere. And, by burlesquing the struggles and conflicts through which the lovers in the woods circumvent the arbitrariness of their elders, "Pyramus and Thisby" comments not only upon the fortunes of Demetrius and Helena, Lysander and Hermia, but also upon the misfortunes of Romeo and Juliet. After all, both stories derive ultimately from the same source in Ovid's Metamorphoses and Shakespeare's parallel renderings of the "course of true love" in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream are so closely linked in time and treatment that it is tempting to regard the two plays as companion pieces—tragic and comic masks, as it were, for the same phase (1595-1596) of Shakespearean dramaturgy.
Whether or not A Midsummer Night's Dream was commissioned for a wedding ceremony at Whitehall, as some scholars have speculated, the play is in fact a remarkable welding of disparate materials: the fairy lore of Oberon and Titania and their impish minister Puck, the classical narrative of Theseus's conquest of the Amazons and their queen Hippolyta, the confused comings and goings of the young Athenian lovers who must flee to the woods to evade their tyrannical parents, and the rehearsals for a crude craft play by a band of well-meaning peasants. It is in some ways the most original work in the entire Shakespearean canon, and one is anything but surprised that its "something of great constancy" has inspired the best efforts of such later artists as composer Felix Mendelssohn, painters Henry Fuseli and William Blake, director Peter Brook, and filmmakers Max Reinhardt and Woody Allen.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is in many respects the epitome of "festive comedy," an evocation of the folk rituals associated with such occasions as May Day and Midsummer Eve, and its final mood is one of unalloyed romantic fulfillment. Romance is also a key ingredient in the concluding arias of Shakespeare's next comedy, The Merchant of Venice, where Bassanio and Portia, Lorenzo and Jessica, and Gratiano and Nerissa celebrate the happy consummation of three love quests and contemplate the music of the spheres from a magical estate known symbolically as Belmont. But the "sweet harmony" the lovers have achieved by the end of The Merchant of Venice has been purchased very dearly, and it is hard for a modern audience to accept the serenity of Belmont without at least a twinge of guilt over what has happened in far-off Venice to bring it about.
Whether The Merchant of Venice is best categorized as an anti-Semitic play (capitalizing on prejudices that contemporaries such as Marlowe had catered to in plays like The Jew of Malta) or as a play about the evils of anti-Semitism (as critical of the Christian society that has persecuted the Jew as it is of the vengeance he vents in response), its central trial scene is profoundly disturbing for an audience that has difficulty viewing Shylock's forced conversion as a manifestation of mercy. Shylock's "hath not a Jew eyes" speech impels us to see him as a fellow human being—notwithstanding the rapacious demand for "justice" that all but yields him Antonio's life before Portia's clever manipulations of the law strip the usurer of his own life's fortune—so that even if we feel that the Jew's punishment is less severe than what strict "justice" might have meted out to him, his grim exit nevertheless casts a pall over the festivities of the final act in Belmont.
By contrast with A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play in which the disparate components of the action are resolved in a brilliantly satisfying synthesis, The Merchant of Venice remains, for many of us, a prototype of those later Shakespearean works that twentieth-century critics have labeled "problem comedies." Even its fairy-tale elements, such as the casket scenes in which three would-be husbands try to divine the "will" of Portia's father, seem discordant to a modern audience that is asked to admire a heroine who dismisses one of her suitors with a slur on his Moroccan "complexion." Though it seems to have been written in late 1596 or early 1597 and, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, was first published in a good quarto in 1600, The Merchant of Venice feels closer in mood to Measure for Measure—which also pivots on a conflict between justice and mercy—than to most of the other "romantic comedies" of the mid to late 1590s.
But if The Merchant of Venice strikes us now as a play that looks forward to a later phase of Shakespearean dramaturgy, the plays he worked on next were a return to his beginnings. Possibly as early as 1595, and certainly no later than 1597, Shakespeare began a fresh exploration of the "matter" of English history with a play focusing on the events that precipitated the Wars of the Roses. It is impossible to say whether Shakespeare knew, when he began composing Richard II, that he would go on to write the two parts of Henry IV and the drama on Henry V that would furnish the link between Richard II and the Henry VI trilogy with which he had begun his career as a playwright. But complete the cycle he did, and the four English history plays Shakespeare wrote between 1595 and 1599 were even more impressive in their epic sweep than the four plays he had completed prior to the theatrical hiatus of 1593-1594.
Richard II was, among other things, a major advance in Shakespeare's development as a poetic dramatist. Not only does the play contain the dying John of Gaunt's paean to "This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,... This other Eden, demi-paradise," it also affords us a telling contrast between the laconic bluntness of Henry Bolingbroke, a man of action who is not quick to speak, and the self-indulgent lyricism of Richard II, a man of words who is, finally and fatally, not quick to act.
At the beginning of the play Richard's security in his presumption that God's deputy is above the law leads him to disregard the principles of primogeniture that are the basis of the King's own position as head of state. He disregards the counsel of his elders, seizes the estates of John of Gaunt and other nobles, banishes in Bolingbroke a former ally who has maintained a discreet silence about crimes that would taint the monarch himself, and sets in motion the rebellion that will eventually render his throne untenable. By the climax of the play Richard is forced to surrender his crown in a deposition scene that neatly counterpoises the declining King's complicity for his own downfall with the rising King's usurpation of a throne to which he has no legitimate title. And by the end of the play Richard's pastoral musings in the Tower transform him into a quasi-martyr whose meditations on "the death of kings" are as deeply moving as anything that Shakespeare had written up to this point in his career. As Richard prophesies, his murder at the hands of Henry IV's henchmen releases a tide of bloodshed that will not be stemmed until another legitimate monarch ascends the throne nearly a century in the future.
When Richard II was published in a good quarto in 1597 it lacked the crucial deposition scene, owing almost certainly to the censor's awareness that it would seem threatening to the aging Queen Elizabeth. That such apprehensions were justified was borne out four years later when the play was performed on the eve of the abortive rebellion of the Earl of Essex. The deposition scene's first appearance in print was in the fourth quarto of 1608.
As with the earlier English history plays, Richard II and the three Henry plays that followed derived in large measure from the 1587 second edition of Holinshed's Chronicles. But in all probability, they were also influenced by, and possibly even inspired by, the 1595 publication of Samuel Daniel's Civil Wars. In any event, it seems more likely that within a year of the completion of Richard IIShakespeare began work on its sequel, the first part of Henry IV. Taken together, parts I and 2 of Henry IV focus our attention on the immediate consequences of Henry Bolingbroke's usurpation of the crown. The first consequence is signaled by the opening lines of the first part, where the new King, "shaken" and "wan with care," announces his desire to lead a crusade to the Holy Land, both as a means of expiating his guilt and as a means of unifying a "giddy minded" nation that is now divided into warring factions. Unfortunately, rest is not to be attained by this tainted monarch. His claim to the throne is immediately challenged by his former allies, the Percies, and thereafter his reign is disturbed by one threat after another. The King does eventually arrive at "Jerusalem" near the end of Henry IV, part 2, but ironically this destination turns out to be a room in the castle, and the setting for his deathbed scene, rather than the city he had hoped to wrest from pagan occupation at the birthplace of Christendom.
The price that Henry IV pays for his usurpation turns out to be a nagging consciousness that "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown." And as significant as any other cause of the King's uneasiness is his fear that God has chosen to punish him with a wayward son whose "loose behavior" will forfeit the throne his father has expended so much anguish to mount and maintain. For all the King and his rivals can tell, the "nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales" is squandering his royal inheritance in the dissolute company of "that villainous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff," and a low-life lot of tavern keepers, thieves, and prostitutes. But as we learn early in Henry IV, part 1, Prince Hal is actually "redeeming time" in ways that surpass the political sagacity of even so Machiavellian a ruler as his father. Hal is acquiring firsthand knowledge of his nation's ordinary citizens, and the benefit he anticipates is that once he is King of England he will be able to "command all the good lads in Eastcheap." As he prepares himself for the military trials with which he must be tested, moreover, he does so in the awareness that once he throws off the "base contagious clouds" that "smother up his beauty from the world," he will emerge as England's true "sun." rather than the flawed monarch he knows his father to be.
And so he does. In the battle of Shrewsbury at the end of Henry IV, part 1, the valiant Hal defeats the fiery warrior the King would have preferred for a son. By winning Hotspur's honors, Hal finally earns, at least for a moment, the respect and gratitude of a father whose life and kingdom he has saved. But it is not enough for Hal to have demonstrated the courage and prudence required of an heir apparent. In part 2 Shakespeare has him back at the Boar's Head tavern once again, and it is only after he has demonstrated the remaining kingly virtues of temperance and justice—by casting off the influence of Falstaff and claiming as his second surrogate father the Lord Chief Justice—that Hal is finally granted the crown for which he has been so thoroughly educated.
His epic reaches its apogee in Henry V, a play described by its Chorus as a pageant in honor of "the mirror of all Christian kings." Whether or not we are to feel that the new King has dismissed some of his humanity in his rejection of the "old fat man" at his coronation, and whether or not we are to regard with suspicion the ambiguous "Salic Law" that the Bishops invoke to justify the King's invasion of France, and whether or not we are to see the King as cruel in his threat to allow the maidens and children of Harfleur to be raped and slaughtered if the town refuses to surrender, the dominant impression that Henry V has made on most readers and producers is one of heroic celebration. The King proves firm and resourceful in battle, mingling with his men in disguise on the eve of the engagement and exhorting them to noble valor in his famous St. Crispin's Day address. And once his "happy few," his "band of brothers," have triumphed against all odds and won the day, the King gives the glory to God. He thus illustrates those qualities of the nurturing mother pelican—piety, self-sacrifice, humility, and magnanimity—that "Christian kings" were to display in addition to the monarchial attributes that Machiavelli and other political theorists had long associated with the lion and the fox. And in his wooing of his French bride, Katherine, at the end of the play, the King also exhibits the wit and charm that had endeared the historical Henry V to his admiring countrymen.
It is possible that the "wooden O" referred to in the Chorus's opening prologue was the Globe, newly opened on Bankside in 1599, and hence that Henry V was one of the first, if not the first, of Shakespeare's plays to be performed in that now-famous playhouse. Be that as it may, the play was probably completed in 1599, a year after Henry IV, part 2, and two years after Henry IV, part 1. All three plays had made their first appearances in print by 1600, the two parts of Henry IV in good quartos and Henry V in a bad quarto. The first reliable text of Henry V was that published in the First Folio in 1623.
The first good text of a related play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, also appeared in the Folio, but it too was initially published in a bad quarto, this one a memorial reconstruction dated 1602. Just when Merry Wives was written, and why, has been vigorously debated for decades. According to one legend, no doubt apocryphal but not totally lacking in plausibility, Shakespeare was commissioned to write the play because the Queen wanted to see Falstaff in love. If so, it seems likely that the play was also produced as an occasional piece in honor of the award of the Order of the Carter to Lord Hunsdon, the patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, on 23 April 1597. There are references to a Garter ceremony at Windsor Castle in act five of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Leslie Hotson has argued that even though the play may well have been performed later at the Globe, its first presentation was before Queen Elizabeth and Lord Hunsdon at Windsor on St. George's Day 1597.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is unique among Shakespeare's comedies in having an English town for its setting. Its bourgeois characters have delighted audiences not only in the playhouse but also on the operatic stage, in what many critics consider the most successful of Verdi's numerous achievements in Shakespearean opera. Despite its obvious charms, however, the play has never been a favorite among Shakespeare's readers and literary interpreters. The reason is that the Falstaff we see in The Merry Wives of Windsor is a Falstaff largely lacking in the vitality and appeal of the character we come to love in the first part of Henry IV. Without Prince Hal and the wit combats afforded by his jokes at Falstaff's expense, the Falstaff of Merry Wives is merely conniving and crude. We may laugh at the comeuppances he receives at the hands of the merry wives he tries to seduce—the buck-basket baptism he gets as his reward for the first encounter, the beatings and pinchings he suffers in his later encounters—but we see nothing of the inventiveness that makes Falstaff such a supreme escape artist in part I of Henry IV. So attenuated is the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor that many interpreters have argued that it is simply a mistake to approach him as the same character. In any case, we never see him in love. His is a profit motive without honor, and it is much more difficult for us to feel any pity for his plight in Merry Wives than it is in the three Henry plays that depict the pratfalls and decline of the young heir-apparent's genial lord of misrule.
The play does have the clever Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. And in the jealous Master Ford and the tyrannical Master Page it also has a pair of comic gulls whose sufferings can be amusing in the theater. But it is doubtful that The Merry Wives of Windsor will ever be among our favorite Shakespearean comedies, particularly when we examine it alongside such contemporary achievements as Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It.
Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It were probably written in late 1598 and 1599, respectively, with the former first published in a good quarto in 1600 and the latter making its initial appearance in the 1623 First Folio. Both are mature romantic comedies, and both have enjoyed considerable success in the theater.
"Nothing" is a word of potent ambiguity in Shakespeare (the playwright was later to explore its potential most profoundly in the "nothing will come of nothing" that constitutes the essence of King Lear), and in Much Ado About Nothing its implications include the possibilities inherent in the wordplay on the Elizabethan homonym "noting." Through the machinations of the surly Don John, who gulls the superficial Claudio into believing that he "notes" his betrothed Hero in the act of giving herself to another lover, an innocent girl is rejected at the altar by a young man who believes himself to have been dishonored. Fortunately, Don John and his companions have themselves been noted by the most incompetent watch who ever policed a city; and, despite their asinine constable, Dogberry, these well-meaning but clownish servants of the Governor of Messina succeed in bringing the crafty villains to justice. In doing so, they set in motion a process whereby Hero's chastity is eventually vindicated and she reappears as if resurrected from the grave. Meanwhile, another pair of "notings" have been staged by the friends of Benedick and Beatrice, with the result that these two sarcastic enemies to love and to each other are each tricked into believing that the other is secretly in love. At least as much ado is made of Benedick and Beatrice's notings as of the others, and by the time the play ends these acerbic critics of amorous folly, grudgingly acknowledging that "the world must be Peopled," have been brought to the altar with Claudio and Hero for a double wedding that concludes the play with feasting and merriment.
Shakespeare could have drawn from a number of antecedents for the story of Hero and Claudio, among them cantos from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and Spenser's Faerie Queene. But the nearest thing to a "source" for Beatrice and Benedick may well have been his own The Taming of the Shrew, where another pair of unconventional would-be lovers struggle their way to a relationship that is all the more vital for the aggressive resistance that has to be channeled into harmony to bring it about. In any event, if there is some doubt about where Benedick and Beatrice came from, there is no doubt about the direction in which they point—to such gallant and witty Restoration lovers as Mirabell and Millamant in William Congreve's The Way of the World.
With As You Like ItShakespeare achieved what many commentators consider to be the finest exemplar of a mode of romantic comedy based on escape to and return from what Northrop Frye has termed the "green world." As in A Midsummer Night's Dream (where the young lovers flee to the woods to evade an Athens ruled by the edicts of tyrannical fathers) and The Merchant of Venice (where Belmont serves as the antidote to all the venom that threatens life in Venice), in As You Like It the well-disposed characters who find themselves in the Forest of Arden think of it as an environment where even "adversity" is "sweet" and restorative.
Duke Senior has been banished from his dukedom by a usurping younger brother, Duke Frederick. As the play opens, Duke Senior and his party are joined by Orlando and his aged servant Adam (who are running away from Orlando's cruel older brother Oliver), and later they in turn are joined by Duke Senior's daughter Rosalind and her cousin Celia (who have come to the forest, disguised as men, because the wicked Duke Frederick can no longer bear to have Rosalind in his daughter's company at court). The scenes in the forest are punctuated by a number of reflections on the relative merits of courtly pomp and pastoral simplicity, with the cynical Touchstone and the melancholy Jaques countering any sentimental suggestion that the Forest of Arden is a "golden world" of Edenic perfection, and her sojourn in the forest allows the wise and witty Rosalind to use male disguise as a means of testing the affections of her lovesick wooer Orlando. Eventually Orlando proves a worthy match for Rosalind, in large measure because he shows himself to be his brother's keeper. By driving off a lioness poised to devour the sleeping Oliver, Orlando incurs a wound that prevents him from appearing for an appointment with the disguised Rosalind; but his act of unmerited self-sacrifice transforms his brother into a "new man" who arrives on the scene in Orlando's stead and eventually proves a suitable match for Celia. Meanwhile, as the play nears its end, we learn that a visit to the forest has had a similarly regenerative effect on Duke Frederick, who enters a monastery and returns the dukedom to its rightful ruler, Duke Senior.
As You Like It derives in large measure from Thomas Lodge's romance Rosalynde or Euphues' Golden Legacy, a prose classic dating from 1590. But in his treatment of the "strange events" that draw the play to a conclusion presided over by Hymen, the god of marriage, Shakespeare hints at the kind of miraculous transformation that will be given major emphasis in the late romances.
The last of the great romantic comedies of Shakespeare's mid career, probably composed and performed in 1601 though not published until the 1623 First Folio, was Twelfth Night. Possibly based, in part, on an Italian comedy of the 1530s called Gl'lngannati, Twelfth Night is another play with implicit theological overtones. Its title comes from the name traditionally associated with the Feast of Epiphany (6 January, the twelfth day of the Christmas season), and much of its roistering would have seemed appropriate to an occasion when Folly was allowed to reign supreme under the guise of a Feast of Fools presided over by a Lord of Misrule. In Shakespeare's play, the character who represents Misrule is Sir Toby Belch, the carousing uncle of a humorless countess named Olivia. Together with such companions as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the jester Feste, and a clever gentlewoman named Maria, Sir Toby makes life difficult not only for Olivia but also for her puritan steward Malvolio, whose name means "bad will" and whose function in the play, ultimately, is to be ostracized so that "good will" may prevail. In what many consider to be the most hilarious gulling scene in all of Shakespeare, Malvolio is tricked into thinking that his Lady is in love with him and persuaded to wear cross-gartered yellow stockings in her presence—attire that he believes will allure her, but attire that persuades her instead that he is deranged. The "treatment" that follows is a mock exercise in exorcism, and when Malvolio is finally released from his tormentors at the end of the play, he exits vowing revenge "on the whole pack" of them.
As with the dismissal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, the punishment of Malvolio's presumption in Twelfth Night has seemed too harsh to many modern viewers and readers. But that should not prevent us from seeing that Twelfth Night is also a play about other forms of self-indulgence (Count Orsino's infatuation with the pose of a courtly lover, and Olivia's excessively long period of mourning for her deceased brother) and the means by which characters "sick of self-love" or self-deception are eventually restored to mental and emotional sanity. Through the ministrations of the wise fool, Feste, and the providential Viola, who arrives in Illyria after a shipwreck in which she mistakenly believes her brother Sebastian to have died, we witness a sequence of coincidences and interventions that seems too nearly miraculous to have been brought about by blind chance. By taking another series of potentially tragic situations and turning them to comic ends, Shakespeare reminds us once again that harmony and romantic fulfillment are at the root of what Northrop Frye calls the "argument of comedy."
If Shakespeare's middle years are notable for sophisticated achievements in the genre we now refer to as romantic comedy, they are equally notable for the playwright's unprecedented strides in the development of two other genres: tragedy and tragicomedy. In 1599, probably at the Globe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men offered the earliest recorded performance of Julius Caesar (the first of three mature tragedies, now grouped as "the Roman Plays," which all saw print for the first time in the 1623 Folio). Two years later, in late 1600 or early 1601, the company probably added to its repertory Hamlet (a play whose immediate and sustained popularity was attested to by its 1603 publication in an unauthorized bad quarto, succeeded a year later by a good quarto that most textual scholars still rely upon for all but a few passages, in preference to the slightly revised text in the 1623 Folio, which was set principally from a copy of the prompt-book). Then in late 1601 or early 1602—once again drawing on the "classical" matter that had been the basis for the action of Julius Caesar and for many of the allusions in Hamlet— Shakespeare completed Troilus and Cressida, a play so uncompromisingly "intellectual" in its insistence that the audience "by indirections find directions out" that critics from the seventeenth century to the present have found it all but impossible to classify. If Troilus and Cressida is a comedy, as the epistle prefacing the 1609 First Quarto would indicate, it is at best a specimen of black humor very different in tone and treatment from Shakespeare's other efforts in tragicomedy. If it is a tragedy, as its equivocal placement (occupying a no-man's-land between the Histories and the Tragedies) in the First Folio has led some scholars to argue, it is unique to the genre in the way its language and action undercut the dignity of its heroic protagonists. Troilus and Cressida was followed, in 1602-1603 and 1604 respectively, by two other plays, again ambiguous in tone, that are also frequently discussed today as "problem plays." All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure (both of which made their initial appearances in print in the First Folio) are tragicomedies that turn on "bed tricks," and in their preoccupation with the seamier aspects of sexuality they can be viewed as links between Hamlet, the first of Shakespeare's great tragedies," and Othello, the second (which seems to have been composed in 1604, when there is a record of performance at Court).
Julius Caesar—a play that may owe something to sources as seemingly remote as St. Augustine's City of God and Erasmus's Praise of Folly in addition to such obvious classical antecedents as Plutarch's Lives and Tacitus's Annals—is now regarded as a dramatic work of considerable complexity. On the one hand, the play captures with remarkable fidelity the ethos and rhetorical style of late-republican Rome—so much so, indeed, that it may be said that Shakespeare's portraits of Caesar and his contemporaries have largely formed our own impressions of how the ancient Romans thought and talked and conducted their civic affairs. Recent studies of the play's references to "philosophy" indicate, moreover, that Shakespeare knew a good deal about Roman Stoicism and perceived it as one of the characterizing traits that differentiated Brutus from Cassius, an Epicurean continually nonplussed by his companion's mental rigidity and emotional aloofness.
But if Shakespeare brought to his dramatic art a historical imagination capable of reconstructing a self-consistent Roman world—and one that was distinct in significant ways from his own Elizabethan England—he was also capable of embodying in his representation of that world a perspective that amounted, in effect, to a Renaissance humanist critique of pre-Christian civilization. Thus it was quite possible for Shakespeare to portray the conspirators and their cause, as it were, "sympathetically"—so much so, indeed, that a twentieth-century audience, unwittingly misreading the play, finds it almost impossible not to hear in such exclamations as "peace, freedom, and liberty!" the precursors of America's own founding fathers. At the same time, however, Shakespeare would have known that he could rely on his Elizabethan contemporaries to regard as foredoomed any attempt to achieve social harmony through what they would have seen on the stage as bloody butchery and regicide. By the same token, of course, Shakespeare could encourage his audience to "identify" with Brutus through participation in his soliloquies, while simultaneously assuming that alert members of that audience would recognize that Brutus's thought processes are often misguided and self-deceptive.
In the late 1930s Mark Van Doren observed that, whatever Brutus's positive qualities as a high-minded patriot, he tends to come across in the play as a self-righteous, almost pharisaical prig, particularly in the quarrel scene with Cassius. In recent years a number of scholars have confirmed the validity of Van Doren's perception by showing that it is consistent with the hypothesis that in his portrayal of Brutus Shakespeare was drawing on a widely held Christian tradition that regarded Stoicism as a philosophy that rendered its adherents hard-hearted, arrogant, and so assured of their own virtue as to be largely incapable of recognizing or repenting of their faults. If this reading of Brutus is closer to Shakespeare's intention than the more sentimental view that approaches everything in the play from the retrospective vantage-point of Mark Antony's eulogy for "the noblest Roman of them all," it tends to cast much of Julius Caesar in an ironic light—and by implication to require an audience alert to clues that are not always so self-evident as a twentieth-century reader or viewer might expect.
Such an audience seems called for by Hamlet as well, at least if we are going to take seriously Hamlet's admonition that the players address their performance to "the judicious," to those who are capable of viewing all the action, including that involving the most engaging of protagonists, with a critical eye. This is difficult for us, because we have long been accustomed to thinking of Hamlet as the "sweet prince" who epitomizes the ideal Renaissance courtier.
There is no danger, to be sure, that Hamlet will ever lose his appeal as an articulate and ardent existentialist—as the prototype of modern man in spiritual crisis. But recent critical studies and productions of the play have raised questions about the "matter" of Hamlet in Elizabethan terms that suggest a somewhat less admirable protagonist than most of us would like to believe the play presents. It is no longer universally assumed, for example, that the play within the play, by proving the Ghost "honest" in his testimony about Claudius's guilt, is sufficient to prove the Ghost "honest" in Hamlet's more fundamental sense. Enough evidence remains in the play to suggest that the Ghost may yet be a "devil" intent on "abusing" the melancholic Hamlet by exhorting him to the kind of vengeance that Elizabethan Christians believed to belong only to God or to his deputed magistrates. And Hamlet's disinclination to "try" the spirit earlier in the play is but one of many indications in the text that he fails to put to proper use what he elsewhere describes as "godlike reason." A close examination of many of Hamlet's reflective speeches, including his celebrated "To be nor not to be" soliloquy, will show that they serve functions similar to those of Brutus in Julius Caesar. By bringing the audience into the protragonist's confidence, they endear him to us and incline us to see everything and everyone else in the action through his eyes. But if we pay careful attention to the nuances of thought in these reflections, we will notice that many of them tend to be irrational—peppered with non sequiturs and disclosing the kind of emotional stress that renders a man prone to error.
A dispassionate scrutiny of the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will reveal that, however conventionally ambitious these young courtiers may be, they mean Hamlet well and are anything but the "adders fanged" that Hamlet regards them as having become. The play provides no evidence that they deserve the "sudden death, not shriving time allowed" that Hamlet gleefully bequeaths them; and it is arguable that Shakespeare expected his audience to feel that they should be "near Hamlet's conscience" when he assures Horatio that they are not. And near the end of the play, when Hamlet disregards the 'gaingiving" that warns him not to accept the 'wager" proffered by the treacherous Claudius—when he dismisses Horatio's prudence and disdains the kind of premonition that "would perhaps trouble a woman"—he allows himself to be seduced (and in a way that parallels Julius Caesar's being led to the Capitol) into a trap that means certain death. Far from being guided by providence, as his New Testament allusions would suggest at this point in the action, Hamlet is being lured by pride into an ambush that he might have avoided by heeding his "godlike reason." As Claudius had predicted, Hamlet shows himself to be "remiss."
None of which in any way diminishes the attractiveness of Hamlet's wit and fervor, or suggests that he is not infinitely to be preferred to the "mighty opposite" whose regicide and usurpation he puts to scourge. No, there is no doubt that Hamlet uncovers and "sets right" much that is "rotten in the state of Denmark." The only question is whether the play invites us to consider a set of "might have beens" that would have permitted us to approve of the protagonist even more unreservedly than we do. If the findings of recent commentators are to be credited, it would seem likely that our identification with Hamlet's cause should be qualified by an awareness that he did not completely find the way "rightly to be great."
"The whole argument is a whore and a cuckold." So the acid-tongued Thersites sums up the "matter of Troy" and the occasion of Troilus and Cressida. We may not wish to see our legendary forebears reduced so unceremoniously to the base matter of lust and dishonor, but there is little in the plot or dialogue of Shakespeare's play to cite in refutation. The Trojan War is in fact a conflict over the ravishingly beautiful but thoughtless Helen (the "whore" whom Paris has stolen away from the "cuckold" Menelaus), and one would have to search hard to find anything to admire in most of the principals who figure in the inconsequential council scenes, squalid intrigues, and interrupted combats that dominate the action. Because what Troilus and Cressida is largely "about" is a ludicrously unheroic siege to determine whether the Trojans return Helen to the Greeks or see their city fall in defense of a cause that even the greatest Trojan warrior considers unworthy of their "several honors."
As Hector points out, the Trojans can appeal to neither justice nor reason in support of their determination to keep Helen; the best that anyone can say of her is that, quite apart from what she may be in and of herself, "she is a theme of honor and renown, / A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds." But when we look for such deeds in the play, what we find on both sides are acts of questionable valor at best (as when Hector, having challenged the Greeks to find a combatant to uphold their honor as lovers, breaks off a hand-to-hand duel with Ajax on the grounds that they are cousins) and downright cowardice at worst (as when Achilles, having come upon Hector at a moment when he has removed his armor to rest, merely summons his Myrmidons to slaughter the champion of the Trojans). In the meantime we are treated to the voyeurism of Pandarus, an impotent and diseased bawd whose only pleasure in life is to serve as go-between for Troilus and Cressida, and the homoerotic indulgence of Achilles and Patroclus, who have withdrawn from combat because of a slight the prima donna Achilles thinks he has suffered at the hands of the Greek general, Agamemnon. Small wonder that Ulysses should observe that "degree is shak'd." And little wonder that director Jonathan Miller, in his 1982 BBC television production of Troilus and Cressida, hit upon M*A*S*H as the most apt twentieth-century analogue for a satiric seventeenth-century depiction of war as the triumph of unreason, ennui, and depravity.
There is, to be sure, some momentary relief in the scenes depicting the wooing of Troilus and Cressida. And when Cressida is eventually delivered back to the Greek camp at the request of her father, one feels that her surrender to Diomede is more a result of her feminine helplessness in a male-controlled world than a manifestation of some prior proclivity to infidelity. But despite the lyricism of Troilus and Cressida's lovemaking, and the agony both lovers feel upon parting, one emerges from this play moved less by the pathos of the love story than by Shakespeare's presentation of what T. S. Eliot, writing three centuries later about another literary work deriving ultimately from Homer, praised as a reflection of "the immense panamora of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." It may well be that Troilus and Cressida seemed just as "modern" and puzzling in the early seventeenth century as Joyce's Ulysses seemed when it appeared in the early twentieth.
Modern in another sense may be a good way to describe All's Well That Ends Well. After a long history of neglect, this tragicomedy has recently enjoyed a good deal of success in the theater and on television, and one of the explanations that have been given is that it features a heroine who, refusing to accept a preordained place in a hierarchical man's world, does what she has to do to win her own way.
Orphaned at an early age and reared as a waiting-gentlewoman to the elegant and sensitive Countess of Rossillion, Helena presumes to fall in love with the Countess's snobbish son Bertram. Using a cure she learned from her dead father, who had been a prominent physician, Helena saves the life of the ailing King of France, whereupon she is rewarded with marriage to the man of her choice among all the eligible bachelors in the land. She astonishes Bertram by selecting him. Reluctantly, Bertram consents to matrimony, but before the marriage can be consummated he leaves the country with his disreputable friend Parolles, telling Helena in a note that he will be hers only when she has fulfilled two presumably impossible conditions: won back the ring from his finger, and borne a child to him. Disguised as a pilgrim, Helena follows Bertram to Florence. There she substitutes herself for a woman named Diana, with whom Bertram has made an assignation. and satisfies the despicable Bertram's demands.
One of the "problems" that have troubled critics of All's Well That Ends Well is the device of the "bed trick." But we now know that Shakespeare had biblical precedent for such a plot (Genesis 35), and that it was associated in the Old Testament with providential intervention. Which may be of some value to us in dealing with the other major issues: why should Helena want so vain and selfish a man as Bertram in the first place, and how can we accept at face value his reformation at the end? If we suspend our disbelief enough to grant the fairy-tale premises of the plot (which derived from a story in Boccaccio's Decameron), we should be able to grant as well that in a providentially ordered world, the end may not only justify the means but sanctify them. And if the end that Helena has in view is not only to win Bertram but to make him "love her dearly ever, ever dearly," we must grant the playwright the final miracle of a Bertram who can be brought to see his evil ways for what they are and repent of them.
A similar miracle would seem to be the final cause of Measure for Measure. At the beginning of the play, Duke Vincentio, noting that he has been too lenient in his administration of the laws of Venice, appoints as deputy an icy-veined puritan named Angelo, whom he expects to be more severe for a season of much-needed civic discipline. Almost immediately upon the Duke's departure, Angelo finds himself confronted with a novitiate, Isabella, who, in pleading for the life of a brother condemned for fornification, unwittingly arouses the new deputy's lust. Angelo offers her an exchange: her brother's life for her chastity. Astonished by the deputy's disregard for both God's laws and man's, Isabella refuses. Later, as she tries to prepare Claudio for his execution and discovers that he is less shocked by the deputy's offer than his sister had been, Isabella upbraids him, too, as a reprobate.
At this point the Duke, who has been disguised as a friar, persuades Isabella to "accept" Angelo's offer on the understanding that his former betrothed, Mariana, will sleep with him instead. Once again the bed trick proves effectual and "providential." In the "trial" that takes place at the entrance to the city upon the Duke's return, Isabella accuses Angelo of having corrupted his office and executed her brother despite an agreement to spare him (an order of the deputy's that, unknown to Isabella, has been forestalled by the "friar"). But then, in response to Mariana's pleas for her assistance, she decides not to press her claim for justice and instead kneels before the Duke to beg that Angelo's life be spared. The Duke grants her request, and Angelo—illustrating Mariana's statement that "best men are molded out of faults"—repents and accepts the Duke's mercy.
Measure for Measure qualifies as a tragicomedy because the questions it raises are serious (how to balance law and grace, justice and mercy, in human society) and the issue (whether or not Angelo will be executed for his evil intentions with respect to Claudio) is in doubt until the moment when, by kneeling beside Mariana, Isabella prevents what might have been a kind of revenge tragedy. (The Duke tells Mariana, "Against all sense you do importune her / Should she kneel down in mercy of this fact, / Her brother's ghost his paved bed would break, / And take her hence in horror.") In Shakespearean comedy, of course, all's well that ends well. Revenge gives way to forgiveness or repentance, and characters who might have died in self-deception or guilt are given a second chance. As for Isabella, she too gains insight and sensitivity as a consequence of her trials, and at the conclusion of the play she finds herself the recipient of a marriage proposal from her previously disguised counselor, the Duke. Whether she accepts it, and if so how, has become one of the chief "problems" to be solved by directors and actors in modern productions.
After Measure for Measure, so far as we can tell, Shakespeare turned his attention entirely to tragedy for three or four years. By 1604, apparently, he completed Othello, the second of the four major tragedies. By 1605 he seems to have completed King Lear, the third and, in the estimation of many, the greatest of the tragedies. And by 1606 he had evidently written the last of the "big four," Macbeth. During the next two to three years Shakespeare turned once more to classical sources, completing Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, respectively, in 1606-1607 and 1607-1608, and abandoning Timon of Athens (if we are correct in thinking that it was left unfinished and unacted) sometime around 1607 or 1608. Only two of these plays appeared in quarto printings, King Lear in 1608 in what many scholars now regard as a memorial reconstruction of an early version of the play, and Othello in 1622 in a text of uncertain provenance. Most modern editions of King Lear and Othello follow the First Folio texts as their prime authorities, supplementing those texts where appropriate with readings or passages from the quartos (although, particularly with King Lear, where the two printings of the play are thought by some to derive from discrete and self-consistent earlier and later scripts of the play, there is now a school of thought that opposes conflating the Folio and quarto versions). The other three tragedies all appeared for the first time in the 1623 Folio.
When we come to Othello fresh from a reading of either Hamlet or Measure for Measure, we can see links with the earlier plays in Othello's treatment of sexual love and in the play's preoccupation with ethical questions that turn, ultimately, on revenge versus forgiveness. For whatever else Othello is, it is a species of revenge tragedy. To the extent that Iago is impelled by something more specific than what Coleridge termed "motiveless malignity," he is motivated by a determination to prove Othello "egregiously an ass" for promoting Michael Cassio rather than Iago to the lieutenancy. And Iago's vengeance extends to Cassio as well as to Othello. But more to the point, once Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona has slept with Cassio, he transforms Othello into the principal tool as well as the prime object of his revenge.
Iago's "poison" is administered in two doses. First he provides enough circumstantial "proof" to make plausible his insinuation that Desdemona has been unfaithful to Othello. But second and far more crucial, he works Othello into such a frenzy that he is unable to give serious consideration to any response to his "knowledge" other than revenge. Once Othello becomes persuaded that Desdemona is indeed guilty of infidelity, his instinctive reaction is to exclaim "But yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!" To which Iago replies "If you are so fond over her iniquity, give her patent to offend, for if it touch not you, it comes near nobody." Here as elsewhere Iago's method is to get Othello to focus, not on Desdemona, but on himself. By constantly reiterating such terms as "reputation," "good name," and "honor," Iago plays upon Othello's insecurity as a Moorish alien and implies that his wife's behavior will make him the laughingstock of Venetian society.
It is a mark of his worthiness as a tragic hero that, to the end, Othello retains the "free and open nature" that made him vulnerable to Iago in the beginning. Iago may manipulate Othello into committing a rash and terrible murder, but he cannot reduce Othello entirely to a blunt instrument of the ensign's vengeance. Before Othello can bring himself to suffocate Desdemona, he must first delude himself into believing that he is an agent of divine justice. And even in that role his innate compassion leads him to offer his wife a moment to prepare her soul for heaven. It is true that Othello becomes angry again when Desdemona fails to confess to a crime that would have been inconceivable to her, but one of the things that makes his act pathetic rather than malicious is the fact that he continues to express his devotion for Desdemona even as he forces himself to snuff out her life. In that sense as well as in Iago's more cynical sense, then, Othello becomes "an honorable murderer." and no matter how we judge Othello's final speech and "bloody period," we have to agree with Cassio's assessment that "he was great of heart."
With King Lear we come to a tragedy whose pattern is without parallel in the Shakespearean canon. In all the other tragedies, despite the beauty of the benedictions that convey the protagonists to their eternal destinies, we are left at the end with a nagging sense of "purposes mistook" that might have been averted or deflected. The basic movement of the plot has been downward, and we come away feeling that we as audience have perceived something that the tragic protagonists themselves have been unable or unwilling to see. In those tragedies in which the protagonists have committed suicide, we are shown that in so doing they are wittingly or unwittingly admitting failure or surrendering to despair, notwithstanding their best efforts to keep their spirits up and evade the full consequences of the choices that have brought them to their present pass. But this is not the pattern we find in King Lear. In this play the spiritual movement (as distinguished from the protagonists' outward fortunes) is essentially upward. To be sure, there are terrible errors and terrifying consequences; in this play, however, we are led to believe that at least some of the pain is cathartic. There can be little doubt that both Lear and Gloucester are in some sense "better" men at the end of their lives than they were at the beginning of the action. And if the play is performed in such a way as to emphasize the degree to which the protagonists have been able to learn and grow through the endurance of tragic suffering, the audience is likely to emerge with a sense of uplift rather than with the weight of unmitigated pity and fear.
This is not to suggest, of course, that there is any less agony and tragic loss in King Lear than in Shakespeare's other works in the same genre. Indeed, given the play's cosmic resonance—the honored place it now holds in the tradition represented by such theodicies as the Book of Job—King Lear has been thought by many to evoke more existential terror than all of Shakespeare's other tragedies combined.
Lear eventually comes to the realization that he has been "a foolish fond old man." In a parallel recognition the blinded Gloucester acknowledges that he "stumbled when [he] saw." But first both fathers must feel the brunt of the savagery their earlier misdeeds have unleashed upon the world. Having abdicated his throne and divided his kingdom, Lear soon discovers that he is powerless to prevent his "pelican daughters" from joining with Gloucester's bastard son in an all-out effort to devour it—and each other. Lear's faithful Fool wastes away. The loyal Kent and Edgar are reduced to "wretches." And, most insupportable of all, at the end of the play the innocent Cordelia is hanged. For Lear as he enters cradling his beloved daughter in his arms, this is the ultimate punishment for the arrogance and folly that had led him, at the beginning, to spurn and disinherit her.
But as heartrending as this concluding pieta is for any of the play's audiences, it can represent "a chance which does redeem all sorrows" if it is staged in harmony with the psychological and spiritual undulations of Lear's dying moments. Just before he says "Pray you undo this button," Lear believes that, as Kent puts it, "all's cheerless, dark, and deadly." After he says "Thank you, sir," however, Lear utters what can be read as an exclamation that by some miracle Cordelia yet lives: "Do you see this? Look on her! Look. her lips, / Look there, look there!" In our time these words have most often been interpreted as expressions of bleak despair. But a reading that is at least as consistent with the rest of the play is that Lear, like Gloucester, " 'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, / [Bursts] smilingly."
We know, of course, that Cordelia is "dead as earth." But it seems fitting that as he dies Lear should see her as alive. If so, it may be nothing more than a merciful hallucination. It may be a desperate man's last grasp at something to sustain a flicker of faith. But it may also register an experience comparable to that of another long-suffering king, the protagonist in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus. In short, it may be that Lear is here granted a last epiphany that takes him out of this "tough world" to a glimpse of something better beyond: because by the end of his long pilgrimage, in the words of T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding, it would seem that Lear has finally arrived at the true meaning of "nothing": "a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything."
Near the end of Macbeth's bloody reign, as he braces for the closing in of his adversaries, he too would like to achieve a kind of simplicity: "I gin to be aweary of the sun, / And wish th' estate o' th' world were now undone." But in Macbeth's case the goal to be obtained is "mere oblivion," not the brief but beatific vision of a broken old man for whom at last something has come of nothing. For, unlike Lear's, Macbeth's career has charted a downward course, from the magnificently heroic champion whom Duncan has greeted as "valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!" to the desperate tyrant whose acts of regicide and wanton slaughter have "tied [him] to a stake" as the "fiend" who must be executed to set the time "free."
As a tragic action, Macbeth is almost the polar opposite of King Lear. Whereas in Lear we may be inclined to feel that "death is swallowed up in victory," in Macbeth we feel that the protagonist's defeat is merely the prelude to final judgment and damnation. Lear's is the kind of "fortunate fall" that results from a miscalculation born of habitual self-indulgence; it forces the King to contemplate "unaccommodated man" in all his vulnerability, and it subjects him to a refining "wheel of fire" that purifies him spiritually. Macbeth's, on the other hand, is the kind of fall that results from premeditated murder—in the service of "vaulting ambition." As he himself acknowledges, there are no extenuating circumstances behind which he can shield his crime, and the only change it brings about in Macbeth is temporarily to rob him of sleep and security until, "supp'd full with horrors," he eventually loses all capacity for "the taste of fears" or any other humanizing emotion or sensation. By the final act, life for Macbeth is "but a walking shadow," "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing."
And yet, despite his infamy, we still find it possible to participate in, and even in some fashion to identify with, Macbeth's descent into hell. In part this results from our awareness of his auspicious beginnings—our recollection of that period at the outset when we see Macbeth tempted but nevertheless resisting the promptings of the Witches and Lady Macbeth. Because Macbeth himself is aware of the heinousness of the deed he is on the verge of committing, we can sympathize with him as a man like one of us. And then, once he has taken the fatal plunge, we become parties to his inner turmoil. By means of the soliloquies and meditations that Shakespeare allows us to "overhear," we share Macbeth's torment and anxiety, his feverish desire to put out of mind that which he cannot bear to dwell upon. And thus, even though what he and Lady Macbeth do is beyond the pale of thinkable human behavior, we can still bring pity and fear to both their stories—recalling, in the words of a famous prayer, that "there, but for the grace of God, go I."
Moving from Macbeth's Scotland to the Mediterranean ambience of Antony and Cleopatra is a culture shock so disorienting as almost to make us lose our bearings. Can the same author who gave us Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, two potent personalities who seize power and then degenerate into tremulous tyrants, so soon thereafter have created Antony and Cleopatra, two mercurial rulers who seem, at least in their grandiloquent gestures, to become increasingly engaging as their fortunes wane and they almost willfully throw their power away? And how do we graph the movement of the action in a play where at least part of the problem is to assess the relative merits of a "Roman" way of looking at things (which judges both lovers as failures because they have declined to elevate civic and military duty above all other human concerns) as opposed to an "Egyptian" way of looking at things (which is based on the premise that one should be willing, in Dryden's later phrase, to sacrifice "all for love")? Is it likely that Shakespeare expected his audience to bring a coherent "Elizabethan" perspective to bear on both ancient cultures? And if so, what would an audience viewing the play from that perspective have thought about Antony and Cleopatra?
These are the kinds of questions a reading of Antony and Cleopatra elicits, and the majority of its interpreters during the last three centuries have answered them in such a way as to place this second "Roman play" in a category largely its own. Noting that the "Roman" characters are bloodless and coldly calculating—particularly Octavius and his sister Octavia, whose hand Octavius gives to Antony in an effort to resolve the political differences he has been having with his slothful counterpart in Egypt—most critics and theater professionals have found them much less appealing than they do the two lovers. The consequence has been that readers and viewers have tended to see Antony and Cleopatra as the characters see themselves and thus to regard the play primarily as a dramatization of what John Donne termed "the canonization of love."
The main problem with this interpretation of the action is that it requires us to ignore the many indications, throughout the play, that both lovers are impulsive and escapist. A sentimental approach to Antony and Cleopatra blinds us to clues that the "new heaven and new earth" to which the lovers direct their suicides is little more than a fantasyland that they have created as a way of palliating their defeat and impending capture. We may be stirred by the magic of Enobarbus's descriptions of Cleopatra's transcendent charms, and we cannot help but admire the eloquence with which Antony and Cleopatra prepare themselves for death. But we should remember at the same time that it is relatively simple to count the world well lost if through neglect one has already handed it over to one's enemies. An apt Elizabethan gloss on Antony and Cleopatra might well be borrowed from Shakespeare's Sonnet 129: "All this the world well knows, yet none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell."
Because of the vividness of its central figures and the exoticism and luxuriousness of its language, Antony and Cleopatra has long been one of Shakespeare's most popular plays. But nothing could be farther from the case with its successor. Coriolanus, the third and last of Shakespeare's mature "Roman plays," is sparing and harsh in its diction and spartan in its spectacle. And only rarely—but usually with distinction—has it been performed, even in our own production-rich century.
The hero of the play is one of the least endearing of Shakespeare's major characters. Godlike in battle, where his feats of valor and leadership are so extraordinary as to seem Herculean, Coriolanus becomes a veritable beast when called upon to participate in the civic affairs of early republican Rome. His contempt for the moblike plebeians is exceeded only by his hatred of the tribunes and senators who play the soldier-general and the common people off against one another. Coriolanus refuses to flatter anyone for any reason, and he lashes out at the hypocrisy required of him when he is told that he must bare his wounds and beg for the "voices" of the citizens in order to be elected tribune, an office he has not sought and a responsibility he makes clear he does not want. Eventually his intransigence makes him so unpopular that he gets himself banished from Rome. To which he offers an arch retort that is perfectly in character: "I banish you!"
Confident that "there is a world elsewhere," Coriolanus departs from the city as "a lonely dragon." But soon, to the astonishment and terror of his former fellows, he joins forces with Rome's arch-enemies, the Volscians. In the final movement of the play we see him lead an army to the gates of Rome that threatens to destroy the Empire in its infancy. But at this point Coriolanus's mother, Volumnia, intervenes and pleads with the hero to spare his native city for her sake. Reluctantly, and with a premonition that his decision will prove fatal to him, Coriolanus accedes to his mother's request. Then, cunningly provoked to one last intemperate outburst by the foxlike Volscian general Aufidius, who calls him a "boy of tears," Coriolanus brings down upon himself the wrathful hordes of the Volscians he has just betrayed.
Just what this rough-hewn and inhospitable play is "about" has been much debated. But critics as varied as T. S. Eliot and Frank Kermode, and actors as distinguished as Laurence Olivier and Alan Howard have shown that it can be a challenging and at times a thrilling dramatic achievement. In all likelihood it will receive more attention—and admiration—in the future than it has tended to receive in the past.
Whether this will be true of Shakespeare's final experiment in tragedy, Timon of Athens, is less certain. Derived, like the three major Roman plays, primarily from Plutarch's Lives, Timon of Athens is generally regarded as a play that the author left unfinished. There is no record of its having been performed in Shakespeare's lifetime, and it has only appeared sporadically (and seldom notably) in the centuries since.
As a character, Timon has affinities with Lear and Coriolanus. Like Lear, he comes to think of himself as a victim of ingratitude, a man "more sinned against than sinning." And, like Coriolanus, he responds to his mistreatment by "banishing" all society from his presence. Unlike either character, however, Timon is incapable of growth or compromise. Once he has spurned the "friends" who have refused to help him with the creditors his excessive generosity has brought to the door, Timon retreats to a cave and disregards every entreaty to concern himself with his fellow man. His foil, Alcibiades, can forgive Athens its injustices and return to save the city from ruin. But Timon elects to spend the rest of his life in solitude, cursing all of humanity with an invective that eventually becomes tedious in the extreme.
Critics such as G. Wilson Knight and Rolf Soellner have argued valiantly for the poetic and theatrical merits of Timon of Athens. But thus far their adherents have proven only slightly more numerous than the followers of Timon himself. Original the play may be; but few have come to praise it as a fully realized work of dramatic art.
After Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, Shakespeare seems to have shifted his focus again. He wrote no more tragedies, so far as we know, and the single "history play" that appeared was so different from his previous efforts in that genre that it seems to belong to the realm of romance rather than to the world of ordinary political and social interaction. And indeed "romance" is now the generic term most frequently applied to the mature tragicomedies that critics once referred to somewhat loosely as "the Late Plays." If we include Henry VIII in their number, there are six surviving works that qualify as late romances. One of them, The Two Noble Kinsmen, we know to have been written by Shakespeare in collaboration with his fellow dramatist John Fletcher . Two others, Pericles and Henry VIII, are also regarded by many scholars as likely to have resulted from joint authorship—as was evidently the case, too, with the lost Cardenio, attributed to Shakespeare and Fletcher in a Stationers' Register entry of 1753. Which leaves us with three pIays— Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest —that are unanimously accepted as works entirely by Shakespeare.
Since all but one of the Late Plays (Pericles, which seems to have been completed in 1606-1608) appeared after Shakespeare's company added the Blackfriars as a venue for performance—and since even that work may have been written with indoor staging in view (we know that Pericles was presented at Court sometime between January 1606 and November 1608)—it seems eminently possible, as Gerald Eades Bentley has suggested, that Shakespeare's modifications in dramaturigical style resulted, at least in part, from changes in emphasis by the King's Men. If Shakespeare and his colleagues were easing away from total dependence on the comparatively broad-based audiences they had long attracted to the Globe and were beginning to cast their fortunes more confidently with the aristocratic clientele they served at Court or would be able to cultivate at the private Blackfriars theater, they may well have begun to rethink their dramatic repertory. Under these circumstances, Shakespeare and his fellow shareholders could readily have arrived at a determination to concentrate on offerings such as their more well-to-do audiences had grown accustomed to seeing: masquelike entertainments of the sort that Court patronage encouraged, and mythological and fanciful diversions of the type that the children's companies had made their specialty in indoor halls like the Blackfriars.
In any event, the sequence of dramatic works initiated by Pericles is strikingly different in many respects from the sequence that preceded it. Relying as many of them do on such devices as a choral "presenter" (Gower in Pericles, or Time in The Winter's Tale) to narrate background incidents, the romances tend to be rambling and panoramic by comparison with the earlier plays (the salient exception being The Tempest, which is unusually focused in time, place, and action). Frequently, they contain incidents that are wildly implausible (as when Antigonus exits "pursued by a bear" in The Winter's Tale), and most of them draw heavily on storms, shipwrecks, and other violently disruptive "acts of God" to move the action forward. Families are separated at sea, left to wander for years in adversity, and then miraculously reunited at the close. Symbolically named children (Marina in Pericles, Perdita in The Winter's Tale, Miranda in The Tempest) function dramatically as instruments of special grace, restoring faith and vision to parents who have temporarily lost their way. Terrible calamities are but narrowly averted, and then only because of sudden reversals that depend either upon some character's astonishing change of heart or upon an inexplicable visitation from above. Rather than conceal their artifice, the romances tend to display it openly, on the one hand reminding the audience that what it is witnessing is only make-believe, on the other hand manipulating viewers' responses so as to prepare the audience for some climactic "wonder" toward which the entire sequence has been directed.
The first three acts of Pericles seem so naive dramaturgically that many scholars consider them to be by a playwright other than Shakespeare. Among the contemporaries whose names have been proposed for the dubious honor of collaborator in accordance with this hypothesis is George Wilkins, whose novel The Painful Adventures of Pericles Prince of Tyre appeared in the same year (1608) as the entry for Pericles in the Stationers' Register. All we know for certain is that the play was first published in 1609 in a relatively crude quarto that was reprinted several times before Pericles made its initial folio entry when it was added to the second issue of the Third Folio in 1664. Just why Pericles was not included in the First Folio has never been determined. Its omission may have had something to do with the poor condition of the only available text. Or it may have stemmed from the assumption that the play was not completely by Shakespeare. The second of these hypotheses would also explain the exclusion of The Two Noble Kinsmen (though of course it would not explain the inclusion of Henry VIII if, as many scholars believe, that too was a play that Shakespeare wrote in collaboration with another playwright).
Whatever the case, Pericles is immediately recognizable as a point of departure. Drawing from a fifth-century romantic narrative by Apollonius of Tyre as retold in the Confessio Amantis of the fourteenth-century English poet John Gower, the play is studiously "antique" in its apparently unsophisticated presentational style. Old Gower himself is resurrected to serve as the barnacled chorus, and the singsong tetrameters that serve as the metrical vehicle for his medieval diction remove the play's events from the present to a dreamlike past more suited to fairy lore than to realistic fiction. In such an atmosphere the audience is more readily induced to suspend its disbelief—with the consequence that we become vicarious participants in episode after episode as the hero's adventures convey him from youth (when he solves the riddle of Antiochus and is immediately forced to flee for his life upon disclosing his knowledge of the wicked King's incestuous relationship with his daughter) through old age (when, having been reduced almost to despair by decades of wandering and loss, Pericles is miraculously rejoined with his radiant daughter, Marina). As we allow ourselves to be hypnotized into accepting the premises of such a providential universe, we fall under the spell of a "moldy tale" peopled by such characters as a wicked stepmother (Dionyza), a Bawd, and a Governor (Lysimachus) who becomes so enraptured by Marina's innocence that he forswears a life bedimmed by vice.
Pericles' final "awakening" has often been compared to Lear's reunion with Cordelia. And a lovely lyric ("Marina") by T. S. Eliot is eloquent in its testimony that twentieth-century audiences can still be moved by a beloved child's power to regenerate her father and renew his faith in life. Until recently Pericles has rarely been performed, but as the magic of its marvels becomes more widely appreciated it may one day find its way to a more secure footing in the repertory.
Such may also be the case with Cymbeline. First printed in the 1623 Folio, it probably enjoyed its initial performances in 1609-1610, either at Blackfriars or at the Globe (where the physician Dr. Simon Forman saw it, probably in 1611). Its historical frame, featuring a pre-Christian monarch from approximately the same era as King Lear, Shakespeare derived primarily from Holinshed's Chronicles. In this portion of the play, wherein Cymbeline at first refuses and then later volunteers Britain's annual tribute to Emperor Augustus Caesar, Shakespeare adumbrates the commingling of British and Roman traits that Renaissance Englishmen believed to be at the root of their nation's greatness. Shakespeare combined with this theme a number of other romantic motifs, his sources varying from Boccaccio's Decameron to a pair of anonymous plays of the 1580s, The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune and Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes. The result is a romantic tragicomedy unusually episodic in structure and so bewildering in the rapidity and complexity of its concluding disclosures as to leave an audience wondering how any agency other than providence could possibly have untangled the various strands of the plot.
At the heart of the play is Imogen, a woman of exemplary chastity whose foolhardy husband Posthumus allows himself to be tricked into thinking that she has been seduced by a braggart named Iachimo. Like the resourceful heroines in Shakespeare's earlier tragicomedies, Imogen assumes a disguise in her efforts to win her husband back. In time her circumstances bring her to the cave where Cymbeline's long-lost sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, have been reared in rustic exile by an old lord, Belarius, whom the King had unjustly banished. She casts her lot with them and becomes a participant in Britain's war against Rome. Once the conflict is over, the King and his sons are reunited in the same denouement in which Posthumus recognizes Imogen as his "most constant wife." And in a reconciliation scene that carries overtones of the Augustan "pax Romana" under which Christ was born, Cymbeline announces that "Pardon's the word to all." Evil has been exorcised (Cymbeline's "bad angels," his wicked Queen and her doltish son Cloten, have died), and the wayward characters who survive have all experienced enlightenment and contrition.
Enlightenment and contrition are prerequisite to the happy ending of The Winter's Tale, too. Here again a husband falls victim to vengeful jealousy, and here again the plot builds up to the moment when he can be forgiven the folly that, so far as he knows, has brought about his innocent wife's death. Based primarily on Robert Greene's Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, a prose romance first published in 1588 and reprinted under a new title in 1607, The Winter's Tale was probably completed in 1610 or 1611. Its initial appearane in print was in the 1623 Folio.
The action begins when Leontes, King of Sicilia, is seized with the "humour" that his wife Hermione has committed adultery with his childhood friend Polixenes. It is abundantly clear to everyone else, most notably Hermione's lady-in-waiting Paulina, that Leontes' suspicions are irrational. But he refuses to listen either to the counsel of his advisers or to the oracle at Delphi—persisting with this "trial" of Hermione until he has completely devastated his court. He drives Polixenes away with the faithful Sicilian lord Camillo; he frightens to death his son Mamilius; and he pursues Hermione so unrelentingly that she finally wilts into what Paulina declares to be a fatal swoon. At this point, suddenly recognizing that he has been acting like a madman, Leontes vows to do penance for the remainder of his life.
Years later, after Perdita (the "lost" child whom the raging Leontes has instructed Paulina's husband Antigonus to expose to the elements) has grown up and fallen in love with Florizel, the heir to Polixenes' throne in Bohemia, the major characters are providentially regathered in Leontes' court. Leontes is reunited with his daughter. And then, in one of the most stirring and unexpected moments in all of Shakespeare's works, a statue of Hermione that Paulina unveils turns out to be the living—and forgiving—Queen whom Leontes had "killed" some sixteen years previously. In a speech that might well serve to epitomize the import of all the late romances, Paulina tells the King "It is requir'd / You do awake your faith." The regenerated Leontes embraces his long-lamented wife, bestows the widowed Paulina on the newly returned Camillo, and blesses the forthcoming marriage of Perdita to the son of his old friend Polixenes, the object of the jealousy with which the whole agonizing story has begun.
The circle that is completed in The Winter's Tale has its counterpart in The Tempest, which concludes with the marriage of Prospero's daughter Miranda to Ferdinand, the son of the Neapolitan king who had helped Prospero's wicked brother Antonio remove Prospero from his dukedom in Milan a dozen years previously.
Like The Winter's Tale, The Tempest was completed by 1611 and printed for the first time in the 1623 Folio. Because it refers to the "still-vext Bermoothes" and derives in part from three accounts of the 1609 wreck of a Virginia-bound ship called the Sea Adventure, the play has long been scrutinized for its supposed commentary on the colonial exploitation of the New World. But if the brute Caliban is not the noble savage of Montaigne's essay on cannibals, he is probably not intended to be an instance of Third World victimization by European imperialism either. And Prospero's island is at least as Mediterranean as it is Caribbean. More plausible, but also too speculative for uncritical acceptance, is the time-honored supposition that the magician's staff with which Prospero wields his power is meant to be interpreted as an analogy for Shakespeare's own magical gifts—with the corollary that the protagonist's abjuration of his "potent art" is the dramatist's own way of saying farewell to the theater. Were it not that at least two plays were almost certainly completed later than The Tempest, this latter hypothesis might win more credence.
But be that as it may, there can be no doubt that Prospero cuts a magnificent figure on the Shakespearean stage. At times, when he is recalling the usurpation that has placed him and his daughter on the island they have shared with Caliban for a dozen lonely years, Prospero is reminiscent of Lear, another angry ruler who, despite his earlier indiscretions, has cause to feel more sinned against than sinning. At other times, when Prospero is using the spirit Ariel to manipulate the comings and goings of the enemies whose ship he has brought aground in a tempest, the once and future Duke of Milan reminds us of the Duke of Vienna in Measure for Measure. But though his influence on the lives of others turns out in the end to have been "providential," Prospero arrives at that beneficent consummation only through a psychological and spiritual process that turns on his forswearing "vengeance" in favor of the "rarer action" of forgiveness. Such dramatic tension as the play possesses is to be found in the audience's suspense over whether the protagonist will use his Neoplatonic magic for good or for ill. And when in fact Prospero has brought the "men of sin" to a point where they must confront themselves as they are and beg forgiveness for their crimes, it is paradoxically Ariel who reminds his master that to be truly human is finally to be humane.
Uniquely among the late tragicomic romances, The Tempest has long been a favorite with both readers and audiences. Its ardent young lovers have always held their charm, as has the effervescent Ariel, and its treatment of the temptations afforded by access to transcendent power gives it a political and religious resonance commensurate with the profundity of its exploration of the depths of poetic and dramatic art. In the end its burden seems to be that an acknowledgment of the limits imposed by the human condition is the beginning of wisdom.
The last of the plays attributed wholly to Shakespeare by its inclusion in the First Folio, where it first achieved print, is Henry VIII. Modern stylistic analyses have called Shakespeare's sole authorship into question, of course, but since the case for collaboration has never been definitively proven we may do just as well to proceed on the assumption that Henry VIII was mostly if not entirely a play for which the playwright was responsible. Its theatrical history has had more ups and downs than is true of many of Shakespeare's other dramatic works (the most notable occurrence on the down side being the accident during its earliest recorded performance, on 29 June 1613, that burned the Globe to the ground), and its critical reception, like that of Troilus and Cressida, has been complicated by debates about the play's genre.
In many respects Henry VIII seems to be the capstone to Shakespeare's nine earlier English history plays. It focuses on kingship as the key to a nation's political and social stability, and it glorifies the Tudor dynasty as God's means of bringing peace, prosperity, and empire to an England whose greatness had reached new heights during the reigns of the two monarchs under whom Shakespeare had served. Fittingly, the play's "final cause" is the birth of Elizabeth, the "royal infant" whose advent, according to the prophecy uttered by Archbishop Cranmer at the end of the play, "promises / Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings." But, as is so often true in Shakespeare, it also offers the audience a topical glance at an event of contemporary significance, the February 1613 wedding of Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King James I and his Queen, to Frederick, the Elector of Palatine.
Like the earlier English history plays, Henry VIII is epic in its scope and in its patriotic impulse. And like them, it reflects Shakespeare's interest in the grand themes of English historiography, as derived not only from the 1587 second edition of Holinshed's Chronicles but also from other sources as varied as John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (1563) and John Speed's History of Great Britain (1611). In its earliest performances the play even seems to have had an alternate title, All is True, to assert its fidelity to the essence of its historical subject matter. But a close examination of its way of treating that matter will indicate that Henry VIII is more "cosmic" than the history plays that preceded it—a play that presents the events it dramatizes almost solely in the light of eternity.
Though the King is not without his faults, he is portrayed more positively in Shakespeare than he had usually been depicted by historians prior to Henry VIII. During the first half of the play the bluff Henry may be misled by his "bad angel" Cardinal Wolsey; but the King's intentions are noble, and after Wolsey's discomfiture he evolves into a creditable exemplar of God's deputy. Meanwhile, there is an unmistakable emphasis on providential design throughout the play. The action is structured around a succession of "trials," each of which serves to test a character's mettle and to induce in him or her a new degree of self-knowledge, humility, faith, and compassion. Buckingham is framed by Wolsey's machinations, but as he proceeds to his execution he forgives his enemies and blesses the King who has condemned him. Katherine, another of Wolsey's victims, pleads eloquently and forcibly in her own defense; but once her fate is settled, she resigns herself with patience to the destiny prepared for her and goes so far as to express pity for her archenemy Wolsey. And once he recognizes that there is no escape from the noose he has unwittingly prepared for himself, Wolsey himself dies penitent and "never so happy." In each instance death is swallowed up in a victory of sorts, and the sequence as a whole reinforces the audience's sense that even in the often-brutal arena of English history all's well that ends well.
Perhaps the best way to describe Henry VIII is to call it a tragicomic historical romance. But whatever it is generically, it is a play that offers a plenitude of majestic pageantry. As the 1979 BBC television production reminded us, it is Shakespeare's version of Masterpiece Theatre.
Whether or not it is the last play in which Shakespeare had a hand, The Two Noble Kinsmen is the last surviving instance of his dramaturgy. With but a handful of exceptions, modern scholars regard the play as a collaborative effort in which the guiding hand may have been John Fletcher's rather than William Shakespeare's. It was probably completed in 1613, and its first appearance in print was in a quarto edition of 1634 that attributed it to both playwrights. It was reprinted in the Beaumont and Fletcher second folio of 1679, but it never appeared in any of the seventeenth-century folios of Shakespeare's dramatic works.
The play is a dramatization of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" about two cousins, Palamon and Arcite, who come to blows as a consequence of their both having fallen in love with the same damsel, Emilia. Like the other late romances of Shakespeare, it has a remote Mediterranean setting (ancient Thebes and Athens), it invokes the gods for intervention in human affairs, and it depends for its effects on scenes of grand pageantry such as the wedding procession of Theseus and Hippolyta. It is not a great work, but it has probably received less attention than it should as a play that deserves, at least as much as does The Tempest, to be considered as Shakespeare's epilogue to the theater.
Tradition holds that Shakespeare returned to Stratford for his declining years, and three years after the burning of the Globe his own flame went out. Following his death on 23 April 1616, he was laid to rest where fifty-two years earlier he had been christened. Shortly thereafter, a monument to his memory was erected above the tomb in Holy Trinity, and that monument is still in place for Shakespeare admirers to see today. But an even greater monument to his memory appeared seven years later, when his theatrical colleagues, John Heminge and Henry Condell (both of whom had been mentioned in the playwright's will) assembled a large volume of his collected plays. The 1623 First Folio was a labor of love, compiled as "an office to the dead, to procure his orphans guardians" and "to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare."
Our Shakespeare. It is not without exaggeration that the book that preserves what is probably his most reliable portrait and the most authoritative versions of the majority of his dramatic texts (indeed the only surviving versions of half of them) has been called "incomparably the most important work in the English language." In the words and actions that fill his poems and plays, in the performances that enrich our theaters and silver screens, in the countless offshoots to be found in other works of art, and in the influence the playwright continues to have on virtually every aspect of popular culture throughout the world, now as much as in the age of Elizabeth and James, Shakespeare lives.